Organic food, which was once only available in small stores or farmers’ markets, is now the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace, despite its higher costs. In 2008, the value of retail sales of organic food was estimated to be more than $28 billion, up from $1 billion in 1990. And, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of Americans now buy organic food at least one a month. So why this surge in popularity? Why pay more for food because it’s organically grown? Do organic foods offer more nutritional value than their traditionally grown counterparts?
Whether or not organically grown foods are more nutritious has become a hotbed of debate, and the answer would likely depend on who one asked. For instance, The Organic Center (TOC), a pro-organic nonprofit research organization in Foster, Rhode Island recently concluded that organic foods, on average, offer a 25 percent higher nutrient level over conventional ones. And researchers at University of California at Davis claim to have found higher levels of nutrients in organic tomatoes, kiwifruit, corn, and strawberries grown side-by-side with conventional versions.
On the opposite side of the fence are major health organizations like the American Dietetic Association and the Mayo Clinic that hold an organic label is no assurance that a food is nutritionally superior, which is the same conclusion recently reached by a group of British researchers after reviewing 50 years of published data on the topic. The review, commissioned by Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) and conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that organic food contained no more nutritional value than food grown traditionally.
Overall, the researchers found no differences of most nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium and iron, in organically or traditionally grown crops. The same was true for meat, dairy and eggs. There were differences in nitrogen and phosphorus levels, but the researchers said this was likely due to the differences in fertilizers and the ripeness at harvest, and likely provided no health benefits. “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority,” said Dr. Alan Dangour, study author and registered public health nutritionist.
“It is good to see that a systematic review of the literature supports what has long been believed—that the nutritional content of traditionally grown foods and organic foods are comparable,” said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and past president of the American Dietetic Association. “This report provides confirmation for consumers that if they choose conventionally grown foods or organic foods they will be meeting their nutritional needs.”
However, others were disappointed with the findings, criticizing the study for failing to examine the impact of pesticides and herbicides, the use of antibiotics or the environmental issues. They are calling for better research. “You have to also look at what you’re not getting” with organic foods, said Sheah Rarback, director of nutrition at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “We know that young children are getting the nutrition, whatever choice they make, but we also have to look at the pesticide issue.”
Dr. Dangour admitted that “there is a possibility that organic food has less pesticide residues, but this was not part of the review.” He said that, as a nutritionist, he was not qualified to look at pesticides, but “this may be an area for further research.”
Gill Fine, the FSA’s director of consumer choice and dietary health, said the study was about ensuring people have accurate information in order to make informed choices about the food they eat. “This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food,” she said. “What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”
The findings appear in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.