WASHINGTON -- Shelling out a few extra dollars for organic foods could pay off in the long run when it comes to your health.
In the largest study of its kind, a meta-analysis recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers analyzed data from 343 peer-reviewed publications and found that organic foods have more nutritional benefits than their conventional counterparts.
"What they came out with is that organic foods are 18 to 69 percent higher in their concentrations of antioxidants than conventional foods that are exactly the same," says Mary Beth Albright, food lawyer and writer for National Geographic's The Plate.
What does this mean, exactly? Consumers who switch to organic fruits, vegetables and cereals will receive 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants than they would if they ate conventional. Albright says this is the equivalent of two extra portions of fruits or vegetables -- just without the calories.
Organic fruits, vegetables and grains are higher in antioxidants because of how they are grown: with fewer pesticides than conventional crops.
Albright says USDA-certified farmers can still use some pesticides on their crops, but several are forbidden, including those that protect against threatening bugs and funguses. Because of this, the plant produces its own defenses, and these defenses are in the form of antioxidants.
"And when humans eat the plant with those antioxidants in them, it also helps our body ward off disease and other harmful things," Albright says.
Organic crops also have a leg-up on conventional products when it comes to sugar and starch content. Synthetic fertilizers are commonly used in conventional farming, and these fertilizers have high nitrogen content, Albright says.
"When the nitrogen gets in the soil, it's a very quick supply of energy for a plant, so the fruits and vegetables grow really large, really quickly," she says.
Economically, this is beneficial to the farmer, but when crops grow too fast, the antioxidants that are supposed to develop don't get the chance, and instead, starches and sugars take their place.
The study also found that cadmium, a toxic metal contaminant, was decreased by 50 percent in organic foods, Albright says. And while cadmium is not a toxin most are concerned with, its presence is cause for question.
"We're seeing that the toxicity of organic crops are just lower than the toxicity of conventional crops, and we need to believe that those will be translated into better health effects in the human body."
Albright spoke with the one American researcher on the study, and he told her the results bring to light the declining state of conventional farming.
"He said, ‘Look. This isn't about the miraculous quality of organic crops; this is about the decline in nutritional value of conventional crops because of all the things we're applying to them. They're not able to grow into the fruits and vegetables that they were meant to grow into; they're not able to produce the antioxidants they're supposed to,'" Albright relays.
Several studies within the 343 reviewed pieces of research found that organic foods also taste better than conventional products. Albright explains the "struggle" organic crops endure helps them develop a more robust, unique taste. Whereas crops that grow with the help of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers don't take on all the flavors of their surroundings.
"We've all heard about the concept of terroir when it comes to wine. It's that a grape takes on the personality of the soil that it grows in. A pinot noir grape that grows in Oregon tastes so different than one that grows in Burgundy, France. The flavor comes from the soil; the personality comes from the soil. And the stress that a grape or fruit or a vegetable goes through to grow, it develops a flavor over time."
Even though this research was just recently released, Albright says she's seen consumers shift to organic products over the past few years. National brands such as Wal-Mart and Kroger have even launched their own line of organic products at competitive prices.
"Everybody is getting on the organics bandwagon because people are really seeing the word ‘organic' as shorthand for ‘healthier,'" Albright says. "And while there are many food products that are not labeled organic that are really great for you, sometimes people need shorthand."
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