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4Sep 2012

Organic food: What question did the study ask?

Organic food: What question did the study ask?

Stanford University researchers are reporting today that they "did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives," according to a press release on a study sure to trigger strong reactions on foodie websites. 

Before we look at the coverage, it's important to look closely at what the researchers said. They reviewed 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrients and contaminants in foods and, in a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, they concluded the following: "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

Alice Park on Time's Healthland blog reported that "organic products aren’t necessarily more nutritional than conventional varieties, and they’re no less susceptible to contamination from disease-causing microbes like E. coli either." She is on target: the issue is nutrition, and the researchers did say that the risk of E. coli infection was similar in organic and conventional foods. She noted that organic foods are grown without pesticides, but did not note that the study found a possibly reduced risk of pesticide exposure.

At the New York TimesKenneth Chang reports the news accurately as well, and he does something Time didn't do--he seeks comment from the Organic Trade Association. But the comment proves to be not terribly helpful. A spokesperson told him that reduced contamination with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria were important for consumers, but she did not address the main finding of the study--concerning the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. Chang gives an analyst with the Environmental Working Group a free ride, letting her say, "We feel organic food is living up to its promise," without pressing her on why she thinks so. 

The AP's Lauran Neergaard shows up with a smart story that neatly puts the study in the context of the debate over using antibiotics to encourage growth of farm animals. (The version I read was on The Huffington Post.) She also quotes one of the researchers as saying that there are plenty of reasons people might want to choose organic food, from environmental concerns to taste preferences. That's an important point; the study looked at nutrition and contamination, not such things as taste or appearance.

Elizabeth Weise at USA Today includes useful agricultural stats in her story, noting, for example, that organic food generally costs 25% more in wholesale markets in San Francisco and Boston and can sometimes be double the price. Her reporting also shows that the study's emphasis on nutrition was important; she quotes a 2010 Nielsen study that found that 76% of consumers bought organic foods because they thought they were healthier.

The reporting might not have much effect on consumers' purchases, but it should give them a better idea of what they are--and are not--paying for.

-Paul Raeburn




Totally agree with Mike Lemonick - organic food wasn't more nutritious, it's a just people assumptions. But organically grown food is better for environment.

Bora, organic food production does not involve usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, bio pesticides and bio fertilizers can be used for organic food production. Residues of these bio pesticides and bio fertilizers may be present in the organic food.

The main question is who and how certified production is organic. Different countries use different standards, wich is wrong. Should be international standards.

Organic food and products are becoming very popular as people become more aware of the great dangers of chemicals. It's common sense - organic food is good food.

Organic food isn't more nutritious, it is like normal food

Thanks, Paul--the widespread belief that organic is more nutritious doesn't surprise me. Actual claims by the industry do, so the new study is clearly more valuable than I thought.

Bora: Thanks for the link; I commend it to others. Organic farming clearly is not what we think it is. As Christie Wilcox writes, "The sad truth is, factory farming is factory farming, whether it's organic or conventional."

Mike: On a personal note, my friends who eat organic, or sometimes eat organic, are absolutely convinced it's healthier, more nutritious, safer--add the favorable adjectives of your choice. Based on my anecdotal evidence, I'd guess that's a widespread view. And note some of the claims here, which I got to via the Organic Trade Association:


I'm trying to remember who ever claimed that organic food is more nutritious. As far as I can recall, the only claim anyone ever made was that it's safer and better for the environment. The idea that it's more nutritious seems to be an assumption people have made on their own, not a claim from the industry.

Ummm, organic food industry does use pesticides. They are limited to the use of so-called "natural" pesticides which are potentially more dangerous than the more sophisticated, synthetic ones:

So, everyone who repeated that myth, did bad journalism....


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