Friday, July 31, 2009

Health Benefits of "Organic" Questioned Again

The debate over whether organically farmed produce is nutritionally superior to conventionally farmed produce has been around for a long time (I posted on the topic in my food blog: TastyKate last year!). This week an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed the published literature on the topic and concluded that there is not scientific evidence that organic produce has greater nutritional benefits than conventional produce. This contradicts a 2008 US study by The Organic Center which concluded that organic produce has greater nutrients than conventionally grown produce.

My good friend, Wes (thanks!!), informed me of the study through a post on Science Daily that discusses the article and its findings. In reading the post I would like to make a few Veritas Health-minded comments:

"The review focused on nutritional content and did not include a review of the content of contaminants or chemical residues in foods from different agricultural production regimens."

The fact that the review did not consider the health effects of contaminants and liberal pesticide use suggests that while the findings indicate little or no nutritional benefit to eating organically grown fruits and vegetables, it makes no claims to conventional produce being just as 'healthy' as organic (in the sense that pesticides, chemicals, etc. may have long term health effects, especially if consumed frequently and over the span of one's entire life).

"For 10 out of the 13 nutrient categories analysed, there were no significant differences between production methods in nutrient content. Differences that were detected were most likely to be due to differences in fertilizer use (nitrogen, phosphorus), and ripeness at harvest (acidity), and it is unlikely that consuming these nutrients at the levels reported in organic foods would provide any health benefit."

It is great to see the study really trying to get at the root cause of any potential differences in the nutrition content of organic vs. conventional produce. Is it due to the chemicals used? Fertilizer? Or harvesting techniques? First, harvesting techniques do appear to matter. Take tomatoes that are picked before ripe and then ripened in climate-controlled environments (unripe tomatoes are MUCH easier to transport, right?!). Also, many farmers agree that industrial farming degrades the soil, reducing the nutrition content of the food grown in it. Some fruits and vegetables may be more sensitive to these differences than others. Civil Eats has a great blog post that questions this aspect of the study's findings.

Just as a quick aside. These differences in farming and harvesting while they may not make a huge difference in nutritional content, they certainly impact taste. If you want your kids to eat more vegetables, grow your own or buy some at the local market. They are going to be sweeter, fresher, and much easier to cook with (just a little extra virgin olive oil or butter, some salt and pepper and you are good to go!). Anyone who has had a fresh garden tomato will tell you that a supermarket tomato will never stack up.

Second, while the authors speculate that these small nutritional differences do not have health benefits, this fails to take a 'lifecourse' perspective on the issue. While the nutritional benefits of eating organic produce might not be important in the short term (1 or 5 years), doing so for 10, 15, or even 30 years might! There might even be points in life where our bodies are more receptive of these small nutritional advantages (such as during pregnancy or in utero).

Overall, I think this study was well conducted. I agree with Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats that the question being asked was perhaps not the most critical one at this point in time. We (public health advocates) can not and should not demonize conventional produce, especially when most Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables to begin with. However, we have to acknowledge that there may be a better way of producing, distributing, and buying our produce. Where have all the family farms gone? What is needed to inspire and market buying local (also usually organic -- without the USDA label).

In addition to not addressing the controversy of pesticide and chemical use in the growing of conventional produce, the article also does not discuss the nutritional differences in organically (or grass-fed) raised cattle and other livestock. While I may buy conventional produce on a regular basis, I am usually more cautious in buying industrially produced meat and dairy products. For evidence on the health (and nutrition!) benefits for eating sustainably and organically raised meat and dairy check out these links: Eat Wild and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education .

Your thoughts? Have you tried to eat organic? What made it difficult or easy?

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