When I was a kid, my summer job was selling vegetables at roadside stands and farmers’ markets near our Virginia farm. “Is this organic?” customers would ask. “No,” I’d say, “but we don’t use pesticides, our chickens run free on grass, and our produce is fresh and local.” I was barefoot, smudgyfaced, and barely 10 years old, which may or may not have enhanced my credibility. But I usually made the sale.
These all seem like admirable standards with the consumer’s best interests in mind. So, understandably, it came as quite a shock to health-minded shoppers when the British government’s Food Standards Agency released a review last year pronouncing organic produce to be no more nutritious than the conventional kind. Organics advocates called the UK review flawed and incomplete, and its authors biased. They contended that the study didn’t include recent data showing that organic food delivers many advantages (less exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, for example), and that the concluding statement buried any pro-organic news the researchers did find (like the fact that organic produce contains more of certain beneficial minerals). They claimed that some of the studies included in the review were poorly designed, others seriously outdated. “These findings are wrong,” Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic organization, says flatly. “Organic food is better for the planet, and it’s better for you.”
A lack of pesticide exposure is an important reason organic produce has higher levels of beneficial antioxidants like vitamin C, which fight the free radicals implicated in aging, cancer, and heart disease. Antioxidants are actually part of a plant’s own defenses. In fruits and vegetables, these bitter elements help fend off attacks by bugs and fungi. Organic crops contain more of these compounds because they have to work harder to protect themselves—no man-made pesticides to the rescue, says Holden.
In addition, organic produce is free of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which can also weaken plants’ health. “Nitrogen produces a watery, sugary cell sap that compromises the plant’s ability to build its immune system,” says Holden. Plants that come to rely on the chemical can no longer fend off pests naturally. Crops that are treated with the synthetic fertilizer also have overly leafy growth and poor flavor, as farmers have long known. That’s because the plants’ natural immune system of antioxidants is what makes produce aromatic and savory. In other words, a healthy plant makes a healthy meal—and a tastier one.
The same could be said about animals. You are what they eat. In 2006 the Journal of Dairy Science published the results of a British study showing a direct link between organic farming and higher levels of omega-3 fats in cow’s milk. According to the research, the average pint of (British) organic milk contains 68.2 percent more omega-3 fats than nonorganic milk. That makes sense: Grass (rather than corn and soybeans) is what cows will eat when left to their own devices, and it’s loaded with these essential fatty acids. In one of the unfortunate oversights in U.S. organic regulations, cows on some large-scale organic farms rarely graze on fresh grass, and instead are largely confined to feed lots. But this year a new USDA rule should close the loophole. To find dairy products that are produced from pasture-grazed cows, check the Dairy Scorecard atCornucopia.org.
While studies have shown that organic food can contain more nutrients, recent data highlights specific benefits to those who eat it. A 2007 Dutch study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that babies who ate organic dairy (and whose nursing mothers did, too) had a 36 percent lower incidence of eczema. A separate 2007 Dutch study found that women who drink organic milk have breast milk with much higher levels of CLA, a fatty acid with significant antioxidant properties.
In the end it’s clear that organic food is worth the premium it commands at the grocery store. As the authors of the UK review put it themselves: “The differences in…nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality.” That’s sciencespeak for precisely what organic farmers have said all along. Organic farming is not merely about eliminating bad things, like weed killer. It’s about raising soil fertility with proven methods, both modern and traditional, such as mulch and compost. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants and animals that depend on its nutrients—us included.
Nina Planck is the author of Real Food (Bloomsbury USA) and Real Food for Mother and Baby(Bloomsbury USA).