You are what you eat, or so the adage goes. It is this idea that has helped the organic food industry grow into a multi-billion dollar a year industry, as people want to better not only themselves but also the environment by eating organic products. But is the “clean” food actually better for you than more commercially grown varieties? Well, the science on that one is far from settled.
There are two main arguments when it comes to the benefits of organic food, specifically crops. The first posits that the nutritional content of plants grown free of synthetic pesticides is greater than the same plants grown under normal conditions, giving those who eat them certain “health benefits”. The second is that organic farms improve animal welfare, providing a more humane environment in which to raise livestock, as well as being better for the surrounding countryside and wildlife. While the organic foods industry hold these up as fact, there are some serious doubts as to the truth of the claims.
It is claimed that organic crops contain more nutrients than non-organic foods. One analysis from Newcastle University that looked at 343 studies, for example, found that organic crops contained up to 60 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown crops – equivalent to eating an extra one or two portions of fruit or veg a day. Antioxidants, it is claimed, are good for you as they mop up free-radicals that are known to damage DNA and increase the chance of genetic mutations.
But it’s by no means clear that consuming more antioxidants is genuinely good for you. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest the opposite. A Cochrane review, internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care, found that rather than improving health, taking antioxidant supplements actually slightly increased mortality rates. The review included 78 randomized clinical trials involving 296,707 participants who each received either antioxidant supplements (composed of beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium), a placebo, or nothing. Those that took the supplements were up to 1.04 times more likely to die. While in high concentrations free radicals are harmful, at lower levels they may be beneficial.