Study says organic produce has more antioxidants! Um, so what?

by Denis Faye | July 16, 2014

Dis_de_stupid_Jar_Jar_binks_fateThe words “antioxidants” and “organic” seem to hog plenty o’ headlines nowadays. The only thing is, for all the print space (or pixel space) they take up, does anyone really know if they’re good for you?

As usual in the world of nutrition, the answer is complicated. And trying to figure out the truth by reading studies is like trying to figure out if Anakin Skywalker is a good guy or a bad guy by watching the Star Wars movies out of order. One minute, he’s blowing up Alderaan, the next minute, he’s chillin’ with a racial stereotype-inspired alien from the planet Naboo.

The reason I mention this is that a new review of studies in the British Journal of Nutrition claims that organic produce is not only significantly higher in antioxidants but also lower in the heavy metal cadmium and pesticide residues. I’m glad Science has finally figured this out, given  Common Sense got the memo years ago. The lack of pesticides in organic farming greatly decreases the incidence of, well, pesticides. Without these pesticides, as well as herbicides and chemical fertilizers, plants are forced to fend for themselves, which they do by  generating more internal defenses–otherwise known as phytonutrients, including the antioxidant kind. It’s the exact same thing as muscular adaptation–only plants don’t have muscles, except maybe Swamp Thing, Audrey II, and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.

article-2636970-1E03EFCF00000578-31_634x485So on the face of it, it’s obvious that organic is the way to go. But we’re the Nerd Herd! We never take anything at face value!

So instead of proclaiming this study to be the Organic Gospel According to a Bunch of European Scientists with Evil Mastermind Names (Dagmar? Dominika? Really?), I think we should consider that until a few days ago, the nutrient content in organic produce was considered no different from conventional produce thanks to a 2009 review of studies featured in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claiming levels are equal.

So which one is right? Well, the earlier study is in an American journal, which instantly makes it smarter. Furthermore, that journal looks at clinical nutrition, not just garden-variety nutrition, making it smarterer still! Despite all this smartness, the truth is that you can’t compare these studies, given they looked at completely different nutrients when comparing organic and conventional produce.

The Yankee study kept things fairly old school, looking at vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, nitrogen, phosphorus, titratable acidity, and total soluble solids. On the other hand, the Red Coat study looked entirely at phytonutrients. Now, the “phenolic compounds” from the American study do include several of the phytonutrients in the British study, but they also include tons of other compounds that apparently aren’t impacted by organics, so when you lump the compounds all together and get the average–as the American study did–the difference in the pertinent compounds will get lost.

So the previous research does not appear to contradict what the Evil Masterminds have put forward: a compelling argument that organic produce contains less toxic stuff and more antioxidants. But that leads us to the next question. Do we want more antioxidants?

What are antioxidants, anyway?

When an electron jumps onto an atom or molecule , it’s called reduction. When an electron leaves an atom or molecule, it’s called oxidation. Together, these two actions are known as the redox cycle, which is crucial for a number of bodily systems, including making all your cells work properly. (Kind of a biggie, that one.)

Free radicals promote oxidation. They’re in a never ending dance with antioxidants, which promote reduction. When you have an excess of free radicals, which can be caused by a number of things including lousy diet and stress, the balance is thrown and you enter a state of oxidative stress, which has been linked to over 100 human diseases, include the Big C, cancer. That’s why it’s important to stock up on antioxidants in order to maintain homeostasis.

The logical solution is to shove as many antioxidants as possible into your gob, right? Unfortunately, it might not work that way. Experts are evenly divided, with one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association even claiming that antioxidant supplementation increases mortality rates. You’ll find a great break down of the debate in this Today’s Dietician article.

In sports nutrition circles, it gets even more persnickety. Oxidative stress is an aspect of functional overreaching and adaptation, meaning that the stress from exercise–and the free radicals involved with it–can actually help you grow back stronger and increase your body’s endogenous antioxidant system–internal antioxidants that your body makes for itself.

Current thinking is that antioxidant supplementation can mess up this process. In some cases, supplementation has been shown to inhibit athletic performance–or do no good at all. One study showed that vitamin C (1,000 mg/d) and E (300 mg/d) supplementation for 6 weeks did not alleviate muscle damage after an ultra marathon. Of course, other studies say just the opposite. But the point is that antioxidant supplementation isn’t a home run.

(I don’t think you need to worry that your multivitamin is getting in the way of your six-pack abs. It appears the serious issues pop up when combining hardcore training with megadosing.)

Despite all the debate over supplementation, the experts seem united in agreeing that  produce-based antioxidants are still a-okay. The reason for this is that the antioxidant compounds in fruits and veggies work entirely differently and seem to have a slew of bonus benefits, including the promotion our body’s own endogenous antioxidants–a function that science can’t seem to replicate when it isolates antioxidants in supplement form.

Even the biggest antioxidant haters tend to concede that fruit-and-veggin’ is a good thing. Even a this paper as bluntly-titled as “Antioxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans” admits that “previously published findings tentatively suggest that fruits and vegetables may exert health-promoting effects despite their antioxidant content and possibly due to other bio-active compounds.”

That brings us back to the Evil Mastermind study–and the answer to today’s quandary. It appears that organic produce has more antioxidants than conventional produce and that plant-based antioxidants are good for you. Therefore, I suggest that you eat as many as possible. All that being said, any produce–conventional or organic–is good for you, so if conventional food is all you have access to, go for it. Are they slightly nastier than their organic brethren? Maybe, but in my opinion, their benefits outweigh any potential issues.

As long as you eat some form of fruits and veggies and avoid floppy-eared aliens that talk like a character out of Song of the South, you’ll do just fine.

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