Organic vs. Conventional: Is the Proof in the Nutrition?

Many families chose to spend the extra money on organically grown foods because they are concerned about pesticide and herbicide residue, as well as environmental consequences.

According to the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT) at Rutgers University:

Surveys indicate that many consumers purchase organic foods because of the perceived health and nutrition benefits of organic products. In one survey, the main reasons consumers purchased organic foods were for the avoidance of pesticides (70%), for freshness (68%), for health and nutrition (67%), and to avoid genetically modified foods (55%) (Whole Foods Market 2005). Such consumers appear to be willing to pay the typical 10% to 40% price premium that organic products command.

There are even more benefits to consuming organic food than avoidance to toxic chemicals:  organic food is actually more nutritious the conventionally grown food.

The classic symptom of the standard American diet (SAD) is being overfed but undernourished.  How does this happen?  Not only our processed foods devoid of essential vitamins and minerals due to their lack of freshness and chemical process, but even the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables lack the same mineral content as their organic counterparts.

IFT continues:

In recent years, researchers have conducted several controlled studies to compare organic and conventional foods with respect to

nutritionalcomposition(Table2).Somestudieshaveconcludedthat organic production methods lead to increases in nutrients, partic- ularly organic acids and polyphenolic compounds, many of which are considered to have potential human health benefits as antiox- idants. However, other studies did not demonstrate differences in nutrients between organic and conventional production methods.

Two major hypotheses explaining the possible increases in or- ganic acids and polyphenolics in organic versus conventional foods have been proposed. One hypothesis considers the impacts of differ- ent fertilization practices on plant metabolism. In conventional agri- culture, synthetic fertilizers frequently make nitrogen more avail- able for the plants than do the organic fertilizers and may accelerate plant growth and development. Therefore, plant resources are allo- cated for growth purposes, resulting in a decrease in the production of plant secondary metabolites (compounds not essential to the life of the plant) such as organic acids, polyphenolics, chlorophyll, and amino acids.

The second hypothesis considers the responses of plants to stressful environments such as attacks from insects, weeds, and plant pathogens. It has been argued that organic production methods—which are limited in the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides to control plant pests—may put greater stresses on plants and may require plants to devote greater resources toward the synthesis of their own chemical defense mechanisms. Increases in antioxidants such as plant polyphenolics have been attributed to their production in plant defense (Asami and others 2003), al- though the same mechanisms may result in the elevations of other plant secondary metabolites that may be of toxicological rather than nutritional significance.

While the 2 hypotheses may explain the potential increases in nu- tritional compounds in organic foods relative to conventional foods, as seen in a few studies, the impact on human health of consuming greater levels of organic acids and polyphenolics has yet to be de- termined. Studies using organically and conventionally cultivated strawberries demonstrated that extracts from organic strawberries showed higher antiproliferative activity against colon cancer and breast cancer cells than did extracts from conventional strawber- ries (Olsson and others 2006). While these results suggest a possi- ble mechanism by which organic foods could reduce human cancer risks compared with conventional foods, such results were obtained from in vitro studies and not from human or rodent feeding stud- ies. One in vivo feeding study failed to demonstrate any differences in plasma levels of the antioxidants vitamin C and lycopene in hu- man subjects who had consumed tomato purees from either or- ganic or conventional sources for 3 wk. This study did find that organic tomatoes showed higher vitamin C levels and that organic tomato purees showed higher levels of vitamin C and polyphenols than did conventional tomatoes and purees (Caris-Veyrat and others 2004).

Nitrates

While nutritional comparisons of organic and conventional foods provide quite variable data when considering the possible differ- ences in plant secondary metabolites and minerals, it appears that organic production of foods does result in lower nitrate levels.

The authors are careful to conclude that:  “it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition;” however, there is enough information for me.

It’s interesting when you start researching a story and find that your original lead may be a bit misleading.  This story began with the following image shared on Facebook.

When researching Rutger’s work on organic vs. conventional, I found the above work by the IFT that I quoted a large portion of above (sorry, it just all seemed important).  When looking for Firman E. Bear’s research, I came across the following:

One study that’s often mentioned in the organic vs. conventional debate is the Firman E. Bear report.  This report DID NOT look at the nutritional differences between organic and conventionally raised produce, though the popular press has incorrectly portrayed it in this manner for many years.  The study, published in a 1948 edition ofProceedings of the Soil Science Society of America (7), examined the mineral composition of vegetables grown in different regions and on different soil types.  Part of the more recent confusion may stem from the way the results were presented; i.e., organic and inorganic soil types rather than organic and conventional production methods.

Dr. Bear and his colleagues found that vegetables grown on heavy soils in the Ohio Valley had a greater mineral content than produce grown on sandy Coastal Plain soils near the East Coast.  Interestingly, fertilizer rates on farms in the coastal-plain states were much higher in contrast to fertilizer rates used on farms in east north-central states.  Clover sods and manures were more prevalent in the east north-central region. These results are important in themselves because they show that soil type (and quite likely differences in clay mineralogy, soil organic matter, and biological soil activity) affect the mineral composition of foods grown on them.  In general, they found that trace element and mineral content increases from south to north, and from east to west.  Overall, mineral composition is affected by geography, climate, and fertilizing practices.

I agree the issue of organic vs.  conventional is complex as to why the produce does typically have higher nutritional content.  Soil quality, including depletion from overfarming, is just as important.  Organic and biodynamic practices do more to replenish soil, as they rely on it more heavily than conventional farming and its petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides.  It is all related.

The original debate on organic vs. conventional nutritional quality began with the following study:

Indirect evidence supporting this argument comes from the recent work of Davis and others (2004), who compared USDA nutrient content data for 43 garden crops between 1950 (before many modern methods of agricultural production had achieved widespread adoption) and 1999. Statistically reliable de- clines were noted for 6 nutrients (protein, calcium, potassium, iron, riboflavin, and ascorbic acid), with declines ranging from 6% for protein to 38% for riboflavin. However, Davis and others attributed the decreases in nutrient content to changes in the cultivars (plant varieties) used. They maintained that cultivars are frequently selected for their yield characteristics, growth rate, and pest resistance but are not chosen because of their nutrient content.

I believe organic farmers are more concerned about preserving heirloom varieties, offering consumers choice, and providing superior produce than criteria used by conventional farmers when selecting seeds.  If you have ever read an Epitaph for a Peach, you know about the struggles family organic farmers face to market food that needs to be sold when ripe, spoils easily, but has the best flavor.

One thing all researchers seem to agree on is that organic produce does have lower pesticide residue.

Comments

  1. Jeff Zbornik says:

    I am saddened by the poor understanding of the issue that your article reveals. The “Organics vs Conventional” table you included is a a blatant falsehood, which you admit. You still seem to use it to support your statements and beliefs, however.

    Your article is a clear indication to me that people in the organics vs conventional food debate are arguing about lies and misperceptions. There is no body of scientific evidence supporting the superiority of organic food.

    I grow and preserve much of my family’s produce. I do this for the freshness, flavor, variety, and satisfaction. Purchasing organic produce that was grown in Peru DOES NOT help the environment. Grow your own. If you can’t, buy local when possible.

    • Wrong. Eating foods grown with the editions of sometimes SEVEN different toxic agrichemicals including insecticide seed treatments, herbicides and fungicides is not good for anybody. Would you dump a bunch of chemicals on your food at the dinner table? No? Then why eat something that was *grown* that way?

  2. Why don’t we cdonsider taste? My goodness! Organic produce tastes much better than non-organic and GMO’ed foods. The other day I bought a papaya. It had no flavor. Immediately I thought, “this could be a genetically modified product. ” After a little research using the sticker on the papaya I found myself at http://www.hawaiiseed.org and sure enough the papaya I had in my hand was GMO’ed. Any product lacking in flavor most assuredly leads to a GMO product, and certainly non-organic. So, America, let’s get back to taste, flavor, and satisfaction with what we eat. Let’s enjoy really good food, the “good foods that tell the truth” as I say in my book, Honest Eating, How to Love Food, Love yourself, & Love Life.

  3. I agree with the first comment about the chart. There are plenty of studies that show that the nutrient content of ALL food grown in the US has shown a marked decline over the past 100 years. There was no need to use a falsely attributed “study” to prove an erroneous point.

    The truth is that there is ample evidence to support that conventionally grown food does not have the potential to equal the nutrient levels of organically grown food IF, and that is the question, the organically grown food is grown in mineral rich and balanced soils.

    Minerals impart nutrition to food. Period. And a biologically active soil is necessary to make the minerals available to the plant. This is NOT rocket science. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. But it can be simple, if the farmer will just follow some simple rules and use the right soil amendments.

    I test everything that I grow in my company’s test garden to ensure that I am growing
    high Brix produce. Once I have the Brix level elevated, I am assured of great flavor and nutrition. However, just growing “organically” does NOT mean anyone will grow produce that is superior to conventional, aside from the absence of pesticides.

    Michael with Mighty Grow Organics
    Alabama

    • Jennifer Lance says:

      Well said Michael!

      • Well said. Well, for me absence of pesticides is huge thing ( as I understand it does affect the brain cell) and also the taste of organic food is much better but I also found better taste in Tomato which were grown in Hydroponic greenhouse with NO pesticide. So I understand the way nutrition gets absorbed properly in controlled environment and perheps that makes teste better.I am not aware of high Brix but if it can do the same as greenhouse then I think it may be less cheaper way to grow good tasty food with NO pesticides.

  4. The debate about going organic presents equally convincing arguments on both sides of the coin. While it cannot be denied that agriculture that depends on the use of heavy chemicals can slowly but surely cause irreversible damage to human health and pollute the environment, it is also true that conventional foods are cheaper as the same amount of land gives greater yield. Studies have also revealed that there is no significant difference in the nutrient levels of both types of produce. What then, is the ideal approach to the dilemma? The best way out is to resist getting carried away. It would make sense to gradually shift to the organic versions of some foods whenever possible. It may also be an excellent idea to have an organically grown kitchen garden which will be your very own attempt to create a greener and cleaner world. For more on this interesting debate please visit http://lovefitnesseducation.com/2012/08/24/going-organic-necessity-or-luxury/

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  2. [...] The source is EVERYTHING. If you eat conventional food, you will continue to have health and weight problems because conventional food is altered, processed, and full of toxins and chemicals. It also has reduced nutritional content because of the way it is produced and grown. Organic, sustainable foods from natural, traditional sources of food contain more vitamins and minerals, saturated fats, carbohydrates, proteins, enzymes, co-factors, and all your body needs. Numerous studies reveal organic foods are more nutritious than conventional (here’s one, and here’s another). [...]

  3. [...] “There are even more benefits to consuming organic food than avoidance to toxic chemicals: organic food is actually more nutritious than conventional food.” Organic vs. Conventional [...]

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