As we gain access to fresh food over the spring, summer and fall, more and more people ask me if buying organic is still better than supporting local. I say, go to your local Organic Farmer's Market and get both!
A landmark study published by an international team of researchers in the United Kingdom concluded that organic foods are compositionally different than their conventionally-grown counterparts, contrary to earlier reports. The meta-analysis conducted by a team from Newcastle University analyzed 343 peer-reviewed publications reporting on crop composition data and concluded that organically-grown crops have higher amounts of several beneficial antioxidants and lower levels of the harmful heavy metal cadmium.
The Debate over whether or not organic food is more nutritious continues to be a contentious issue, similar to the divide over whether or global warming is real phenomenon, but this study provides overwhelming evidence to support the claim that organic farming has merits and that lowering your exposure to pesticide residue is better for your health. Simply stated, an organic crop is one that is grown without the use of synthetic chemicals such as nitrogen- or phosphorous-based pesticides and fertilizers that are the standard in conventional agriculture. While 11% of organic crops studied had chemical residue, that number was significantly lower than 46% of non-organic crops. Notably, 75% of non-organic fruit are contaminated with pesticides. Therefore, consuming organics generally leads to lower pesticide exposure.
The Research: Researchers also noted that the organically-grown produce had 48% lower levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal and human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization1 that accumulates in the liver and kidneys and may also be linked to cardiovascular disease2. This isn’t surprising as cadmium is an ingredient in agricultural chemicals and it can be present in higher concentrations when crops aren’t rotated as they are in organic operations.
The Nutrition: When it comes to antioxidants, organic crops, especially fruit, were found to be 18-69% higher in antioxidants than non-organic crops. This may be because without access to synthetic nitrogen-based chemicals organic crops are more likely to produce phytonutrients to protect against pests and support plant health. These nutritionally-desirable, health-supportive chemical compounds have been shown to prevent disease3 and help your body function optimally.
This study proves to consumers why it is important to buy organic produce, but points to the need for more human studies in order to satisfy the scientific community and support additional health claims. However, the big take-away is that the authors confidently conclude that the additional antioxidants consumed by switching to organically-grown crops is the equivalent of eating 1-2 more portions of fruit and vegetables per day, which further justifies the investment.
For recommendations on which crops have the highest concentration of chemical residue, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list.
To learn more about why organic food is especially important for children, click here.
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Baranski, M., Srednicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., et al. “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses.” British Journal of Nutrition, (2014): 1-18.
1. World Health Organization. "Exposure to Cadmium: A Major Public Health Concern."
2. Finsterer, J. and Ohnsorge, P. “Influence of mitochondrion-toxic agents on the cardiovascular system.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 67, 3 (2013): 434-45.
3. Del Rio, D., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Spencer J.P. et al. “Dietary (poly)phenolics in human health: structures, bioavailability, and evidence of protective effects against chronic diseases.” Antioxidants & Redox Signaling10, 18 (2013): 1818-92.