Organic Food More Nutritious? Yet Another Study Fuels Irrelevant Debate

Organic Cauliflower

Yesterday morning, researchers at Stanford University published a meta-analysis on the health benefits of Organic vs. Conventional Food. They didn’t find any. By nightfall, hundreds of news outlets had published stories online. Before we dive in to the details, here is the conclusion drawn by the scientists, verbatim:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What you need to know:

A meta-analysis is not new research. It basically is a review of all previously published studies to find trends, analyze them and draw conclusions. The Stanford researchers went over a few hundred papers published on the subject in the last few years.

The data sets used encompassed a wide variety of foods – from fruits, to vegetables, to dairy and meat. Each original study had different conclusions. In some cases organic was shown to be more nutritious, in others – less. The overall AVERAGE was about the same.

But nutrient levels are not the main selling point of  organic food. Most people turn to organic for other reasons:

- Personal health reasons – no pesticides, antibiotics, or industrial ingredients added. Amplify this when parents are buying for young children. Some see it as an insurance policy.

- Green reasons – more sustainable, better paid farmers and workers, more socially responsible companies, more compassionate animal husbandry.

Oh, and in many cases, the organic product simply tastes MUCH BETTER than its conventional counterpart.

If organic food was as cheap as conventional food, everyone would switch over in a heartbeat. But it’s not, and so each family must compromise based on its financial capability, values, and priorities. There is no one right answer.

But what’s even more important for the vast majority of Americans is NOT to worry about organic vs conventional food.  It’s the switch from processed food to whole foods. It’s to double and triple the consumption of vegetables and fruits from current average levels.

Because the risk of getting cancer due to pesticides is orders of magnitude lower than the risk of diseases related to obesity brought on by nutrient poor diets.

  • Jensen_G

    even NPR took the bait on this one, though if one actually listens through the entire story on today’s Morning Edition, things get a little more balanced, with the newsperson admitting that #1 the environmental benefits are clear, and #2 this is not definitive in any way; more studies are needed. They should have also mentioned how much tastier organic produce tends to be, but they “forgot” about that benefit…

    • Fooducate

      Maybe the person who wrote the piece hasn’t had an organic heirloom tomato recently…

      • Okie

        Ditto. I can’t remember where, but I read a study about GMO tomatoes. Apparently when you genetically modify tomatoes to produce a nice even red skin, it does something to a protein that has to do with the production of a sugar that gives it good flavor. Nature knows best.

        • Jim Cooper

          No, the study was about conventionally bred tomatoes that lacked green shoulders. These were found to have taste bred out with the shoulders.

  • Bruce Bradley

    Well said, Hemi! I rarely hear people talk about nutrient levels as being the “why” for organics. It’s definitely about avoidance of the industrial “add-ons” like pesticides and antibiotics and wanting to support a more sustainable system. Seems like this is just the media trying to make a story out of nothing.

  • Darryl Miglio

    Great embedded message, eat more whole foods. Support your local CSA when buying the whole foods.

  • Lauren talbot, cn

    Great great great. My husband sent me the NY Times article yesterday, And I had to roll my eyes. Your article sums up my thoughts. Love it!

  • Farm2Kitchen

    That we needed a study to understand how nutritionally similar organic foods are to non-organics is a perfect example of the way we’ve lost sight of what the term really means.

    You’re right! It’s more important to chose wisely! Go for whole foods than processed foods.

  • Jean White George

    “The risk of getting cancer due to pesticides is orders of magnitude lower than the risk of diseases related to obesity brought on by nutrient poor diets.” We have a National epidemic of obesity.

  • Jim Cooper

    It has also been found that the pesticide levels in conventional produce are so low as to be insignificant even if you ate them every day of your life. And there is not any evidence that organic foods taste better that I am aware of. If you know of such peer-reviewed studies you should point them out.

    • Fooducate

      Jim, please do tell us where we can find a supermarket that has conventional produce that tastes as good as organic.

      • Jim Cooper

        I am not aware of any studies to show that organic foods taste better. Are you? Obviously fresher produce tastes better no matter how grown.

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