Nutritional Value of Organic Food Challenged by Stanford University Study

A new study conducted by Stanford University researchers suggests that organic food may not be as nutritious as many believe it to be.
A new study conducted by Stanford University researchers suggests that organic food may not be as nutritious as many believe it to be.
Katharine Shilcutt

A recently released Stanford University study, which reviewed and analyzed more than 200 previously conducted studies comparing the health effects of organic and conventional foods, suggests that organic food may not be a shining star in the department of nutritional value. The study's findings, in a nutshell: There is little difference between the health benefits of organic and non-organic foods -- organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious, and they don't necessarily carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives. Additionally, although organic produce has a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides.

Yikes. That's a lot to take in. For years now, organic food has been surrounded by a golden halo that makes it shine brighter than all other categories of food. Within hours of the release of Stanford University's study, both media and consumers alike were abuzz on this hot topic -- could it really be that organic products, which often cost two to three times more than their conventionally grown counterparts, fall so short?

It really depends on how you look at it.

For one thing, the nutritional value of organic food is not its only selling point. There's much more to organic foods. A USDA Consumer Brochure does a great job of explaining: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."

Even Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of the research paper, knows that "if you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional." These reasons include taste profile and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare, she told Stanford's Department of Medicine.

Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in Stanford's Division of General Medical Disciplines, and Dr. Bravata's co-researcher, says that the goal of the study was to "shed light on what the evidence is," and that the findings that they put out "is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations."

Whether they achieved that goal is a question. Many publications weighed in on the subject.

The Los Angeles Times: In an op-ed case for organic foods, the L.A. Times says that some parts of the study's findings are debatable, and that the study "fails to get to the heart of the reason most people spend extra for organics." The Los Angeles newspaper was surprised that processed foods labeled "organic" had no part in the study, but credits the study for pointing out "how little is yet known about the benefits of organics and the harms done by widespread pesticide use."

The New York Times: The NYT says that while organic food fans will most likely not be swayed by the study, "the conclusions will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying." In their review of the study, they also mention that no outside financing was used, usually a good thing for objectivity.

National Public Radio: NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey spoke with host Neal Conan about the study. Aubrey points out that the research methods used for the study should be examined, as "studies of people were very limited," and for this reason, it is "fair to say that this is not the last word on whether organics are healthy or better for you." She and host Conan agree that the debate over organic food is many times an emotional one -- Aubrey sees that "organic is part and parcel of a sort of cultural movement...a food renaissance."

We wonder what kind of effect the presentation of this study's findings will have have on the organic food market. As for you, will you continue to buy organic, or continue to stay away from organic? And what did you think of Stanford University's study?

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