Are organics healthier? A study to be released in September in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition downplayed the significance of nutrient values between conventional and organic produce. This contradicts recent reports showing that organic foods may well contain higher levels of some nutrients, which suggests that organic foods may have a place in the functional foods market (see June Functional Ingredients).
But this newest article, Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review, written by team led by Alan Dangour, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (funded by United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency), tries to squash the role organic foods play in health by dampening the age-old (at least this decade) presumption that organic is healthier. The pre-released article was widely contested by both organic food scientists and food policy experts for two reasons—the science wasn't crystal clear and nutrient density isn't the only measure of health.
According to Charles Benbrook, PhD of the Organic Center the study misses the mark on numerous fronts including: 1. Several instances showed that some organic foods are indeed more nutrient dense than conventional, yet the study author failed to mention it; 2. The study left out measures of some important nutrients, including total antioxidant capacity; 3. the study lacked quality controls contained in a competing study released in 2008 by The Organic Center (TOC), "New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods." Lastly the data was from very old studies assessing nutrient levels in plant varieties that are no longer on the market, he says.
The study also used nitrogen as a marker of health. The results showed that conventional crops contained higher levels of nitrogen, but Benbrook asserts that "elevated levels of nitrogen in food are regarded by most scientists as a public health hazard because of the potential for cancer-causing nitrosamine compounds to form in the human GI tract. Hence, this finding of higher nitrogen in conventional food favors organic crops, as do the other two differences."
Scientific squabbling aside, the Organic Trade Association believes that study fails to address a bigger issue of human and planet health. "The broader question is about what is health and what is nutrition, and isn't it more than just nutrient density," said Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, in a statement released by the OTA. "Doesn't a food system that avoids the use of pesticides, synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics while building healthy soil and protecting natural resources promote health and nutrition? I certainly think so."
She added, "I'm surprised that investigators of this caliber would focus so narrowly on nutrient content. There is no reason to think that organic foods would have fewer nutrients than industrially produced foods, and there are many reasons to think that organic foods have greater benefits for the environment, for pesticide reduction, and for taste, all of which affect human health at least as much — or more — than minor differences in nutritional content. I buy organic products because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably. I see plenty of good reasons to buy organic foods, and this study does not even begin to address them."
Surveys of U.S. households show that one of the top reasons cited for purchasing organic is that the products are "healthier for me and my family," but it is important to examine what consumers mean by this. As shown by findings from the 2009 U.S. Families' Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Study, consumers say they choose organic products due to their concerns about possible effects of toxic and synthetic pesticides, synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics used in non-organic agriculture. They also want to avoid highly processed food produced without any restrictions on additives.
According to OTA's Executive Director Christine Bushway, "Any time a consumer buys an organic product, whether food or non-food, he or she is supporting a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility, fosters species diversity, helps combat climate change, prevents damage to valuable water resources, and protects farmers and farmers' families from exposure to harmful chemicals. In turn, this benefits the health of our planet in general, and ultimately, those who live on that planet."
Both OTA and the Organic Center are hopeful that the Farm Bill's increased funding for research will put this debate to rest. To read the review of the research from The Organic Center's chief scientist Chuck Benbrook, click here.