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Organic health claims 'worryingly overstated'

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By Nicholas Robinson+

19-Aug-2014
Last updated on 19-Aug-2014 at 10:38 GMT

Claims that organic crops are more nutritious than non-organic crops is not supported by evidence
Claims that organic crops are more nutritious than non-organic crops is not supported by evidence

A report claiming that organic crops are more nutritious than non-organic crops is not supported by the evidence, according to leading experts in the field.

Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College London, slammed the findings of a study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition by Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, as flawed.

Leifert’s research concluded that organic foods were better for health than non-organic foods, because, he claimed, organic crops were up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than non-organic crops.

Findings

He said the findings of his study showed that eating foods produced to organic standards could lead to increased intake of nutritionally desirable antioxidants and reduced exposure to toxic heavy metals.

But Sanders countered: “The idea that the nutritional content is better in organic is ridiculous; there’s no evidence.” He added: “They are making a lot of play about nothing. The antioxidants [referred to in the study] are phenolic materials and are not nutrients. They might be beneficial in other ways, but they may also have adverse affects on taste.”

While he described the findings from the study that lower levels of the toxic metal cadmium occurred in organic crops as interesting, he said non-organic crops would not contain levels of cadmium high enough to pose a threat to health.

Supporting Sanders’ views, Professor Alan Dangour from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose own research published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 concluded there were no significant nutritional benefits of organics over non-organic foods, also questioned the findings of the latest work.

‘Worryingly overstated’

“The public health significance of the reported findings [in the new study] have been worryingly overstated,” said Dangour.

“There is no good evidence to suggest that slightly greater antioxidant or phenolic intake in the human diet has important public health benefits.”

Meanwhile, the latest data from Brussels reported rapid growth in organic farming across the EU over the past 10 years.

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1 comment

It's not just nutrients you need to consider here.

Plants that grow under organic, and one could say more difficult, circumstances undergo "xenohormesis" producing higher amounts of phenolics and other antioxidant compounds. This meta-analysis correctly states that "many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies.” Isn’t it time we went beyond the nutritional value of plants and looked further into the benefits of other compounds such as these phytonutrients? We already know about things like lycopene, resveratrol, curcumin etc. The concluding statements therefore seem irrational and closed-minded.
The other advantage of organic farming is the reduced use of pesticides and herbicides and, though there is certainly mixed evidence and opinion as to the levels of nutrients in conventional vs organic foods, many people (including myself) make informed and intelligent health choices to consume primarily organic food. I am not getting any less nutrition, I am getting less pesticide residues and heavy metals and I am supporting farmers who are not depleting our soils and who are usually caring for the earth.

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Posted by Sarah Hopkins
25 August 2014 | 03h30

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