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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Food Benefits

Air Date: Week of

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A new study shows that organic produce may have some nutritional advantages over conventionally-grown produce. Host Steve Curwood discusses the study’s findings with author, Dr. John Paterson of the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary in Scotland.


CURWOOD: Nutritionally speaking, organic fruits and vegetables have not been considered better for you than food grown conventionally. But a study just published in the European Journal of Nutrition suggests organic fruits and vegetables contain more of a substance that helps reduce the risk of colon cancer, and some forms of heart disease. The research was conducted by Dr. John Paterson.

He's a clinical biochemist at the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary near Lockerbie, Scotland. And the key, according to Dr. Paterson, is a compound naturally found in plants called salicylic acid.

PATERSON: If a plant is attacked by infection or stress, it synthesizes salicylic acid. And the salicylic acid that's synthesized in the plants then switches on various defense genes within the plant, and helps protect the plant against the infection.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm wondering why you decided to look at the differences in the salicylic acid between organic and conventionally grown foods.

PATERSON: Curiosity, but with some reasoning behind it. I wondered if plants that were grown organically were likely to have more salicylic acid. And the reason for that is that they're more likely to get infection because they're less likely to be sprayed with pesticide or insecticide.

CURWOOD: So, what did your research find out?

PATERSON: We found out that vegetables soups that had been produced from organically grown vegetables had, indeed, higher salicylic acid levels than those grown from non-organic sources.

CURWOOD: What could be the other possible explanations though?

PATERSON: There are other possible explanations. These include the different amounts of spices in the soups. Spices and herbs have particularly high amounts of salicylic acid in them. And if the organic soups were more heavily spiced than the non-organic, than that may account for the difference. And, other possibilities include different methods of preparation of the soups, etc.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm wondering if you tested any of the organic foods before they were in the soup pot to see if there was a difference in the salicylic acid levels between those and conventionally grown?

PATERSON: No. We didn't do that. Scotland is not a country that's renowned for its fruit and vegetable consumption. We tend to take a lot more in the way of vegetable soups in this country. There's a famous saying in Scotland. And the question is, what's a Scotsman's favorite vegetable?

CURWOOD: And the answer?

PATERSON: A sausage.

CURWOOD: [Laughter] Okay.

PATERSON: And that, maybe, explains why I was more interested in looking at vegetable soups rather than fruits and vegetables directly. But that's something that someone should do.

CURWOOD: How possible do you think, based on this research that you've been doing, that organically grown fruits and vegetables have higher levels of salicylic acid?

PATERSON: I think it's a reasonable premise and the fact that we have found differences in the foodstuffs concerned, then it raises, at least, a possibility.

CURWOOD: So, what evidence is there that there is a health benefit to being a vegetarian, and one that leans heavily on organic foods?

PATERSON: We know that if you take in more fruits and vegetables, you have a reduced risk of bowel cancer, and of cardiovascular disease. That's fairly well established. And, I've been surprised at how many opinions there are in regard to the benefits, or otherwise, of organic food. But it's based on almost little evidence in terms of scientific work. There's been very little scientific work carried out. And I think until that's done, no one will really know.

CURWOOD: Dr. John Paterson is a clinical biochemist at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary in Scotland. Thanks for speaking with us.

PATERSON: My pleasure.



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