New Study To Split Opinion On Organic Food

By Patrick Sawer

A new study claims organic fruit and vegetables can lead to better health

organic foods
Organic fruit and vegetables may be better for your health after all, a study has found Photo: ALAMY

The benefits of organic fruit and vegetables are once again set to split public and scientific opinion after a study linking them to better health has been challenged by academics and nutritionists.

In one of the most comprehensive analysis to date researchers found that organically grown fruit and vegetables contain more of the antioxidant compounds linked to better health, along with lower levels of toxic metals and pesticides.

The international scientific team behind the research suggests that switching from regular to organic fruit and vegetables could proved the same nutritional benefits as adding one or two portions of the “five a day” currently recommended.

Professor Carlo Leifert, from Newcastle University, and his team concluded that there are “statistically significant, meaningful” differences between organic and conventional fruit and vegetables, with a range of antioxidants “substantially higher” – between 19% and 69% – in organic.

The researchers say the increased levels of antioxidants are equivalent to “one to two of the five portions of fruits and vegetables recommended to be consumed daily and would therefore be significant and meaningful in terms of human nutrition, if information linking these [compounds] to the health benefits associated with increased fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption is confirmed”.

The results are based on an analysis of 343 previous peer-reviewed studies from all over the world – a greater number than ever before – which examined the differences between organic and conventional fruit, vegetables and cereals.

But opinion over whether organic food is better for people is likely to remain divided following the report’s publication next week.

Prof Richard Mithen, Leader of the Food and Health Programme at the Institute of Food Research (IFR), said the study had failed to show that consumers should switch to organic for the sake of their health.

He said: “There is no evidence provided that the relatively modest differences in the levels of some of these compounds would have any consequences (good or bad) on public health. The references to ‘antioxidants’ and ‘antioxidant activity’, and various ‘antioxidant’ assays would suggest a poor knowledge of the current understanding within the nutrition community of how fruit and vegetables may maintain and improve health.”

Prof Mithen added: “The additional cost of organic vegetables to the consumer and the likely reduced consumption would easily offset any marginal increase in nutritional properties, even if they did occur, which I doubt. To improve public health we need to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables, regardless of how they are produced.”

Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at King’s College London, said the research did show some differences, but added: “The question is are they within natural variation? And are they nutritionally relevant? I am not convinced.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England, also expressed scepticism over the findings. She said: “PHE welcome this addition to the evidence base, but we cannot assess the potential impact of organic foods on public health from this study alone. Ultimately we all need to eat more fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they are organic or not to form part of a healthy balanced diet, which will help protect health. Currently the population is eating on average 4.1 portions of fruit and vegetables per day and we need to increase this to a minimum of 5-a-day.”

However, Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, which campaigns for organic farming, welcomed the findings. She said: “The crucially important thing about this research is that it shatters the myth that how we farm does not affect the quality of the food we eat.”

Prof Leifert and his colleagues conclude that many antioxidants “have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers”. But they also note that no long-term studies showing health benefits from a broad organic diet have yet been conducted.

The study, funded by the European Union and the Sheepdrove Trust, an organic farming charity, also found that pesticide residues were found on conventional crops four times more often than on organic food.