In a study published in 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers from many countries, who were directed by researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, wanted to learn if there are significant nutritional differences between organic and nonorganic foods. So, they conducted eight meta-analyses that included 343 peer-reviewed publications. The researchers found more antioxidant activity in the organic food than in the conventionally grown crops. In fact, organic crops had between 18 and 69 percent higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds. Organic food also had more carotenoids and vitamins and about half the amount of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal contaminant. Conventionally grown foods were three or four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organically grown foods. The researchers wrote that “there is now evidence from a large number of quality studies that consistently show that organic production system result in crops/crop-based compound foods with higher concentrations of antioxidants/(poly)phenolics and lower concentrations of Cd [cadmium] and pesticide residues compared with conventional production systems.” 2
Commenting on this study, Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, noted that people should no longer question whether organic agriculture is better for the public and the environment. “This study breaks it down for consumers who want science-based evidence on the nutritional benefits of crops grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.” Cook added that “there are clear differences between organic and conventional food, and organic comes out on top when it comes to our health and the planet.” 3
In a prospective, randomized, single-blinded, crossover study published in 2014 in Environmental Research, researchers from Australia and New Zealand wanted to learn if a diet that consisted primarily of organic food would lower the amount of organophosphate pesticides in the body. (Organophosphate pesticides, which are widely used in conventional agriculture, may have a number of different negative health effects.) The cohort consisted of 13 participants between the ages of 18 and 65 years; their mean age was 42.1 years. During one week of the study, they consumed a diet of conventional foods; during a second week of the study, they consumed a diet with as many organically grown foods as possible. (A minimum intake of 80 percent organic food was required.) Urine tests were conducted to determine the levels of organophosphate pesticides in the body. The researchers found that there were fewer pesticides in the urine after one week of eating organically than after one week of eating a conventional diet. In fact, after only one week, the reduction was “dramatic.” The researchers concluded that “the consumption of organic food provides a logical precautionary approach to reducing pesticide exposure.” 5
While about 30 percent of the respondents commented that they had no health effects from the organic foods, the other 70 percent said that they noticed one or more improvements. The most common change was an “improvement in general health and general resistance.” Twenty-four percent reported better gastrointestinal health and 19 percent said that their skin, hair, and nails were healthier. Thirty percent said their organic diet had mental health benefits. The researchers concluded that their findings “provided insight into the experienced health effects of consumers of organic food.” And, “although the study design does not permit direct conclusions on health effects of organic food, the results can serve as a basis for the generation of new hypotheses.” 6
In a study published in 2013 in PLoS ONE, researchers from France assessed the behaviors associated with the consumption of 18 organic food products. The cohort consisted of 54,311 adults who were 18 years and older, with a mean age of 43.7 years. Seventy-seven percent were women. The researchers divided the participants into five clusters. Three of the clusters contained nonconsumers of organic products. A fourth cluster included regular consumers of organic products, and a fifth cluster had occasional users of organic foods. The researchers found that the daily food consumption patterns of the three clusters of people who do not use organic foods to be similar. However, they learned that the organic food consumers had increased consumption of healthier foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, and nuts, while they had a lower consumption of less healthful choices such as meat, soda, alcohol, and sweets. In addition, consumers of conventional foods were far more likely to be overweight or obese than consumers of organic foods. In view of the epidemic levels of obesity, this is a potentially life-altering finding. “Since several studies have reported an association between pesticide exposure or residues in the body and obesity and type 2 diabetes …, the possibility of a potential role of organic food in preventing excessive adiposity because of it lower content in pesticide residues should be tested in further studies.” 7
Not that long ago, only a small number of stores contained organic fruits and vegetables. Traditional supermarkets had very limited supplies of such foods. Local convenience stores had none. More recently, however, organic fruits and vegetables are more readily available. They are even sold at some of the biggest chain stores, discount stores, and warehouse stores.
Yet, there remain barriers. Organic fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive than fruits and vegetables that are grown conventionally. During the colder months, those costs are even higher. Unlike processed foods, fresh fruits and vegetables must be consumed fairly quickly. If not, they will spoil. Families on limited budgets who can barely afford to purchase any fruits and vegetables may avoid the organic section entirely. In addition, the markets where they live may not stock those foods, believing that their customers will not purchase them. It is also possible that people are simply unaware of the value of fruits and vegetables, especially those grown organically. While many people have a serious interest in nutrition, large numbers of people leading hectic lives are just grateful to find the time and resources to feed their families three meals a day.
But, there is a compromise position. Every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” lists. These are conventionally grown foods that are safe to eat and foods that should be avoided when grown conventionally or eaten only when they are grown organically. The 2014 list of “Clean Fifteen” is as follows: asparagus, avocadoes, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet corn, sweet peas (frozen), and sweet potatoes. The 2014 list of “Dirty Dozen” is as follows: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines (imported), peaches, potatoes, snap peas (imported), spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, and two extra foods, hot peppers, kale/collards. 8 During the warmer seasons, the organic versions of the “Dirty Dozen” may be more reasonably priced; during the colder months, it may be more affordable to purchase some of them in the frozen food aisle.
1. Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org.
2. Marcin Barański, Dominika średnicka-Tober, Nikolaos Volakakis et al., “High Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis,” British Journal of Nutrition 112, no. 5 (2014): 794-811.
3. Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org.
4. Chen He, Soren Breiting, and Federico J. A. Perez-Cueto, “Effect of Organic School Meals to Promote Healthy Diet in 11-13 Year Old Children. A Mixed Methods Study in Four Danish Public Schools,” Appetite 59, no. 3 (2012): 866-76.
5. Liza Oates, Marc Cohen, Lesley Braun et al., “Reduction in Urinary Organophosphate Pesticide Metabolites in Adults After a Week-Long Organic Diet,” Environmental Research 132 (2014): 105-11.
6. Lucy P. L. van de Vijver and Marja E. T. van Vliet, “Health Effects of an Organic Diet—Consumer Experiences in the Netherlands,” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 92, no. 14 (2012): 2923-27.
7. E. Kesse-Guyot, S. Péneau, C. Méjean et al., “Profiles of Organic Food Consumers in a Large Sample of French Adults: Results from the Nutrinet-Santé Cohort Study,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 10 (2013): e76998.
8. Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org.
Barański, Marcin, Dominika średnicka-Tober, Nikolaos Volakakis et al. “High Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis.” British Journal of Nutrition 112, no. 5 (2014): 794-811.
He, Chen, Soren Breiting, and Federico J. A. Perez-Cueto. “Effect of Organic School Meals to Promote Healthy Diet in 11-13 Year Old Children. A Mixed Methods Study in Four Danish Public Schools.” Appetite 59, no. 3 (2012): 866-76.
Kesse-Guyot, E., S. Péneau, C. Méjean et al. “Profiles of Organic Food Consumers in a Large Sample of French Adults: Results from the Nutrinet-Santé Cohort Study.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 10 (2013): e76998.
Oates, Liza, Marc Cohen, Lesley Braun et al. “Reduction in Urinary Organophosphate Pesticide Metabolites in Adults After a Week-Long Organic Diet.” Environmental Research 132 (2014): 105-11.
Spangler, Crystal, Margaret L. Brandeau, Grace E. Hunter et al. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.” Annals of Internal Medicine 157 (2012): 348-66.
Turgut, Cafer, Hakan Ornek, and Teresa J. Cutright. “Determination of Pesticide Residues in Turkey’s Table Grapes: The Effect of Integrated Pest Management, Organic Farming, and Conventional Farming.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 173 (2011): 315-23.
Vallverdú-Queralt, Anna, Olga Jáuregui, Alexander Medina-Remón et al. “Evaluation of a Method to Characterize the Phenolic Profile of Organic and Conventional Tomatoes.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 60 (2012): 3373-80.
van de Vijver, Lucy P. L. and Marja E. T. van Vliet. “Health Effects of an Organic Diet—Consumer Experiences in the Netherlands.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 92, no. 14 (2012): 2923-27.
Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org .
Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org .
Organic Consumers Association. www.organicconsumers.org .