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

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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?