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Organics have no more nutrients, study says, but that’s not really the point

Just as more Minnesota grocery stores go organic, along comes a study from Britain that declares that organic foods contain no more nutrients than conventionally produced foods.

In this systematic and extensive review, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine searched more than 50,000 papers, identified 162 relevant ones (from as far back as 1958), and then determined that 55 were of sufficient quality to be analyzed.

Although the reviewers found some nutrient differences between the two groups of food (in nitrogen and phosphorus levels, for example), they concluded that those differences were too insignificant to have any impact on health.

They also called for more rigorous research into the factors that determine the nutrient content of food.

It’s all (or mostly) in the timing
I suspect that most committed buyers of organic foods (and I’m one of them) won’t be put off by these findings. The packed-with-more-nutrients argument has always been scientifically iffy. For when it comes to getting the most nutrient bang for your buck from fruits and veggies, other factors regarding the food — what variety it is, how ripe it was when harvested, and when it was harvested — appear to be much more important than whether it’s grown organically or not.

That last factor — how long ago the food was harvested — seems particularly significant. Fruits and veggies are most nutritious as soon as they’re plucked from the garden. After that, senescence sets in, causing the plant’s cells to release proteins that quickly break down the food’s nutrients.

Senescence is why many nutritionists argue for buying local produce, even if it’s not organic, and for eating it as soon as possible after you’ve purchased it. (Refrigeration can slow down senescence, but can’t stop it altogether — as is obvious to anybody who delays cleaning out the vegetable bin in his or her refrigerator.)

The dog that didn’t bark
Of course, the British review didn’t address what’s not in organic food — most notably, pesticides, which have been linked to an increased risk of birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other health problems, and are a particular concern for children.

The chemical-free claim (and, yes, that claim isn’t fool-proof) is probably the key reason people — particularly parents — choose organic foods over conventional ones, despite the extra cost. But many buy organic for environmental reasons as well: to support farming practices that reduce pollution, conserve water and soil, and protect farm workers from toxic chemicals.

The blogosphere has already begun a vociferous debate about the merits of the British study. But I agree with New York Times columnist (“The Minimalist”) and author (“Food Matters”) Mark Bittman who pointed out earlier this year that other aspects of the American diet need our attention more:

[Organic food] seems to have become the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically.
But eating “organic” offers no guarantee of any of that. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

FYI: Natural food co-ops across the country, including the 15 in Minnesota, are beginning their monthlong “Eat Local, America!” campaign on Saturday (Aug. 1). For more information — and to locate the closest participating co-op to you — check out the campaign’s national website.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Erik Schimek on 07/30/2009 - 03:25 pm.

    The study only looked at 11 different nutrients. It also didn’t appear to differentiate between large-scale organic production, large-scale conventional production, and small-scale organic production.

    If optimal human health was as simple as 11 nutrients, we could live off of multivitamins and twinkies.

  2. Submitted by Penelope Hillemann on 07/30/2009 - 03:30 pm.

    Less than two years ago, the Times announced the end of the debate, trumpeting a four-year study with the headline, “Official: Organic Really Is Better”:

    “THE biggest study into organic food has found that it is more nutritious than ordinary produce and may help to lengthen people’s lives.

    “The evidence from the £12m four-year project will end years of debate and is likely to overturn government advice that eating organic food is no more than a lifestyle choice.

    “The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants, which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers. They also had higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.”

    The reasons for growing and eating organically and locally – and pastured where appropriate – remain compelling.

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