Organic Food: Better for You or Not?

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Category : Whatcom Locavore Basics

Fresh KohlrabiYou’ve probably seen the media headlines saying something like “Organic Food No Better for You Than Non-organic.” The Stanford study cited in those articles was a “meta-analysis”, meaning the researchers surveyed already existing research. Their conclusion? Non-organic food is just as nutritious as organic food.

While there are some studies contradicting that statement, the real problem is that the headlines imply that there’s no benefit to choosing organic food. They suggest that nutrition is the only reason people choose to buy organic over conventionally raised food. That’s ridiculous, even according to the Stanford study itself.

I choose organic food whenever possible because of the toxic chemicals it does not contain, not because I think the nutrition will be different. The Stanford study actually confirms that choice, finding that 38% of conventionally raised foods contain pesticide residues, as opposed to only 7% of organic food.

Here is a New York Times article I found which I think explains well why the headlines about the Stanford study can be grossly misleading. Of course, this particular article also has a misleading headline, too, but the content of  the article is more balanced. You have to read past the first part of the article to get to the balance, though.

Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce

Here’s a relevant quote from the article:

Dr. Bravata [senior researcher for the study] agreed that people bought organic food for a variety of reasons — concerns about the effects of pesticides on young children, the environmental impact of large-scale conventional farming and the potential public health threat if antibiotic-resistant bacterial genes jumped to human pathogens. “Those are perfectly valid,” she said.

There are also several points made by the study which support choosing to buy local food, in my opinion, though the study didn’t look at that specifically. For example, did you know organic food can be contaminated with pesticides, etc.,  by being processed or shipped in facilities which do not separate them (which apparently accounts for much of the 7% of organic foods found to contain pesticide residue)? If you buy locally grown organic produce direct from farmers, that’s much less likely to happen.

Also, the study stated that ripe conventionally grown produce was usually more nutritious than unripe organic produce. Local produce is more likely to be fully ripened before you buy it, since it won’t have to stand up to as much handling and jostling as produce shipped from other areas of the country.

The basic findings of the study seem to me like plain common sense:

  1. Ripe food is more nutritious, whether organic or not. Seriously, who is surprised by that finding?
  2. Organic food contains fewer harmful chemical residues. Since that’s practically the definition of raising food organically (without use of synthetic chemicals), why would this be unexpected?
  3. Organic growing methods for meat produce fewer antibiotic-resistant pathogens. If you don’t routinely give animals antibiotics, and you don’t raise them in filthy conditions where antibiotics are routinely required, pathogens are a lot less likely to come into contact with antibiotics in the first place and so will have far less opportunity to become resistant.

In short, I think we’re often better off using our heads rather than believing media stories.

Most media articles I’ve seen about the Stanford study are focused on the finding that organic and conventional food are comparable in nutrition, and from that they jump to the wild-eyed conclusion that therefore buying organic food is a waste of money. If people only buy organic food because they think it is more nutritious, that would be valid, but I think that is rarely the case. People buy organic food because it is less likely to contain toxins. The Stanford study actually supports that reasoning.

P.S. Beware of erroneous photo captions, too. In the article linked above, the photo caption says, “Conventional strawberries in Watsonville, California. Researchers say organic foods are no more nutritious and no less likely to be contaminated.” In fact, the study said (and the article reported) that conventionally grown food was more than 30% more likely to be contaminated (38% versus 7%).

Here’s another good article reviewing the study and the resulting mainstream media coverage: The Truth About Organic.


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