Should you buy organic or not? It’s a question that has been confusing consumers for years. Is eating organic really healthier? Is it better for you? Does organic offer any benefits over conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and cereals?
One team of scientists thinks it has some answers for you. If you want significantly more antioxidants and fewer pesticides and toxic metals, they say buy organic.
Dr. Carlo Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at England’s Newcastle University, is lead author of a peer-reviewed study released this week in the British Journal of Nutrition. The largest effort of its kind, the study reviewed 343 other peer-reviewed studies to analyze the compositional differences between conventionally grown vegetables, fruit and cereals and their organic counterparts.
“It shows very clearly how you grow your food has an impact,” Dr. Leifert told The New York Times. “If you buy organic fruits and vegetables, you can be sure you have, on average, a higher amount of antioxidants at the same calorie level.”
In fact, says the study, you’ll get up to 69 percent more key antioxidants with organic food than with non-organic. According to the study, antioxidants “have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.”
One explanation for the higher level of antioxidants is that they function, in part, as nature’s pesticide, giving organically grown plants a defense system against insects that would like to invade and eat them.
Organic foods give you 17 percent more antioxidants overall than in conventionally grown produce, concluded this study. The benefit this confers is roughly equivalent to eating one to two additional servings of fruits and veggies each day, the study found.
Additional findings include the following:
- Organic crops, particularly grains, have 48 percent lower levels of cadmium, which is a heavy metal that can accumulate in the body over the long term
- Organic crops have lower concentrations of nitrogen – specifically, 10 percent lower total nitrogen, 30 percent lower nitrate and 87 percent lower nitrite levels
- Conventionally grown crops have four times more pesticide residue than organic crops
“The organic vs non-organic debate has rumbled on for decades now but the evidence from this study is overwhelming – that organic food is high in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides,” Dr. Leifert noted in a press release.
But Does Organic = Healthier?
It’s important to note here that this study does not suggest that eating organically means you will be healthier.
“We are not making health claims based on this study, because we can’t,” Dr. Leifert told The New York Times. His study doesn’t prove “organic food is definitely healthier for you, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how much of a health impact switching to organic food could have.”
Nevertheless, the findings may cause you to wonder whether the demonstrated differences between organic and inorganic will one day be shown to affect their overall nutritional value as well.
Not Everyone is Convinced
As with any study about a divisive issue, experts agree to disagree.
Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at King’s College London, told The Guardian he thought Prof. Liefert was “oversexing” the results of this study just a little.
“You are not going to be better nourished if you eat organic food,” he added. “What is most important is what you eat, not whether it’s organic or conventional. It’s whether you eat fruit and vegetables at all. People are buying into a lifestyle system. They get an assurance it is not being grown with chemicals and is not grown by big business.”
He acknowledged the differences the study highlighted, but added, “[T]he question is are they within natural variation? And are they nutritionally relevant? I am not convinced.”
Some previous studies, such as those conducted by Stanford University in 2012 and the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency in 2009, have determined that organic vegetables, fruits and grains are “no more nutritious” than conventionally grown crops. Conversely, other studies have shown, for example, that organic strawberries contain more Vitamin C than non-organic ones.
Conflicting research results contribute to the continuing customer confusion in the produce section of your local supermarket. No one seems to have a really good grasp of whether the more expensive organic produce is worth paying for. This study does not provide the definitive answer, either.
Remember, though, that this study makes no claim of increased nutrition. It says merely that all the evidence aggregated together and carefully examined shows that there is a demonstrable difference between the makeup of organic foods and non-organic – notably, more antioxidants and fewer chemicals in organic fare.
That’s useful information. For some, it may be more than enough to justify buying organic food whenever possible.
Dr. Liefert wants his study to spur others on to further research in this area.
“We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional crops, now there is an urgent need to carry out well-controlled human dietary intervention and cohort studies specifically designed to identify and quantify the health impacts of switching to organic food,” said Dr. Liefert.
Those who want to make these comparisons for themselves will have access to everything the team used. The complete database they employed for this analysis will be posted on the Newcastle University’s website so others may use it to further this research or confirm for themselves the findings of the team.
How about you, Care2 readers? Do these findings convince you that organic is the way to go or are you waiting for stronger proof? Let us know below in the comments section.
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