A study by a team of scientists at Newcastle University has found significant nutritional differences between organic and conventionally farmed food.
The international team found that organic crops contain up to 69% more antioxidants than conventionally grown produce, and claims that switching to organic fruit, vegetables and grains would be the nutritional equivalent of eating two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Antioxidants are also linked to a reduced risk of cancer and chronic diseases.
The study, to be published in the British Journal of Nutrition, also found that organic foodstuffs contained lower levels of toxic heavy metals and contaminants, such as cadmium, which was 48% less present in organic crops. Pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in conventionally grown food.
Newcastle University’s Professor of Ecological Agriculture Carlo Leifert, who led the study, says: “The evidence is overwhelming – that organic food is high in nutritionally desirable antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides. This constitutes an important addition to the information currently available to consumers, which until now has been confusing.”
The study analyzed the compositional differences between organic and non-organic food in 343 sets of data. Its findings contradict a report conducted by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2009, which looked at 46 publications and concluded that there were no substantial nutritional benefits present in organic food. So why are the latest findings so different?
“The main difference between the two studies is time, as there is far more data available now” said Professor Leifert. “More statistics to examine mean that we’re very certain about our findings.”
Public Health England, however, does not see the study as definitive proof that organic food is better for health. Chief Nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone commented:
“PHE welcome this addition to the evidence base but we cannot assess the potential impact of organic foods on public health from this study alone. Ultimately we all need to eat more fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they are organic or not.”
Some groups have welcomed the findings and the potential influence they could have on British farming. Helen Browning, chief executive of organic farming charity the Soil Association, commented: “The crucially important thing about this research is that it shatters the myth that how we farm does not affect the quality of the food we eat. We hope these findings will bring the UK in line with the rest of Europe when it comes to support for organic farming.”
Other organizations, such as the Crop Protection Association (CPA), which promotes plant science and the use of pesticides, see no reasons to switch to organic foodstuffs in the results.
Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the CPA, said: “Whilst this study points to slightly higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of pesticide residues in organic produce when compared to conventional, these differences are relatively small. In regards to pesticide residues, tests show that no consumers are exposed to residues at levels that threaten their health. Regulators have repeatedly confirmed that low levels of residues in food are safe for consumers.
“Over 97% of UK farms are conventional and these farms produce crops that are healthy, affordable and safe. “
So what’s the next step in the organic vs non-organic debate?
Professor Leifert said: “This isn’t a definitive answer to whether organic farming has a positive impact on health but it could pave the way for studies which look at different diets and their impact on cancer and chronic disease.”