Organics and Nutrition—What to Think?

For years the debate about whether organically-raised food is more nutritious than conventionally-raised crops has made media headlines and spurred heated conversations. For some consumers, these reports may lead to flip-flopping from one side to the other, perhaps trying to balance their concern over their health (and that of the environment) with concern over their food budget. Sound familiar?

Avocado Corn Salsa
Avocado Corn Salsa is a great way to get produce in your snack routine.

The Flip and the Flop

A little historical context: In 2009, researchers conducted a systematic review of 55 studies—considered to be the first study of its kind—on the topic and found that, while some small nutritional differences were found, they were “unlikely to be of public health relevance,” and so there was no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional foods for nutrition reasons. A larger analysis of published research came up with similar results, and the researchers concluded that evidence to support the claim that organics are more nutritious is lacking.

Case closed? Not so fast…a 2014 British Journal of Nutrition research article appeared that contradicts the previous two reviews. This review was based on even more studies (343 to be exact), and this time the researchers concluded that conventional and organic crops offer similar amounts of many nutrients, including certain minerals and vitamins C and E, however “organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants” and lower amounts of pesticides (as one would expect).

Is this important?

Ultimately, consumers decide for themselves whether they follow the changes implicated by evolving science, of course. And maybe, as I believe based on my not-at-all-scientific polling of friends and acquaintances), people have mostly already made up their minds about whether they believe organic is the way to go (or not go). For some folks, it’s not about nutrition at all, but about environmental health, feeding the world’s growing population, etc. But in the case of nutrition, I think we are missing the bigger point, and that is that most of us simply need MORE fruits and vegetables in our diets for better nutritional status.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American eats a paltry 1.1 servings of fruit and 1.6 servings of vegetables per day. Here in Maine, 37.5% of adolescents report consuming less than 1 serving of fruits and vegetables per day! That stuns me. As a dietitian, we are missing the point if we are focusing on whether those fruits and veggies are organic, instead of just encouraging eating more produce in general. That improvement alone would make a big difference in the health status of most Americans. Fruits and veggies provide important nutrients (some of which are not found in large amounts in other foods) that can reduce the incidence of chronic diseases. We all need these nutrients, and yet simply having a salad or a few carrot sticks with dinner or an orange for a snack, or tossing some berries on a bowl of cereal seems to be the challenge for some people.

My Take

Make your own choice for organic or conventional based on whatever beliefs you hold most important, but by all means, don’t let any of it stop you from simply eating more fruits and vegetables. Pack produce into your diet (up to 9 servings per day if you really want to do it right!) and you’ll be better off nutritionally, no matter which side of the organics issue you are on.