Organic vs Conventional Foods: Who Will Emerge Victorious?

blue vs red boxing glovesWelcome to the great sparring match of the last decade, often fought on the grocery store shelves. In the blue corner, the fresh-faced yet immature organic food. Flashy and unpredictable, you never know if it will live up to the hype. In the red corner sits the ever-reliable conventional food. Much more modest and often predictable, you always know it’ll perform well.

So who wins?

Based on the history between the two, this contest is going the full twelve rounds.

The Red Corner

A 2012 review study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine analysed results of 237 studies (a process known as a meta-analyses) that had investigated the nutritional differences between organic and conventionally grown foods [1].

The authors concluded that based on the studies reviewed, organic foods are not nutritionally superior to conventional foods. This of course goes against popular belief. One of the authors, Dena Bravata stated:

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

Interestingly though, they did report that a diet high in organic foods may reduce total exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Of course you would expect this to directly affect health, but this point was not discussed in further detail, and in a way conflicted with their overall conclusion.

So it seems their verdict needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and it sure did piss a few people off (those in the blue corner).

The Blue Corner

Naturally (as with every study), there were critics that claimed the authors over-interpreted the data, and had left out many relevant studies that focused on pesticides. One research professor in particular, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University, pointed out that their conclusions were rather ambiguous.

In fact, in previous studies he has found there can be up to a 94% reduction in health risk just from eating organic forms of six pesticide-intensive fruits [2].

And there’s plenty of rodent studies which show high dose exposure to certain pesticides can be toxic to the animal and their offspring [3]. Mind you these doses are much higher than you or me would ever have, but potentially similar to what agricultural workers experience.

The Judges Score

3 men with judging score cards for organic foodSo what’s the take-home message then? Well as typical with most studies, they tend to raise more questions than they answer- especially on a topic that is so difficult to measure. Hence why there seems to be no definitive right or wrong answer at this stage.

But I’ve broken down what we do know, to give you some clear-cut advice about what’s best for you:


Organic Vegetables

There’s no disputing the fact that organic fruit & veg has less pesticides than conventional produce. But even still, current USDA regulations ensure that pesticide levels on all foods are limited to well-below safety thresholds.

As such, it does seem that current levels of pesticides used are not enough to do the body any lasting harm, although the question remains whether they can accumulate in the body over time. Current thinking is that it could affect pregnant women or children, but it’s just still a grey area.

Now with regards to nutritional value, all vegies are the same– organic or not.

The main element that affects nutritional content is how long it takes the produce to get from the farm to our plate. The less time, the better. Thus our preference should be on whether the produce is local, rather than organic.

Organic Meats

The research study I mentioned at the start found organic meats had no obvious health advantages compared to conventional. Organic meats do have less bacteria, however these are killed in the cooking process anyways. So in the end health is a factor that should not influence your decision.

Now what the animal is fed, for example grain fed cows vs grass fed cows, definitely does affect nutritional value of the meat. Grassfed beef tends to be far lower in overall fat and saturated fat, but contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Naturally though, it’s more expensive than grain-fed.

And just to clarify grass-fed beef does not mean organic, and organic does not mean grass-fed.

Overall the same recommendation as with vegetables- rather than focusing on organic or conventional, we should be searching for meats sourced locally. These are best because the longer the time from paddock to plate, the higher than chance of nutrition loss.    


Organic Dairy Products

Dairy is much the same as meat in that the cooking process destroys any bacteria. Of course we don’t actually “cook” our milk, but pasteurisation of milk before it is packaged ensures there’s no harmful bacteria lurking. And based on current research, there is no significant differences between organic and conventional dairy, nutritional or otherwise. 


How about you? Are you a fan of organic foods?


  1. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, Olkin I, Bravata DM. Review Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4; 157(5):348-66.
  2. Benbrook C. Initial Reflections on the Annals of Internal Medicine Paper “Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.” Available:
  3. Guerrero-Bosagna C, et al. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of vinclozolin induced mouse adult onset disease and associated sperm epigenome biomarkers. Reprod Toxicol; [online 2 Oct 2012] doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2012.09.005.

Joe Leech

Joe’s a Dietician turned freelance writer & content marketer. You can find out more by loading up his bizarre “character screen”. He’s also designed a WEIRD six-part email-course which puts protein foods and supplements under the microscope. Go and check it out if you've ever wondered "what does protein do?" Otherwise you can always just connect on Google+.

5 thoughts on “Organic vs Conventional Foods: Who Will Emerge Victorious?

  • June 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    The discovery of a class of plant substances referred to as salvestrols is a new link that shows that eating certain
    organic foods lowers the risk of cancer substantially.
    This class of compounds triggers an enzyme concentrated in cancer cells and switches it on to induce cell death.
    As we all produce hundreds of these rouge cancer cells each day this is one mechanism by which the body can defend itself against cancer.
    This is more interesting as this class of phyto chemicals are produced by plants when attacked by fungi- however when fungicides are used in conventional agriculture the plant no longer elaborates this life saving substance- in fact the word salvestrol is coined from the latin word salve meaning to save.

    Resveratrol also belongs to this class of plant based substances and is one of the most studied phytochemicals on the planet, it is linked to reducing heart disease, anti-aging, cancer and many other health benefits one study shows that resveratrol was up to
    80% in organic grapes compared to conventionally grown grapes.
    This new discovery about salvestrols puts beyond doubt that eating organic foods is of great benefit not only to ourselves but to the health of the planet as well!

  • June 16, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Your analysis oversimplifies the debate in two ways. First off, you only consider the differences between conventional and organic foods from the time of harvest to when you eat it. One of the main problems with conventional agricutlure is the inherest pollution from runoff, dependence on fossil fuels, soil degradation and negative impact of pesticides and herbicdes on farm worker health. If you compare conventional agriculture to organic agriculture from the time the soil is tilled to the time the food hits our plates, organic has a tremendous advantage. Secondly, you present the alternatives of locally grown versus organic as if they are mutually exclusive. Locally grown, organic produce and meat is superior in all ways to conventionally raised food. Better for the soil, better for farm workers, better for everyone living “downstream” and better for consumers. Isn’t the point of these analyses to identify the best approach for all involved, not to find ways to hide the downside of conventional agriculture for as long as possible?

  • June 16, 2013 at 11:03 am

    These studies normally don’t look at mineral content or antioxidents content that require minerals. At that level, organic is much better for you. In some cases, mineral content has decreased by 50% in the last 60 years. Magnesium, potassium, selinium, etc. are all lower today. Ont reason overweight people live longer is that overeating brings improves mineral intake cliser to healthy levels.

  • June 16, 2013 at 10:59 am

    I am so tired of these articles comparing the health benefits of organic vs non organic. Organic has to do with the health of our ecosystems. Organic foods don’t rely on pesticides and therefore don’t pollute the ground water or sterilize the soil. If you are concerned about keeping farmland viable, fertile and productive than you want organic. If you want food raised with petroleum based synthetic fertilizers and crops that are coated in toxins go for the non organic. Comparing benefits to humans begins with understanding we need healthy soils.


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