Image Credit: Sally Plank

Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let’s do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn’t find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn’t find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called “secondary metabolites” of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, “Ew, this tastes like broccoli!” But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don’t have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven’t yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven’t been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving’s worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it’s not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods (including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better? 

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


25 responses to “Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

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  1. What nobody ever seems to mention in these debates is the people who live on the plantations where the produce is grown. After driving past banana plantations in Costa Rica and watching multiple plane dusters dropping tons of pesticides right onto homes where whole families were living, I realised the decision is not just about my own health and well being but others too. I try to buy organic wherever possible not just because it tastes better, and may be a bit healthier but also because my decision to save a bit of money also affects the lives and health of the growers to a much greater extent!

    1. The environmental impact is, for me, overriding. Even if organics and GMO’s turned out to be ‘healthier’, the consequences of the use of pesticides and herbicides are too onerous to ignore. It is not the world that will be destroyed, but us.

      1. There’s a difference between pesticide-free and organic. Pesticides are typically used in growing organic food, just different ones that are arguably better for the environment. . I’m not up on the details but I know there are claims that some of the pesticides used in organic farming are worse for human health.

        1. Alas, that seems to be true. Good point. Organic labeled produce only means that only organically derived pesticides were used, and they can be as bad or worse then non-organic pesticides. The best answer is probably to avoid factory farms and buy from local farmers you can trust, and grow as much of your own as possible. It’s actually amazing how much can be grown in even a small area.

    2. Conventional farming is also destroying soil qualities, which are extremely important for all planets creatures and ecosystems. Soil is where life starts, from bacteria, parasites, worms, fungus, bees, ladybugs etc. Intensive conventional farming can harm the soil, water and air with dramatic climate changes, that are almost impossible to gain back. Check for instance the case of Baltic Sea in Europe or Ogallala Aquifer in US. These are just two examples of a big planetary issue with the same cause.

  2. Thanks as always NF!

    One thing that has sprung to my mind recently. Say there are two organic apples of the same variety. Booth look delicious. One of them tastes delicious /sweet while the other tastes watery. Are they likely to have similar nutrient ratios? Is taste / sweetness an indicator of this? I sometimes buy fruit that looks great but has no taste. I end up wondering if it’s even worth eating from at least a nutrient perspective.

    Cheers

    1. Hi Steve,
      Firstly, I like to thank Dr Greger for this blog and all the great information on nutrition and health that he provides us.
      In answer to your question I do agree sometimes the organic fruits some tastes sweet and very delicious and another kind might not. I would think the soil and the environment and water and sunshine and the ripeness of the fruit when picked up have an effect on the taste. As I understand an organically farmed plant will produce more of its own compounds, to protect itself, called antioxidants, to fight damage. And when consumed by humans, these antioxidants also protect our bodies from harm.

  3. I am in Bay area and would like to attend one of the scheduled talks but can find no specifics about time/place?–neither with google searches–so please let me in on the secret so I can tell others.

    thanks, db

  4. Organic IS conventional! All this poisonous stuff has only been pushed on us for the last few decades. The excuse is that people need to be fed – how about cutting the population and allowing fewer people to enjoy better health?

    1. How about getting more people to eat WFPB so that less land is wasted on animals grown as food and the attendant waste of water/resources? …not to mention our rising out-of-sight health care costs because everyone is not WFPB?

  5. One of the motivating factors for me when I buy organic is I believe I am supporting a more sustainable farming practice. Many organic farms grow a variety of different foods and practice things like composting and repurposing anything they can. I just believe it is a more authentic traditional way of farming. I also believe I am buying more locally grown food and supporting local farmers. By living a WFPB lifestyle every living thing on the planet benefits. I think buying organic compliments that.

  6. Organic products can be grown with animal manure which might not end up being any safer for the consumer than the pesticides.
    The answer is typical, maybe in 100 to 500 years we will know because the money is not in getting the answer…
    So what are we to do now? Focus on whole plant-based products, organic if the price is reasonable, and hope for the best…

  7. Many people know that a plant based diet will shield them from the ravages of serious illness but they still eat unhealthy. They say “but I like it.” Is this not the same argument we would get from a drug addict?

  8. Hi Sid Sutherland,
    I know what you say, it is hard trying to change others! However, I usually say that as an health educator we can only help the people to get to the level to want to change their perception of looking at an idea or situation. I liked what Dr Wayne Dyer used to say “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at changes.”

  9. It is really sad that most people don’t understand they are being farmed by Corporate America. The whole cycle is engineered scientifically to keep us full of saturated fat, salt, sugar and our medications. Our food is designed to be addictive and generate the diseases that are killing us, so the pharmaceuticals and medical industries can finish killing the few that are left. This is a self perpetuating system that takes what little wealth and life the middle class has a gives it too the one percent.

  10. There is no debate. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are all products that do not promote good health and vitality for the plants, nor for the animals and humans eating the plants.

    Like all made-man chemicals they have deleterious effects, and there particularly because they are explicitely designed to destroy living organisms, or are showed to destroy the life in the soil.

    Because those chemicals are detrimental to the life in the soil, they also are detrimental to the plants growth and health, and therefore to the animals and humans eating those plants who need a living soil for maintaining further plants growth.

    1. Agricultural systems have been developped like factories without any ecological consideration. It is insane that one grows plants upon the dejection of the even more insane meat industry.

      Plant foods are biological matter, and so it is sensitive and depends of its environment from which it can not be isolated.

      When one creates the good condition: a good natural soil, good natural protections and biodiversity on the farming location, then a sustainable agriculture is possible, without the need for animal fertilizers or chemical fertilizers.

  11. Aside from all of the above reasons, personally I always choose organic above conventional produce when it’s an option and when my budget allows, simply because it tastes so much better. And I know it’s anecdotal but I also find it seems to stay fresh for much longer…

    1. Sarah,

      Add to this the lessened burden of pesticides and exposures to your family and the workers….. and it’s a good deal. As a note have you seen the product called Blue Apple speaking of keeping the veggies and fruits fresh longer ?

      Dr. Alan Kadish moderator for Dr. Greger

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