For years, healthy-food advocates have said organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown.
But that claim is being challenged by a comprehensive new study, and the healthful-eating crowd is up in arms. Many say it’s not so much about what’s in the food, but what isn’t in it – namely, pesticides.
The study, conducted by British researchers and published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined all the relevant research between 1958 and 2008, eliminating studies the authors deemed not scientifically sound. It has been billed as the most comprehensive review of the nutrition question to date.
Researchers concluded “there is no evidence of a difference” between organic and conventionally grown produce in ? 20 of 23 nutrient categories, including vitamin C, calcium and potassium.
They saw similar results when comparing meats. Any nutritional differences they did find were not significant, the researchers said.
“Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority,” the lead researcher said in a news release.
The study was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the country’s national school of public health. It was funded by the Food Standards Agency, an independently operating government department “set up to protect the public’s health and consumer interests.”
The main problem with the study, critics say, is that nutrition is only a small part of organic’s appeal.
The researchers did not examine, for example, what effect chemical fertilizers and pesticides – used in growing conventional crops – have on consumers. Nor did they look at the environmental effects of each growing method.
“Nutritional quality is one of many potential variables related to the advantages of organic food,” said Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market. “But for us, there are already plenty of well-documented reasons to choose organic.”
Advocates pointed to a study completed last year by The Organic Center that reached a different conclusion. Like the British study, these researchers examined the results of previous studies but went back only to the 1980s and used different methodology.
For example, they focused exclusively on “matched pairs” of organic and conventional foods – that is, “crops grown on nearby farms, on the same type of soil, with the same irrigation systems and harvest timing.”
The conclusion? “Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious.”
While criticism of the British results abound, some have chosen to look at the bright side.
Debra Boutin, chair of Bastyr University’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science, says that while the results may have been overblown in media reports, she’s not about to dispute the conclusions.
Her priority is to get people to eat their fruits and vegetables, whether they’re well-to-do fine-diners or struggling shoppers.
If they can get as many nutrients from conventionally grown as they can from organic, Boutin says, “that’s a good thing. They’re equally good for us.”
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