Are organic fruits, vegetables, meats, and other products any better than food produced through conventional methods? There are as many opinions on this topic as the day is long. Most recently, Stanford University has thrown its hat into the ring with a new health study published today in Annals of Internal Medicine. According to the Stanford report, organic foods offer no real quantitative health advantages over their conventional counterparts.
Of course, it all depends on your definition of terms like nutrition and health. For the purposes of this report – conducted by members of Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and Division of General Medicinal Disciplines and consisting of extensive analysis of long term health statistics recorded over years’ worth of existing reports – it’s reduced to the bare basics of essential nutrients and pathogen contamination:
“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods... They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.
Indeed, many of the differences between the two types of foods are negligible. Nutrient levels were similar, and so too were the instances of pathogen contamination. Also, though the exposure levels were 30 percent lower, even organic produce wasn’t found to be 100 percent pesticide free – there are always going to be some facilities that cheat, and even the most steadfast producers can’t be completely immune when a neighboring farm decides to crop dust.
But the findings are certainly interesting in what is going on just outside of the absolute basics. Organic and conventional milk shared similar protein and fat content – but organic milk contained significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Children consuming all-organic diets had less pesticide residue in their urine samples – although, granted, even pesticide residue on conventional produce was found to be at levels considered “safe.” Organic pork and organic chicken were also found to have reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant pathogens – never a bad thing, right?
That’s absolutely right, and it’s a fact of which the researchers behind this project are well aware – rather than serving as an excuse to get people to abandon organics, the study is meant to serve as a way to debunk myths and highlight the truth about what food can and can’t offer:
As for what the findings mean for consumers, the researchers said their aim is to educate people, not to discourage them from making organic purchases. “If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” noted Bravata. She listed taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare as some of the reasons people choose organic products.
“Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Smith-Spangler. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”
Hopefully, that’s what readers of the study will take away from it. After all, has the issue ever been that organic foods pack in a higher amount of vitamins or minerals or added health benefits? If so, it’s a bit misguided. The building blocks are the same, from vitamins and nutrients to the supply chain that gets them from farm to market (and may expose them to pathogens along the way).
That point of the essay will be heard loud and clear, but it’s also important to read between the lines. With those nutritive basics on the same level, it’s the less tangible issues – the merits or demerits of pesticides, additives, antibiotics and growth hormones, even at whichever levels are deemed safe – that cause consumers to make that choice between organic and conventional.