Every year it seems like the scientific community takes a different stance on organic foods. With all the back-and-forth concerning the nutritional benefits of organics, what should consumers believe? In an effort to clear up the confusion, a new major study provides solid evidence for choosing organic over conventionally grown foods.
The study, led by scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K., shows that organic foods have a lower rate of pesticide residue, lower concentrations of the harmful heavy metal cadmium, and higher levels of antioxidants compared to conventional crops. The researchers’ conclusions come from hundreds of studies that analyzed food safety and nutrition for organic versus conventional products.
Published in the British Journal of Nutrition, the study's strength lies in the sheer number of other studies the scientists reviewed. Using data from 343 peer-reviewed papers comparing organic versus nonorganic plant-based foods, researchers found that the overall nutritional benefits of organic foods generally outweigh those of their conventional counterparts.
Why Go Organic?
These hard facts reflect the common-sense conclusion that organic foods are healthier, but Charles Benbrook, head of Washington State University’s Measure to Manage: Farm and Food Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health program and the sole U.S.-based researcher on the study, has a different goal for the research: “to focus the debate on the importance of people consuming organic food as opposed to just the basic questions of is there a higher level of vitamin C on average or are there more antioxidants,” he said.
The definition of organic varies by the type of food, but at its core, organic farming and production involve techniques that are generally safer for the environment and for human consumption than conventional farming, including using only nonsynthetic pesticides. Proponents of organic farming stress the health benefits of cleaner foods with less chemical residue.
“There are good, long-term health oriented reasons for purchasing organic fruits and vegetables and grains,” Benbrook said.
How Accessible Are Organics?
Organic foods may be a healthy choice, but buying them remains a challenge for many consumers. Kelly Hogan, a dietitian at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, encourages her clients to purchase organic foods “to a point.”
“If you can afford to buy that stuff of course I would say to buy it, but it goes back to the individual person and knowing whether to prioritize,” Hogan said.
Hogan suggests buying organic food based on a hierarchy, in which foods like those on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of foods with the most pesticide residue rank among the top foods that should be bought organic, while organic versions of goods like cookies and cereals are at the bottom. Certain produce, such as bananas, she explains, do not need to be organic because their large peels provide a barrier from pesticides that foods like strawberries and apples don’t have.
While Hogan sees the value of certain organic foods, she thinks that some people put too high a premium on buying organic.
“Organic foods in the grocery store are separate from the conventional foods and they’re always more expensive,” Hogan said. “At some level it is kind of a status symbol.”
Making Organic More Mainstream
The higher price of organic foods has long been a source of worry for consumers, but Benbrook disagrees with this stereotype. “One misperception is that it’s a lot more expensive,” he said, noting that nonorganic foods like leafy greens in clamshell packaging can be even pricier.
Plus, he argues, organic produce purchased in season and in bulk, or even frozen, is generally affordable for consumers.
“As consumers do that more and demand grows, it’s going to fuel more investment in the organic industry,” Benbrook said. This in turn will spur more research and acceptance of organic foods, he explained. “The biggest impediment is government policy and reticence from the conventional food industry that simply does not want to admit that there are health benefits from organic foods,” he added.
Whether or not larger institutions jump on the organic bandwagon, Benbrook has one prediction that has proven true in the past.
“Americans are going to get the kind of food system that they put their dollars behind,” he said.