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Is Organic Food Really More Nutritious?

Posted by Desiree Nielsen RD on April 27, 2016 under Organic News & Sustainability

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 As a proponent of organic agriculture and a registered dietitian, I have always had great faith that nature provides all that we humans need to be truly nourished. Of course, when I am asked about the specific nutritional benefits of organic foods, I have to admit that the science has been slow to mature.

While there have been many more publications on the negative health impact of pesticides, the few studies looking at nutritional value typically found little nutritional difference between conventional and organic crops (1). There is little doubt that the consumption of organic foods lowers human exposure to pesticides; widely publicized studies have shown that switching to organic diets decreases pesticide residues in humans (2, 3). Committed to evidence-based practice, it was important to me to share these findings in addition to explaining the impact of pesticides on the body and the planet.

Organic beets

Where nutrition is concerned, however, it seems that an organic tide is finally turning.

Research points to nutritional benefits of organic produce, much of it revolving around the existence of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant compounds, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in the human body – helping us to fight chronic disease and defend our bodies against the strains of modern living.

Several studies have found that organic tomatoes contain more of the compound lycopene, thought to protect the prostate and the skin (4). The latest review on the differences between organic and conventional food, published last month in the British Journal of Nutrition, continues to lead this charge (5). This review found statistically significant differences in many phytochemicals such as phenolic acids and anthocyanins (5). It also found lower levels of cadmium, a potentially harmful element, in organic crops (5).

An organic purple carrot

In order to understand how organic produce boasts more UV-protective lycopene or heart healthy anthocyanins, you first have to know how those compounds serve the plant. It is thought that many of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytochemicals found in plant foods are akin to an immune system – helping to protect plants from environmental or pest-induced damage. If you apply pesticides or herbicides to plants, they have less need to self-protect and create fewer protective compounds in response.

Researchers are continuing to explore new frontiers in the growing nutritional divide between organic and conventional foods. One 2013 study found organic milk to contain fewer pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and more anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids (6), making organic milk a better choice to help discourage chronic inflammation in the body.

It all makes sense: your cells are dependent on the nutrients you obtain from the food you eat. In turn, the food you eat is only as nutritious as the nutrients available in the soil and their natural responses to their environment. Organic farming respects the soil and the life cycle of the plants that grow from it.


References
1. Smith-Spangler, Crystal, et al. "Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review." Annals of Internal Medicine 157.5 (2012): 348-366.
2. Lu, Chensheng, et al. "Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides." Environmental health perspectives 114.2 (2006): 260.
3. Oates, Liza, et al. "Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet." Environmental research 132 (2014): 105-111.
4. Vallverdú-Queralt, Anna, et al. "Differences in the carotenoid profile of commercially available organic and conventional tomato-based products." Journal of Berry Research 4.2 (2014): 69-77.
5. Barański, Marcin, 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 112.05 (2014): 794-811.
6. Benbrook, Charles M., et al. "Organic production enhances milk nutritional quality by shifting fatty acid composition: a United States–wide, 18-month study." PloS one 8.12 (2013): e82429.
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Written by Desiree Nielsen RD

Desiree Nielsen is a registered dietitian in Vancouver, Canada and the author of the book, Un-Junk Your Diet. A passionate supporter of organic, non-GMO foods, Desiree encourages her clients to adopt a more plant-centred diet for increased vitality and sustainability. Follow Desiree on twitter @desireerd or visit her website at www.desireerd.com.

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