WASHINGTON, July 11, 2014— Organic crops have higher levels of antioxidants associated with better health than conventional crops, according to a study led by scientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

The researchers say they found “statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition” between organic and non-organic crops. 

The study is the most comprehensive of its kind and delivers an unprecedented data bank of nutritional quality information in organic and conventional plant-based food, according to Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University who helped design the study, review the scientific literature and write the paper.

“This study is telling a powerful story of how organic plant-based foods are nutritionally superior and deliver bona fide health benefits,” Benbrook said in a news release. 

The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, analyzed 343 peer-reviewed publications that compared composition of organic and non-organic crops and crop-based foods.

Average total antioxidant activity was a 17 percent higher in organic crops when compared to their conventional counterparts, according to the report. 

“Without the synthetic chemical pesticides applied on conventional crops, organic plants tend to produce more phenols and polyphenols to defend against pest attacks and related injuries,” the authors of the study wrote. They note that phenols and polyphenols can help prevent diseases triggered or promoted by oxidative damage, like coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

Additionally, the team concluded that consumers who switch to organic fruit, vegetables and cereals would get 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants. However, the authors point out that there is “still a lack of knowledge about the potential human health impacts of increasing antioxidant intake levels and switching to organic food consumption.”

A study from Stanford University published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 on the same topic did not find any significant health benefits from consuming organic foods. The Stanford study, led by Crystal Smith-Spangler, analyzed 223 studies that looked at nutritional content of foods and found no significant difference in nutritional quality. 

However, Carlo Leifert, a Newcastle University professor and the project leader, said his team “benefited from a much larger and higher quality set of studies” than scientists who carried out earlier reviews.

Both research teams used a method known as meta-analysis to reach their conclusions. Such a technique focuses on contrasting and combining results from different studies, in the hope of identifying patterns among study results.

However, The Newcastle team said it used a recommended, weighted meta-analysis method to find what they say are more accurate results.

The Newcastle researchers also concluded that organic crops have lower cadmium levels than conventional crops, and pesticide residues are present more frequently in conventional crops than organic ones.

The Stanford study found that the risk for contamination with pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce, but differences in the risk for exceeding maximum limits were small.

The Newcastle study cost $429,000 and was funded by the European Framework Programme 6, which is a research program of the European Union, and the Sheepdrove Trust, a charity supporting research on sustainability and organic farming.


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