There is little evidence that shows that organically grown food is better for you or provides substantially more nutrients than conventionally grown food. Organic food is food that has been grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Organic animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, come from animals raised without hormones, antibiotics, and are fed organic meal. Expert nutritionist, Connie Diekman, M.Ed., R.D., director of nutrition at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri says that more research is needed before it can be stated that organic foods provide more nutritional value. Although the organic food industry has grown exponentially and is more popular than ever, the consumer may be unnecessarily paying more for food that isn’t much healthier.
A study called, Until now: “Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems,” led by Washington State University Regents professor of soil science John Reganold, shows why organic strawberries are healthier than conventional strawberries. In this study, strawberries were grown on 13 conventional and 13 organic fields. These fields were in close proximity to one another to adjust for soil and weather patterns. Over a two year period, the strawberries were picked, transported, and stored under identical conditions. The results showed that the organic strawberries were healthier, tastier, and better for the soil than conventional strawberries. Specifically, these strawberries had a higher antioxidant, vitamin C, and total phenolics content. However, potassium and phosphorous levels were higher in conventionally grown strawberries. The organic soil was found to contain more zinc, boron, sodium, and iron. Although this study exposes the health benefits of organically grown strawberries, it is limited to one specific fruit and cannot be applied across the board to all organically grown fruits or vegetables. Moreover, the conventional farm soil examined in this study was located in the same area and in close proximity to one another. Conventional soil samples from more distant locations were not examined to determine the vitamin and mineral content. More importantly, the study mentioned that organic and conventional soils contain similar levels of most extractable nutrients putting organic and conventional crops on equal footing. Thus, this study was too narrowly focused and cannot stand alone as proof that organically grown crops are nutritionally superior to conventionally grown crops.
It’s true that organic fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides. However, evidence shows conventional produce is just as safe and nutritious as organic produce. There have been some studies showing that people who eat conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have traces of pesticide by-products found in their urine. Yet, the small amounts of pesticide by-products found in human urine have not been determined to be injurious to human health. Of course it’s always wise to wash all fruits and vegetables carefully to erase any doubts. It’s even recommended to wash organic products because winds sometimes carry pesticides from conventional farms to nearby organic farms. Also, there is an “allowable” amount of pesticide an organic farmer can use, so not all organically grown crops are completely pesticide free. Another study was conducted to determine whether there is a difference in the nutritional benefits of conventional and organic crops. In this study, the researchers conducted a review of 55 studies published between Jan. 1, 1958 and Feb. 29, 2008. They evaluated foods’ nutrient content, including vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and total soluble solids.
They found no evidence of a difference between organic and conventional crops in terms of eight of those nutrient categories.
Moreover, all fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they are grown or what they cost, contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber that contribute to a healthy diet. A recent Danish study found that the nutritional value of select crops did not differ depending on organic versus conventional methods of cultivation. In order to conduct this study, the researchers fed dried carrots, kale, peas, potatoes and apples, produced either conventionally or organically over two consecutive years to rats. Three systems of cultivation were employed: an organic system based on animal manure and no pesticide application (with the exception of one pesticide for kale permitted by organic standards); a more-conventional approach using animal manure and pesticide application; and another truly conventional approach based on delivery of nutrients via inorganic mineral fertilizers and application of pesticides. All other parameters were consistent between the cropping systems. The Danish researchers studied both the nutritional content of the dried foods themselves, as well as the bioavailability of nutrients in the rats. No evidence could be found supporting the claim that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional crops. This led the researchers to conclude: “This study does not support the belief that organically grown foodstuffs generally contain more major and trace elements than conventionally grown foodstuffs, nor does there appear to be an effect on the bioavailability of major and trace minerals in rats.” Therefore, conventionally grown food appears to be equally nutritious as organically grown food.
Whole Foods, one of the largest purveyors of organic food has a very strict policy when it comes to customer inquiries on the health benefits of organic food. Whole Foods employees are prohibited from telling customers that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Undoubtedly, organically grown foods have become a very profitable area. Consumers who purchase organic foods buy them based upon perceived nutrient value. Many consumers don’t understand the difference between conventional and organic farming. Nonetheless, they purchase organic foods based upon what they perceive to be true; that organic foods are better for you. This mass perspective has done little to encourage research that provides both contrary and supporting evidence. As a result, research is scarce despite the popularity of organic foods. Much of the research in favor of organically grown crops is limited. Articles that support consumption of organic crops repeatedly use the same limited body of research to formulate favorable arguments.
Even though organic foods are costlier, consumers continue to believe that the extra cost is worth the benefit, both environmentally and nutritionally. One thing is for certain, more research needs to be conducted in this area. The health conscious consumer deserves to know the truth. Without a growing body of research, the consumer will continue to pay more for food that may be no different in nutrient value than conventional food. It behooves the consumer to demand more answers. If they don’t, they may be supporting a scientifically baseless fad.