The ‘Benefits’ of Organic

After analysing all available evidence from the past 50 years, a study commissioned by the UK government’s Food Standards Agency has come to the conclusion that organic food is no healthier (in terms of nutritional value and any extra health benefits) than ‘ordinary’ food.

From the blog of the FSA’s Chief Scientist:

The most comprehensive review in this area that has been carried out to date […] concluded that there are no important differences in nutrition content between organic and conventionally produced food.

[…] It’s a fact that conventional production methods permit the use of a wider range of pesticides than organic. That said, some pesticides can be used in organic production.

[…] To me, the main take-home message from this report is that in order to eat a healthy diet it doesn’t matter if it’s made up of organic or conventionally produced food. Surely that’s good news for all of us?

From the FSA’s press release, which also links to the study itself (pdf):

What [this study] 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.

The Soil Association (an independent body that certifies organic food) didn’t like the conclusions reached, but made a good point about the study:

Without large-scale, longitudinal research it is difficult to come to far-reaching clear conclusions on this, which was acknowledged by the authors of the FSA review.

It’s worth noting that there were a small number of nutritional differences found between organic and conventionally produced food but that these differences were “not large enough to be of any public health relevance”. It’s also useful to realise that people buy organic food for myriad other reasons.

For a short summation of the argument between the various parties interested in this research (specifically, the FSA and Soil Organisation), the BBC has a well-balanced news item.

Update: Seed Magazine‘s look at the issue is also worth a read.



6 responses to “The ‘Benefits’ of Organic”

  1. Linda

    I don’t know anybody who buys organic because of purported nutritional benefits. I prefer produce that has not been sprayed with pesticides (whether or not it has been certified as “organic”) because I don’t want to eat pesticides, nor do I want them messing up the soil biota or seeping into groundwater.

    In addition to which, fruit and veg from local farmers’ markets (which, where I live, tend to be grown without pesticides whether or not certified organic) taste better, because they have not been bred to be harvested before ripeness and shipped across the US or the globe.

  2. Dan

    This doesn’t surprise me (which is why I was so careful to hedge my analogy about organic food and breastfeeding as a popular shift rather than a scientific one!), although one significant limit of the study (from a brief skim) seems to be that it basically addresses the normal nutritional content of food and finds no difference but fails to compare the amount of other, non-“nutritional” chemicals used (“This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices,” 1).

    So in other words, you’ll get the same amount of fiber and vitamin C from an organic potato that you will from a non-organic one, but the study is silent on whether there is a significant amount of dangerous pesticide residue, for example, on the non-organic one. Though I could be misreading it …

  3. Thanks, Linda.

    As you say, taste and environmental reasons/ethics are major arguments for buying organic, and I think these are probably the fundamental reasons for most organic purchases… and they are more than valid, I would presume.

    This research is good news for those who can’t afford organic food*, as, like the first quote says,

    The main take-home message from this report is that in order to eat a healthy diet it doesn’t matter if it’s made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

    *While organic food isn’t more expensive than conventionally produced food per se, in most supermarkets—where the majority of food is purchased, especially for low-income families—it is more expensive.

  4. Dan,

    This is a very good point, and one that I believe the news reports themselves should have picked up on more. However, as always, there are caveats:

    Organic foods are not free from chemical pesticides (as opposed to natural pesticides), GM material, or other chemical additives such as nitrates by any means. In fact, the regulations state that up to 0.9% of this material does not have to be labelled or taken into consideration when being certified organic.

    Of course, this is a lot lower than non-organic food.

  5. Sigh…. Organic agriculture is more sustainable, produces less waste and is way, way healthier for the people that actually work in it. That’s why it’s a good thing, not extra vitamins…

  6. Indeed, and this isn’t being contested.

    I buy organic, local and sustainably when I can–I suggest others do, too.

    It may seem like old news to those who are in such circles, but research showing no statistically significant health and nutrition benefits between organic and conventionally produced food may be news to others (as is evident from the many comments on the FSA blog).