Organic vs. Conventionally-grown food: Which is more nutritious?

feature_pesticides_main-760x378 Image by Ensia

Conventional food often contains elevated levels of pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants. In Kenya unsafe foods are quite common and they are highlighted in the media almost on a daily basis. A recent expose on NTV revealed how popular maize flour brands have dangerously high levels of aflatoxins. Maize flour is probably the most consumed of all the Kenyan staple foods. Additionally, intensive antibiotic use in meat production has been associated with antibiotic resistance which is becoming a global problem. However, Kenyan consumers do not have reliable access to information regarding food safety such as residue levels in food items. The reason for this might be due to lack of monitoring on a regular basis or unavailability of data to the public. All in all, a growing number of Kenyans have started to move towards organic food products buy either buying or even growing it themselves.

So what is organic?

In as much as the definition varies from country to another, the main factors that distinguish organic crops from the conventional ones is the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs. For animals, those considered organic must be raised without use of pharmaceutical antibiotics and should be allowed to freely move around to look for food.

Is organic food more nutritious?

One of the most popular studies was done by researchers at Stanford University where they evaluated about 250 studies giving a comparison of the nutrition components of organic and conventional fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs. Although both foods had almost similar nutrition compositions, some nutrients were higher in organic foods. For instance, organic foods had higher phosphorous content than conventional while organic milk and chicken had higher content of omega-3 fatty acids (Dangour, Dodhia, Hayter, Allen, Lock, & Uauy, 2009). Another study of literature showed that organic crops had higher iron and magnesium (Lairon, 2010). Phosphorous is a useful mineral in the body as it helps the body to grow strong bones and teeth. Iron helps the body to build enough blood. Fatty acids on the other hand are much needed to improve cardiovascular functions as well as lower triglycerides.

Understanding  phytochemicals?

On top of having higher proportions of certain nutrients, organic foods also have higher levels of phytochemicals. These are natural chemicals that plants produce to keep off pests such as germs, fungi and bugs. These phytonutrients might not be as essential to the body as vitamins and other nutrients are but when they are consumed, they offer protection to the body by preventing diseases. There are about 25,000 phytonutrients but the most significant ones are Carotenoids, Ellagic acid, Flavonoids, Resveratrol, and Glucosinolates. The reason these phytochemicals are higher in organic crops is possibly due to no use of pesticides so the crops have to produce their own natural chemicals to fight various pests.

Carotenoids are the reason some vegetables and fruits have yellow, orange and red colors. They provide the body with antioxidants which fight the harmful free radicals that destroy our body and could cause cancer. Other carotenoids such as Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin are converted into vitamin A and are necessary to provide strong vision and strengthen the immunity. Lycopene is an antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon and the grapefruit and has been linked to lower risk of cancers such as prostate cancer. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in kale and spinach and protect the body against eye cataracts. Ellagic acids are mainly found in berries and reduce the risk of cancer in the body as well as slowing the growth of these cells. Flavonoids are found in crops such as green tea, apples, and citrus fruits. Resveratrol is found in berries, grape juice, and red wine and is associated with lowering the risk to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Lastly, Glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, and broccoli and they also protect the body against cancer.

Growing your own food

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It is quite clear that when we grow our own food using organic means we get to eat safe and healthier foods. With the increase in lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer globally, there is need to eat foods that are healthy. Growing food is not a difficult process and at Hamana we teach the entire process of growing food in harmony with nature to maintain a healthy environment and a healthy body and mind. We offer regular courses that are highly practical and simplified. To register for the next course, kindly get in touch with Dr Silke Bollmohr at: ngohamana@gmail.com.

References:

Dangour, A. D., Dodhia, S. K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 90(3), 680-685.
Lairon, D. (2010). Nutritional quality and safety of organic food. A review. Agronomy for sustainable development, 30(1), 33-41.

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