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Organic food no more nutritious than conventionally grown, review finds

July 29, 2009 |  9:11 am

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A comprehensive review of research comparing the nutritional content of food that was organically raised with food produced with the use of synthetic pesticides has found no significant differences between the two. Conducted by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the study is the first to bring a heated debate over the value of organic food to a rigorous conclusion. It is published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

"Our review indicates there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority," said Alan Dangour of the London School's Public Health Intervention Research Unit.

Surveying 50,000 studies conducted over 50 years, the authors focused on 55 that met their standards of scientific rigor. The studies that led to the group's controversial conclusions covered a wide range of crops and livestock that are raised and marketed under organic standards. For 10 out of 13 food crops studied, the researchers found no significant differences. Where they did find differences, those were attributed to differences in fertilizer use (say, the use of nitrogen vs. phosphorus) and the ripeness level at which the crops were harvested. The authors judged the differences observed "unlikely" to "provide any health benefit" to consumers.

The study was commissioned and funded by Britain's Food Standards Agency, the governmental office that regulates food production and sales in Britain.

Estimated to have surpassed the $23-billion mark last year, sales of organic food in the United States have grown sharply in the last 20 years, fueled by consumers' concerns about pesticide exposure, damage to the environment and the nutritional value of food raised by conventional means. The study released today will likely do little to allay the first two fears. But for those who pay premiums for organic food in the belief it is richer in nutrients, the new analysis is likely to be a blow.

The authors did not address taste or freshness, an area unlikely to yield to science anytime soon.

-- Melissa Healy

Photo credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

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