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Organic Consumers Association

A Review of the Nutritional Quality and Safety of Organic Food

Abstract - Food security, nutritional quality and safety vary widely around the world. Reaching these three goals is one of the major challenges for the near future. Up to now, industrialized production methods have clearly shown severe limitations such as a worldwide contamination of the food chain and water by persistent pesticide residues, and reduced nutrient and flavor contents through low-cost intensive food production and/or processing. In line with several published literature reviews, the French Agency for Food Safety (AFSSA) performed under my coordination an up-to-date exhaustive and critical evaluation of the nutritional and sanitary quality of organic food. This review is based on the AFSSA report issued and recently published studies. The major points are:

  • 1/ organic plant products contain more dry matter and minerals (Fe, Mg); and contain more anti-oxidant micronutrients such as phenols and salicylic acid,
  • 2/ organic animal products contain more polyunsaturated fatty acids,
  • 3/ data on carbohydrate, protein and vitamin levels are insufficiently documented,
  • 4/ 94-100% of organic food does not contain any pesticide residues,
  • 5/ organic vegetables contain far less nitrates, about 50% less; and
  • 6/ organic cereals contain overall similar levels of mycotoxins as conventional ones.

Thus, organic agricultural systems have already proved able to produce food with high quality standards. I propose also improvements of organic production to achieve sustainable food production for humans in the near future.

1. INTRODUCTION

While mass foodstuff production was achieved in industrialized countries during the twentieth century, the limitations of such an intensive production system have been highlighted for decades by ecologists and numerous agronomists, nutritionists and medical doctors. Briefly, great concern has been caused by high energy and chemical inputs, worldwide contamination of the food chain and water by persistent pesticide residues and nitrates, and the reduced nutrient and flavor contents through low-cost and intensive food production and extensive milling or processing. Only recently has the combined awareness for environment protection, food safety and security and well-being markedly raised public concern and demand for ecologically grown staple foods (El-Hage Scialabba, 2007; Niggli et al., 2007). For developing countries, concern is also focused on the appropriate way to ensure present and future food security, the number of malnourished and undernourished people approaching one billion worldwide, with no decreasing trend for the coming decade (FAO, http://www.fao. org). Worldwide, emphasis is increasingly being put on the relationship between food, nutrition and health (WHO, 2004; WCRF, 2007).

In fact, the nutritional and toxicological value of food produced under methods of ecological agriculture has long been a matter of interest and debate. Despite the potential importance of this topic for human well-being, only a limited number of studies have been specifically carried out due to the past general lack of consideration of alternative and sustainable methods of food production. During the last few decades, several literature reviews have already been performed and published in this field (Schuphan, 1974; Finesilver et al., 1989; Lairon et al., 1984a; Woëse et al., 1997; Worthington, 1998; Food Standards Agency, 2000; Soil Association, 2001; Brandt and Mölgaard, 2001; Bourn and Prescott, 2002). Our AFSSA reportwas issued in 2003 (AFSSA, 2003) and some new reviews have recently been published (Magkos et al., 2006;Winter and Davis, 2006; Rembialkowska, 2007). In most cases, these reviews have used data from original studies or previous reviews without true consideration of the quality of the data. The conclusions derived can somewhat differ but they generally highlight some benefits from organic agriculture.

In 2001, the French Agency for Food Safety (Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments (AFSSA), http:// www.afssa.fr) aimed to perform an exhaustive and critical evaluation of the nutritional and sanitary quality of organic food. To this aim, an expert working group was set up under my coordination. We aimed to reach the highest quality standard during our evaluation. We thus defined inclusion as well as exclusion criteria for use of original publications. Briefly, selected papers should refer to well-defined and certified organic agricultural practices, and have necessary information on design and follow-up, valid measured parameters and appropriate sampling and statistical analyses. After more than two years of work involving about 50 experts from all specific areas including organic agriculture, a final consensus report was issued in the French language in 2003 (AFSSA, 2003). The present review paper is a summary of this report including some updating and some more personal suggestions.

In all circumstances, organic agriculture is first defined as by the European Union regulation (CCE/2092/91 and CE/1804/99) and secondly by the French regulation for animal productions. To summarize, the main characteristics of the organic agriculture production system are respect for the environment and animals, promotion of sustainable cropping methods, use of non-chemical fertilizers and pest/disease/weed control means, production of high-quality foodstuffs and no use of genetically modified (GM) crops.

The limit of such an evaluation is the insufficient number of studies published in this area. For some aspects, the available studies allow one to reveal some trend or conclusion. In some others, too limited information of sufficient quality hinders any sound assessment.

In the first part of this review, the nutritional value of organic food will be described comparatively with that of conventional food. This includes the dry matter contents of fruit and vegetables, macronutrients, minerals and vitamins in various staple foods, and phyto-microconstituants, especially antioxidants. In the second part, sanitary properties of organic foodstuffs will be reported. Contaminations by pathogenic microorganisms, phytochemical contaminants or mycotoxins, and nitrate levels are reported. In the Conclusion, the main data obtained are discussed in the context of sustainable agriculture development, with some specific suggestions for further improving food quality.

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