Are Organic Foods Worth the Price? And Do They Live up to the Hype?

Are we getting better quality food? Fewer pesticides? The possibility of improved health? Or, as an editorial insuggests, maybe we are just making ourselves think we are doing better.
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The sales of organic foods in the United States surged past the $20 billion mark a few years ago, and is continuing to climb. But, what are we getting from all of those dollars? Are we getting better quality food? Fewer pesticides? The possibility of improved health? Or, as an editorial in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, suggested last year, maybe we are just making ourselves think we are doing better.

The Lancet published this editorial after two reports by the same group of scientists came out of England about the "supposed" health benefits of organic foods. Because I have believed for years that organic foods are better for us and the planet, I immediately sought these articles out -- and actually read them -- something the editor of The Lancet and a number of news reporters apparently failed to do.

In answer to the question of whether organic food has higher nutrient content, this group of researchers said "there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs". This was from their study that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. If you only read the abstract of the article, it makes it seem as though it was a very thorough study -- winnowing 52,471 published articles down to only 55 that "were of satisfactory quality." The funny thing is that these 55 articles were not even listed as references in the article. Hmmmm, now just how did that slip past the editorial review board? Being the author of a handful of review articles, I happen to know that one must not only supply the references, but must also talk about the articles that were referenced! Otherwise, you are left with nothing but thin air to base your conclusion upon.

So, this really got me going on a hunt for what the real facts were about the nutrient content in organic foods. My first stop was the computerized database that the National Library of Medicine keeps. This is a wonderful resource that everyone with a computer and an internet hookup can access. The problem with my search for organic food information however, is that PubMed doesn't have an established search term for "organic foods." So, one has to really be creative and keep asking things in different ways, like "natural foods" or "nutrient content," etc.

Well, it turns out that there are a lot of articles published about the nutrient content of organic foods. It also turns out that all organic foods are not the same. Take tomatoes, for example. There are numerous studies on the nutrient content of organic tomatoes as compared to commercially raised tomatoes. Some of these studies showed that organic tomatoes had higher quantities of certain nutritional compounds; other studies did not. The key in unraveling these studies was in noting how long the plots of land had been under organic farming methods. Tomatoes from 'newly planted' organic plots were not superior, but those from 'mature' organic plots were definitely better. So, the longer the farm has been organic, the better the quality of the food.

I ended up finding over 30 good articles just on the nutrient content of organic foods as compared to conventionally grown foods. When it comes to vitamin and mineral content, multiple studies make it clear that organic foods have more vitamin C, iron, phosphorus and magnesium than conventional foods. Even more, during the last 50 years, the content of vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, calcium and riboflavin (Vitamin B1) has been declining in the conventional foodstuffs grown in this country. So, with organic foods taking the levels of some of these critical nutrients up rather than down in our foods, it would appear that organic foods are the best nutritional choice to make (provided one considers these nutrients important for health).

In addition to the vitamins and minerals in foods, are the helpful food chemicals, sometimes called phytonutrients (or nutraceuticals). These compounds -- including flavonoids, carotenes and berry pigments -- have been found to be responsible for many of the health benefits of foods. These compounds have powerful antioxidant action and help protect our cells from damage. They can also enhance the function of our brains (something we often want for ourselves and others). Well, it turns out that when fruits and vegetables are grown in 'established' organic farms, they typically have much higher levels of these healthy food chemicals than conventionally grown foods. This has been shown in apples, pears, tomatoes, potatoes, berries and other organic products. And milk from cows raised organically also contained higher levels of essential fatty acids!

So, despite what the news media picked up, numerous studies make it clear that organic foods typically have greater nutrient content, and these nutrients have the ability to significantly impact our health for the better.

My next blog will look at the pesticide content of organic foods.
For a full copy of my review on organic foods please go to: