Organic food has no nutritional benefits, say scientists

A blow for a £2bn industry: an independent report says organic food is no healthier than normal food...

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

One of the major reasons why food manufacturers have been able to charge more for organic food is that we’ve all been under the impression that it’s better for us. Surely food produced in a natural way would be healthier than the chemically-enhanced, genetically-modified stuff that fills our supermarket shelves? But apparently not. An independent report, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, has concluded that organic food actually has no more nutritional value than normal food. If that’s true, the industry’s marketers are going to have to think again quickly...

The report, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, appears to be a meta-analysis of all the studies carried out in the last 50 years on organic food’s health benefits. Although it did appear to be slightly more nutritious in about a third of the studies considered, the difference was so minimal as to be within the bounds of experimental error.  And in the majority of cases there was no clear distinction at all; occasionally there were lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in organic crops (not surprisingly since they hadn’t been treated with fertiliser), but there was no corresponding health benefit.

So is the whole thing just a big scam? Well, the Soil Association says not. It’s crying foul about the study, suggesting that the scientists have just ignored research about the differences between organic and non-organic. And it claims that until some proper longitudinal research has been carried out – which is wonkery for tracking the impact of organic vs non-organic over an extended period of time – we won’t know for sure.

To be fair, even the university boffins aren’t writing off organic food completely. They’re just saying that if it does have added nutritional value, nobody’s proved it yet. And the FSA is being similarly diplomatic, insisting it’s neither pro nor anti – it just wants consumers to make an ‘informed choice’. It also points out, quite rightly, that health benefits are not the only reason why people buy organic food – they might be more concerned about animal welfare (e.g. the rather dubious practices adopted by battery farmers), or the damage caused to the environment by pumping chemicals into the ground in vast quantities. Some might even argue that it tastes better.

Still, it can’t be denied that these are pretty damaging headlines as far as this £2bn-a-year industry is concerned. Organic food sales were already suffering in the recession. Could this see even more of it thrown on the retail compost heap?

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Organic food has no nutritional benefits, say scientists

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