View Full Version : Is Organic Food Better?

07-23-2003, 08:56 AM
Is Organic Food Provably Better?
By MARIAN BURROS (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/16/dining/16WELL.html?ex=1059387399&ei=1&en=82de325ed09ccd4c)

IN the debate over whether organic food is better than conventionally raised food, advocates for organic produce say it contains fewer harmful chemicals and is better for the earth, and some claim that it is more nutritious.

And recent preliminary evidence suggests that the levels of certain nutrients, especially vitamin C, some minerals and some polyphenols naturally occurring antioxidants that may help bolster the immune system are higher in organically grown crops.

As a result of this preliminary evidence and the Agriculture Department's adoption in 2000 of standards for organic foods, the Organic Trade Association has created the nonprofit Center for Organic Education and Promotion to finance research that could verify what small-scale research may suggest: organic food may provide greater health benefits than conventional food.

"We want to take the knowledge to the next level until there is a solid body of research that we can stand behind," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the association. "There needs to be more rigor."

A study in the January 2003 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found 52 percent more ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, in frozen organic corn than in conventional corn, and 67 percent more in corn raised by sustainable methods a combination of organic and conventional farming. Polyphenols were significantly higher in organic and sustainable marionberries compared to conventionally farmed ones.

A three-year study in Italy, reported in the August 2002 issue of the same journal, found higher levels of polyphenols in organic peaches and pears, and about 8 percent more ascorbic acid in organic peaches.

And a study in the February 2002 European Journal of Nutrition found more salicylic acid in organic vegetable soup than in nonorganic soup. Salicylic acid is responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin, and bolsters the immune system.

Critics say these studies were poorly done, are biased and dealt with tiny differences in nutrients.

Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, who frequently disputes claims for the positive health benefits of organic farming, said the marionberry and corn study did not involve proper statistical analysis and that the data came from a single year and a single farm.

"This is a very, very shaky basis, given the differences that can occur," Mr. Avery said.

Dr. Diane Barrett of the University of California at Davis, a researcher on the study, said: "We acknowledge it's very preliminary data." She added: "It was a real-life look at what happens in a grower's field. We did not expect such differences among organic, sustainable and conventional farming. We see it as an open door to doing more controlled studies at the university."

Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, who is a consultant on the impact of agricultural systems and technology on food safety and the environment, said the study's conclusions were not surprising.

"This study extends and reinforces findings in earlier research," he said, referring to reports indicating that when plants are not treated with pesticides and are attacked by insects their levels of antioxidants rise to limit damage. "But it is new because it uses different crops under different circumstances. The study may have flaws, but it is a legitimate study."

Mr. Avery said the Italian study showed very little difference in nutrient levels. "I don't think you are going to find any health differences," he said.

And while scientists emphasize the importance of polyphenols and other antioxidants, particularly because they might help fight cancer, Mr. Avery said: "No one has a clue how much phenolics anyone needs to consume. Anyone who claims nutritional benefits from higher or lower phenolics doesn't understand."

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