Organic Vs. Conventional Foods

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Introduction

Most consumers initially seek out organic food in the hope of avoiding pesticide residues, food additives, genetically engineered ingredients, and a long list of other substances that certified organic farmers and organic food companies cannot use.

They do so in the hope of improving their health and/or the health of their children and family members. Others choose to buy organic food to support organic farmers, because of the proven benefits of organic farming on the environment and animal welfare.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has officially acknowledged that organic farming systems lighten agriculture’s environmental footprint, combat global warming by sequestering extra carbon in the soil, and promote biodiversity.

In recent years science has identified another reason to purchase organic food – improved nutritional quality.

Organic Farming Increases Nutritional Quality

Organic produce has been shown to have superior nutritional quality to conventionally-grown foods.

A solid body of research now confirms that on average, and across production years, regions, and different soil types, organic farming increases the concentration of a variety of health-promoting nutrients in plant-based foods (fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts).

While a few nutrients sometimes are marginally higher in some conventionally grown plant-based foods (the most common is protein, a nutrient not in short supply in the typical American diet), organic food typically contains higher concentrations of several of the most important nutrients that most Americans need to consume more of on a daily basis. These include antioxidants, vitamins, heart-healthy fatty acids, and minerals.

Organic meat, eggs, and dairy products also offer significant and consistent nutritional benefits. The most important by far arises from the much healthier mix of fatty acids in organic livestock products, compared to conventional animal products raised on high-energy, grain-based rations.

While most major food companies have begun to offer some organic product lines, the majority of their sales and profits still come from conventionally grown foods, and food ingredients. Many in the industry, and most food industry professional and trade associations, fear that consumer interest in, and support of organic food will be “bad for business.”

For this reason, there is no shortage of critical commentary when a new study emerges supporting the nutritional benefits of organic food and farming. In addition, scientists continue to receive support from industry, foundations, and  government agencies to take a “fresh look” at the nutritional-quality benefits of organic farming.

Even the strongest runner will tire running uphill. The body of science firmly supporting the nutritional benefits of organic food is large and growing. The results are encouraging, and will eventually shift attitudes in the food industry and government. Hygeia Analytics will follow this debate closely and occasionally contribute to it.

Key Studies in the Organic vs. Conventional Debate

Hygeia Analytics has compiled a large body of peer-reviewed research that documents that many scientists believe that organic food is healthier.  The most comprehensive research has been large-scale meta-analyses conducted on certain types of organic foods.  Meta-analysis is a statistical tool scientists use to extract more robust insights from several different studies focused on the same basic question.  See Key Nutritional Quality Studies: Meta-Analyses for information about several important meta-analyses.  In addition, we have also compiled research comparing organic and conventionally grown foods, see Key Nutritional Quality Studies: Food Comparisons for more.

While this body of work has not convinced everyone that organic food is more nutritious, it has clearly moved the scientific consensus in that direction.

If organic farming systems worldwide continue to promote soil quality and biologically-based methods of pest management, it is likely the differences observed in past studies will persist. The wild card in this equation is what will happen to nutrient density on conventionally managed farms.

Some farmers not seeking organic certification are adopting many methods pioneered by organic farmers, and it is possible the nutrient levels in their harvests will trend upward, and even may one day match those on nearby organic farms.

But other conventional farmers are doubling-down on fertilizer and pesticide-intensive methods that will likely continue to erode nutrient levels, adding to the gap between nutrient levels in conventional vs. organic food.

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