Valerie Elliott, Consumer Editor
Organic food gives no health benefits to consumers, according to research for the Food Standards Agency published today.
The watchdog stopped short of advising consumers that buying organic produce was a waste of money but its message was clear — choosing to eat organic food will make no important difference to a person’s overall health. Eating a healthy balanced diet is the only important thing, the report concluded.
The research — which is the first and biggest study ever undertaken of scientific papers published in the past 50 years on the health and diet benefits of organic food — will come a blow to the organic food industry which is now worth £2.1 billion a year in the UK.
The findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also threatens to put the FSA on a collision course with organic champions such as the Soil Association.
The £120,000 year-long study by a team from the London School for Hygiene and Tropical health was headed by Dr Alan Dangour, a public health nutritionist.
His team identified some differences between organic and conventionally produced food but concluded that they were not sufficiently important to make any difference to a person’s health or give nutritional benefit.
Dr Dangour said: “There is more phosphorous in organic food. Phosphorous is an important mineral but it is available in everything we eat and is not important for public health. Acidity is also higher in organic produce but acidity is about taste and sensory perception and makes no difference at all for health.”
He said: “A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally-produced crops and livestock but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance.
“Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally-produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”
He made clear however he had not looked at pesticide and herbicide residues in food produced by organic and conventional farming methods. The study also did not seek to compare the taste of the products.
The FSA insisted it was neither pro nor anti organic food and it recognised that there were many other reasons why people chose to eat organic - such as care for the environment and wildlife, higher animal welfare standards and stricter rules on use of anti-biotic medicines in animals and pesticides on crops.
Gill Fine, the agency’s director of consumer choice and dietary health, said: “Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat.
“This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally-produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”
Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, admitted he was disappointed by the conclusions but was confident that consumers would make their own minds up.
“The FSA has always sated there was no scientific evidence to show organic food was better for health than conventional food. But it has not stopped the growth of the market. Some eight per cent of shoppers are regular users of organic food and they do so for a variety of reasons. As far as FSA advice is concerned people tend to use their own common sense.”
He was adamant however that important five-year research work funded by the European Commission and due to be published next year would show that organic food was beneficial to health.
He also challenged the conclusion by the researchers that the nutritional differences found in organic and conventional foods were not important.
“Consumers will decide for themselves,” he said.