Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Oct

Is Organic a Scam? – Nutrient Differences

Even if you can get folks to begrudgingly admit that organic foods tends to contain fewer pesticide residues than conventional (and that this might even impact a person’s health or the way a child develops), they’ll dig in their heels when it comes to the nutritional content. And why shouldn’t they? Organic isn’t really about getting more vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients; it’s always been about getting vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients without the conventional pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that so often accompany conventional produce. The presupposition that proponents of organic produce claim it contains more nutrients is a bit of a straw man, as that claim is rarely – if ever – made.

But what if that mythological claim actually held a kernel of truth? I mean, now that they’ve mentioned it and let that monkey out of its cage, let’s explore a bit to find out, starting with the Stanford study that sparked this whole topic.

If you take the Stanford meta-analysis at its word, you’ll conclude that “published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Yet critics of the study argue that mistakes were made and that certain nutrients were overlooked, or undervalued, by the authors. One such critic, Dr. Kirsten Brandt, an agricultural scientist who specializes in how growing conditions impact the nutritional density and composition of produce, conducted a similar meta-analysis of the literature that covered much of the same literature as the Stanford study and came to a slightly different conclusion.

Brandt’s review covered more nutrients than the Stanford review. She found it puzzling that the Stanford researchers chose to “include [nutrients] where the difference was smallest to begin with” while omitting others “that were just as well-described in the papers they included.” They also wrote that there was no difference in total flavanol content, which directly contradicted Brandt’s findings, but a closer look showed that they’d merely misspelled flavonol – an honest mistake, albeit one that cloaked a major benefit of organic produce.

Contrary to the recent paper, Brandt’s analysis found that organic produce tended to provide significantly more vitamin C and “secondary metabolites.” Secondary metabolites, or bioactive compounds that aren’t directly involved in the plant’s growth, maturation, or reproduction, include the antioxidant compounds – the polyphenols, the flavonoids, and all the other phytonutrients  – that make fruits and vegetables so uniquely healthful and which the evidence suggests is the primary explanation for the association of produce consumption with increased health. Although these secondary metabolites provide health benefits to those who eat them, for the plants, they are self-defense mechanisms. And without copious amounts of conventional agricultural chemicals doing the protecting, plants grown organically must manufacture more of their own protective compounds to stay alive, particularly if they’re subjected to stressors (like physical trauma, at least in the case of sweet potatoes). This is good for us. It’s as if growing plants organically trains them to be better and more beneficial.

Other papers suggest nutritional differences as well, also primarily in terms of secondary metabolites and other “minor” antioxidant compounds:

A 2010 study examining the fruit quality of three varieties of organic and conventional strawberries found some pretty important differences. First, organic strawberries tended to win the blind taste tests. They were smaller, but denser. They were brighter, which correlated with increased levels of phenolic compounds and other antioxidants. Organic strawberries also had more vitamin C, lasted longer on the shelf, and were more resistant to fungus (despite having no anti-fungals applied).

Another review (PDF) found that, by and large, organic produce had greater levels of secondary metabolities and tended toward more magnesium, vitamin C, iron, and phosphorus. Interestingly, the author also found that differences existed between newly-organic farms and more “mature” organic farms; the longer soil was worked using organic methods, the more nutrient-rich its produce. Thus, it’s possible that many of the studies showing little to no difference between conventional and organic were using “young” organic farms that had yet to reach their potential.

Most of these secondary metabolites aren’t going to show up in a nutritional database. They won’t help you pad your MyFitnessPal stats. They aren’t “essential” to health like vitamin D, vitamin C, or protein are and thus won’t register as very important in most meta-analyses, but they certainly make life a whole lot better (and longer, and healthier, and possibly even less cancer-y).

What about minerals?

Seeing as how the mineral content of produce depends on the mineral content of the soil in which the produce was grown, most studies find little difference between the mineral content of organic and conventional stuff. The biggest general determinant of mineral density in food appears to be geographical location, since different regions have different soil compositions. Even members of the same vegetable variety from different areas of the country can have wildly different levels of certain minerals depending on the mineral level of the soil. That said, one study found that organic crops had higher levels of magnesium, iron, vitamin C, and phosphorus, with lower levels of nitrates. It’s not that getting ordained by the organic gods magically increases the amount of magnesium in your soil; if organic chard has more magnesium, it may be that the organic chard farmer was just really dedicated to soil maintenance. From talking to the farmers at the farmers markets, I get the sense that this is probably the case.

My personal hunch? The food I buy from the farmers market from people with dirt under their fingernails is more nutritious than the food I get from the grocery store. It certainly tastes better. The odd-looking winter squash with orange knobby protrusions that the farmer says tastes like a cross between kabocha and butternut, or the pale butternut squash from Trader Joe’s? The dry-farmed early girl tomato that weighs twice as much as the same-sized store-bought conventional tomato? The room temp broccoli that’s never seen a fridge before laid out in the Santa Monica sunshine, or the bushel of Costco broccoli florets languishing in the industrial refrigerator? All that flavor, that weight, and that density can’t just be handwaved away as ephemera without a nutritional corollary. Nutrients – no matter how micro they are – occupy physical space. They have mass. If this tomato weighs a quarter pound more than that tomato, there is something qualitatively different about it, and it’s probably got something to do with the nutritional content (with it, ya know, being food and all).

Plus, the “organic” produce I get – whether it’s unofficial organic or proudly displays the emblazonment for all to see – tastes better to me and my family. The strawberries are firmer, sweeter, and more tart; if it’s the increased vitamin C content coupled with more robust intracellular plant matrices (yep, made that up), I don’t really care. The kale’s more bitter and pleasantly pungent; if that’s the increased polyphenol content, good for it. I like the taste. The increased micronutrient density (if it exists, and it looks like it probably does) is just a welcome addition.

Still, the research appears to say that, contrary to what the latest study would have you believe, organic produce tends to be more nutritious, particularly if you count something like a plant pigment with antioxidant qualities or a flavonoid as a “nutrient.” I definitely do, but I can see why someone who lives and dies by a standard nutritional database would overlook them. Vitamins and minerals are vital and all, but they aren’t everything.

What do you think, folks? I realize that you’ve probably never ordered micronutrient testing for your organic baby bok choy and compared it to the stuff from the supermarket, but have you noticed any qualitative differences between produce from different sources? What about that most important of qualities – taste? Let me and everyone know in the comment section!

Thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I had fresh-off-the-vine strawberries (as in less than 10 seconds fresh) from our backyard this summer…
    The BEST conventional strawberry I’ve had since then did not even come close to the WORST 4-day-old refrigerated strawberry from our garden.

    And this wild apple *crunch* doesn’t taste too shabby, either. *swallow* *crunch* *chew*

    Bill C wrote on October 10th, 2012
  2. To me the triumph of marketing is the fact that organic growers have managed to make people afraid of fruits and vegetables. It’s not so long ago that they were considered health foods, and we have plenty of studies showing health benefits from eating more fruits and veggies (organic or not). Now it seems they have to be organic to really be safe.

    We’ve been eating ‘pesticide laden’ produce for decades and there’s no good evidence (that I know of) that pesticide exposure from produce would cause real health problems.

    To me this seems more of an ideological issue than scientific. This review from Stanford is not unique. Most such reviews come up with similar results, that there’s little to know nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown produce. Some do show a difference, but those are often made by ideologically biased organizations, such as the Organic association or alt-med proponents.

    Yes, this study didn’t talk about environmental impact or many other reasons for choosing organic. But to expect it to do so means not understanding the scientific process. This study wasn’t mean to answer those questions. It was meant to answer the question of whether organic or more nutritious than conventional produce.

    In science you have to separate each piece of the puzzle and look at them individually. That’s why there are other studies looking at those other questions. That’s the only way to get reliable answers. Each study answers a specific question and then you get the big picture from looking at all the studies.

    Seppo wrote on October 11th, 2012
  3. I feel like such a bad parent after reading this article. I cost corners as much as possible to feed my children quality foods, but still cannot afford most of the organic produce. It tortures me to know I’m not giving my kids the best start in life. Not to mention, I’m contributing to harming the environment when I buy conventional.

    Maria wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • If your family is eating primal you are already doing a lot for the environment I´d say. And A LOT for your health.
      I buy organic when I can and conventional the rest of the time. I´m doing the best I can with what I´ve got and don´t fret the rest.

      Elena wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • Maria, the question which is more environmentally friendly is not quite so cut and dry. It’s true that excess use of pesticides and fertilizers is bad for the environment, especially in the US where they are used more liberally than in other places.

      But we also have to consider land use and yields per acre. Organic produce has lower yields and uses more ‘shadow’ land.

      Of course conventionally grown produce requires fossil fuel inputs.

      Which one is ultimately better for the environment, I don’t think we can say that yet. Everybody has their own ideologically-driven answer, but I’m talking about answers based on real data.

      I think it’s a moot point anyway. We shouldn’t make black and white divisions between the two models. Rather, we should take what works from both models and combine the best practices.

      I would suggest not feeling guilty. You are already doing more for your children and the environment than most parents are :)

      Seppo wrote on October 11th, 2012
  4. I think the safest thing to do is grow it yourself and you don’t have to worry about anything. But who has got time to do it this?

    Adam wrote on October 12th, 2012
    • Adam…make the time. It does not take that much time each day to grow a garden. It is great exercise and the food is fresh and wonderful.

      Sharon in NC wrote on October 12th, 2012
  5. I try to eat organic when the price is reasonable but often it is so expensive. I prioritize grass fed beef and wild caught fish before organic produce.

    Paleo Wayne wrote on October 14th, 2012
  6. The grass-fed organic beef I’ve had tastes drier, tougher, leaner than the conventional beef I’ve had.

    I got some organic kale and it was covered in bugs COVERED! And I couldn’t rinse them off no matter how hard I tried.

    I’m not sold on organic.

    Ali wrote on October 17th, 2012
  7. I eat organic not for greater nutrients, but for lower pesticides.

    BlissfulWriter wrote on October 17th, 2012
  8. I believe organic products are the best, to me anything that’s natural and organic is a must.
    I’m a latina mom and grew up consuming natural products all the time and using natural home remedies for anything.
    So I am organic.

    ChicaNOL wrote on October 23rd, 2012
  9. I was writing, as I am wont to do, and I found myself in need of something with which the main character of the story could help an apple orchard worker just after the Spring thaw. I came across some rather interesting information about sulfate of potash, as well as the appearance of potassium-deficient trees.

    I would be rather interested if someone that lives near a commercial apple farm would be willing to go there and take pictures of the leaves sometime in the mid-late Spring to early-mid Summer. It’s a single deficiency, but it would be rather telling (assuming it’s there).

    CocoaNutCakery wrote on November 4th, 2012
  10. Before getting started, let me confess that I manufacture organic fertilizer. To differentiate my fertilizer from all the others on the market I add locally available trace minerals. This is important because as Mark said, “it can’t be in the plant if it’s not in the soil.”

    I also host a group on Facebook dedicated to growing nutrient dense food. As was pointed out several places, organic is just a starting point for me and those others dedicated to growing the most nutrient dense food possible. I view the organic label as being mostly negative, as in what you can’t use to grow food.

    It doesn’t entail anything about mineralizing the soil and increasing organic matter and improving the genetics of your crops by saving only the best of your crops, etc…

    Great article and thanks for all the info you provide.

    Mighty Grow Organics

    Michael LaBelle wrote on December 14th, 2012
  11. I’ve got a Question? A friend is staying with us He went to Walmart and bought a head of lettuce. On the same day I went to a farmers market and bought a head of lettuce. We both shredded the lettuce and put them in separate one gal freezer bags. Then put them in the fridges crisper. they both looked like good heads of lettuce. In three days His lettuce was completely brown and wilted while mine looked just as fresh as the day I put it in. Any one know why? is it secondary metabolites?

    Paul wrote on May 18th, 2013
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    bodog88 wrote on December 27th, 2013

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