By McKenzie Hall, RD
The organic industry is hot. It’s often the fastest growing section in supermarkets, increasing in sales from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion between 1997 and 2011. The topic of organic foods has received even more attention recently in response to a study released from Stanford University, which concluded that there isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods.
Benefits Reach Far Beyond the Nutritional Value
The study set off a firestorm among consumers and nutrition professionals as they discussed whether choosing organic foods is the best strategy for your health as well as for the environment.
Debating the advantages
The Stanford researchers reviewed a collection of about 240 previously published studies and developed a statistical compilation of their findings. The studies they examined were conducted over many years and took into account nutrients as well as bacterial, fungal and pesticide contamination levels in various foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry and eggs, and also their impact on humans.
For most vitamins and minerals, no significant difference between organic and conventional produce was found in nutrient content, with the exception of phosphorous, which was higher in organically grown varieties. But researchers did find organic produce to have a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination, and organically farmed chicken and pork to have lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Other studies have documented health and environmental advantages of organic foods compared to their conventional counterparts. A similar analysis of studies conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in England found higher levels of vitamin C and phenols (plant antioxidants) in organically grown crops.
In a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, which examined the effects of organic and conventional cropping systems for spinach, researchers found the organic variety to have higher levels of certain flavonoids and vitamin C.
One of the main advantages for eating organic is less exposure to pesticide residues. “Don’t buy organics to increase phytochemical intake, but [buy them] because organics generally have lower levels of pesticides,” urges Alyson Mitchell, PhD, professor and food chemist at the University of California, Davis.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives detailed a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposure to pesticides among 23 participating elementary school children. They were fed organic food items instead of conventional foods in their diet.
“Although the FDA assures that pesticide residue on individual food samples are within safe limits, what we do not know is how that cumulative load of organophosphorous pesticides affects children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and seniors,” says Angie Tagtow, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of Environmental Nutrition Solutions, LLC, a company that focuses on environmental approaches to food and nutrition.
The organic food movement also takes into consideration how agricultural practices affect the environment. The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial is the longest running study in the U.S. to compare conventional and organic agricultural practices. It found that organic farming uses 45 percent less energy, produces 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, and better supports soil organic matter compared to conventional systems.
Additional evidence-based studies indicate that organic farming methods create healthy soils, which yield crops that are equal or superior to those grown by conventional agricultural methods.
Organically grown foods have clearly some well-documented benefits, but are they worth the higher prices? To help you gauge the price vs. benefit, here’s a look at the average cost breakdown for two commonly consumed foods:
Apples (per fruit): organic, $2.35; conventional, $1.34
Canned black beans (per 15-ounce can): organic, $1.77; conventional, $1.16
McKenzie Hall, RD is a Registered Dietitian and co-founder of Nourish RDs, a nutrition communications and counseling business. She is a writer, presenter and speaker focusing on whole, real foods as the foundation for lifetime health and wellness. She writes for newspapers, magazines and co-authors the Nourish RDs blog. For more information, please visit www.Nourishrds.blogspot.com
This article was originally published in the Environmental Nutrition Newsletter. Reprinted with permission.
The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.