UK Food Standards Agency says: No evidence ‘organic’ is better

The British Food Standards Agency, set up in 2000 by the British government in order to protect the public’s health and consumer interests regarding food products, has published an extensive and independent review of the literature comparing conventional and ‘organic’ food. Their conclusion?

An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: ‘Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.

The review was done in two parts: The first report dealt with differences in the content of nutrients and other substances between ‘organic’ and conventional produce. When analyzing all studies regardless of quality, no evidence of a difference in content was detected between organically and conventionally produced crops for vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, total soluble solids, titratable acidity, copper, iron, nitrates, manganese, ash, specific proteins, sodium, plant non-digestible carbohydrates, β-carotene and sulphur. Significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found in some minerals (nitrogen higher in conventional crops; magnesium and zinc higher in organic crops), phytochemicals (phenolic compounds and flavonoids higher in organic crops) and sugars (higher in organic crops). When the analysis was restricted to satisfactory quality studies, statistically significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found only in nitrogen content (higher in conventional crops), phosphorus (higher in organic crops) and titratable acidity (higher in organic crops). The researchers concluded that both types of produce contained more than enough nutrients for human health, reminding us that consuming more vitamins is not necessarily better for one’s health. They suspected that any differences in nutrient content had to do with the soil nutrient content, the growing/feeding conditions and the season.

The second report discussed the rather paltry evidence regarding health outcomes resulting from the consumption of either conventional or ‘organic’ food. Given the paucity of information, the reviewers concluded that the 11 articles they found on the subject did not demonstrate any health benefits related to the consumption of ‘organic’ foodstuffs.

In the meantime, I know what I’ll be buying:

Local, conventionally-grown, fresh veggies in our local market.

Local, conventionally-grown, fresh veggies in our local market.

Arent they just beautiful...

Aren't they just beautiful...

...compared to the packaged, not-so-fresh,

...compared to the packaged, not-so-fresh,

organic produce in the supermarket and health food store?

'organic' produce in the supermarket and health food store?


27 Responses

  1. Is the term “organic” regulated in Israel like it is in U.S.?

    • Yes, since 2005 by the Ministry of Agriculture. It’s hard to see it, but the third symbol on the right on the label of the ‘organic’ sweet potato bag is the organic certification symbol.

  2. My mouth is watering looking at the locally grown food you have. I love our farmer’s markets. I only buy organic there if that’s the only thing they’re carrying or if it’s on sale for better than the non-organic options. 🙂

  3. I buy organic from one farm, but that’s because it’s a good farm that happens to be organic. I also used to buy organic cream, again, because it was really good cream (thick Jersey, it clotted on the top). If I’d had non organic cream of that quality I would have bought it.

    I used to follow the articles and the only item that ever seemed to have evidence in favor of organic was milk–and that might be because organic milk is (at least in the UK) grass fed. In the USA I will buy organic milk if it’s labeled grass fed, but I think the Organic Valley ultra pasteurized is no better than regular. And, again, there are a couple of farms (that I know of) that are not organic but I would happily buy over the organic stuff I get in the supermarket. (My cousins own one, and they say it’s not worth it to go organic. Too expensive and too much paperwork.)

    Whenever people would rave to me about how much better their organic vegetables tasted, I used to ask if they’d compared them to conventional produce grown in otherwise similar ways. If you compare fresh strawberries to ones packed in plastic at the A&P… well, what do you expect?

    The organic fad in the UK is particularly awful–I used to groan when I’d actually get recipes specifying organic lemons, organic caster sugar, etc. It’s SUGAR. Maybe it soothes your middle class conscience to have pesticide free sugar, but it doesn’t affect the taste at all.

    And a fun one for you, Esther: the Soil Association ruled that meat cannot be both kosher and organic. According to them, it can’t be organic if it’s cruel to animals, and kosher is cruel. So I couldn’t buy an organic chicken even if I wanted to. (I might have, because the animal welfare standards are higher, you don’t get the burns, and you don’t get the fish meal flavor.)

    • Sounds like they’re taking the term ‘organic’ far beyond its original meaning. Whatevs. (shrugs).

      Mind you, the zucchini I grow (mostly ‘orgnaically’, though I used Roundup to get the weeds away before planting) tastes wonderful – but that’s because it’s as fresh as humanly possible and the soil we have apparently is good for growing them. The ‘organic’ strawberries, OK but nowhere near as good as the ones in the market or even supermarket. It’s the soil and the weather conditions, not the ‘organicity’…

  4. A lot of the confusion comes from people not knowing what organic actually means. Organic doesn’t mean fresh. Organic doesn’t mean tasty. Organic doesn’t mean it has more nutrients. Organic doesn’t mean it comes from the farm down the street.

    Organic simply means the use of pesticides is restricted and that the products aren’t genetically modified. I buy organic produce because I don’t like contributing to nitrogen runoff into our streams, lakes and ocean. I don’t like eating food sprayed with RoundUp. I don’t like eating genetically modified food if I don’t know what it’s been injected with at the cellular level.

    This study didn’t even address the effects of pesticides on the human body… which is EXACTLY what organic farming is all about!

  5. So they only looked at the mineral and vitamin content, NOT how the pesticides
    herbicides and fertilizer harms either human beings or the environment. I’m very disappointed by this study and it’s impact in the media. I am sure some people will take this as “proof” that the organic movement is a sham, even though there is evidence that non-organic farming threatens various animal species a,, pollutes water ways and probably cause cancer and birth defects.

    • There is no indicated ecological advantage to organic farming. While non-organic famring does threaten species and pollutes waters, organic farming does it at least at the same rates.

      Notably, organic food has very low yield compared to conventional agriculture, so even if they have less runoff into the woodlands, they require that you mow down the woodlands. I’d rather lose a few species to pesticide leaking than lose all of them to habitat destruction– a far more pressing concern. If even half of the developed world ate only organic we would have to destroy every single rainforest on earth just to feed ourselves. Here’s a good article on that– 8th paragraph. Because manure is the primary organic fertilizer, organic farming requires we expand our cattle production dramatically, producing greenhouse gases, mowing down more rainforest and increasing our meat and dairy consumption (as it would drop the price of meat and dairy drastically and more would afford it), which increases all kinds of health problems like heart disease.

      Norman Borlaug, founder of the “green revolution” and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, calculated that at best, if all arable land was used for farming, organic farming could feed maybe 4 billion people– but that would mean a sharp reduction of biodiversity outside of zoos and total loss of rainforests and many other ecosystems.

      Sustainable, especially small-scale, conventional farming is the future, as modern bioengineered crops are the only way we will feed over 6 billion people and have a prayer of saving the earth from ourselves. As an ecologist, I avoid organic food on principle– indeed, when offered it, I refuse as I do bluefin tuna, knowing that by supporting such an industry I am personally doing more damage to the ecosystem and to my fellow man than every oil baron on earth.

  6. The issue of run-off depends on the farming technique. Some technique are better than others for minimizing run off. The impact of pesticides is hotly debated but in any case, it depends on circumstances and the pesticides. The really sophisticated advocates of organic farming ditched the old pesticide/cancer gambit ages ago in favor of the micro nutrient argument.

    I think the main thing people don’t like about modern farming techniques has nothing to do with nutritional content, pesticides – and obviously nothing to do with efficiency (it’s very efficient)

    I think people don’t like these techniques precisely because they ARE modern. The cancer/birthdefect comment is a dead give away. Is there anything product of the human struggle to control nature, from vaccination to infant formula that has not been portrayed as causing cancer or birth defects?

    • Nope. And so far, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing connection between ingesting pesticides and birth defects (and a very big ‘maybe’ with no causation proven regarding industrial exposure). .

      Also, did you know that cancer rates have actually been going down these past few years? Not because of the growing popularity of ‘organic’ food, I’ll wager.

      Rich – Roundup is considered very safe by the EPA. Also, as a weedkiller, it’s not sprayed on edible plants, otherwise they’d die…

      • Well, I bet the decreased cancer rates have a lot to do with all the stuff we found out was a carcinogen that was used before we tested for carcinogenic properties– things like cigarettes, asbestos… and yes, many of the old pesticides, which have been banned because they were found to be carcinoogenic and replaced with the thoroughly tested, non-carcinogenic modern pesticides.

        A lot of the people exposed to that stuff have now died; so the rates should go down.

  7. DDT used to be considered safe as well… which we now know was a crock of ****. I don’t trust the FDA, which has had years of funding cuts after funding cuts, to approve these pesticides as safe. These organizations have been staffed by industry lobbyists (citing industry-sponsored ‘studies’) for years as well. Look a little deeper, and you’ll see that things aren’t as peachy keen as you think they are.

    Haven’t you heard of ‘RoundUp-ready’ soy and corn? It’s sprayed on edible plants that have been genetically modified to resist RoundUp, which kills just about everything else.

    My point is that you really don’t know what ingesting certain industrial chemicals will do to your body – nobody does. Consumers need to be armed with the right information so they can be sure to choose what’s best for them.

    • I don’t listen to just the FDA, I listen to the scientific studies. The FDA allows “herbals” and “vitamins” to be completely unregulated to the point where you could be ingesting arsenic and cyanide, so why trust them? But the actual studies, including those conducted overseas in Europe (which has stricter standards about pesticides) indicate modern pesticides are safe for human consumption.

  8. There are lots of substances, natural and man-made that we need to handle with care because they can be dangerous. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever use them. DDT is one of these. Used judiciiously it can make a hugely reduce the numbers of malaria deaths.

    It’s widely recognized that banning DDT was a huge over-reaction that cost countless lives. It’s amazing that people still take Rachel Carson as gospel.

    That’s the problem with statements like” you really don’t know what ingesting certain industrial chemicals will do to your body – nobody does”. It’s not rational, it’s irrational. It’s not science but faith – or maybe a lack of faith in our abilty to move society forward AND solve the inevitable problems that progress creates in the process.

    I’d go further and say that when there really are health problems, we are pretty good at identifying them. What’s the problem organic foods are supposed to solve? Malnutrition? The epidemic of people dying of pesticide poisoning? (You know, the one being covered up by all those sinister corporate interests in the FDA, the CDC and WHO.) Or is this a Rumsfeldian manifestation of the moral malaise of the affluent?

    • The funny thing is, Borlaug’s introduction of bioengineered, non-organic food to impoverished countries singlehandedly saved over 200 million people from starvation. I think starvation counts as malnutrition– and I KNOW the food they were eating before was definitely organic.

      Organic food may not be the province of the rich, but it is the province of those with unrestricted food access in affluent countries. If you eat organic in Africa, you die.

  9. I hardly qualify as affluent, but thanks for proving that you’re unwilling to think normal everyday people are finding problems with conventional farming.

    You can eat whatever you like, and that’s not a problem. But organic farming is proved to be the more sustainable method. Even switching to organic simply because it’s the more environmentally stable way of production is good enough for me. I don’t like that our rivers are being flooded with industrial chemicals. This filters down through fish stocks and is consumed in concentrated quantities by those consuming fish as well.

    In the end, organic is the natural, age-old way of production. With smart pest control systems and crop rotation, you end the need for these heavy chemicals and intensive fertilizers.

    • “But organic farming is proved to be the more sustainable method. ”

      No, it has not. No study has ever said this that wasn’t put out by a company themselves and never peer-reviewed. Organic farming’s yield alone makes it unsustainable unless we are willing to sacrifice all natural biodiversity for the sake of eating organic.

      Which would you prefer– a few species of fish dying because of industrial chemicals (modern farming), or every species of bird dying because we mowed down their nesting grounds to make a fraction of the farmland needed to grow organically (organic farming)?

      I can always tell the people who have never taken agricultural ecology courses. When my vegan ecology professor, as crunchy as they come, tells us never to shop organic because it will destroy the environment and starve billions of humans and animals alike, I begin to suspect there’s serious propaganda out there in the news.

    • I meant affluent in the global sense, meaning that this is a preoccupation of those who live in societies where agriculture is efficient enough that they can take basic subsistence for granted – not in the sense of your personal economic circumstances.

  10. In the end, organic is the natural, age-old way of production.

    Rich, lots of really horrible things are natural and age old.

    Also, your statement that organic is more sustainable is questionable. Can you provide a link or proof? Last I read, it’s not true.

  11. Here’s a great article about the subject written by a farmer. You know, one of those simple-minded dupes of corporate argriculture : ) . He’s particularly good on Michael Pollan. Enjoy!

    • I read that, and I think there’s some truth, but I’m also skeptical. I’ve seen crowded chicken houses. The chickens are bothered, and they get shit burns. Not to mention, the really intensively factory farmed chickens have no texture or taste.

      • I suspect the taste has more to do with genetics and feed than living conditions. For me the point is more about the how innovation in agriculture. There are, no doubt, better ways to raise chickens better ways to farm generally but people like Pollan who lay so much stress on the separation between the consumer and the source of their food are really projecting their own alienation from agriculture on to the world at large. If they were more connected with agricultute as it really is instead of an extention of their own organic gardens they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss farmers or to embrace organic farming – which as the author points out represents a return to the farm techniques of the 1930’s

  12. Ever notice something odd about the “organic” food you see in most supermarkets and health food stores? It doesn’t have any bug bites taken out of it. Having gardened, I can tell you that any plants that have no exposure to pesticides WILL have bugs eating them. You can cut down on the bugs with non-pesticide interventions but not eliminate them. “Organically grown” produce that is totally non-bug bitten has been exposed to pesticide of some sort. Probably one of the older, “natural”, less specific pesticides. In general, my rule is if it’s supposedly organic and the bugs don’t want it I don’t want it either.

    • I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You can grow wonderful-looking veggies and herbs in hothouses using hydroponics or container crops, and keep the crops relatively bug-free. The cost, of course, will be commensurate…

      • That’s a good point. But unless greenhouses are much cheaper than I think (always a possibility), I don’t think that that’s what’s going on.

  13. They do use pesticides of a sort. They are made from – in some cases the ground up ectoskeletons of insects. This causes the plants to toughen up and become less attractive to pests – I think there are other concoctions too. I have grown veg without pesticides – out of laziness not by design – and most were okay.

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