Whether or not organic food brings nutritional benefits over conventional food has been a matter of considerable inquiry and debate. The issue came to a head last month when a study commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) concluded that there is no evidence of nutritional superiority.
Now, however, a review published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development has said drawn wildly different conclusions.
Author Denis Lairon of the University of Aix-Marseille coordinated an “up-to-date exhaustive and critical evaluation of the nutritional and sanitary quality of organic food” for AFSSA, which was originally published in 2003. The new review is based on this, as well as the findings of new studies published in the intervening years.
Lairon concluded that organic plant products contain more dry matter and minerals – such as iron and magnesium – and more antioxidant polyphenols like phenols and salicylic acid. Data on carbohydrate, protein and vitamin levels are insufficiently documented, he said.
Organic animal products were seen to have more polyunsaturated fats.
Is nutrition important?
In the wake of the FSA report publication, organic groups and the media debated the reasons for consumers’ keenness to buy organic produce. Many concluded that nutritional benefit is not necessarily at the forefront of their minds, but they are more driven by food safety and environmental aspects such as pesticide use.
Unlike the authors of the FSA study, Lairon did look at food safety. He concluded that between 94 and 100 per cent of organic food does not contain any pesticide residues, and organic vegetables have about 50 per cent less nitrates.
Organic cereals, however, were seen to have similar levels of mycotoxins overall compared with conventional cereals.
Emphasis on quality
The FSA study looked at evidence from studies published in the English language, and notably drew attention to shortfalls in the methodology of many which means their findings could not be included.
The original AFSSA report, too, placed a high onus on quality or study. Selected papers had to refer to well-defined and certified organic agricultural practices, and have information on design and follow-up, valid measured parametres and appropriate sampling and statistical analysis.
Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2009)
“Nutritional quality an safety of organic food. A review”
Author: Lairon, D.