Eating organic is like two extra portions of fruit and vegetables per day with no added calories

Organic Brussels sprouts on the stalk
CC BY 2.0 Nick Saltmarsh

The news just broke that organic food "is healthier than conventionally raised food because it contains more antioxidants, fewer toxic metals, and less pesticide residue." The study could be a milestone moment in organic agriculture, reversing earlier studies that could find no benefit from eating organic.

Researchers concluded that the 20 to 40% increase in natural antioxidants consumed in organic produce equates to "eating between 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day." Notably, it also found a significant decrease in consumption of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that should be avoided altogether because it accumulates in the body.

How will this study change the dialogue about the importance of organic farming methods and produce?

"Magic" ingredients. "Healthy." "Anti-aging."

Food marketers will spin any hint that a natural ingredient has beneficial properties into claims they apply like a blanket to processed foods that have about as much in common with the source of the claim as a strawberry has with a red gummi bear. Consumers seem split into two camps (or perhaps, like me, schizophrenically suspended in-between):

  • those who want to believe everything they hear or read, as long as it serves as an excuse to eat more chips, cookies, or pop-pockets; and
  • those left suspicious of all claims, desperately seeking a true path to better diet because we are what we eat.

So we greet the results of the newest study on benefits of eating organic with a range of emotions. The gamut opens with "Finally! An analysis that proves what we know must be true!" This immediately sets the objective-scientist alarm on full alert: what is different now from earlier studies that could not fulfill my inherently prejudicial preference for natural food? All tinged with a bit of "how soon until marketers twist this into a new trend to encourage the cookie-monster in all of us?"

Earlier studies on eating organic

After the UK Food Standards Agency found in 2009 that there is no nutritional value added by organic farming methods, sane voices tried to emphasize the take-home-lesson: eat your fruits and veggies, organic or otherwise.

In 2011, a Stanford study admitted that body burdens of pesticides in children who ate organic were lower, but found that had "no clinical significance," sci-speak for "it's not really healthier."

Why is this new study different?

The newest study, led by experts at Newcastle University and funded by the European Framework 6 programme and the Sheepdrove Trust, is a meta-study. That means the scientists reviewed a large body of relevant existing studies to evaluate if the sum of the conclusions leads in one direction or the other.

The older studies also surveyed a large number of existing studies, but the Newcastle study leverages a booming business in the science of organic agriculture. An international team of experts accessed 343 studies, compared with only 46 publications available to the group working on the issue in 2009. To further advance the science, they have released all the data used in the new study for peer review: Newcastle study website.

As a result of the larger database of scientific literature, the authors of this study can now conclude:

"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."

A closer look

A closer look at the details in the Newcastle study paper (pdf) reveals more nuance. Measures of the anti-oxidant activity, for example, indicate that vegetables grown organically do not differ significantly from conventional veggies, while the organic fruits clearly measure higher in anti-oxidant activity.

The levels of proteins, and amino acids, in organic produce are lower. This is a relatively well-known phenomenon due simply to the lower levels of nitrogen available to the plants in organic farming. It is of no consequence in western diets, already sufficiently (overly) high in protein, but could be discussed in the context of places where meats are not readily supplementing dietary intake.

The take-home message

This study sets a precedent in challenging the status-quo of the argument that eating organic only costs more, but is not healthier for consumers. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the link has not yet been confirmed between eating more antioxidants -- or even less cadmium (as long as levels are still below health safety thresholds set by regulators) -- and having less illness or more health.

It is critical, also, to remember that even if organic farming results in more anti-oxidants in the raw materials, processing foods deteriorates these beneficial chemicals so that the gain is lost. That means "organic" is still just a marketing label if it's on oreo cookies. (One exception seems to be freeze-drying produce, which has been shown beneficial in preserving these short-lived chemicals from field to plate.)

The results of the Newcastle study may prompt some to prioritize supporting organic agriculture with their food budget, but the most important health advantages are gained by eating vegetables and fruits instead of processed foods (are there even blueberries in those blueberry muffins?).

The real benefits of organic farming remain in the protection of the environment; agricultural methods that avoid monoculture; and preservation of a lifestyle in harmony with the earth rather than in the promise that organic will heal what ails us.

Eating organic is like two extra portions of fruit and vegetables per day with no added calories
Plants that have to succeed without chemical pesticides create their own natural chemicals -- the good ones which marketers like to tout as "magic", "healthy" and "anti-aging"

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