Stress may not be good for our health, but it seems that it might be at the heart of the recent crop of reports that organic fruits and vegetables might be better for us than those grown by conventional methods.
After a paper published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found its way into the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Monday (‘Organic is healthier’, Say Food Scientists), the Daily Mail unearthed a study yesterday that claims that the concentrations of vitamin C, polyphenols, betacarotene and flavonoids are higher in organically grown tomatoes, apples and peaches (‘Proof at last that organic apples can be better for you’). This story reported on a joint project between scientists at Warsaw Agricultiral University in Poland and the University of Newcastle in the UK. Their findings were presented last week at a meeting held at the University of Hohenheim in Germany. Although these findings have yet to be published in the scientific literature (see ‘Composition Variability Down To Method, Warn Food Chemists’, www.nutritionandfoodsciences.org), rationale makes these findings seem highly likely. Conventional agriculture aims to sanitise growth as much as possible – reducing pathogens means that vegetables, fruit, crops or animals have a better chance to grow quickly; organic produce enjoy much less of this comfort. In essence, plants’ responses to environmental stresses; bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens; or insect pests is to produce substances to protect themselves. Producing antioxidants in greater quantities helps the plant to recover from attack and in the case of fruit, to protect the valuable seeds within. This may be due to genetic differences in varieties, or the plant may just produce more as a result of mild stress. It’s just lucky that these substances are good for us too.
We should bear in mind, however, that just because there is more of a substance available, that doesn’t automatically make it better for us. As nutritionandfoodsciences.org reported on the 12th March, our intestines don’t have a very great capacity for absorbing some of these lovely chemicals and our bodies find them difficult to store. So while there may be differences between organic and conventional produce, these are unlikely to translate into real benefits.