From Featuring Dr Chris Steele MBE

'No additional health benefits' from organic food

FSA report shows no nutritional improvement

A new study commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency has concluded there are no nutritional or other health benefits to be gained from eating organic foods.

Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) reviewed all published literature on this subject from the last 50 years. They claim that this is the most comprehensive such study carried out to date.

Dr Alan Dangour, of the LSHTM’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, who led the study, said: "A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, 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."

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: "Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food."

"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."

The study which is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consists of two parts. The first part looked at the nutritional content of organic and non-organic foods, and the second considered additional health matters.

It should be noted that the review did not consider the effects of pesticides and other contaminants, nor did it attempt to asses the environmental impact of organic foods compared to non-organic foods.

About the study

The study reviewed over 160 peer-reviewed articles published since 1958. This amounted to over 3,500 different comparisons of the nutritional value of organic and non-organic food.

In crops no evidence was found for a difference in content between the two types of food for a wide range of nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus and beta-carotene.

There was evidence of difference for other nutrients, such as nitrogen, zinc, flavonoids, and sugars. But when the analysis was restricted to studies considered to be of a high standard, the only differences noted in the crops were:

For meat products the results where similar, although there were fewer higher quality studies to analyse.

The scientists concluded that on this basis there is so far no evidence that eating organic crops and meat products results in any health benefits.

Criticism of the study

The Soil Association, the main trade body for the organic food industry, has disputed the way in which the FSA has reported the study, pointing out that there are reported differences in important nutrients, and that a wide ranging European study has shown health benefits for organic foods.

Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association commented: "We are disappointed in the conclusions the researchers have reached. The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences. This was because these studies did not meet particular criteria fixed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which carried out the review."

The Soil Association further noted: "Organic farming and food systems are holistic, and are produced to work with nature rather than to rely on oil-based inputs such as fertilisers. Consumers who purchase organic products are not just buying food which has not been covered in pesticides (the average apple may be sprayed up to 16 times with as many as 30 different pesticides), they are supporting a system that has the highest welfare standards for animals, bans routine use of antibiotics and increases wildlife on farms."

Both the FSA and the Soil Association accept that longer-term, more wide ranging studies are needed into this issue.

More information

This article was published on Wed 29 July 2009