Organic Food No Better For You Says Influential UK Agency

  • Published on August 5th, 2009

organic food box

The Food Standards Agency in the UK has declared that, “… there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.”


In a comprehensive study, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine examined more than 50,000 studies on the nutritional value of foods going back to 1958. Of these, 55 met the criteria of the project. Dr Alan Dangour, the principal author, commented on the marginal differences found during the studies, “A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist … but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

Those marginal differences were that conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables had more nitrogen, while their organic counterparts had more phosphorus. But these differences were small compared to the similarities in nutritional content, including similar levels of vitamin C, calcium, iron and fatty acids in both kinds of food.

Doubters still doubt

Those who support organic production point out that the study didn’t consider possible side-effects resulting from the consumption of pesticides and herbicides used in conventional food production, and that organic farming may improve the welfare of livestock.

The Food Agency commented on negative responses to the report by saying “The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.”

Soil Association sees the bigger picture

The Soil Association, Britain’s biggest ‘licensing body’ for organic products, has given its own immediate response to the report, saying that it needs time to examine the detail of the work closely but that, “… it’s a popular myth that people who buy organic food only do so because they think it will make them healthier. Recent EU research has found that regular buyers of organic food (who buy about 80% of all organic products) have a much more sophisticated understanding of the range of benefits that organic farming and food deliver.” The Soil Association also noted that The European Commission, in 2006, reported links between certain cancers, male infertility and nervous system disorders and exposure to pesticides.

Beyond the issue of personal nutrition, buying organic food also promotes a healthy environment. The average industrially-produced apple may have been sprayed up to 16 times with 30 different chemicals.  Organic farms have on average 30% more species and 50% more wildlife like birds, butterflies and bees.

Organic food box courtesy of AndyRob at Flickr under a creative commons licence

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  • I had initially considered this UK study a red herring. This discussion is surprising to me because in my ignorance I had thought that the rationale for eating organic foods was because of the absence of contamination, not nutritional superiority. You can just take a pill if you need to supplement your nutrition. As far as taste is concerned, first consider freshness and plant variety, then a comparison will be meaningful. Many varieties are “shippers” that taste like cardboard, but take a beating in shipping and still look great.

  • I disagree with the article and raise you two reasons for organic practices.

    “The high water-volume flows, coupled with nearly triple the nitrogen concentrations in these rivers over the past 50 years from human activities, has led to a dramatic increase in the size of the dead zone,” said Gene Turner, a lead forecast modeler at Louisiana State University.

    Northeast of the Gulf, low water flows into the Chesapeake Bay shaped Scavia’s 2009 forecast for that hypoxia zone.

    The Bay’s oxygen-starved zone is expected to shrink to between 0.7 and 1.8 cubic miles, with a “most likely” volume of 1.2 cubic miles—the lowest level since 2001 and third-lowest on record. The drop is largely due to a regional dry spell that lasted from January through April, Scavia said. Continued high flows in June, beyond the period used for the forecasts, suggest the actual size may be near the higher end of the forecast range.

    “While it’s encouraging to see that this year’s Chesapeake Bay forecast calls for a significant drop in the extent of the dead zone, we must keep in mind that the anticipated reduction is due mainly to decreased precipitation and water runoff into the Bay,” he said.

    “The predicted 2009 dead-zone decline does not result from cutbacks in the use of nitrogen, which remains one of the key drivers of hypoxia in the Bay.”

    Farmland runoff containing fertilizers and livestock waste—some of it from as far away as the Corn Belt—is the main source of the nitrogen and phosphorus that cause the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.”

    “Exposure to pesticides can cause a range of ill effects in humans, from relatively mild effects such as headaches, fatigue, and nausea, to more serious effects such as cancer and neurological disorders. In 1999, EPA estimated that nationwide there were at least 10,000 to 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide illnesses and injuries per year in farm work. Environmental effects are evident in the findings of the U.S. Geological Survey, which reported in 1999 that more than 90 percent of water and fish samples from streams and about 50 percent of all sampled wells contained one or more pesticides. The concern about pesticides in water is especially acute in agricultural areas, where most pesticides are used.”
    Source: Agricultural Pesticides: Management Improvements Needed to Further Promote Integrated Pest Management, U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO-01-815, Page 4, August 2001].

  • Have a look at this article. This study is starting to look very flawed.

    Also try doing a google search for 'bullshit organic food debunk' for some background on the Penn and Teller organic food episode. It seems they forgot to mention that their “Food Policy Analyst Expert” works for who receive funding from Monsanto.

    I still say my organic produce is better than anything factory farmed.

  • just conducted a study on 308 viewers of a news clip stating there is no added nutritional value in organic food products. The majority (65%) of viewers stated that they will not change their purchasing behaviors after hearing this information. The majority of respondents (71%) also reported that the main reason why they purchase organic foods is that they are free of food additives, and 66% indicated that the main reason why they purchase organic foods is that they are lower in pesticide residue. For more in-depth results please visit….


  • It's really fascinating how polarised people's views are on this subject. As an organic gardener myself, I think I can 'taste' a difference in tomatoes and potatoes, but I can't tell if that is because I grow vegetables from my own seed, with lots of tender care and the supermarket varieties are grown with less care and a lot more intensive practices, and often, completely different seed.

    Why is organic more a crusade than other food choices, like high versus low fat milk, for example? The politicisation of the organic brand runs deep and often seems to be completely oppositional – perhaps because organic licensing is so sought after. I wonder what will happen to the premium pricing on organics if this report is widely read.

  • @kevin: I don't think fertilizer is necessarily "cheating" as you suggest. Just so we're clear, my veggie garden is thick, green and lush right now with only one application of an organic nitrogen-rich tea when I transplanted to the outdoors in the spring. I will only feed if I need to, and considering the poor condition of my natural soil, that is usually 1-3 times per season. Other than that, I mulch with my compost, and I do just fine.

  • @ Jason

    I have done the research. I am out in the field doing it every day. I study it every night. That is how I ended up in the comments section of this site.

    I have read actual peer reviewed papers on this subject. There really isn't that much research to support either side of the argument, at least not yet. As long as the companies that grow organic produce are the same ones that grow industrial produce there is not going to be a definitive answer.

    I can tell you though, that in my experience, small scale organic produce is better by any metric you wish to use. Taste, nutrition, yield, sustainability, pleasure, you name it.

    I have seen the Penn and Teller program. I have a lot of spare time in the winter. I appreciate the men and their opinions. It is entertaining. It is hardly "actual scientific research."

    @ Timothy B. Hurst

    I would like to compare a crop grown in Miracle Grow to a crop grown in healthy organic soil. I don't add fertilizer. That is cheating. I till under cover crops and practice intensive rotation. That is more than enough.

  • I'd have to side with Kevin on this one. Conventional vegetables could taste more like organics if they weren't bred and prized for things other than taste (i.e long shelf-life, strong resistance to cuts and bruises during shipping, certain colors and shapes, etc.).

    The commodification of fruits and vegetables has driven farmers to produce crops that vary little from one place to the next so they may be bought and traded on global markets and that the buyers know exactly what it is they are buying without even seeing it. Producers strive for homogeneity and it is that desire for homogeneity that selects-out taste in favor of other characteristics.

    That said, I imagine I could grow heirloom tomatoes with both Miracle Gro and an organic fert and fine very little difference in taste (by avoiding all the reasons alluded to above).

  • fools who say that Organic food is better tasting and better for you, or even better for the environment need to do some actual scientific research. I think you'd be unpleasantly suprised at how wrong you all are. If you're too lazy to do your own research you can always try watching Penn and Tellers Bullshit for the short story.

    Try season 7 for starters

  • @ Scott

    What are the conditions of your taste test?

    I have roma tomatoes out in the field that look exactly like the ones at the grocery store except that mine are a little redder. I pick some of them just before they are ripe so that they will last a little longer on the shelf at a store I sell to. Even those taste different. They taste like a tomato. Even though they are normally for paste and not meant to be eaten out of hand, I often do. I can't say the same for the flavorless non-organic romas at the store.

    My spinach tastes better. My radishes taste better. My corn tastes better. I only grow a few non-heirloom varieties, so I don't have many things to compare. It wouldn't be fair to compare my heirloom tomatoes picked at the peak of the season to anything non-organic picked up off of the shelf at the store.

  • @Marshall

    I bet you 100 bucks you can't identify organic vs non-organic in a taste test. Seriously. If you're reasonably close to me I'll organize something and you can put your money where your palate is. Ping if you wanna throw down 😉

  • I went blueberry picking on a farm recently and there were almost zero bugs – I saw two small spiders the whole time. Everything must have been killed by pesticides.

  • @ Nathan

    There is nothing decadent about my organic produce farm. I grow sustainably on a small scale (10 acres) and sell my produce at the same prices as the local grocery stores. Not at the same price as the organic produce at the grocery stores, the price of regular produce. I make a decent living. I donate anything not sold to local food banks and a soup kitchen.

    The people who are starving around the world are not helped in any way by industrialised agriculture. If they are going to survive it will have to by by growing their own food sustainably, the way I am doing it. Sending them tractors and patented seeds will only make things worse. Teaching them how to grow food for the long run and providing seeds that will thrive in their climate are the keys.

  • organic food is so decadent, there are people starving in the world and we are grow food inefficiently so it can be endowed with magical properties, like health benefits that can not be measured. There are harmful substances every where in everything, both man made and natural it all about concentrations, search for fecal bacteria anywhere in your house and you will find them but in concentrations to low to worry about, search for harmful stuff in your food both natural and man made and you will find them, again in concentration to low to worry about. The variability in food quality is much to varied to make a judgement about which taste better as a individual, you would need to do a large study to determine that, though you may find that your local supermarket has better quality organic food because the people who buy organic food are willing to pay for better quality. We should be trying to make food as cheaply and efficiently as possible in a sustainable way. If we could grow meat in petri this would be great for the environment and greatly reduce the cost of food, we should be trying to make food as cheep as possible so there is no excuse for anybody to go hungry .

  • It all depends on the organic produce with which they were doing the comparison. If coming from a large scale farm that either grows produce en masse or recently switched from conventional produce to organic produce, the soil is likely to be rather depleted of nutrients so of course the nutritional content will be largely the same.

    If you take organic food from a farm that has put a lot of care into re-mineralizing their soil or rotating crops/grazing areas, then the nutritional value and content of the organic produce is likely notably higher then that of it's conventional counterpart.

  • Well obviously they both have the same nutriants if they're the same food, a carrot is a carrot after all. The whole point of organic food is what isn't in it rather than what is, i.e. you know there are no unwanted chemicals in it, and it's more than likely grown by some local farmer (if you get it from a grocery store) than packaged God knows where by some faceless machines.

    I mean, Hell, why don't we all eat Astronaut food if no one cares, I'm sure it's just as good for you…

  • I don't agree that organic food tasts better every single time. There are certain substitutes in regular food that isn't in organic food.

  • They taste better! Honestly, a person could very well remain alive regardless of which of these ways they eat, but mere survival is no way to judge sustenance. Only a fool eats non-organic food and thinks it's as good as OG food. Also, what kind of crazy upside down world do we live in where a government is saying "we certainly support peoples' choice to eat food that grew naturally, without industrial pesticides all over it, if that's what you want to do!" as if that's an unusual choice to make. 🙁

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