Organic vs non-organic food nutrients – how do they compare?

Current opinions

There is a long-held belief that farming practices don’t make a real difference to food quality. But this belief is being questioned. Supporters of organic foods suggest that although it produces a lower yield, it has better nutritional quality and is cleaner, because of the strict standards of food authorities that prevent the use of synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, and promote sustainable farming practices [1].

So… what does the health science say?

Differences in composition

There is clear evidence that organic foods are cleaner and have higher nutritional quality. Organic foods are higher in antioxidants, and lower in metallic toxins and pesticides, according to a report in a scientific review by Baranski et al., (2014) [2] .

The extensive article published in the British Journal of Nutrition examined a total of 343 research studies from 1992-2011, which included comparisons of fruit, vegetables and compound foods. The researchers found that compared to conventional foods, organic foods were cleaner, as indicated by being lower in the toxic metals – cadmium and strontium, lower in pesticide residues, and lower in nitrogen from fertilizers, across all food types.

In terms of nutritional value, organic foods were higher in more than 5 different classes of antioxidants, including carotenoids, total antioxidants, and higher in vitamin C content.

This increase in vitamin C was also reported in an earlier study Worthington (2001) [3]. This researcher analysed 41 earlier research studies, focusing on those organic processes that didn’t use any fertilizers. Vitamin C levels were on average 27% higher in organic vs conventional foods.

Other nutrients that were statistically higher included iron (21%), magnesium (29%) and phosphorus (13%). There were also trends towards increases in all other trace mineral, especially iodine (498%), molybdenum (152%), chromium (86%) and selenium (372%), however these averages were more variable.

Worthington noted that levels of heavy metals including cadmium, were generally lower in organic fruit and vegetables, compared to conventionally grown ones.

What are the health benefits of organic fruit & vegetables?

Today’s certification processes control the entire agricultural system used to produce organic foods, not just whether the farm used chemicals, such as pesticides, or fertilizers.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is safety, a big plus when it comes to infant’s and children’s health. Heavy metals are well known factors that cause of brain toxicity [4]. So, knowing that organic foods are lower in heavy metals and other chemical toxins is reassuring. A review of collective research found two studies in children where pesticide residues in the urine of those who ate organic foods was lower than conventional food diets [5]. In another study, it took only 5 days of organic food consumption to reduce the pesticide residues of children who normally ate conventional foods, down to undetectable levels [6]

There are also some hints of health benefits in the research, despite a lot of variability. Some studies of organic food consumption report improvements in allergies, eczema and asthma symptoms in children from 5-17 years of age [7].

Looking forward

Organic plant foods are cleaner, safer, and have a better nutrient profile than conventionally produced equivalents. As they become more widely used, their long-term health benefits will become clearer, but for now, there are clear safety advantages in children’s nutrition.