Behind the Headlines: Organic really is better for you!

Recently there was a lot of hoopla in the media about a British nutritional study that compares organically grown food with food that was not grown using organic methods. We'd like to inform you about the findings of this study, and set the record straight concerning them.

The first thing to understand is that it was a meta-study, a study that analyzes other studies, and not one that collects original data. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) funded by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a part of the British government set up to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food, examined data from fifty years of research papers. Led by Dr. Alan Dangour, they came to the conclusion that organic food and conventional food are so similar nutritionally that any differences between them are unimportant.

But wait!the British researchers did in fact find that organic food is nutritionally superior! Here is an excerpt from the opening page from their executive summary:

Significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found in some minerals (nitrogen higher in conventional crops; magnesium and zinc higher in organic crops), phytochemicals (phenolic compounds and flavonoids higher in organic crops) and sugars (higher in organic crops).

Let's analyze this ourselves for a moment.

Organic produce is sweeterOK, some might say that is only a taste benefit, but if people are offered peaches that taste like wood and tomatoes that taste like cardboard, they are not going to want to eat their 5 A Day servings of fruits and vegetables.

High levels of nitrogen in crops have been associated with negative health effects, so that is another good reason to go organic. Increased levels of magnesium, zinc, and phytochemicals are all positive findingsespecially phytochemicals (which include flavanols and polyphenols), since many people buy green tea, blueberries, cocoa, as well as expensive supplements, in order to boost their intake of these valuable antioxidant substances.

Considering all of this, it seems hard to believe that Dr. Dangour and his team would have concluded that, On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The explanation, however, lies in their use of the words of satisfactory quality.

These researchers considered 162 relevant articles published in professional peer-reviewed nutritional journals. However, they judged only 55 of these studies to be of satisfactory quality, and disqualified 107 studies for various reasons, most frequently because they did not go into enough detail as to which organic growing methods were employed.  They therefore omitted the data from these studies before drawing up their final conclusions.

Needless to say, this was not welcome news to organic advocates such as Peter Melchett of the Soil Association who lamented that the review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences. Dr. Carlo Leifer, a professor of ecology at Newcastle University and the head researcher of an equally important European study that recently found organic food to be nutritionally superior, also took issue with Dangour's methodology.

After noting that the data Dr. Dangour analyzed was similar to his own findings, he commented, “With these literature reviews you can influence the outcome by the way that you select the papers that you use for your meta-analysis.My feelingand quite a lot of people think thisis that this is probably the study that delivers what the FSA wanted as an outcome.”

Does the FSA might have a pro-agribusiness agenda?? They claim not to, although their chief executive, Tim Smith, was a powerful figure in agribusiness and the food industry for decades before assuming the top position at the agency. Nor does it seem unreasonable to wonder if agribusiness lobbyists pressured the FSA to not preference organics just as the sugar lobby in the United States pressured the USDA for years to not remove sweets from the fats-oils-sweets trio at the top of the food pyramid.

In any case, the FSA seems to be ignorant of the reasons people buy organic, as well as of the larger health and environmental benefits that would result if more growers used organic methods.

Most people buy organic because they don't want to ingest pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide residues. Some prefer the heirloom varieties of seeds that organic growers often use, and want to stay away from crops grown from genetically-modified frankenseeds. Others like the freshness and taste of organic and the fact that the produce at their farmer's market is locally grown. They feel good supporting the small farmers in their community. Still others are opposed to farm workers being exposed to toxic chemicals, and object to the treatment of factory-farmed animals.

When we look at the big picture, organic farming methods improve the soil, keep contaminants out of the ground water, and are a sustainable form of agriculture. Indeed, if soil depletion continues, none of us are going to get much nutrition from our food. As Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry warn in a recent New York Times op-ed, Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland.

So, as one of our customers, give yourself some a few kudos for doing your part to preserve the environment. Unlike other garden supply centers, And we at Garden Harvest are proud as well to sell organic fertilizers like Espoma and Neptune's Harvest, and natural pesticides such as diatomaceous earth, which is one of our longstanding bestsellers.

In our organic seed section, you will find a wide selection of organic vegetable seeds including heirloom varieties such as the popular Bradywine Pink. We also have eighteen varieties of organic herb seeds.

So take good care of your little piece of the earth. We'll be in touch again in September with a newsletter to help you get your fall garden off to a good start.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    August 20, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Thanks for this important information!

  • Reply
    August 30, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for explaining all that.

  • Leave a Comment