A new study on organic versus conventional crops confirms that organic farming methods do have a positive impact on health. Results found substantially higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides in organic crops versus conventional crops.
Charles Benbrook, professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and co-author of the study, says, “our results are highly relevant and significant and will help both scientists and consumers sort through the often conflicting information currently available on the nutrient density of organic and conventional plant-based foods.”
The study concluded that the nutrient density of organic foods is not significantly different than conventionally grown food. However, organic crops and crop-based foods contain as much as 60 percent more antioxidants than conventional crops. The significance of this is comparable to eating an additional 1 to 2 extra fruit or vegetable servings a day. And antioxidants have been linked to a lower risk of cancer and other diseases.
Researchers analyzed 343 studies, in the most extensive analysis of nutrient content in organic versus conventional food to date. The findings contradict a 2009 UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) funded study, which found no significant differences in nutritional benefits between organic and conventional crops. However, the authors commented that time is the main difference between these studies.
“Research in this area has been slow to take off the ground and we have far more data available to us now than five years ago,” says Carlos Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University and lead author of the study.
According to the new research, organic crops contained 17 percent more antioxidants, and for certain classes of antioxidants, percentages varied. For example, the level of flavanones — associated with lower risk of stroke — were 69 percent higher in organic foods.
“It shows very clearly how you grow your food has an impact, if you buy organic fruits and vegetables, you can be sure you have, on average, a higher amount of antioxidants at the same calorie level,” says Leifert.
Researchers also found pesticide residues were 3 to 4 times more likely in conventional crops compared to organic — which decreases the levels of antioxidants in produce and have been linked to a higher risk of developing some cancers. Overall, organic farmers use less toxic and synthetic pesticides, and levels of pesticides are 10 to 100 times lower in organic food.
“This study should just be a starting point. We have shown without doubt that there are composition differences between organic and conventional crops, now there is an urgent need to carry out well-controlled human dietary intervention and cohort studies specifically designed to identify and quantify the health impacts of switching to organic food,” explains Leifert.
The study was funded jointly by the European Sixth Framework Programme and the Sheepdrove Trust — an organization based in the UK that supports independent research and development, focusing on organic and sustainable farming and food systems. The research team has translated the executive summary and press release into more than 20 languages as well as made the database generated and analyzed for the study free and accessible to the public.
The entire study, from Newcastle University, will be published on July 15 by the British Journal of Nutrition.