If you’ve ever picked up an apple from the organic section
of your supermarket, you probably thought that by doing so, you were improving
your health. And if you haven’t, you may belong to the camp that believes the potential health benefits of going organic don’t outweigh the literal costs.
But what if the benefits included weight loss? Here, we
explore how eating organic may affect your slim-down efforts. Whether or not
you choose to go organic, however, is ultimately up to you.
Nutrients, Better Weight?
While experts have debated for years whether organic foods
really are more nutritious than their conventionally raised counterparts, last
year a British Journal of Nutrition review of 343 studies concluded that on
average, organic foods (both crops and packaged foods derived from those crops,
like bread) contain higher concentrations of antioxidants than conventionally grown foods.
That’s because, while an organic apple and a conventionally
grown apple may both contain the same number of vitamins and antioxidants, the organic
apple is much smaller, meaning that it contains more of them per ounce, says
study co-author Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State
University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Why the size difference? The
funny thing is, the reason may be because organic, nitrogen-rich fertilizer is so
expensive, meaning that organic farmers can’t typically afford to over-fertilize
their crops to the same extent that conventional farmers can, Benbrook says. And
nitrogen is to plants what calories are to people, so when conventional plants
get too much nitrogen, they do the same thing we do: They get big. However,
their nutritional properties, like our muscles, don’t balloon with them.
“When produce is over-fertilized, the ratio of
calories per antioxidant activity goes way down,” Benbrook says. That
means that bite per bite, you are typically getting fewer good-for-you
nutrients and more calories (granted, probably not enough to wreck your diet) out
of that conventionally raised, albeit bigger, apple, he says, versus the
smaller organic variety.
Previous research from Newcastle University found that on
average, organic fruits and vegetables contain 12 percent more healthy plant compounds
– resveratrol and other polyphenols, for example – than conventionally grown
produce. What’s more, research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that flavonols,
one of these beneficial plant compounds, may stabilize blood sugar levels, helping
to keep appetite in check, while another such compound, resveratrol, has been
shown to promote fullness. Some pesticides used in conventional farming,
however, may reduce the level of resveratrol in plants.
So if vitamins and antioxidants aren’t what’s making that non-organic apple bigger, what is? Simple sugars and starches, which explains why
conventional produce is oftentimes sweeter and juicier, Benbrook says.
His research shows that some organic fruits and vegetables
contain 20, 30, even 40 percent more antioxidants per calorie than conventionally raised versions. “If you choose organic foods to hit your
five-a-day produce requirement, it’s like you are getting a sixth serving without
consuming any additional calories,” Benbrook explains.
Still, just because an apple is
organic doesn’t guarantee the farmer hasn’t piled on the nitrogen, thereby
reducing its antioxidant concentrations while increasing its calories, Benbrook
studies, including a 2012 review in the Annals of Internal Medicine, have found
that organic and non-organic produce don’t vary greatly in terms of
nutrients. While, in general, organic crops may be more nutrient-dense than
conventional crops, an organic seal isn’t proof they will be. It just proves the crops were grown
without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering
or chemical fertilizers.