A new international study claims organic foods and crops have a suite of advantages over their conventional counterparts, including more antioxidants and fewer, less frequent pesticide residues.
The study, led by scientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, looked at an unprecedented 343 peer-reviewed publications comparing the nutritional quality and safety of organic and conventional plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Most of the publications covered in the study looked at crops grown in the same area, on similar soils. This approach reduces other possible sources of variation in nutritional and safety parameters.
In general, the team found organic crops have several nutritional benefits that stem from the way the crops are produced. A plant on a conventionally managed field will typically have access to high levels of synthetic nitrogen, and will marshal the extra resources into producing sugars and starches. As a result, the harvested portion of the plant will often contain lower concentrations of other nutrients, including health-promoting antioxidants.
Without the synthetic chemical pesticides applied on conventional crops, organic plants also tend to produce more phenols and polyphenols to defend against pest attacks and related injuries. In people, phenols and polyphenols can help prevent diseases triggered or promoted by oxidative-damage like coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Overall, organic crops had 18% to 69% higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds. The team concludes that consumers who switch to organic fruit, vegetables, and cereals would get 20% to 40% more antioxidants. That’s the equivalent of about two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with no increase in caloric intake.
The researchers also found pesticide residues were three to four times more likely in conventional foods than organic ones, as organic farmers are not allowed to apply toxic, synthetic pesticides.
While crops harvested from organically managed fields sometimes contain pesticide residues, the levels are usually 10-fold to 100-fold lower in organic food, compared to the corresponding, conventionally grown food.
In a surprising finding, the team concluded that conventional crops had roughly twice as much cadmium, a toxic heavy metal contaminant, as organic crops. The leading explanation is that certain fertilizers approved for use only on conventional farms somehow make cadmium more available to plant roots. A doubling of cadmium from food could push some individuals over safe daily intake levels.
“This study is telling a powerful story of how organic plant-based foods are nutritionally superior and deliver bona fide health benefits,” says Charles Benbrook, a Washington State University researcher and the lone American co-author of the paper, published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
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