The Dirt on Organics: Essential Answer

January/February 2013

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The Dirt on Organics: Essential Answer

Photo: Joseph Robertson/Flickr

Q: I've heard news reports about a Stanford School of Medicine study that found organic foood isn't any healthier than conventionally grown food. If that's the case, is it worth paying the premium price? Anonymous

Grocery stores these days offer us a lot of choice. But with thousands of brands, distributors and varieties, how can we possibly decide what is best for us? A recent study by researchers at Stanford Medical School set out to better inform our choices in that search, but many people may have felt like the apples just got mixed with the oranges.

The study sought to compare the health effects of organic and conventional foods,  focusing in nutrient and contaminant levels.
The researchers compiled 237 studies addressing the nutritional benefits of organic and conventionally grown foods. The studies they selected for this meta-analysis were of wide-ranging designs, sample sizes and durations.

Nutritionally, the Stanford team found few differences. What they confirmed, however, was that meat from animals raised organically had fewer residues from added antibiotics and hormones. Similarly, organic plant crops had lower levels of certain chemical pesticides and herbicides, and were exposed to less irradiation during processing. This is what we at SAGE would have expected: We had never heard that organic foods were supposed to be more nutritious. Indeed, the primary selling point for organics is not nutrients at all, but the positive impact that fewer chemicals, less pollution and the potential for improved working conditions have on human and environmental health.

These differences in what isn’t in organic food were largely overshadowed in the initial press release and by media outlets that first reported on the study. In headlines and articles, they extrapolated the unsurprising conclusion that organic and conventional foods are similarly nutritious to suggest that organic food isn’t healthier. But of course there’s much more to health than nutrient content, just as there’s much more to nutrient content than whether organic farming standards were met or not. And that’s even if the similar nutrient content of organic and conventional foods had been a surprise.

Besides, it’s not at all clear that the Stanford study is conclusive when it comes to nutrient content. The results in that study were largely neutral, showing that organic and conventional foods were roughly equally nutritious. In contrast, another meta-analysis conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in 2011 received considerably less attention when it found slightly higher nutritional values in organics. These higher results were limited to specific cases, such as in tomatoes, onions, and wheat. Ultimately, both studies’ results are far from conclusive, and more research is needed to choose a definitive winner.

In the meantime, the drawbacks of conventional food are clear. (See the Nitty Gritty answer for more details.) However, conventional agriculture does offer an advantage for your pocketbook: most of the time, it’s cheaper. The added cost of organics is offset by your smaller direct exposure to hormones, pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And, when it comes to the planet, many food experts agree that buying organic is a vital part of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing pollution, and limiting our impact on groundwater, watersheds, and the ocean.

However, if you are buying conventional, here are a few tools to help you assess your options:

•Buy produce with peels (and remove the peels before eating).
•Avoid the “Dirty Dozen,” fruits and vegetables that have the highest average concentrations of pesticides in the US market.
•Be sensitive to personal health needs. (For example, if you are pregnant, be cautious about your intake of food grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.)
•Consider other environmental impacts of your food choices, like the distance traveled to the market and the packaging required.

The Stanford study highlighted nutrient content as one issue to consider when sorting through the thousands of options in the grocery store aisle. But it is certainly not the only factor consumers must weigh. When making your grocery choices, identify your own priorities and values around price, impacts and personal health. But also remember that each decision involves more than just what you swallow your decisions in the grocery store can affect people and ecosystems a world away, too.

This SAGE question was researched and answered by Isabella Akker, ’13, Chad La Tourette, ’13, and graduate students Priya Fielding-Singh, Anna Hallingstad, ’12, and Lindley Mease, ’12.

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