New Study Shows No Clear Health Advantages to Eating Organic

September 04,2012
Erin Dower( )

As I sat here munching on my non-organic grapes (they're one of "The Dirty Dozen" -- eek), I came across the NYTimes headline "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce."  I let out a little sigh of relief inside. Organic food is more expensive, and we're on a tight budget and rarely buy it.

The Stanford researchers set out to discover whether organic produce packs more of a nutritional punch than conventionally-grown fruits and veggies. "When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food," Dr. Dena Bravata told the Times. "I think we were definitely surprised.”  

The study, published in today's Annals of Internal Medicine, was a "meta-analysis" of data from more than 200 previous studies on the health effects of different kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats. The researchers found that organic fruits and vegetables are no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, and that organic meats had no obvious health advantages either. They found that organic meat contained lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional meat did -- but bacteria (antibiotic-resistant or otherwise) would be killed during cooking.

The news comes at a time when the organic produce market is booming -- up 12 percent last year, the Times reports. While the Stanford study did find that organic milk contained more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, most other nutritional comparisons of organic vs. conventional produce and meats were a nutritional draw.

The Environmental Working Group -- the nonprofit organization that puts out the list of "The Dirty Dozen" most pesticide-heavy fruits and veggies -- has spread a strong message that makes people think twice about buying "regular" produce instead of organic. In response to the new Stanford research, an EWG analyst said that the argument that organic produce is more nutritious “has never been major driver” in why people choose to pay more -- it's pesticides that people (especially pregnant women and people with young children) are mainly concerned about.

I'm no fan of pesticides -- a bogeyman creeping around my fruit bowl. They're also not good for the environment. But I do take some solace in the fact that the American Cancer Society maintains in its cancer-prevention guidelines that it's "largely unknown" whether organic food (with far lower pesticide levels) carries a lower cancer risk: "Several studies have looked at the nutrient content of organic versus conventionally grown fruits or vegetables, and while some studies suggest a higher nutrient content, others suggest no difference. It is not known if the nutritional differences that have been reported would result in health benefits such as a reduced cancer risk. Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains should form the central part of a person's diet, regardless of whether they are grown conventionally or organically."

My local grocery store (nothing fancy, but suits our needs) is currently in talks to possibly be bought out by Whole Foods (aka "Whole Paycheck") -- which has a largely-organic produce section. I have nothing against organic food except the price tag (which I know is generally warranted); I hope it does  have some extra-magical powers that I'll enjoy the day that I can afford to buy it regularly. But until then, I'll drive the extra couple of miles to skip Whole Foods and stick with "the dirty stuff" (and more of it!). I hope that, as this study indicates, that's good enough.  

How about you? Do you buy a lot of organic food? Does this new study change your perception of organics?