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Although I typically write about nutraceuticals, I thought I’d address a different topic for this issue: whether or not organic foods are actually better than conventional foods. It’s a question I’m often asked.

Statistics & Definition
Over the past few decades, sales of organic foods have consistently increased. U.S. organic food sales in 2018 were no exception. According to Nielsen Homescan household projected data, organic food sales during the 52 weeks ending November 28, 2018, rose nearly nine percent over the previous period, surpassing $21 billion.1 Clearly, consumers are willing to pay the typical 10 to 40 percent higher price for organic foods over conventionally produced foods. But why? According to one survey2, the main reasons consumers purchased organic foods were for the avoidance of pesticides (70 percent), for freshness (68 percent), for health and nutrition (67 percent), and to avoid genetically modified foods (55 percent).

Now that we know why consumers buy organic food, let’s define organic food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.3

After reading the USDA’s definition of organic and the results of the previously cited consumer survey, one might think that organic foods would be universally accepted as being healthier than conventionally grown foods. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the USDA “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”4 So, does this mean that the public has been duped and there is really no significant benefit to using organic foods over conventional foods? To answer this question from a scientific perspective, let’s examine the research.

The Research on Organic Foods

In a study on the “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains,”5 organic crops were found to contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly fewer nitrates than conventional crops (see chart on following page). There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.

In a review6 of earlier research, studies showed that organic fertilization practices produce crops that also had higher levels of ascorbic acid, lower levels of nitrate, and improved protein quality compared with conventionally grown crops. In addition, animal studies showed better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically grown feed compared with those fed conventionally grown feed.

In other research, organic crops contained a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals than conventional ones. Moreover, there was a lower level of pesticide residues, nitrate and some heavy metal contaminations in organic crops compared to conventional ones. A relationship was seen between the different fertilization and plant protection methods of these two plant production systems and the nutritional composition of crops. The conclusion was that organically produced plant-derived food products have a higher nutritional value, including antioxidants than conventional ones.7 Furthermore, due to the lower level of contamination in organic crops, the risk of diseases caused by contaminated food was thought to be significantly reduced.

organic crops vs conventional crops

According to Organic farming, food quality and, human health: A review of the evidence8, “A comprehensive review of existing research reveals significant differences between organically and nonorganically grown food. These differences relate to food safety, primary nutrients, secondary nutrients [aka, phytochemicals] and health outcomes demonstrated by feeding trials.” With regard to food safety:

  • Nearly all pesticides are prohibited in organic farming.
  • There is no evidence linking organically produced foods with an increased risk of food poisoning.
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their derivatives are prohibited in organic production.
  • The routine, growth promoting or prophylactic use of antibiotics is prohibited in organic standards for animal husbandry.
  • No record has been found of any case of BSE, suspected of being linked to new variant CJD in humans, in an animal born and reared organically.
  • More than 500 additives are permitted for use in nonorganically processed foods, compared with around 30 permitted in organic processing.
  • Studies have shown lower levels of potentially harmful nitrate in organically produced crops.
With regard to primary nutrients:
  • Vitamin C and dry matter contents are higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
  • Mineral contents are also higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
  • Research indicates a clear long-term decline in the trace mineral content of fruit and vegetables, and the influence of farming practices requires further investigation.
With regard to phytochemicals:
  • Research is beginning to confirm the expectation that organic crops contain an increased range and volume of naturally occurring compounds known variously as secondary plant metabolites or phytochemicals.
  • Phytochemicals increase the capacity of plants to withstand external challenges from pests and diseases, and an increasing number of them are also known to be beneficial to humans.

Nevertheless, not all studies have shown higher levels of nutrients or phytochemicals in organic goods. In a review9 of eleven studies comparing organic and conventional foods with respect to nutrient/phytochemical levels, nine of the studies demonstrated higher levels while two of the studies found no differences. Of course, nine out of eleven studies are still reasonably impressive.

Even in research that did not find strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients, other health benefits were still seen in organic foods (e.g., a reduction in nitrate content10), and reasonably consistent findings were still seen for higher nitrate and lower vitamin C contents of conventionally-produced vegetables.11

On August 22, 2002, Dr. Erik Steen Kristensen of the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming presented data on food safety from an organic perspective at the 14th International In a presentation given at a European conference on organic food and farming12, the impact of organic foods on health and safety was addressed. The data presented showed overwhelmingly positive results for both health and safety (see table below).

Health and Safety Impact of Organic Foods

Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Congress in Victoria, Canada. Dr. Kristensen offered reasons to consider organic foods, specific reasons associated with the risks of conventionally farmed foods13:

  • Discovery of animals with BSE—Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka, mad cow disease
  • Increased occurrence of Salmonella in meat and eggs
  • Increased occurrence of campylobacter in meat
  • Listeria in dairy products
  • Increased occurrence of dioxin in food and fodder
  • Too high amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, additives, etc. in food
  • Toxic fungi in food from stocks

The Research on Organic Farming

In addition to nutrition and health, another area of consideration associated with the benefits of organic foods, or more specifically organic farming, is biodiversity. Organic agriculture has been confirmed as environmentally sound and more sustainable than mainstream agriculture. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund supports organic farming because it benefits people and nature:

It is a system that is essential for conserving biodiversity, especially in the center of fields. It avoids the release of toxic pesticide residues into the environment, and it supports rural development, fair trade, food safety, animal welfare, and market-oriented production. No other farming system encapsulates all these benefits and in a way that the public can easily recognize.15

A research project conducted by Britain's Soil Association and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund indicated that in most studies important differences have been found between the biodiversity on the organic and conventional farms, generally with substantially greater levels of both abundance and diversity of species on the organic farms. This includes:16

  • Plants: five times as many wild plants in arable fields, 57 percent more species and several rare and declining wild arable species found only on the organic farms.
  • Birds: 25 percent more birds at the field edge, 44 percent more in-field in autumn/winter; 2.2 times as many breeding skylarks and higher skylark breeding rates.
  • Invertebrates: 1.6 times as many of the arthropods that comprise bird food; three times as many non-pest butterflies in the crop areas; one to five times as many spider numbers and one to two times as many spider species.
  • Crop pests: a significant decrease in aphid numbers; no change in numbers of pest butterflies.
  • Distribution of the biodiversity benefits: though the field boundaries had the highest levels of wildlife, the highest increases were found in the cropped areas of the fields.
  • Quality of the habitats: both the field boundary and crop habitats were more favorable on the organic farms.
  • The field boundaries: they had more trees, larger hedges and no spray drift; the crops were sparser, with no herbicides, allowing more weeds; there was also more grassland and a greater variety of crop types.
  • Organic farming was identified as having many beneficial practices: reversing the trends in conventional farming that have caused the decline in biodiversity: crop rotations with grass leys, mixed spring and autumn sowing, more permanent pasture, no use of herbicides or synthetic pesticides and use of "green manure."

The general consensus of other research17,18 comparing conventional and organic systems of farming was that organic farming is less damaging to the environment for the following reasons:

  • They don't consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment. This is significant since some of the pesticides may harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
  • They are better at sustaining diverse ecosystems, including populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
  • When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, they use less energy and produce less waste.

Further to this last point, one study19 found a 20 percent smaller yield from organic farms using 50 percent less fertilizer and 97 percent less pesticide. In addition, a study20 in 2007 compiled research from 293 different comparisons between organic and conventional farming to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems. The authors concluded, "Organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base."

One researcher pointed out that, related to the environmentally sound nature of organic farming, the consumers' well-being is based on the certainty "that by purchasing, eating and enjoying organic food, one has contributed to a better future and an improved environment. These effects with their social implications along with improved animal welfare may, in the end, be more important than any measurable contribution of balanced Western diets to individual nutritional health."21

Conclusion
To answer the earlier posed question, no the public has not been duped. There really are significant benefits to using organic foods over their conventional counterparts. These include health, nutrition and environmental benefits.

References
  1. Smith H. Organic Sales Soared in 2018: Nielsen. Food Industry Executive. January 9, 2019. Retrieved May 29, 2019 from https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2019/01/organic-sales-soared-in-2018-nielsen/
  2. Whole Foods Market. 2005 Whole Foods Market organic trend tracker. Austin, Tex.: Whole FoodsMarket; 2005.
  3. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html
  4. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html.
  5. Worthington V. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. J Alternative Compl Med 2001; (7)2:161–73.
  6. Worthington V. Effect of agricultural methods on nutritional quality: a comparison of organic with conventional crops. Altern Ther Health Med 1998(1):58–69.
  7. Györéné KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods. Orv Hetil 2006;147(43):2081–90.
  8. Organic farming, food quality and,human health: A review of the evidence. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2006.
  9. Winter CK, Davis SF. Organic Foods. Journal of Food Science 2006; 71(9):R117–R124.
  10. Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2002;42(1):1–34.
  11. Williams CM. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2002; 61:19–24.
  12. O’Doherty Jensen K, Larsen HN, Mølgaard JP, Andersen J-O, Tingstad A, Marckmann P, Astrup A. 2001. Organic foods and human health. Proceedings of the European conference: Organic Food and Farming. Towards Partnership and Action in Europe. Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Copenhagen 10–11 May 2001, 172–77.
  13. Kristensen ES. Food safety in an organic perspective. 14th IFOAM Congress, Victoria, Canada; August 22nd 2002. Accessed on May 25, 2005 from http://orgprints.org/19/03/Kristensen_IFOAM_2002.ppt
  14. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.
  15. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
  16. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
  17. Stolze M, Piorr A, Häring AM, Dabbert S. 2000. Environmental impacts of organic farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy Vol. 6. Universität Hohenheim, Stuttgart-Hohenheim.
  18. Hansen B, Alrøe HJ, Kristensen ES. Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 2001; 83:11–26.
  19. Mäder P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, Gunst L, Fried P, Niggli U. Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science 2002; 296:1694–7.
  20. Perfecto et al, In Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 2007; 22: 86-108 Cambridge University Press: cited in New Scientist 13:46 12 July 2007.
  21. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.

Gene Bruno, MS, MHS

Gene Bruno is the Dean of Academics and Professor of Dietary Supplement Science for Huntington College of Health Sciences (a nationally accredited distance learning college offering diplomas and degrees in nutrition and other health science related subjects. Gene has two undergraduate Diplomas in Nutrition, a Bachelor’s in Nutrition, a Master’s in Nutrition, a Graduate Diploma in Herbal Medicine, and a Master’s in Herbal Medicine. As a 32 year veteran of the Dietary Supplement industry, Gene has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines, and peer-reviewed publications. Gene's latest book, A Guide to Complimentary Treatments for Diabetes, is available on Amazon.com, and other fine retailers.