organic fruit
Photo: Getty Images
As the recession lingers on, food writer Nina Planck tackles this controversial question.
When I was a kid, my summer job was selling vegetables at roadside stands and farmers' markets near our Virginia farm. "Is this organic?" customers would ask. "No," I'd say, "but we don't use pesticides, our chickens run free on grass, and our produce is fresh and local." I was barefoot, smudgyfaced, and barely 10 years old, which may or may not have enhanced my credibility. But I usually made the sale.

We didn't bother to go organic officially because it involved a lot of red tape and extra expense, and at the time, there were multiple standards by multiple certifying bodies. Our food was certainly green, and our little farm thrived. Today, however, the term organic is defined by a strict set of federal regulations. Crops bearing the USDA organic seal of approval are raised without synthetic pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge (semisolid leftovers from wastewater plants used as fertilizer). Organic animals consume organic feed and must have access to the outdoors. They are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. The organic label also means your food was not genetically engineered or treated with radiation to prolong shelf life.

These all seem like admirable standards with the consumer's best interests in mind. So, understandably, it came as quite a shock to health-minded shoppers when the British government's Food Standards Agency released a review last year pronouncing organic produce to be no more nutritious than the conventional kind. Organics advocates called the UK review flawed and incomplete, and its authors biased. They contended that the study didn't include recent data showing that organic food delivers many advantages (less exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, for example), and that the concluding statement buried any pro-organic news the researchers did find (like the fact that organic produce contains more of certain beneficial minerals). They claimed that some of the studies included in the review were poorly designed, others seriously outdated. "These findings are wrong," Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic organization, says flatly. "Organic food is better for the planet, and it's better for you."

New (and old) reasons to go organic
Some reasons to buy organics are well known: The French Agency for Food Safety recently confirmed that they contain more antioxidants, heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, and magnesium than nonorganic foods. Even the UK review presented data showing more magnesium and zinc and more antioxidant phytochemicals, such as phenols and flavonoids, in organic crops. And a five-year study by 33 universities, research centers, and companies funded by the European Commission—believed to be the largest study of its kind—determined that organic produce such as cabbage and potatoes contained more vitamin C (another antioxidant); that organic tomatoes contained more nutrients overall; and that organic dairy foods contained more omega-3 fatty acids and cancerfighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This study, which will be published spring 2010, also uncovered lower levels of such contaminants as heavy metals, mycotoxins (by-products of fungal infections), and pesticide residues in organic foods. Several studies have linked pesticides used on conventionally grown produce to the neurological diseases Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A lack of pesticide exposure is an important reason organic produce has higher levels of beneficial antioxidants like vitamin C, which fight the free radicals implicated in aging, cancer, and heart disease. Antioxidants are actually part of a plant's own defenses. In fruits and vegetables, these bitter elements help fend off attacks by bugs and fungi. Organic crops contain more of these compounds because they have to work harder to protect themselves—no man-made pesticides to the rescue, says Holden.

In addition, organic produce is free of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which can also weaken plants' health. "Nitrogen produces a watery, sugary cell sap that compromises the plant's ability to build its immune system," says Holden. Plants that come to rely on the chemical can no longer fend off pests naturally. Crops that are treated with the synthetic fertilizer also have overly leafy growth and poor flavor, as farmers have long known. That's because the plants' natural immune system of antioxidants is what makes produce aromatic and savory. In other words, a healthy plant makes a healthy meal—and a tastier one.

The same could be said about animals. You are what they eat. In 2006 the Journal of Dairy Science published the results of a British study showing a direct link between organic farming and higher levels of omega-3 fats in cow's milk. According to the research, the average pint of (British) organic milk contains 68.2 percent more omega-3 fats than nonorganic milk. That makes sense: Grass (rather than corn and soybeans) is what cows will eat when left to their own devices, and it's loaded with these essential fatty acids. In one of the unfortunate oversights in U.S. organic regulations, cows on some large-scale organic farms rarely graze on fresh grass, and instead are largely confined to feed lots. But this year a new USDA rule should close the loophole. To find dairy products that are produced from pasture-grazed cows, check the Dairy Scorecard at

While studies have shown that organic food can contain more nutrients, recent data highlights specific benefits to those who eat it. A 2007 Dutch study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that babies who ate organic dairy (and whose nursing mothers did, too) had a 36 percent lower incidence of eczema. A separate 2007 Dutch study found that women who drink organic milk have breast milk with much higher levels of CLA, a fatty acid with significant antioxidant properties.

In the end it's clear that organic food is worth the premium it commands at the grocery store. As the authors of the UK review put it themselves: "The differences in...nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality." That's sciencespeak for precisely what organic farmers have said all along. Organic farming is not merely about eliminating bad things, like weed killer. It's about raising soil fertility with proven methods, both modern and traditional, such as mulch and compost. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants and animals that depend on its nutrients—us included.

Nina Planck is the author of Real Food (Bloomsbury USA) and Real Food for Mother and Baby (Bloomsbury USA).

More O: Celia Barbour on the sustainable food movement


Next Story