The study found real differences between organic and conventionally grown foods - organic foods have lower levels of pesticides, higher levels of antioxidants, and lower levels of cadmium. From NY Times:
Adding fuel to the debates over the merits of organic food, a comprehensive review of earlier studies found substantially higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides in organic fruits, vegetables and grains compared with conventionally grown produce.
However, the full findings, to be published next week in the British Journal of Nutrition, stop short of claiming that eating organic produce will lead to better health. Still, the authors note that other studies have suggested some of the antioxidants have been linked to a lower risk of cancer and other diseases.
Organic farming, by and large, eliminates the use of conventional chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Those practices offer ecological benefits like healthier soils but produce less bountiful harvests.
In the new study, an international team of scientists did not conduct any laboratory or field work of their own. Instead, they compiled a database from 343 previously published studies and performed a statistical procedure known as a meta-analysis, which attempts to ferret robust bits of information from studies of varying designs and quality.
Over all, organic crops contained 17 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown crops, the new study found. For some classes of antioxidants, the difference was larger. A group of compounds known as flavanones, for example, were 69 percent higher in the organic produce. (At very high quantities, as in some supplements, some antioxidants have been shown to be harmful, but the levels in organic produce were not nearly that high.)
The researchers said they analyzed the data in several different ways, and each time the general results remained robust. Charles M. Benbrook, a professor at Washington State University and another author of the paper, said this analysis improved on earlier reviews, in part because it incorporated recent new studies.
The study also found that organically produced foods, particularly grains, contain lower levels of cadmium, a toxic metal that sometimes contaminates conventional fertilizers. Dr. Benbrook said the researchers were surprised by that finding; there was no difference in other toxic metals like mercury and lead.