Most of my friends would swear that organically produced foods are nutritionally superior to their conventionally grown cousins. They also believe that organic means chemical-free and that the premium price they pay gives them peace of mind, despite a price tag that is 50% to 100% higher than comparable conventional foods.
In light of recent research comparing the differences between organic and conventionally grown crops and livestock, I’m going to help set the record straight.
What the research shows
I’ve been following organics for years, and I know that there has never been any conclusive evidence that organic foods are nutritionally superior. However, the excellent marketing of the organic food industry has many consumers royally confused about why they pay a premium for organic products.
Organic food sales have slid during this recession, but many people—especially parents—continue to pay sky-high prices for the perceived benefits of their organic purchases.
In the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine analyzed 50 years of organic research to come to their conclusion: There is no significant nutritional difference between conventional and organic crops and livestock.
This wasn't just another new study, either; it was the most comprehensive review to date. While there are some differences between crops, the smidgen more of vitamin C or potassium in an organic orange isn’t going to really make a big dent in your daily intake when compared to a conventionally grown orange.
The bottom line is that you should eat more fruits and vegetables for the most nutrients—regardless of the method used to produce the crop.
The pesticide problem
If you’re a die-hard organics shopper, there may be benefits of organics beyond nutrition. For example, these researchers did not study the differences in chemical residues or the overall environmental footprint.
However, in a previously published review article, researchers compared the pesticide residues in three types of farming practices: organic, integrated pest management (IPM), and conventional.
IPM is a manner of farming that uses multiple biologically based systems to control pests; it's the standard toward which most farmers are moving. IPM farmers are not allowed to use synthetic chemicals, but are allowed to use “permitted” pesticides. The results found that organic crops contained fewer pesticide residues, followed by IPM-produced crops, then conventional.
The bottom line
Overall, there are probably minimal nutritional differences between organic and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Organics will have fewer pesticide residues, but IPM crops are significantly lower in residues compared to conventional as well. With a growing number of farmers using IPM, the pesticide residue problems of the past may not be an issue in future crops.
While the debate over organics is far from over, I’m sticking to my rule of thumb: I buy farmers' market produce first, organics for a few thin-skinned fruits (like berries) and dairy products, and conventional for most other items on my grocery list.