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Organic Produce Is Healthier Than Conventional Produce. Or Is It?

The latest back-and-forth debate over a question that science has yet to settle, despite hundreds of studies.

Organic Produce Is Healthier Than Conventional Produce. Or Is It?
[Image: Farmer's market produce via Shutterstock]

Eating organic produce might not definitively make you a healthier person, but it certainly doesn’t hurt: A new analysis of 343 studies has found that organic fruits, vegetables, and grains contain higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides compared to their non-organic counterparts.

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The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic crops overall contained 19% more antioxidants, with levels of certain types of health-boosting antioxidants measuring much higher (69% for flavanones, 51% for anthocyanins). The antioxidants found in organic produce are linked to reduced risk of cancer and chronic diseases. By switching to organic produce, the researchers behind the study estimate that eaters consume the antioxidant equivalent of an extra two servings of fruits or vegetables daily.

This finding does make sense–plants are thought to naturally produce more antioxidants in the absence of pesticides. The study found that conventional crops contain four times as many pesticides as organic crops, as well as higher levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal.

There’s a big “but” here, however. The research contradicts two previous studies, from 2009 and 2012, that didn’t find a significant nutritional difference between conventional and organic produce. Even though the second study, published by scientists from Stanford University, found higher levels of pesticides in conventional produce, this was largely brushed off by the researchers because the levels were still below safety limits.

A number of experts have provided statements decrying the recent study to the U.K.’s Science Media Centre. Among them is Professor Richard Mithen, who heads the food and health program at the Institute of Food Research. He writes: “The additional cost of organic vegetables to the consumer and the likely reduced consumption would easily offset any marginal increase in nutritional properties, even if they did occur, which I doubt. To improve public health we need to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables, regardless of how they are produced.”

Dr. Alan Dangour, one of the authors of the 2009 paper, also expressed his concern: “The quality of the available data varies greatly and it is therefore very surprising that, in their analysis, the authors decided to include all the data that they found, irrespective of their quality. In fact the study authors themselves note that there are significant concerns with the consistency and reliability of some of their findings.”

Will eating conventional produce hurt you? Will organic help your health? Maybe, maybe not. Eat at your own risk–and if you have the extra dollars to spare, consider buying organic.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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