The controversial debate surrounding the supposed health benefits of organic food took a new twist last week with the publication of a comprehensive review of international studies in New Zealand. The report from AZ Central.com found that there were no significant health benefits to be gained from eating organic food compared to conventional products grown using chemicals.
However, the findings may have more to do with poor science than with the quality of the food. Diane Bourn, a food science lecturer at Otago University in New Zealand, said the bulk of the 100 or so studies reviewed were poorly done.
Otago University was commissioned by state-owned science agency Crop & Food Research to carry out the study. While there was a lot of anecdotal evidence about organic food tasting better than conventionally grown food, the studies reviewed could not conclusively back up those claims, Bourn said.
The nutritional value of food was influenced by the time of harvest, freshness, storage and weather, but many studies claiming organic food had more vitamins and minerals did not take proper account of these factors, she said.
"To date, I feel there's no evidence that organic food is nutritionally superior,'' she said.
"When you look at those studies in detail, they're actually pretty awful...they're not really strong enough to be able to say that convincingly.''
However, she added there were clear environmental benefits from growing organically and reduced pesticide residues in organics supported claims of improved food safety.
The organic food sector has grown massively in recent years, accelerated by food scares, especially in Europe and Japan. The sector was recently valued by a new London-based organic produce exchange at more than $30 billion (€18bn) a year, with organic produce usually commanding a premium in shops.