Can I interest you in consuming a more nutritious and tastier diet without changing the kinds of food you eat? Back in 2012 a study famously declared organic foods to be no more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts, but get ready for conventional wisdom about conventional crops to be turned on its head.
Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains have several measureable nutritional benefits over conventional crops, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN) and released Thursday. Analyzing 343 peer-reviewed publications, researchers from the United Kingdom with the help of American Charles Benbrook of Washington State University found that organics contain 18 to 69 percent higher concentrations of antioxidants. Translation: the organic eater consumes the antioxidant equivalent of approximately two extra produce portions every day, without altering food intake.
“The study likely says more about nutrient decline in conventional food than it does about a miraculous quality of organic food,” Benbrook said when I spoke with him last week. Organic farming prohibits chemical pesticides that are widely used in conventional farming. Without pesticides to guard against harm, an organically farmed plant will produce more of its own compounds, called antioxidants, to fight damage. And when consumed by humans, these antioxidants also protect our bodies from harm.
Notably, when a plant grows organically without pesticides its taste is enhanced as well. Studies considered in the BJN paper show that higher antioxidant levels affect food’s organoleptic qualities—taste, aroma, and mouthfeel—and how the human senses detect a food’s unique flavor. Benbrook explained: “The concept of terroir can be traced to particular biological stresses in a region or soil types that impact how a plant responds to stress. The chemicals that a plant produces to respond to stress become part of that plant’s signature taste. People are yearning for more intense flavors, and there’s good news that organic farming accentuates flavor in fruits and vegetables.”
Conventionally farmed soil also tends to have high levels of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers, which a plant uses as quick, easy energy to create high levels of sugars and starches (not generally deficient in my diet…yours?) in the fruit or vegetable, at the expense of flavor-producing, healthful antioxidants. The study additionally found cadmium, a toxic metal contaminant, to be about 50% lower in organic crops than in conventional foods.
Raising the $429,000 required for the study was possible in the UK, according to Benbrook, whereas “it never would have happened in the US. In the UK, funding sources want answers about food safety and the nutritional quality of food.” But with organics as an expanding $35 billion industry (and even Wal-Mart entering with its recent deal to carry a steeply discounted Wild Oats organics line), that may be changing. The more eaters express concern for scientific food-quality information, the closer our conventional wisdom will come to the truth.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.