Ever since foods labeled as organic first started hitting supermarket shelves, the debate has raged over what the true differences are between these products and their non-organic equivalents.
Until recently, studies haven’t shown much of a health effect in consumers of organic versus non-organic produce – rates of allergies, odds of contracting a food-borne gastrointestinal illness, and other factors appeared more or less the same regardless of how the food was grown. A new study, however, has shaken up some of the conventional wisdom: it appears that, at least, organic foods may be more nutritious after all.
The research review, performed by a large confederation of European scientists, didn’t include any new field or laboratory work, but rather collected together more than three hundred previously conducted and published studies on the subject. In many cases, the review held up previously established conclusions about organically grown produce. For example (and to no one’s great surprise), organic produce contains less residual pesticide than conventionally grown produce, and organic produce is enriched in certain vitamins, like vitamin C and E. Another re-confirmed finding is that conventionally grown produce has more protein than organic.
But one on front, this research has seriously shaken up our scientific understanding of organic fruit and vegetables: the organically grown produce was found to have significantly higher quantities of antioxidants than the regular produce did. On average across all the types of produce examined, the difference was about 17%, but in certain crops, it was as high as 69%. (Keep in mind that this also means for certain types of fruit and vegetables, the difference could also be much lower than 17%.)
Not only that, but organically grown produce, especially grains like wheat and oats, showed significantly lower levels of heavy metals such as cadmium. These heavy metals aren’t easily removed from the body, and tend to build up in the tissues after being consumed. Ingesting too much of these chemicals can result in digestive tract irritation, and over long periods of time, damage to organs such as the liver and kidneys; and at high doses, it can even increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
While this certainly lends weight to arguments about the health benefits of eating organic, advocates of organic produce are quick to mention that antioxidant density and heavy metal contamination are far from the only reasons to think twice at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Organic farming practices are more environmentally sound, and, if done right, are also better for the health of the farm workers who take care of the fields where your food is grown and harvest your fruits and vegetables.
But buyer beware: “organic” on a food label may mean that only 70% of the ingredients are actually grown using organic methods, and very small food producers don’t have to go through an application process in order to be allowed to label their food as organic as larger organizations do (although they can be audited at any time to prove their credentials) – as with most health-related subjects, it’s wise to do your own research about the brands and farms you want to support, and make sure that their methods meet your expectations.