In September, a widely publicized study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional foods. This was not actually news, but rather reconfirms what we’ve said before about organic foods.
The study—actually a review of more than 200 studies—is the most comprehensive to date. But there are other reasons to still buy organic foods, at least some of the time.
The Stanford University researchers who conducted the review found no significant overall differences in nutrients between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and grains—or in people consuming them, such as in blood vitamin levels or immune markers.
A few studies reported higher omega-3 fats in organic milk and chicken (minor sources, anyway, compared to fatty fish) and phenols in organic produce (what difference this makes to health is debatable).
The study also confirmed that organic foods are not safer from bacterial contamination. Both organic and conventional animal products were often contaminated with E. coli, Campylobacter and other pathogens; some studies found organic produce and pork were more risky.
But the headlines overlooked or downplayed other findings that may be important to you. Though virtually all foods fell within government safety limits, conventional foods were five times more likely than organic ones—38 percent versus 7 percent—to have detectable pesticide residues (for various reasons, organic does not necessarily mean pesticide-free). Pesticides are a known danger at high exposures, and one reason I buy organic is that it’s safer for farm workers.
But there’s no clear evidence that low-level residues in foods are harmful for consumers. Still, if you wish to minimize exposure, you may want to consult the Environmental Working Group to find out which fruits and vegetables have the most and least residues—especially if you’re feeding young children, who would be more vulnerable to pesticide toxicity. The information can help you decide which foods you want to buy organic and which you can save money on by buying conventional.
Organic meats were also less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That’s because antibiotics are prohibited in organic operations. And since the routine use of these drugs in livestock is contributing to the increase in antibiotic-resistant infections in people, organic gets my vote here.
If the study’s key findings surprised you, keep in mind that the mission of organic farming has never been to produce more nutritious foods, but to employ agricultural methods that have less adverse impact on the environment, including wildlife. Organic animal production is also more humane in some (not all) important ways.
Some people think organic foods taste better, too, and are willing to pay extra for that. That’s often true, though in my own experience, conventional produce grown locally can be fresher and more flavorful than organic produce shipped long distances.
The debate over organic versus conventional goes beyond the nutritional and health aspects. Let your personal values guide your decision about which to choose. What is clear, however, is that eating lots of fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of many diseases, no matter how the foods are grown.