A major new study from the United Kingdom finds conclusive evidence that organic crops, and the food made from them, are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterparts, corrects many of the shortcomings of earlier studies and should put to rest any doubts about the benefits of organic, said the lead scientist of The Organic Center in responding to the landmark study.
"This is a groundbreaking study," said Dr. Jessica Shade, director of science programs for The Organic Center (TOC). "This important research should help greatly to dispel consumer confusion about the benefits of organic."
"The nutritional differences between conventional and organic crops have always been a much debated topic," said Shade. "This significant study reevaluates the issue from a more inclusive, statistically accurate standpoint and strongly shows that organic fruits and vegetables have definite health benefits to conventionally grown products."
Analyzing 343 studies in what was the largest research effort of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University found that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60 percent higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally grown crops, showed that pesticide residues are found much more frequently in conventional foods, and revealed significantly lower levels of a toxic heavy metal in organic crops. The report is to be published in the July 15 issue of the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition.
Every mouthful counts
Antioxidants have been linked to a reduced risk of serious chronic diseases. Shade says that the results of the study regarding antioxidants and organic crops have "meaningful real-world implications."
"Based on the findings of this study, if an individual were to switch from a conventional to an organic diet, they could have a 20 to 40 percent increase in antioxidants without a simultaneous increase in calorie intake. In other words, for the same amount of food, eating organic delivers a significantly higher dietary intake of healthy antioxidants," said Shade.
To put it in even more applicable terms—and good news for the millions of health-minded individuals watching their caloric intake—that means the amount of extra beneficial antioxidants one would consume every day by eating the recommended five servings of organic instead of conventional fruit and vegetables would be equal to one to two additional servings of conventionally grown produce.
The Newcastle study also found significantly lower instances of pesticide residues and lower levels of a highly toxic metal in organic crops. Specifically, the study found that conventional crops were four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than were organic crops. Exposure to pesticides has been found to affect brain development, especially in young children, and pose a greater risk for pregnant women and to men and women of reproductive age. The study also found that organic crops had on average 48 percent lower cadmium levels than conventional crops. Cadmium is a highly toxic metal that can cause kidney failure, bone softening and liver damage. It can accumulate in the body, so even at low levels chronic exposure is dangerous.
Refuting earlier studies and clearing up confusion
Professor Charles Benbrook, one of the authors of the study and a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, said, "The findings of this study strongly support the existence of health benefits stemming from consumption of plant-based organic food and beverages. Our results are highly relevant and significant, and will help consumers sort through the often conflicting information on the nutrition of organic and conventional plant-based foods."
Setting off a heated debate in the scientific and health worlds in 2012 was the release of a study from Stanford University claiming that organic foods were no healthier than non-organic. The Stanford report followed a study in 2009 commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency that found no substantial nutritional benefits or differences between organic and non-organic foods.
The key reason for the success of the Newcastle study in being able to identify concrete statistical differences between organic and conventional crops where the other studies had failed comes down to time and numbers, said Shade. Since the publication of both studies, there has been more research on organic crops, thus more data to cull from. The Newcastle study analyzed 343 studies, with about 100 of those studies published in the last five years; the Stanford study analyzed around 200 research papers, and the earlier UK study looked at just 46 publications.
A recent survey by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) found that eight out of ten U.S. families now purchase organic products. In nearly half of those families, concern about their children's health is a driving force behind that decision.
"Parents are becoming more informed about the benefits of organic," said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA. "This study will do much to educate consumers even more and help them to make the best choices for their families."