October 29/London/The Daily Telegraph -- Organic food is more nutritious than ordinary produce, and contains higher quantities of antioxidants which may help ward off heart disease and cancer, say scientists after an extensive four-year study.

Researchers who led the pounds 12 million project -- the biggest ever inquiry into organic food -- hope their evidence will help persuade the government to recommend organic produce and stop advising that eating it is merely a "lifestyle choice."

The findings come from professor Carlo Leifert, whose Newcastle University study was funded by the EU and food companies. It found that organic fruit and vegetables contained up to 40% more antioxidants, which could cut the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Leifert said the health benefits were so striking that moving to organic food was the equivalent of eating an extra portion of fruit and vegetables every day.

He added, "The biggest nutritional problem at the moment is the explosion in obesity, which is linked to heart disease and negative health. If we can take in the goodies we need in a more concentrated way, it could be an important step forward."

Researchers on the Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project grew fruit and vegetables and reared cattle on a 725-acre site at Nafferton Farm, Northumberland. They grew both organic and conventional test crops -- including cabbages, lettuces, carrots, potatoes and wheat -- side by side and compared factors such as nutritional quality.

The scientists found that antioxidant levels in organic milk were up to 90% higher than in conventional milk, as well as finding up to 40% more antioxidants in organic vegetables.

The Food Standards Agency, which has insisted organic food is no more healthy than conventional produce, has confirmed it will be reviewing the evidence and considering whether to change its advice.

Hundreds of tests over the past five years have failed to reveal improved nutritional value in organic produce.

In January, the Soil Association, the leading representative of organic producers, admitted there was a lack of studies showing organic food could be healthier. However, Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, said the latest research could help to contribute to a "seismic" change in the food industry.

From the November 5, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash