New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthier. Does that mean organic food?

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Perhaps you have decided to toast the New Year with organic champagne or an organically produced high-gravity craft beer because organic is better, not just for you but for the planet. After all, you have made a New Year’s resolution to eat better and healthier while caring for the environment.

So, is organic superior to conventionally raised food? Well, some of my friends say there is. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far, there is not only little extraordinary evidence, there is zero extraordinary evidence that organically grown food is any better for you than conventionally grown food. Nor is there solid evidence that it tastes better.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.

The United States Food and Drug Administration and Mayo Clinic are not alone. An article published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, on the basis of a systematic review of studies, says:

[T]here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.

A major independent research project released 30 July 2009 and conducted by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on behalf of the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency, concluded that organic food is no better for health than food produced by more advanced agricultural techniques. The study was the biggest of its kind ever conducted, reviewing all data collected on the topic over the past 50 years. In its conclusion the report says:

No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality.

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake of the nutrients identified in this review which are present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

For a copy of the UK government’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit report (pdf) click here.

In addition to its own research, Great Britain’s Food Standards Agency cite studies by the French Food Safety Agency and another by the Swedish National Food Administration:

In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.

Findings published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition say much the same:

Studies comparing foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. It is evident from this assessment that there are few well-controlled studies that are capable of making a valid comparison. With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients… While there are reports indicating that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables may differ on a variety of sensory qualities, the findings are inconsistent…There is no evidence that organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination than conventional foods. While it is likely that organically grown foods are lower in pesticide residues, there has been very little documentation of residue levels.

Conclusion, toast to the New Year in with anything you wish. But, if your resolution is to eat healthier by making better choices, grab a vegetable or fruit instead of a bag a chips for a snack.

What about organic being better for the environment? Surely, the earth is better for organically raising food and fiber without artificial pesticides and fertilizers? We will look at that tomorrow.

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