“Vegetables and fruits, especially when consumed raw, represent the most important source for a diverse microbial community, which is mandatory for a healthy gut microbiome and our immune system,” said Birgit Wassermann, a PhD student at the Graz University of Technology in Austria, and first author of the study.
Wassermann and her fellow researchers chose to look at apples because of their immense popularity throughout the world.
About 83 million apples were grown in 2018 and production continues to grow. Raw fruits and vegetables are an important source of gut bacteria — cooking tends to kill off all the bacteria.
In the comparison of organic and conventional apples, not only was bacteria more diverse in organic production, but it was also associated with the presence of so-called “good” bacteria Lactobacillus, a common probiotic.
When it comes to gut health, however, Wassermann explained that it’s not as simple as choosing organic over conventional apples.
Such a simple inference can’t be drawn from her work alone. Instead, she emphasizes that diverse populations of bacteria — whether found in nature, apples, or the human gut — tend to be more beneficial no matter the environment where they are found.
And for most people, simply eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is a more important first step than discriminating between apples.
“Organic or conventional? Pretty irrelevant. The main thing is that people eat more fresh produce in general,” said Wassermann.
With a focus on bacteria and by extension, gut health, the research adds yet another lens through which to view the ongoing debate for consumers on how they choose to buy produce.
And the organic versus conventional debate is far from settled.
A 2015 study from Consumer Reports found that organic apples were anywhere from 20 to 60 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Milk was similarly 20 to 64 percent and for things like organic strawberries and zucchinis, consumers could end up paying twice as much.
In short, choosing how and why to pick conventional or organic produce is a serious balancing act. But one thing is for certain: You should be eating more fruits and vegetables no matter how they are grown.