Should You Believe the 'Organic Isn't Healthier' Study?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  144 comments   :  36,423 Views

It's been all over the news this week: A new study conducted by researchers from Stanford University, and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, finds little evidence that organic foods are any healthier than conventionally grown foods.
If you've been shelling out the extra cash for organic (which does cost more than conventional in most cases), you may feel as if you've been duped!
Before you wallow in all of your wasted dollars, let's stop and think: Could this really be true?
Don't put those pesticide-free carrots back on the shelf just yet! Like any study, it's important to read past the attention-grabbing news headlines and think critically about the information being presented. If you ask me, this study (and its news coverage) is questionable.
What Does the Study Really Show?
This is a meta-analysis, which involves looking at already-published research on a topic. It included 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods. It also ignored other relevant studies that did not fit the specific criteria of what researchers wanted to look for. Here is what the researchers concluded after their review:
  • The published literature "lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." [Note this doesn't say conventional foods are higher in nutrients than organic, or that organic is equal to or less nutritious than conventional. Let's call this a draw for organic and conventional.]
  • There are "significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets," but these levels are not "clinically meaningful" in adults. [Organic wins, at least as far as kids are concerned.]
  • The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce. [A win for organic.]
  • E.coli (Escherichia coli) contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce. Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. [Organic and conventional tie in these cases.]
  • The risk for antibiotic-resistant bacteria was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork. [Organic wins again.]
News outlets are specifically focusing on the first point above, so let's discuss that some more. How easy is it to actually measure nutrient levels in foods? Not easy at all. And the variables go far beyond whether the food was grown with chemical fertilizers or not. Many studies look at a single vegetable in a single field to make comparisons, but that is too simplified of a view.

As Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles wrote for NPR:

"When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that's true whether they are organic or conventional. One carrot in the grocery store, for instance, may have two or three times more beta carotene (which gives us vitamin A) than its neighbor. That's due to all kinds of things: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather.

"So there really are vegetables that are more nutritious than others, but the dividing line between them isn't whether or not they are organic."

Why Has This Been So Newsworthy?
When reading any story, especially a controversial or surprising one, remember that news outlets have to create news…Every. Single. Day. And they will often latch on to studies like this one, slightly twist headlines to be more attention-grabbing so you'll buy, watch, read and click on their stories. News, after all, isn't a public service. It's a business.
As for why this particular study is getting so much attention—and glossing over the fact that there may be many more reasons to buy organic other than vitamin levels—some people have pointed out that this research has been bought and paid for (and later promoted) by groups who have an interest in bashing organic foods and promoting conventional agriculture. That alone, if true, makes it pretty darn biased—and also explains why it's gotten so much hype.
Here's My Opinion on Organic—and This Study
I am not a scientist or a dietitian, but I do consider myself to be pretty well-informed on these issues. I am an organic food consumer. 90 percent (or more) of the foods I buy are organic. If I ever have the choice, it's organic. I will avoid conventionally-grown food whenever possible, and I will continue to buy organic food even after seeing this study and its related news stories. Why?
Although this study would lead us to believe that people like me buy organic food because we think it has more vitamins in it, that's not even a factor in my mind. I buy organic food for what it doesn't have in it: chemical fertilizers and pesticides that I'd rather not eat day after day and year after year. Where is the evidence that ingesting all these pesticides is "healthy" or ideal, especially for the most vulnerable populations like pregnant women, babies and children? It has been documented that organic foods contain far less pesticide residues and that people who eat organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies and urine. This study showed that as well. While its researchers have glossed over that saying that these levels were within "acceptable" levels—there is no mention as to whether these levels are optimal or ideal. Personally, I consider zero to be an acceptable level for a foreign chemical in my body.
Organic food is also free from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs haven't been proven to be harmful per se, but they also haven't been proven to be totally safe either. Most people agree that it needs more research, although we're all just assuming it's safe because it hasn't been proven to be bad. Is that logical? If you think GMO food is questionable, that's yet another reason to buy organic.  I'd rather not find out the effects of consuming GMOs over my lifetime until more research is finally available. Unless it's been proven as healthy and desirable—or better than what nature created—I think I'll pass for now. I'd rather not be a science experiment. 
I also buy organic because of the way it's grown—naturally, with methods that enrich the soil and don't pollute the planet. I'm a bit of a hippie at heart. I care about the environment and I'm not convinced that all this chemical agriculture is good for our bodies, let alone our waters, our land or our animals. Made from petrochemicals, fertilizers and pesticides linger in our soil and water—negatively impacting the environment and polluting streams, oceans and groundwater. Chemical fertilizers artificially put nutrients into the soil that make it into your food, which means the nutrients in the food you eat are man-made chemicals as well. (Tasty!) But ultimately they strip the soil of all nutrients so that it's even more dependent on chemical supplementation. Eventually, chemical-laden fields become completely unable to grow any food at all. I don't believe this is the best way to grow food—it's far from sustainable and it does result in environmental damage. So I buy organic because I think it's better for the planet.
So how do we get from the results above (that organic "isn't significantly more nutritious") to the sensational headlines that "organic is not any healthier" or "organic is no more nutritious"? Are nutrients alone the only way to measure the healthfulness of a food? Perhaps more importantly, is nutrition really what organic is all about?
Hardly. It was never intended to be, either.
Mat McDermott, a blogger for the eco-centered news site perhaps said it best when discussing this study:

"…I think the major shortcoming in all this is, particularly in much of the reporting: It's a fundamental mistake to look at the benefits of organic agriculture on individual health without simultaneously considering the benefits for the system as a whole, that is human communities, non-human communities, and the intersection of these."

Organic is about much more than nutrients. And the healthfulness of a food can't be measured by vitamins alone. This study won't change my buying or eating habits.

More On Organic
SparkPeople's official opinion on organic food is that it's a personal preference. We want our readers to eat more fruits and veggies--organic or not. The health benefits of eating more fresh, wholesome foods far outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposure, and you'll do your health more harm by avoiding fruits and vegetables entirely, according to our dietitian Becky Hand. So eat up! If organic does interest you, or you'd like to buy more organic food on a budget, check out these resources:

How about you? Do you buy organic? Why or why not? Do you (or did you ever) believe that organic is more nutritious than conventional food?

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  • 144
    Although I agree mostly with what you are saying; I cannot afford to buy all organic foods especially the meat. Some of the canned organic stuff is cheaper than the fresh stuff. I have bought organic black beans when they were cheaper at Aldis and a few other products. But mostly I buy the conventional stuff. - 1/14/2017   6:48:35 PM
    I have issues with the lack of scientific evidence. It is an opinion based article, linking more opinion. I don't find it very educational. - 10/12/2015   11:10:54 AM
  • 142
    Great Blog, Nicole. - 10/10/2015   5:06:54 PM
  • 141
    Hello Nicole. Thank you for your article, which struck me as a balanced and sensible layperson's review of why one might or might not choose to eat organic. Like others, I am ambivalent about the relatively weak final paragraph. Perhaps your conclusion reflects an imposition of editorial policy rather than being the natural outcome of your observations.

    I live in the real world. Sites like SparkPeople are sponsored and can't alienate their best advertisers. So long as SparkPeople does not provide *mis*information and your ads don't become overwhelming (they have been pretty intrusive lately), I can live with that!

    I do have a question about one paragraph. You wrote, "But ultimately [pesticides and fertilizers] strip the soil of all nutrients so that it's even more dependent on chemical supplementation. Eventually, chemical-laden fields become completely unable to grow any food at all." This makes sense to me, but it would be helpful if you could tell us more about any agricultural research on the subject.

    Thank you! - 7/7/2015   7:38:40 PM
  • 140
    Thank you for this article, Nicole. I buy organic because I don't want to eat the pesticides. I also buy local as often as I can.

    I totally disagree with some of the unnecessary rudeness of some members. Everyone has their own opinion and we need to respect their voice.

    Thanks again Coach Nicole! :D - 7/7/2015   6:33:58 AM
  • 139
    Wow, your last paragraph completely negates the article! It doesn't seem very professional of you to say that you'll have pesticides coursing through your body when you eat conventional produce and then to just say "Go for it! Eat it that way, there cannot be any harm in it!" Yeah? How about I avoid poison, thank you very much! Your attitude, and SparkPeople's "official" attitude makes me very angry! I will not have it! I will not buy conventional produce! - 5/16/2015   11:12:29 AM
  • 138
    We buy organic food for what ISN'T in the food, not because it is healthier or better tasting. We just don't want to eat toxins and chemicals! - 3/16/2015   6:55:37 PM
    I only buy organic if it tastes better. I refuse to eat bad tasting food regardless of it's health or environmental benefits. So I have tried some organic foods and some I like and some I don't. - 10/20/2014   9:34:37 AM
  • 136
    We eat organic to avoid toxic chemicals, not because the food has higher nutritional value. The study is flawed and I wouldn't be surprised if it was funded by Monsanto. - 6/2/2014   2:15:59 AM
  • 135
    Finally, I found an article on SP that says that organic is GOOD! I feel like everything I look at here is trying to sell me some brand of crappy, mass-produced, GMO-filled food…but because it's low in calories, SP calls it "healthy." Thank you for sweeping aside the piles of stupidity that have been building up here at SP. We need more articles like this.

    EDIT: Oh wait! I read this last paragraph, and I take it all back. I really don't like double-speak…and I should have expected it. Next time I'll make sure to catch the fine print.

    "SparkPeople's official opinion on organic food is that it's a personal preference. We want our readers to eat more fruits and veggies--organic or not. The health benefits of eating more fresh, wholesome foods far outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposure, and you'll do your health more harm by avoiding fruits and vegetables entirely, according to our dietitian Becky Hand. So eat up!" - 1/17/2014   1:00:29 PM
    I try to eat organic for the dirty dozen. These foods have been found to be the highest in pesticides.
    1. apples
    2. celery
    3. cherry tomatoes
    4. cucumber
    5. grapes
    6. hot peppers
    7. nectarines (imported)
    8. peaches
    9. potatoes
    10. spinach
    11. strawberries
    12. sweet bell peppers
    …plus collards & kale
    …plus summer squash & zucchini

    I also only eat organic soy because of the high probability of GMO

    I try to buy organic for these but I don't worry as much if I cannot find it they are called The Clean 15
    1. asparagus
    2. avocado
    3. cabbage
    4. cantaloupe
    5. corn
    6. eggplant
    7. grapefruit
    8. kiwi
    9. mangoes
    10. mushrooms
    11. onions
    12. papayas
    13. pineapples
    14. sweet peas (frozen)
    15. sweet potatoes

    If you are concerned about GMO in processed foods or just want to find better healthy alternatives for processed foods or "Boxed" foods try the phone app called Fooducate. It's awesome and will suggest better choices for you and give you tips for eating healthier. - 10/24/2013   9:07:08 AM
  • 133
    Grow your own and buy local. Wash everything and ask questions. READ LABELS and stay away from processed foods.
    One thing that irks me no end: why buy produce from thousands of miles away when you live in a state that is known for it's farms and agriculture? Do without or get frozen when produce is out of season. I buy tons of blueberries when they're readily available from local farms and freeze them for use in the winter. Minimal work--magnificent rewards! - 2/28/2013   5:22:57 AM
  • 132
    Of course organic is healthier. There are no toxic pesticides on your produce and it has been grown in an environmentally responsible manner. - 11/20/2012   10:44:30 PM
  • 131
    Thanks so much for the blog. We have a garden. We put up a lot of what we grow and try to buy from farmers were we live. The food just taste better. I would rather talk with the person who grew it than wonder what I'm getting. - 9/13/2012   2:58:11 PM
  • 130
    Professionally I am a scientist, as are several others on this thread. However, in general I definitely agree with the blogger here. Nutritionally, organic foods do not necessarily provide more “power” than non-organics – it depends on soil type, and time of year, and many other factors. And this blog made that point adequately.
    I don’t buy all my produce organically, due to cost, but I definitely buy my greens that way, or at least locally. There’s no way to rinse those things to remove pesticides and other unwanted items. Yes, organic farmers use alternative pesticides, but they seem relatively safer than those on “regular” items. Even so, this is not always a sure bet – that spinach scare of a few years back came out of an organic industrial farming conglomerate.
    Actually, my food of choice is from farmers’ markets. Most of these are organic items, or they are factually so, since a lot of people do not have the means to jump through the hoops of Organic Legislature. Certainly, everything I grow on my own small acre (despite too much shade) is actually Organic, but I have never cared to peruse the paperwork.
    As far as meat goes: “Regular” livestock is raised in extremely stressed conditions. I don’t care if I buy my meats organically or not – but they have to be “humanely” raised, or pastured. I’m working for all the meats I buy to be pastured. This truly makes a difference. Both nutritionally and ethically this really does matter. And, due to price, it means I eat more veggies than I might eat, otherwise.
    I am indeed a scientist. What I eat matters, and I am not alone in wanting a scientific approach to foods and nutrition.

    Regards the study: when they talk about organic foods, are they talking industrial organic, or small scale homesteads??? I rather doubt the latter, but am curious anyways. - 9/12/2012   10:12:09 PM
    Not only does buying organic whenever possible keep one healthier, in most cases buying organic helps small farmers and local producers of eggs, meat, etc. - 9/12/2012   8:04:15 PM
  • 128
    Right on Coach Nicole!!! Thanks for a great blog. My doctor convinced me of the importance of eating organic and I've never felt better. I waste far less food now too. - 9/12/2012   6:44:02 PM
  • 127
    We've been drinking organic milk for a number of years now and I can really taste the difference between regular milk and the organic. The organic just tastes cleaner. - 9/12/2012   5:01:10 PM
  • 126
    As indicated in the article, the nutritional value is essentially the same whether you buy organic or not. I do buy some organic, but it is because of what is not put in the environment not because of what is not put on the food. Resistant pests will be a problem whether for organic or non-organic produce.

    One thing that amazes me is the low opinion people have of scientists. It is amazing that they claim "follow the money" or "they have their own bias" when, as SparkPeople users, they are following scientific research in their weight loss quest. I guess it is just research they agree with that is OK. If you paid attention to your science class in high school you might understand the scientific method. Science is a progressive field that builds on previous findings. If somebody states something that is not true, it is usually rooted out fairly quickly and the information accepted in science as untrue. The information doesn't go away, it is just no longer used. The strength of science is based on both right and wrong answers. You need the wrong to know when you are going right and you need the right to continue learning. Quit bashing science based on your own ignorance or your own bias. We all rely on what "those scientists" create. - 9/11/2012   6:28:52 PM
  • 124
    I am a gardener and farm raised! I saw the introduction of no-till chemicals that quickly took the place of the more labor intensive conventional till methods. I saw our dairy cows become cancerous. Most people have never seen a potato field that was green today, harvested and then turn brown the very next day because of chemicals sprayed on it. I wonder if they spent some time out in the country observing these practices, if they would be as quick to judge. Or as quick to put chemical-laden food into their family's mouths. Yes organic is more expensive. But this is partly due to supply and demand. As we consumers demand more organic, it becomes cheaper because farmers will supply it. Organic farmers are not subsidized by the government like main stream farmers are either. So I say to the nay-sayers..... keep eating those cheaper fruits and vegetables. You get what you pay for. - 9/11/2012   5:09:02 PM
    Me honestly I don't see any real huge benefit to eating organic, not enough at least to explain the cost, as someone who struggles just to eat healthy because of money. I'm actually upset that its cheaper to eat the McDcnald s menu eve ry day than to go grocery shopping for healthy food. For those in that tax bracket I say” go for it”, as for me I'm going to go with what I can afford.... Hey it hasn't killed me yet! - 9/11/2012   4:41:06 PM
  • 122
    Monsanto develops GMO's in order to feed a hungry world. If all the people in the world were to eat only organic, there would be many more starving people, as organic yields are much lower. Personally I will wait for proof that GMO's and nonorganic foods are bad before I spend extra money for organics. - 9/11/2012   1:01:01 PM
    I'm with RHETORDAYNA on this. I don't buy the 'treehugger' hype. I also don't buy organic. - 9/11/2012   12:00:28 PM
  • 120
    I agree with you, Nicole. I buy local organic whenever I can (which is often 'stealing' from my father's garden!). I do this and have been doing this not because I think it contains more nutrients, but because it does not contain chemicals I don’t want and meanwhile it stimulates the local economy.

    There is a place for science. There is a NEED for science. However, there is a place and need for nature, as well. And it is of personal choice what we put in our own bodies. If you want to try to keep things natural, then buy organic and/or grown your own foods. If you want to trust the science route and eat engineered foods, by all means, go for it. I’m just glad I have a choice.

    I am more than irritated with anyone who venomously attacks you for your opinions, by the way. You are welcome to your opinions, as this is a blog forum. And it’s certainly within someone’s right to disagree with your opinions, but I feel a select few on here have verbally assaulted you, and I don’t think that’s right. Too much of this world is quick to jump to hostility. I wish more people would remember “The Golden Rule” and treat each other with respect. And if the justification for the aggression is that someone else started it, then perhaps a lesson in debate is due, as well. - 9/11/2012   11:29:48 AM
  • 119
    Love your point: "this research has been bought and paid for (and later promoted) by groups who have an interest in bashing organic foods and promoting conventional agriculture. That alone, if true, makes it pretty darn biased—and also explains why it's gotten so much hype."

    So often we hear comments like "just follow the science!" However, science can and often IS skewed by $$$. Who bought & paid for this science?

    Just follow the MONEY and you'll have a better sense as to whether the research has been done in a relatively objective environment.

    BAZILLIONS of dollars are being poured into shaping our so-called "freedom of choice" and the more educated, challenging and questioning we can be about our world, the more potential we have to enjoy at least greater amounts of "freedom" in our choices.

    Don, Co-Leader of All Health Professionals, Binghamton Area Losers and Laid Off But Staying Strong SparkTeams - 9/11/2012   8:15:53 AM
    you have missed the mark entirely here and I don't think you should be using your celebrity to misinform the desperate. You "preach" anti science like a gospel. It sickens me. The fact is we don't know at all what is in organic foods. They are nearly unregulated and responsible for more than 30x the hospitalizations than so called "pesticide" poisonings. Non-organics are much safer.

    Also, as a scientist; You need to reevaluate the study and what it is really saying. I am a researcher. And your biased crap from a treehugger website is nothing but paraphernalia of a cultural of bigoted anti-science. How dare you! - 9/10/2012   3:52:53 PM
    you have missed the mark entirely here and I don't think you should be using your celebrity to misinform the desperate. You "preach" anti science like a gospel. It sickens me. The fact is we don't know at all what is in organic foods. They are nearly unregulated and responsible for more than 30x the hospitalizations than so called "pesticide" poisonings. Non-organics are much safer.

    Also, as a scientist; You need to reevaluate the study and what it is really saying. I am a researcher. And your biased crap from a treehugger website is nothing but paraphernalia of a cultural of bigoted anti-science. How dare you! - 9/10/2012   3:52:51 PM
  • 116
    I am so with you: I buy organic for what is NOT in it, not for any belief of higher nutrient content; although I'm convinced it does have higher levels of nutrients. I'm also thrilled that organic food is never GMO. - 9/10/2012   2:55:31 PM
  • 115
    For me, eating organic is all about what is NOT in my food. I never expect it to have more vitamins! I just don't want to eat poison, thank you very much! - 9/10/2012   1:12:31 PM
  • 114
    Perhaps the main reason we avoid GMO crops from the USA in the EU is the fact that Monsanto uses dirty tactics to enable it to 'own' food crops and create dependency on their other products. Read about how they have patented genetic coding in their seeds and what that has meant to local organic and heritage farmers in the USA who have had seed blow onto their land and contaminate their crops. It's an ugly business and we should want no part of it. I for one am not ok with having a corporation owning the food supply. Don't let this just pass by through ignorance of what is going on. Read up. - 9/10/2012   12:12:35 PM
  • 113
    I buy organic during the growing season from our local farmers. Where I live winter veggies have to be transported in and are expensive organic or not. So in the winter I buy what I can afford or I buy organic frozen. - 9/10/2012   5:15:18 AM
    Couldn't agree more - I never really thought organic was more nutritious, and I buy it because of the pesticides etc in conventional, not because I'm going to get more vitamins! I also think there's an even bigger issue at play here that you addressed - too many of us "learn" what's going on from the news by reading the headlines or maybe skimming the first paragraph. We all need to be more aware of the biases that exist and recognize that news outlets are there to grab our attention, not accurately word headlines. - 9/9/2012   9:04:30 PM
  • 111
    here is the deal, what they know today will change tomorrow and each of us has to blacnace our tastes with our budgets. - 9/9/2012   8:48:17 PM
  • 110
    I don't care about organic vs conventional. I will buy either if budget allows. I am more concerned as another has stated earlier about crop rotation. Doing that correctly is the key to maximizing nutritional value. - 9/9/2012   6:44:55 PM
  • MY_YEAR_IS_2012
    i am too a beliver off all nattural but I would rather grow my own. Unfortunally I am on a budget and buy the cheaper priced veggies. - 9/9/2012   6:01:01 PM
  • 108
    People will believe what they choose and argue against the balance. - 9/9/2012   5:03:15 PM
  • 107
    The point of organic is not whether or not it has more good nutrients, but rather that it doesn't have the pesticides (known obesiagens aka makes you fat, and you can't cook it away.) Having foods that have no bugs on them should tell you something: if the bugs can't eat it, neither should you. - 9/9/2012   3:53:55 PM
    Considering the strong wealthy lobby Monsanto and other companies have that impacts our food industry, I was not in the least surprised by the 'study findings" but was not in the least impressed by them either. We'll continue to grow our own, buy organic, and insofar as possible, buy local. - 9/9/2012   3:17:03 PM
  • 105
    Thanks for the article. I never know who the study subjects are. It is like who rates these shows. - 9/9/2012   2:59:29 PM
    Great to hear your thoughts. I'll continue to buy organic. - 9/9/2012   1:47:29 PM
  • 103
    Most people I know who buy organic do so because it is devoid of Pesticides, not because they think it is more nutritious. They also do NOT want GMO's
    END OF STORY - 9/9/2012   12:58:37 PM
  • 102
    thanks for the balanced analysis - 9/9/2012   9:39:19 AM
  • 101
    Organics are healthier/better for the PLANET and all the beings that INHABIT it and that is why I buy organic foods. Plain and simple. - 9/9/2012   8:49:53 AM
  • 100
    Well said! Hooray for a public forum that dares to question the big businesses of agriculture and pharmacy that can afford to set the "news" agenda. - 9/9/2012   8:49:17 AM
    Well said. Thank you very much. - 9/9/2012   6:45:18 AM
  • 98
    Nice post Nicole, I think you did a great job of highlighting the shortcomings of the study and flagging the issues that matter. - 9/9/2012   4:01:29 AM
    Excellent and well written article! You really ought to consider getting it out there and published so the general public can get the benefit of your insights. Really! Thanks for writing it. ;-) - 9/9/2012   3:31:54 AM
  • LIZCON2009
    I bet the large companies didn't expect to hear that, that the consumers were not buying organic produce for the nutrional value, instead we are buying produces because of the no chemicals and pestisides used. - 9/9/2012   12:49:23 AM
  • 95
    I am very disappointed in this study. They missed the mark - COMPLETELY !!! This would have been a chance to educate the public on what organic food is really about. Instead, they twisted the information and ended up mis-informing the public. - 9/9/2012   12:26:08 AM

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