Why Local Trumps Organic for Nutrient Content | Chris Kresser

Why Local Trumps Organic for Nutrient Content

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I’m sure by now many of you have heard about the Stanford study claiming that organic foods are no healthier or safer than conventional alternatives.

There were so many problems with this study and the media reporting of it that it’s difficult to know where to start. To begin with, their results did not, in fact, support the claim that organic foods are “no healthier or safer” than conventional alternatives. Their data – if we are to take them at face value – suggest only that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional produce. From their own conclusion:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to the authors, organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods. But, ahem, eating organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Somehow that last bit just slid right by in most of the media coverage of the study.

The headlines were all about how organic is no better than conventional in terms of nutrient content, but few articles analyzed the significance of the increased exposure to pesticide and antibiotic resistance bacteria.

No mention of the fact that pesticides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals that have been shown to cause health problems – especially in vulnerable populations like children. No mention of the 2010 report issued by a panel of scientists convened to study the effects of environmental toxins on cancer urging Americans to eat organic produce grown without pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals, because the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins. No mention of the especially high risk these chemicals present to unborn children, such as lifelong endocrine disruption, hormone imbalances and other problems.

As important as those omissions are, I’d like to focus instead on nutrient content – since that is what the media coverage of the study primarily focused on. Is it really true that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods?

Did the Stanford Researchers Stack the Deck against Organic?

Mark Sisson has written an extensive critique of the Stanford study. He pointed out that it inexplicably omitted or undervalued certain nutrients from the comparison that have already been shown to be more concentrated in organic foods, such as vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids. He also references several other studies showing higher content of various nutrients in organic foods.

Mark highlights one study in particular which found that:

differences existed between newly-organic farms and more “mature” organic farms; the longer soil was worked using organic methods, the more nutrient-rich its produce. Thus, it’s possible that many of the studies showing little to no difference between conventional and organic were using “young” organic farms that had yet to reach their potential.

I think the balance of evidence suggests that organic food is, in fact, more nutritious than conventional food when the full nutrient spectrum is considered. And that’s important because we’ve learned a lot about how important many of the “secondary metabolites” in food that weren’t measured in the Stanford study are to human health.

When It Comes to Nutrient Content, Local Trumps Organic

But the most glaring omission in the study, from my perspective, was that the authors didn’t once mention the most important factor of all when it comes to the nutrient content of produce: how long it has been out of the ground before it is consumed.

Most of the produce sold at large supermarket chains is grown hundreds – if not thousands – of miles away, in places like California, Florida and Mexico. This is especially true when you’re eating foods that are out of season in your local area (like a banana in mid-winter in New York). Consider this:

The average carrot has traveled 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table.Tweet This

Days – maybe more than a week – have passed since it was picked, packaged and trucked to the store, where it can sit on the shelves even longer.

The problem with this is that food starts to change as soon as it’s harvested and its nutrient content begins to deteriorate. Total vitamin C content of red peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and papayas has been shown to be higher when these crops are picked ripe from the plant. This study compared the Vitamin C content of supermarket broccoli in May (in season) and supermarket broccoli in the Fall (shipped from another country). The result? The out-of-season broccoli had only half the vitamin C of the seasonal broccoli.

Without exposure to light (photosynthesis), many vegetables lose their nutrient value. If you buy vegetables from the supermarket that were picked a week ago, transported to the store in a dark truck, and then stored in the middle of a pile in the produce section, and then you put them in your dark refrigerator for several more days before eating them, chances are they’ve lost much of their nutrient value. A study at Penn State University found that spinach lost 47% of its folate after 8 days.

And here’s the thing: this nutrient loss happens regardless of whether the produce is conventional or organic.

This is why buying your produce at local farmer’s markets, or even better, picking it from your backyard garden, are better options than buying produce shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away – regardless of whether it’s conventional or organic. Fruits and vegetables from local farms are usually stored within one or two days of picking, which means their nutrient content will be higher. And as anyone who’s eaten a fresh tomato right off the vine will tell you, local produce tastes so much better than conventional produce it might as well be considered a completely different food.

The research study I’d really like to see is one comparing the following:

  • “Industrial” organic produce (i.e. produce harvested more than a week before it’s consumed)
  • “Industrial” conventional produce
  • Local organic produce (i.e. produce harvested within a couple of days of consumption)
  • Local conventional produce

Which Should You Choose? Conventional? Local? Organic?

Based on the data we have, my guess is both organic and conventional local produce would beat out industrial organic and conventional in terms of nutrient content. So if avoiding nutrient deficiencies and maximizing nutrient content are your only concerns, choosing locally grown foods (both organic and conventional) over foods from distant locales is your best bet.

However, if you’re concerned about exposure to pesticide and antibiotic-resistance, industrial organic might be a better choice than local conventional (assuming no local organic option is available).

Of course the best choice of the four is to buy local, organic produce: it will have the highest nutrient content and the lowest levels of pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And it’s also more supportive of fair labor practices, the maintenance of healthy soil and biodiversity and the strength of local communities. There’s a lot more to food than nutrition.

If money is tight and you can’t afford to buy local, organic produce from farmer’s markets exclusively, here’s what I’d suggest:

  • Choose organic when it matters most. Some foods tend to be higher in pesticides than others. See this list for the 12 fruits and vegetables you should always buy organic.
  • Buy local, conventional varieties rather than “industrial” conventional varieties whenever possible.
  • Consider joining a CSA program. This is a convenient and often cheaper (than shopping at farmer’s markets) way to buy local, organic, seasonal produce. And you get to support your local farmers in the process.
  • Start growing some of your own food. This is of course the cheapest alternative of all, and the most satisfying.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you notice a big difference between local and “industrial” produce, even when it’s organic? If you had to choose between local, conventional produce and industrial, organic produce, which would you choose? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section.

  1. Chris – I’m a biodynamic CSA farmer from West Virginia. I’ve been working with the issues of growing the most nutritious food possible for almost 25 years. You touched on the truth of the matter: Healthy Soils = Healthy Foods = Healthy People, but it doesn’t appear that you’ve elaborated on this. Bottom line: its the plant microbiome (food web of the root ball) that accounts for the nutrient value of the plants. All those secondary metabolytes, which are the real nutrients we need from our plant food, are only produced in complex high humus soils, the kind of soils that you only find on old GRASS ROOTS organic farms and will seldom find on industrial organic soils regardless of how long they’ve been farmer USDA organically (because USDA organics does not concentrate on building soil quailty – it focuses on MAKING MONEY. For your best organic foods go local organic and stick with eco ag or natural farming local organic farmers. Avoid the USDA certified farmers who are avoiding poisons but do not create the types of soils that create highly nutritious foods. (There may be exceptions to this, of course, I can imagine a ‘real organic’ grower (and eco ag grower) who got USDA organic cert to improve the marketing of his crops, but farmer like this are few and far between) Ask me and I’ll tell you more about Real Soil and Real Food!

  2. I do not buy organic food because it “tastes” better or I think it’s nutrient value is higher. I buy it because I do not want to ingest pesticides and I do not want my 10 month old to be pumped full of hormones and antibiotics unnecessarily. I find it really interesting that they did not cover this important fact? Some people think organic is a conspiracy but I really disagree. By rule of thumb I try really hard to not use chemicals. Water and vinegar and baking soda are the only cleaning agents in my house, so why would I not follow this in what we eat? I wonder who funded this study. It would be interesting to know that….

    Thanks for the post!

  3. I read all the abstracts of studies referenced in the Stanford study. They included (if I recall correctly) only five studies on meat – two were in rabbits, two on pork, one on beef. The rest was stupid stuff like isolating and comparing the b12 content from organic and non-organic beet roots, thus putting b12 in the table.
    Should they have included the existing data comparing pastured beef vs factory farmed, there are studies that confirm much better fatty acid composition from the grassfed animal. Then again, it would be low in o6 and high in saturated fat, so they would deem the factory animal more nutritious.

    Nevertheless I think the ‘organic’ label is in reality useless – there are simply so many factors that makes foodstuffs range from good to bad. But as you say Chris, freshness is one of the key factors.

  4. You can’t tell me that there’s no visible difference between conventional and organic foods. Even my taste buds can tell a difference. How can the vitamin/antioxidant to calorie ratio be the same if the size of the produce and proportions of the outside skin vs. inner core are different?

  5. And on another note, here in Australia, orchardists have begun ripping up their fruit trees because they cannot compete with the competition from China where farming practices go unregulated. I KNOW where my oranges and lemons come from (well, the first lot comes from my garden) and I never buy form supermarkets. Until we vote with our shopping practices, forks, or whatever, nothing will change.

  6. There is a certain lack of responsibility in those who put out studies such as this, as biblical/doctrinal truths. I read this report to and to be honest, I was not taken aback by their ‘findings’. Whose side is the law on when organisations are allowed to put pitiful, flawed research out as gospel?
    For my money, I grow much of my own food. What we can’t grow, we buy at farmers’ markets, organic as far as possible. There the produce is scritinised for quality. What a sad old world we live in, when people’s health is compromised by the greed of others.

  7. As you say, studies like this one are virtually worthless. I have absolutely no doubt that locally-grown, organic produce is better for you than conventionally-grown produce that is shipped across the country. That’s why I grow my own organic garden and try to eat most of my vegetables from it, at least throughout the growing season. Buying from farmer’s markets is my second choice.

  8. Before I lend any credibility to your article, please answer two questions.
    1. How many acres do you own?
    2. What crops do you grow?
    Just curious. Too many people write about organic food without actually knowing what they are talking about.
    Thank you.

    Jeff Moore
    Richmond, KY

    • I worked with my sister on her organic farm for 4 months in a pretty redneck area. One time when she dropped off a load of green capsicums to a hotel, the guy buying them asked if they were organic. She was a bit worried that there’d been a critter on the last lot but said yes they were. He said he wondered because they lasted so long in the refridgerator compared with other peppers he been sold. She said it was because the immune system of the vegies hadn’t been stressed by artifical fertilizers and pesticides.

      Eventually she gave up growing vegetables as the market for organics was too distant.

  9. Hydroponics could be a great option for growing pesticide free food with good nutrition

    NASA has developed aeroponics

  10. Where local-farmers-market shoppping is impossible, is the best way to get really fresh fruit and vegetables to buy them frozen (after all, the packet usually tells us that the produce has been packed within hours to preserve freshness).

    If growing some vegetables in a very limited kitchen or windowsill space, is it best to eat things like sprouted bean shoots or to cultivate plants that will mature and produce some green chlorophyl, such as mustard and cress?

  11. I always go for local, then pick up whatever I couldn’t find at the local organic grocery store. I get all my meat and raw dairy (from local farms) from a buying club I’m in. It’s AWESOME

  12. My first choice is always local and organic. But other than that, I would choose the industrial organic, and sometimes even do that just for convenience. (For example, during busy times, I’m likely to grab a bag of organic from Trader Joe’s rather than prep my own veggies–especially winter squash.) I’ve joined a CSA, but, again, right now I’m staring at two pumpkins, five small butternut squashes, and a small acorn squash and thinking, “Ick. I don’t wanna mess with these.” Yes, I am a lazy cook.

  13. I had a look at the “dirty dozen” and I think maybe that there might be local qualifications. I’d think that kiwi sold under the “Zespri” label are fine (necessarily organic) and in NZ, onions come in second to apples to chemical use on produce.

    Personally, Id be much more concerned about antibiotic use in livestock farming. Resistance to such is growing in an alarming rate due to their prophylactic use. This is truly an unacceptabe social ill. I don’t know in which countries this practice is forbidden… but it is in NZ and we would see huge public resistance if any change was put forward.

    • I think the use of antibiotics is allowed in New Zealand under the guise of growth enhancers, not as antibiotics per se. They’re used mainly in poultry and pig industrial scale operations. As time ticks by, agriculture is getting more and more industrialised and nasty in New Zealand e.g. supplementary feeding of dairy cows with wheat and in the past Palm Kernal Extract. Fortunately due to eroding profit margins, currently dairy farmers have less incentive to import PKE. We used to import a quarter of the world’s total crop in years of drought.

      • I think the use of antibiotics and growth hormones is tightly controlled here. The pork and salmon industry says they don’t use them. The poultry industry says about the same. Less than 1% of beef cattle have ever been given HGPs, and only specifically to beasts for sale in the US. They are not approved for dairy. Of course these industries and MAF could be lying… but if these HGPs showed up in a shipment of beef to the EU, imagine the shitstorm.

        Someone should remind the dairy conversions happening apace around me about the restriction in profitability. I can see a dozen linear and pivot irrigators from my yard paddock.

  14. Chris, Great article. I would love to know whether the Standford study considered the effects of GMO produce compared to organic. Furthermore, a more important question regarding the study conducted was how does the food metabolize in the human body and are the nutrients equally absorbable regardless of farming techniques?

    Thank you for all your wonderful articles!

  15. I think it’s unfortunate how one scientific paper gets attention from the media and huge generalizations are made as a result. It’s one paper, looking at one aspect of organic/inorganic. Obviously the study aim was not to examine a relationship between local organic, industrial organic and industrial inorganic. The limitations and considerations should be noted in the manuscript, but of course the media could care less about preaching study limitations. Science is messy, it takes more than one paper or one study to truly understand the differences between organic and inorganic produce. It’s a shame that the food industry is going to ride this out as long as they can.

  16. Just been to a lecture by Prof. Dan Burke on salvestrols which may be another really good reason to eat organic fruit, veg and herbs and encourage organic farming methods

  17. Thanks for this post. I am fortunate to be in a position to mostly buy both local and organic.There is no comparison in the quality or the flavor. One doesn’t have to be a rocket- scientist to figure out that eating food grown with pesticides is not that good for you!

  18. Im so happy i came across this website. It is very informative. I think the study is biased and lacks true research in the way our crops our transported, etc. i wish i could grow my own foods but its difficult to do so in NJ with the cold weather.. Usually june- september is the only time. I am going to try and find out where the local produce is in my area.

    • Raena, you *can* grow your own food in NJ! 🙂 So many of us do it in Canada, a similar growing season. I’ve started learning about food preserving – canning, freezing, dehydrating, and I’m planning to start doing that next season so that I can eat *my own* local, organic veggies all winter. You can do it!

      • Absolutely, everyone can grow at least a little. From window-box herb gardens, to hydroponics, to outside gardens, there are solutions for everyone.

        • It’s amazing how we – collectively – forget that we can do things like this.

          During WW2, the US government encouraged everyone to grow some of their own food, the famous “victory gardens”.

          How much did they grow? Well, at their peak, there were more than 20 million gardens, and they produced over 40% of all vegetables grown in the country.

          That was with 1940’s technology. Today, with the availability of cheap greenhouse plastic and “remay” type fabrics to extend seasons, it would be possible to grow much more.

          Except, of course, when it is illegal to do so!

    • It is not uncommon to have skewed research published. Look at the number of studies that have been done discussing the same topic/question, who funded the research, and is the research in peer-reviewed journals. One of the things that my mother taught me many years ago is that if you grow it fresh without chemicals and you picked it that day you will have a product that is superior. Otherwise you will probably fair better with frozen organic. When I was in nursing school the ADA certified nutritionist/dietitian reiterated my mothers words, but told us now that we were most likely better of with frozen organic because of the field flash freezing. Since then I have taken a number of nutrition classes and all of them have failed to address this significant issue. Let the buyer be ware! Thank you Chirs, for your in site and thank you for caring enough to share your education.

  19. Great post. The study asked the wrong question. What they asked was essentially: is industrial, organic farming better than industrial, non-organic farming? that’s a poor question to ask. It doesn’t take into account things like soil quality, travel, timing, etc… The right question to ask is this: what is the best way to obtain the most nutritious, least damaging produce?

    Even if the study’s conclusions were accurate, it would be a meaningless study. The crap we buy at Whole Foods and Trader Joes is still industrially farmed, with no concern about taste and nutrition. As one farmer put it “I don’t get paid a single penny for flavor.” No, industrial farmers are paid for volume. Buying from a local farmer who is “in touch with the land,” understands the chemical processes involved, and truly cares about his/her farm and customers is generally going to be the best option.

    Of course, growing your own is great, too.. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more of that in the future.

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