Enthusiasts insist that organic foods are the healthiest choice. Skeptics think organic is a label created to justify a higher price for meat and produce. Stanford researchers have concluded that there are no extra health or nutrition benefits to be had from paying more for organic foods. But organic farmers say the Stanford study validates the primary motivation for organic consumers: lower pesticide and antibiotic levels.
Organic food sales
Demand has been rising for organic foods in the U.S. According to a recent report from the Obama administration, organic food sales grew from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $31.4 billion by 2011. The USDA, which certifies meat and produce as organic if it can be proven as grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones, says organic foods make up 4.2 percent of total retail food sales.
Based on its sales curve, the organic label has acquired considerable prestige. But when it comes to health and nutrition is spending the extra money on organic food worth it?
Organic food studies
To answer that question, Stanford University doctors analyzed reams of existing data collected from organic food studies. Their conclusion: except for small differences in pesticides and antibiotics, organic food is no healthier than conventionally grown meat and produce.
Sifting through thousands of studies comparing organic and conventional foods, the Stanford researchers selected 237 that were deemed scientifically sound. The majority of studies focused on the foods alone, while only 17 investigated the effects of the foods on people. Overall, organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of detectable pesticide levels.
Health benefits questioned
Organic meat was also found to contain significantly lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised meat. However, because cooking kills bacteria whether they are antibiotic resistant or not, that health benefit is essentially cancelled out. The same could be said for higher levels of phosphorus found in organic produce. Americans get plenty of phosphorus, which is readily available from a wide variety of foods.
More phenols were present in organic produce, but no definitive conclusion on health benefits could be reached because the amount of these cancer-preventing compounds that was detected varied widely in several small studies. As for nutrition, conventional produce left to ripen before harvesting had more time to produce essential nutrients than unripe organic produce.
The bright side
The Organic Trade Association put a positive spin on the Stanford study, referring to the USDA Organic label as the “gold standard” for consumers seeking to minimize their exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the OTA’s 2011 Attitudes and Beliefs Study, 78 percent of American families choose organic because they are motivated to reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotics.
The Stanford researchers noted in their analysis that pesticide residue found in conventional fruits and vegetables were almost always under minimum safe levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Organic food activists insist those levels are too high.
The Stanford study suggests that the word “organic” may be too simple to define what has become a complicated niche. Has over generalization of the term watered it down to the point where the label doesn’t always justify the higher price?