|A strawberry. Can you tell|
if it is organic or not?
[Photo credit: Rasbak from nl.]
By Emily Willingham
A report on organic foods has just come out from a Stanford University team, and the headlines, such as this one from the New York Times, pretty much say what everyone's saying about it: Organic foods aren't any better for you, nutritionally, than conventional foods.
According to the NYT report, the Stanford researchers spent four years looking over more than 200 studies, evaluating various aspects of research findings about organic versus conventionally farmed or ranched plants and meats. The kind of analysis they did is called a "meta-analysis" because it goes beyond--or "meta"--a single study and looks at a pile of existing data to analyze.
The NYT piece and a lot of what I've been seeing on Twitter gives the impression that people buy organic foods because they think these foods are nutritionally superior to conventionally produced foods. In that context, according to the NYT piece, the researchers
concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.
The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.
The problem? This is purely anecdotal (although at least one poll supports it), but the people I know who buy organic don't do it because they've got some idea that an organic strawberry's got more vitamin C than a non-organic one. They do it because of the rules governing the production of organic fruits and vegetables and organic meats. Their reasoning is that these processes will result in foods with less pesticide residue and less contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Guess what the Stanford team found? Again, from the NYT:
Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said
Organic produce, as expected, was much less likely to retain traces of pesticides....Organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
That finding for pesticides alone is one reason many people I know who buy organic do so.
One of the Stanford researchers acknowledged as much in the NYT piece:
Dr. Bravata 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.
Indeed, the piece does include an observation from an analyst with the Environmental Working Group noting that the "more nutritious" concept has "never been a major driver" in people's decision to buy--and pay more for--organic food. That said, organic producers do tend to emphasize the "nutritional superiority" of organically produced foods. Perhaps their advertising is poorly targeted.
Oddly enough, the researchers did find some potentially higher nutritional benefits of some organic foods, such as more "heart-healthy" omega 3 fatty acids in organic milk compared to conventionally produced milk.
What about you? Do you buy organic? If so, what are your reasons?
For further reading, check out the online brouhaha that blew up last summer, ignited by this article from Christie Wilcox, writing at Scientific American blogs.
These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.