Many consumers share an intuitive sense that organic foods are better for their health and better for the environment. But the industry has been cautious about making blanket claims, partly because consistent scientific research backing up that claim has been hard to come by.
That?s beginning to change, as new studies, research initiatives and literature reviews show promising results. At the very least, experts say, the existing evidence justifies more research on all aspects of organic foods and farming, and more funds and resources devoted to that research.
?The reason to do that research is to answer a basic question: How beneficial would it be, across the U.S. population, if a significant portion of the animal products, fruits and vegetables consumed were organic?? says Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., science director for the newly formed Organic Center for Education and Promotion, a nonprofit based in Greenfield, Mass.
The right questions
Asking ?Are organic foods better for me?? actually reveals a host of complex underlying questions:
- Are organic foods safer? Are agricultural chemical residues in food and the environment bad for us? Do they cause or contribute to cancer or other diseases? What about antibiotics, growth hormones or genetically modified organisms? Should we eat organic to avoid these, or are they harmless?
- Are organic foods more nutritious? Do organic farming methods, with a focus on soil quality and ecological wholeness, result in more nutritious foods? Do conventional farming methods result in a decline in nutritional quality of food?
- Are organic foods better for the environment? Are organic methods more humane for farm animals, and safer for wildlife? Do they improve biodiversity? Do they result in more sustainable ecosystems?
A body of literature exists on potential risks of pesticide exposures, especially to infants and children, and on the environmental aspects of organic farming. There?s been less focus on nutritional benefits, but does it matter? Benbrook sees it as nothing less than a public health issue: ?Part of that is less pesticide residues. Part of the benefit of organic is avoiding what?s wrong with conventional. But science will have to prove that something beneficial is going on for those who eat organic foods.?
Higher levels of EFAs, antioxidants, flavonoids
A few newly published studies and literature reviews are provocative and eye-opening. A study conducted by food scientists at the University of California, Davis, found that marionberries, strawberries and corn grown either organically (to USDA standards) or sustainably (using synthetic fertilizer but not pesticides or herbicides) had significantly higher levels of vitamin C and total phenolics (flavonoids, or micronutrients with antioxidant properties) than their conventionally grown counterparts.
At the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in the United Kingdom, researchers found that organic milk had more omega-3 essential fatty acids than conventional milk. ?Rapid progress is being made in understanding some of the benefits of organic animal products, particularly milk and eggs,? Benbrook says. ?It?s clear that not pushing cattle as hard as conventional farmers do, and not feeding them as hot a ration—meaning high energy, high protein—allows the animal to produce better milk.?
Virginia Worthington, Ph.D., is the author of a survey of existing literature comparing nutrient content of organic and conventional food crops, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. In her review of 41 studies, ?Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops,? she found. ?There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of a better quality, and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.?
Worthington, whose Nutrikinetics nutritional practice is based in Washington, D.C., says that nutritional advantages of organic foods have been overlooked because the amount of any given nutrient in a food is small. ?We?re used to thinking in terms of large quantities, and that more is better. But when you get an arrangement of nutrients in a food that?s been arranged by Mother Nature, you also get the effects of a nutrient amplified by another nutrient. Vitamin E helps vitamin A to work. You get a lot of interactions.?
In a literature review conducted by the Soil Association, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit promoting organic agriculture, the recommendations of the authors were stark—and encouraging for organic advocates: ?Consumers wishing to improve their intake of minerals, vitamin C and antioxidant phytonutrients, while reducing their exposure to potentially harmful pesticide residues, nitrate, GMOs and artificial additives used in food processing, should, wherever possible, choose organically produced foods. ? Further research is urgently needed to clarify the exact relationships between agricultural management and the nutritional quality of crops.?
Elaine Lipson ([email protected]) is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill Contemporary, 2001), a guide to understanding and buying organic foods. She serves on the communications committee of The Organic Center.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 14, 16