However, the manner of the study raises questions and the manner of the report in the media has been highly inaccurate.
For this study claiming that organic foods have no nutritional benefits over non-organic, researchers have searched over 50,000 papers, and they have identified a total of 162 relevant articles (published over a fifty-year period leading up to the year 2008).
Additionally, out of these, only 55 papers were found to be of satisfactory quality and these were used to compare the nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
However, the study eliminated many papers and research studies that other organizations considered valid. It also eliminated any studies that did not focus on the nutrient value of organic foods.
Additionally, an inherent problem in choosing only 55 papers out of 50,000 is apparent when one considers that other researchers have used the same methods to support their claims that organic foods are nutritionally superior.
In the end, the report itself simply states, “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority” and “despite growing consumer demand for organically produced foods, information based on a systematic review of their nutritional quality is lacking.” (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
However, news reports on the topic have inaccurately translated these nutritional results into statements that “organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over ordinary food” and “what it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.” (Reuters, The Daily Mail)
Unfortunately, the reporters, many of whom aren’t skillful in medical or health reporting, have misunderstood the differences between the words “nutrient content” and “health benefit” and translated them to mean the same thing.
This is highly inaccurate. On the most basic and logical level one can see this. For example, if you exercise, it is highly beneficial to your health; however, exercise does not contain ANY nutrients.
Despite the fact that the report’s findings may not even be accurate and the extremely inaccurate reporting on the study, the organic food industry has never claimed that one should buy organic food for its nutrient content alone.
The benefits of organic produce and animal products go beyond the list of identified nutrients in the study. The study itself makes it clear that, “The analyses were restricted to the most commonly reported nutrients.” (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
Phytochemicals and Flavanoids were not part of the study and these ingredients in organic food, while not part of the USRDA list, are important factors in determining the health benefit of a food item.
Phytonutrients, while not included in the traditional USDA list of main nutrients, are no less important to the body than vitamin C, A or E. Many of these phytonutrients are antioxidants of the plant’s own defense system. Moreover, you can find them in much higher amounts in organic products because crops rely more on their own defenses in the absence of regular applications of chemical pesticides.
Scientists so far have found higher levels of lycopene in organic tomatoes, polyphenols in organic potatoes, flavonols in organic apples, and resveratrol in organic grapes. A review of the subject estimated that organic produce will tend to contain 10-50% higher phytonutrients than conventional produce. (Heaton)
Additionally, fruits and vegetables grown organically show significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally grown food. Research suggests that pesticides and herbicides actually thwart the production of phenolics, which are chemicals that act as the plant’s natural defense and can also play this same role for humans.
On the other hand, fertilizers not only reduce these phenolics that can protect the plant and the body but also increase the levels of cancer causing compounds that are attacking the body to begin with.
Flavonoids are one such botanical phenolic compound that can benefit the health of humans. These flavonoids, as well as other phenolic compounds are produced in response to environmental stress. This stress can include insect attacks or attacks by other plants. Furthermore, flavanoids protect plants against UV radiation, fungal and bacterial infections.
Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., a food scientist at the University of California describes the process this way, “If an aphid is nibbling on a leaf, the plant produces phenolics to defend itself. Bitter or harsh phenolics guard the plant against these pests.” (Byrum)
Plants getting chewed by bugs make more flavanoids than those sprayed with insect repelling chemicals because they are forced to create their own “pest control” instead of relying on the outside help of chemicals. (DeNoon)
Not Just About Nutrients
The requirements for organic farming support this belief. The EPA standards for organic farming state, among other requirements, that:
– The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.
– Organically raised animals may not be given hormones to promote growth, or antibiotics for any reason.
– All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.
– Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold.(EPA)
These standards are for people who want to make sure their food doesn’t contain pesticide residues which lead to cancer, hormones which cause a number of health problems including precocious puberty, and antibiotics which cause antibiotic resistance due to overuse of antibiotics in animals. (National Cancer Institute, Sierra Club, Sellman)
These standards also highlight the fact that the qualifications for organic farming actually have little to do with nutrition. In fact, organic farmers don’t have to submit health or nutritional data for their produce to the approval agencies.
In fact, organic farmers only need to prove that their produce doesn’t contain harmful pesticides and that they treat their animals well. Also they have to prove that they don’t slaughter the injured or sick animals, among other similar requirements.
Muslims should find these standards reassuring as the prophet (peace be upon him) often spoke of taking care of our bodies, animals and the earth. He also advised that in matters of life, “There shall be no damage and no infliction of damage.” (Al-Hakim).
This article is from our archive, originally published on an earlier date, and highlighted now for its importance
“Abuse of Antibiotics at Factory Farms Threatens Effectiveness of Drugs Used to Treat Disease in Humans.” Sierra Club. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
Byrum, Allison. “Polyphenolics: Organically Grown Foods Higher in Cancer Fighting Chemicals than Conventionally Grown Foods.” American Chemical Society Report.
Dangour, Alan D, Dodhia, Sakhi K, Hayter, Arabella, Allen, Elizabeth, Lock, Karen and Uauy, Ricardo.”Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review.”American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 29 July 2009. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
DeNoon, Daniel. “Organic Foods May Fight Disease.” WebMD Health News. 6 March 2003. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
EPA. “Organic Production and Handling Standards.” Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
Heaton, Shane. “Spreading the Organic Word.” Organic Food News Quarterly.Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
“Large Majorities See Organic Food as Safer, Better for the Environment And Healthier — But Also More Expensive.” harrisinteractive.com. 8 Oct. 2007. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Organic Food not Nutritionally Better Than Conventionally Produced Food.” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 29 July 2009. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
Macrae, Fiona. “Organic Food ‘No Helathier’ Than Conventional Produce, Revelas Watchdog.” The Daily Mail. 30 July 2009.
National Cancer Institute. “Pesticides.” National Cancer Institute. 2007. Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.
Sellman, Sherrill. “The Problem of Precocious Puberty.” Nexus Magazine. Vol. 11, No. 3(2004). Accessed 16 Aug. 2009.