The confusions of organic foods and their nutritional prowess

In the past few years, there has been much controversy over the nutritional content of organic foods and whether they reign superior to foods grown conventionally. Some studies have provided evidence to answer this very question, with mixed results. Yet, there remains much confusion.

A recent TIMES article “What’s So Great About Organic Food” completely mixes up the picture by throwing it all in the soup bowl – local, sustainable, free range, grassfed, organic, etc etc etc. Not all of these terms mean “organic.” And to make it all that much more confusing, the reasons why someone chooses to eat (or not) these nonconventionally grown foods is a mixed bag. Environment, food miles, taste, price, animal cruelty, climate change, migrate worker rights, exposure to fertilizer and pesticide reside, or nutrition have crossed the lips of your average consumer.

Let’s clear the air and answer one question at a time. For simplification, this blogpost is going to focus on whether ORGANICALLY grown foods are more NUTRITIOUS than conventionally grown foods.

So what is organic? It does not necessarily mean your food is sustainably raised, free range, local grassfed or at the farmers market. The farmers market in Union Square NYC is not necessarily organic – it is just produced nearby. Same with the farmers market in Testaccio Rome. Organic has many meanings but is generally defined as:

Organic food production involves the general restriction of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides on plant species and crops. With livestock husbandry, animals must be reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones and fed a healthy diet. In most countries, organic produce may not be genetically modified. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensures through “inspection” that processed organic foods contain 95% organic ingredients. Foods claiming to be organic must be free of artificial food additives, and less exposure to food irradiation and in general, no genetically modified ingredients. Pesticides can be included as long as they are not synthetic.
The Organic Center goes one step further: Organic agriculture methods promote biodiversity, the biological cycling of nutrients, and plant and animal health. Organic farmers do not use toxic synthetic pesticides, hormones to hasten animal growth and increase production, genetic modification or genetically modified feed, or artificial fertilizers. Instead, they use management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance soil health and ecosystem integrity.

So what is considered to be a nutritious food? One that usually is nutrient dense for its caloric content. Nutrient dense usually means higher in fiber, vitamins, and/or minerals as has some phytochemical properties such as rich in antioxidants, the health fats (like omega 3s) or phenolic compounds that have been shown to reduce cancer risk.

What have studies shown? Well, not much has been done so far to say conclusively that organics are more nutritious. It is also difficult to make sound conclusions because there are so many variables that can alter the nutritional state of a plant or an animal including the soil, the feed, the weather, the processing and the utilization or digestion in a human being.

One study done in rats feeding them carrots, kale, peas, potatoes, and apples grown organically or conventionally showed no difference in retention or the amount of essential micronutrients concentrations. But as I wrote in an earlier post of this study, who cares? They are rats. We are humans. The difference is sometimes questionnable but let’s not go there.

One group published a “meta analysis” in 2009 in which they looked across many studies that have tested the ambitions of organic foods, and after eliminating many studies due to poor methodology and not fulfilling their full criteria, they settled on 55 quality studies. Of those studies, there was no difference nutritionally in food grown organically versus conventionally. Organic proponents were NOT happy with that one. I reported on this a while back.

And some disagree. One report by the Organic Center (may be potentially biased) found that plant-based organic foods are nutritionally superior with 25% more antioxidants. A 2010 study (in an open access journal, bless them) looking at three varieties of strawberries grown organically or conventionally found that the organics had longer shelf life (!), higher antioxidant activity and vitamin C, and soils were more nutrient rich and resistant to stress. An NPR program followed.

So what does all this mean? Well, the cat is not yet out of the bag. If you have other choices to eat organic beyond nutrition, like environmental (you agree that less pesticide residues and chemicals should seep into soil), or health (you don’t want to consume antibiotic byproducts or chemically treated apples) or price (you like spending your entire hard earned paycheck at Whole Foods on organic foods because they taste better), then I think you should at least for now, go that route.

But to be more nutritious, stick with the rules we know and love. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, get that fiber in, exercise, eat meat at most in moderation, forget the soda, and don’t pig out. And if you think that those organics just may save your life from a nutritional perspective with their increased antioxidants and potentially other, not yet proven, nutritiously rich powers, then, well, do it. It won’t kill you.

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