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Organic Foods Nutrition Debate

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 10, 2007

The world’s newspapers and television news programs have been filled with articles touting the health benefits of organic. As far away as Kenya, they are running articles with titles such as Research Shows Organic Foods Are Healthier:

Organic fruits and vegetables may be healthier than conventionally grown crops, US researchers say.

A 10-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard tomatoes found that they had almost double the quantity of flavonoids, antioxidant compounds said to help prevent disease such as heart disease and cancer.

The new research could fuel further demand for organic fruits and vegetables which is already under strain in some parts of the world.

The US scientists studied dried tomato samples taken between 1994 and 2004 and measured the amount of quercetin and kaempferol. Average levels in organic tomatoes over the ten years were 79 per cent higher for kaempferol and 97 per cent higher for quercetin.

“The levels of flavonoids increased over time in samples from organic treatments, whereas the levels of flavonoids did not vary significantly in conventional treatments,” said the researchers in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

Alyson Mitchell, from the University of California, and her co-authors say this is because of ‘over-fertilisation’ by conventional farmers. Flavonoids are produced by plants when they lack nutrients so for those crops given a large supply of nutrients in the form of fertiliser, there is little need for the natural production.

Many consumers already purchase organic foods because they believe the products to be better for them than those grown using pesticides. In recent months, other studies have found organic produce to contain higher levels of nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts.

In another US study, organic kiwis were found to have significantly higher levels of vitamin C, while a French study has found that organic peaches have a higher content of polyphenols — also antioxidant compounds — at harvest.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the UK organic body, the Soil Association, says: “There is clear evidence that a range of organic foods contain more beneficial nutrients and vitamins and less of things known to have a detrimental health effect such as saturated fats and nitrates.”

But some scientists say that there is not yet enough evidence to support such a claim while others say higher levels of nutrients does not automatically translate into direct benefits for every consumer.

Nevertheless, European consumers are known to be strongly influenced by scientific studies. The UK’s health foods sector has boomed in recent years thanks to increasing media attention to ‘superfoods’ and the health benefits of vitamins and other dietary nutrients.

And the organic food industry is already growing at a hefty pace. Britain’s largest supermarket, Tesco, said its organic food sales increased by 40 per cent last year. About 10 per cent of all fruit and vegetables sold in its stores are now organic.

And fresh produce, one of Kenya’s major exports, is the leading organic product category, comprising a third of global revenues, according to UK-based consultancy, OrganicMonitor.

“Fruit and vegetables like apples, oranges, carrots and potatoes are typical entry points for consumers buying organic products. Their fresh nature appeals to consumers seeking healthy and nutritious foods,” says a recent report.

About reports such as this, one should always start with the same phrase: “Interesting, if true.”

The problem is that these studies rarely compare two items grown in identical growing conditions. As such they tell us little or nothing about the merits of organic cultivation. Particularly if what we are interested in is finding out whether we should expand organic consumption.

Since organic is very difficult to grow, let’s assume we have a 1,000-acre farmer who sets aside his 25 best acres, in a unique microclimate, to devote to his organic production. The fact that produce grown on this quality soil may have different attributes than some other product grown elsewhere, may tell us a lot about different soils and microclimates and nothing about organic production.

When we are done being skeptical on this point and have controlled the studies so that we are confident that some nutritional element shows up as superior in organic, we still have to ask if that means anything for human health.

An indication that organic peaches have higher values of polyphenols only matters if A) People are deficient in polyphenols and B) We have established that maintaining adequate amounts of polyphenols enhances health or longevity .

Additionally, we also have to ascertain that the test was not of the “silver bullet” variety. If you only test for, say, vitamin C — you may find that A is superior to B — but that could come at the cost of less of another vitamin. So broad-range testing is always required if we are to find anything useful.

ABC News published an opinion piece by Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, entitled Is Going Organic Really Better For You?

The best thing about the story is that he avoids answering the title question. He does say this:

Organic or Not, Any Veggies Will Do

If you’re like most people, you’re not eating much in the way of produce either way.

We need about 4½ cups of produce daily, and we’re only getting about half that much. Leave out the fries (the feds count them as a veggie, even if I don’t) and our vegetable intake plummets.

If you really want to go organic, great — but understand what you’re getting into.

First, if you’re a stickler for your fruit and vegetables having to look perfect — symmetrical, apples and pears, evenly colored oranges — let it go. Organic produce is imperfect looking. That’s OK — you’re eating it, not bonding with it.

Second, organic food may not last as long, so buy a little less at a time but buy a little more often. If you are the type to go to the store only once every 10 days to two weeks, you’re probably better off with traditional produce.

One option is frozen organic produce. It’s picked and frozen usually on the same day, and the nutrients really hold. Just remember to forget the stuff that’s packed in “butter sauce” and like that. It runs up your calories and your food bill — those “enhancements” take labor and costly packaging.

Budget accordingly. Organic produce, milk and meat are usually much more expensive. It’s getting a little better, though. Even Wal-Mart now sells organic produce, so that tells you that organic is no longer a fringe movement and is now part of mainstream America. Even most large supermarkets have an organic section.

Organic for All?

Should all of America go organic? Well, we couldn’t, even if we all wanted to.

We probably wouldn’t be able to feed as many people as we do if we limited ourselves to growing only organic food because organic farming often yields less per acre and it’s labor intensive. Farm land is shrinking (not really, but it’s becoming land for condominiums), and we have to get more out of every acre.

From the scientific perspective, here’s what I tell my patients, most of whom have neither access to organic food nor the money to purchase it: There is a mountain of support for eating more fruit and vegetables. The benefits are very clear, and the solid science is absolutely overwhelming.

Diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with better heart health, lower risk of diabetes, several cancers and stroke, lower blood pressure, the list goes on and on.

The research that demonstrated these benefits looked at consumption of conventional produce, not organic. So relax; traditionally grown fruits and vegetables are quite healthful, and there’s plenty of research to prove it.

Your biggest risk? Avoiding eating fruits and vegetables just because you can’t get organic. That would be a mistake, and down the road it could cost you big.

True, this latest study on the higher flavonoid level of organic tomatoes is important.

Then again, we’re eating only about half the fruit and vegetables we should, so if we ate nonorganic produce but ate the amounts we should, we’d be getting a whole lot more antioxidants and other good stuff than we do now, for sure

It is actually not clear that the latest study on organic tomato flavonoid levels is important at all. It is not clear if it is true, and even it was true it is not clear what it would mean for human health and longevity.

Although this story is filled with the biases of today’s elite toward locally grown and organic, it comes to the proper conclusion by urging more consumption of produce of any type.

ABC News also ran an interview with a clinical dietician specialist from Johns Hopkins. It is interesting to watch Dr. Tim Johnson try and get some enthusiasm from him for organics. He seemed more concerned with sub-par nutrition and saw the difference between organic and conventional as splitting hairs — in a nutritional sense. After being pushed, he announced that people should try and buy organic if they are going to eat the skin — although he mentioned no evidence for this opinion. He also decided to hold forth on the environmental advantages of local although clinical dieticians are not known to have any expertise in this area. You can watch the interview here.

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