“Is organic produce more nutritious than conventional produce?”

If you believe this is a rhetorical question, you are not alone.

A major new study from the United Kingdom published conclusive evidence demonstrating organic crops and the food made from them are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterparts. This landmark study corrects many shortcomings of earlier studies and puts to rest any doubts about the benefits of organic.

“This is a ground-breaking study [that] … should greatly help to dispel consumer confusion about the benefits of organic,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center (TOC). “The nutritional differences between conventional and organic crops have always been a much debated topic,” said Shade. “This significant study reevaluates the issue from a more inclusive, statistically accurate standpoint and strongly shows that organic fruits and vegetables have definite health benefits to conventionally grown products.”

An international team of experts led by Newcastle University analyzed 343 studies in the largest research effort of its kind. They found organic crops and organic crop-based foods are up to 60 percent higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally grown crops. They also demonstrated conventional foods have greater frequency and concentrations of pesticide residues and toxic heavy metals than organic crops. This landmark report is to be published in the July 15 issue of the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition.

Every Mouthful Counts

Shade states the results of the study have meaningful real-world implications since the antioxidants found in organic crops have been shown to reduce risk of serious chronic diseases.

“Based on the findings of this study, if an individual were to switch from a conventional to an organic diet, they could have a 20-40 percent increase in antioxidants without a simultaneous increase in calorie intake. In other words, for the same amount of food, eating organic delivers a significantly higher dietary intake of healthy antioxidants,” said Shade.

Currently, dietary recommendations include consuming five servings of vegetables and fruits. Based on this study’s findings, beneficial antioxidants found in five servings of organic produce are equal to about one to two additional servings of conventionally grown produce, but without the exposure to pesticide residues and heavy metals.

The Newcastle study found significantly lower instances of pesticide residues and lower levels of Cadmium – a highly toxic metal – in organic crops. Specifically, the study found conventional crops were four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organic crops. Exposure to pesticides has been found to affect brain development, especially in young children, and pose a greater risk for pregnant women and men and women of reproductive age. The study also found organic crops had on average 48 percent lower cadmium levels than conventional crops. Cadmium can cause kidney failure, bone softening and liver damage. It can accumulate in the body, so even low levels of chronic exposure are dangerous.

Refuting Earlier Studies, Clearing Up Confusion

Professor Charles Benbrook, one of the authors of the study and a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, said, “The findings of this study strongly support the existence of health benefits stemming from consumption of plant-based organic food and beverages. Our results are highly relevant and significant, and will help consumers sort through the often conflicting information on the nutrition of organic and conventional plant-based foods.”

The study from Stanford University released in 2012 set off a heated debate in the scientific and health worlds when it claimed organic foods were no healthier than non-organic. The Stanford report followed a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency that found no substantial nutritional benefits or differences between organic and non-organic foods.

“Where the other studies had failed …the key reason for the success of the Newcastle study in …identify[ing] concrete statistical differences between organic and conventional crops comes down to time and numbers,” said Shade. Since the publication of both studies, there has been more research on organic crops, thus more data to draw from. The Newcastle study analyzed 343 studies, with about 100 of those studies published in the last five years; the Stanford study analyzed around 200 research papers, and the earlier UK study looked at just 46 publications.

A recent survey by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) found eight out of ten U.S. families now purchase organic products. In nearly half of those families, concern about their children’s health is a driving force behind that decision.

“Parents are becoming more informed about the benefits of organic,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. “[The Newcastle] study will do much to educate consumers even more and help them to make the best choices for their families.”