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The Failure of the Latest Study on Organics’ Nutritional Benefits

(Beyond Pesticides, August 3, 2009) Sometimes you have to look a little deeper to find the truth, as is the case with the headlines over the past week regarding organic produce's nutritional value. Last week the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) researchers announced the publication of their new study, "Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review," to be published in the September issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which finds "no evidence that organically produced foods are nutritionally superior to conventionally produced foodstuffs." Organic advocates and consumers say the study and the press announcement fail at providing all the facts and are misleading in guiding people away from all the benefits organic products provide.

"Unfortunately, it failed to include contemporary research showing organic strengths, and dismisses areas of organic superiority within its reviewed work, including antioxidant capacity (important for cancer-fighting properties)," states Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute in the Huffington Post. "The study appears to say absolutely nothing negative about organics, despite valiant attempts by the media to create sensational headlines."

Over 50,000 papers were searched, and a total of 162 relevant articles were identified that were published over a fifty-year period up to February 29, 2008 and compared the nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. A total of 55 of the identified papers were of satisfactory quality, and analysis was conducted comparing the content in organically and conventionally produced foods of the 13 most commonly reported nutrient categories. The review was commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).

"The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences. This was because these studies did not meet particular criteria fixed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which carried out the review," said Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, in a response to the study findings. "There are limited studies available on the health benefits of organic versus non-organic food. Without large-scale, longitudinal research it is difficult to come to far-reaching clear conclusions on this, which was acknowledged by the authors of the FSA review."

The press statement released by LSHTM states, "The researchers found organically and conventionally produced foods to be comparable in their nutrient content. For 10 out of the 13 nutrient categories analyzed, there were no significant differences between production methods in nutrient content. Differences that were detected were most likely to be due to differences in fertilizer use (nitrogen, phosphorus), and ripeness at harvest (acidity), and it is unlikely that consuming these nutrients at the levels reported in organic foods would provide any health benefit."

"Although the researchers say that the differences between organic and non-organic food are not 'important', due to the relatively few studies, they report in their analysis that there are higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic compared to non-organic foods," responds Mr. Melchett. "For example, the mean positive difference between the following nutrients, when comparing organic to non-organic food, was found in the FSA study to be: protein 12.7%; beta-carotene 53.6%; flavonoids 38.4%; copper 8.3%; magnesium 7.1%; phosphorous 6%; potassium 2.5%; sodium 8.7%; sulphur 10.5%; zinc 11.3%; and, phenolic compounds 13.2%. The researchers also found higher levels of beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids in organic meat and dairy products (between 2.1% - 27.8% higher) compared to non-organic meat and dairy."