Are Organic Vegetables More Nutritious after All?
While the debate continues to rage on about the nutritional content of organic and conventional food, studies have shown that there is a significant increase of antioxidants in organic produce. The article, written by Dan Charles (there is also an audio version available on the page) for NPR radio in 2014 highlights this remarkable difference. He writes that studies have shown that this could be the biggest benefit of choosing organic produce:
“Across the important antioxidant compounds in fruits and vegetables, organic fruits and vegetables deliver between 20 and 40 percent higher antioxidant activity,” says Charles Benbrook, from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, a co-author of the study.”
He also mentions a few of the possible reasons of higher antioxidant content that were mentioned in the studies, such as the lack of pesticides. The idea behind this is that the plants produce the antioxidant substances as a response to stress caused by insect damage 1 In systems where plants are protected by human intervention this does not occur. It was also suggested that nutrients are diluted by the accelerated growth caused by conventional fertilizers.
He ends his article by stating that antioxidants or not, many people’s main reason for poor health is the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet.
First of all, while the article points out the significant increase in antioxidants, it does not clearly explain what role antioxidants play in our body. However this information is readily available and I will attempt to summarize it here.
We must begin by understanding free radicals. These are atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons, meaning they can steal electrons from other cells, doing damage to them, called oxidative damage. In layman’s terms, they are incomplete molecules that roam around our body looking for parts to complete them. When they take parts from other cells, those cells are damaged. Our body releases free radicals normally as part of our immune response, 2 3 as they seek out and destroy pathogens. However some are sometimes left over afterwards. Additionally, unhealthy foods, smoking, alcohol and environmental pollution also introduce excess free radicals into our system. If we are not able to rid ourselves of these, they cause severe and cumulative damage to our essential cells. 4 This is where the antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants are compounds that are able to counteract free radicals by binding with them and neutralizing them. While our bodies are able to create some of these compounds on its own, it is also dependent on healthy food to supplement these. It has also been shown that it is important to get your antioxidants in a natural way such as through diet. Supplements have not shown the same beneficial effects, which is why it is even more important to consume organic produce. 5 Without sufficient antioxidants, excess free radicals are free to cause damage to our cells which lead to nerve disease and also compromised immune system 6, particularly in the function of acquired or adaptive immunity. This is especially notable when we take into account that acquired immunity protects people from diseases (and mutations) they have already contracted7. This is the natural mechanism behind achieving herd immunity from viruses.
This information can help to understand one of the biggest benefits that organic produce can give to us as we strive to cultivate healthy bodies and immune systems during this challenging time.