What organic is and what it isn’t


A Stanford University study that said organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious than conventionally produced foods triggered a flurry of debate and dissension and discussion last week.

Big corporations’ propaganda, or oversimplified, asserted some. Flawed research, said others. And from the other side of the philosophy came, “it’s about time.”

The researchers, who received no external funding for the study, say buying “organic” doesn’t automatically mean “my food contains more nutrients” or “I’m going to be healthier.”

And the findings, gleaned from 237 studies that compared organic and conventional foods, surprised even the doctors.

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler M.D., M.S., a physician-investigator and instructor and one of the study’s researchers.

“We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that,” she’s quoted in a Stanford news release.

There were no consistent differences found in the vitamin content, protein content or fat content, although some evidence from a small number of studies found organic milk may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Bottom line, says Stanford lead researcher Dena Bravata, M.D., M.S., choose organic foods if it’s because of your personal values, if you support the “idea” of organic farming, the whole environmental premise of the non-synthetic chemical production method, but if you’re buying it because “it’s healthier,” the science just isn’t there.

Some organic producers have never made the nutrition claim, and say the study missed the whole point. People buy organic food because of what’s not in it.

“It’s [nutrition] not the main reason we’re doing it,” Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Connecticut told the Hartford Courant. “One of the major things about organic is the holistic principles and practices.”

While the nutrition science wasn’t there, the study did find organic produce reduced the risk of exposure to pesticide residues than if consuming conventional fruit and vegetables (all the foods, however, fell within the allowable safety limits). And organic chicken and pork also appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which are killed during cooking no matter how the animal was raised).

Incidentally, I found it interesting that the researchers were also surprised to learn the amount of variation within organic and conventional agriculture. (You think?) No two farmers manage their farms the same way — one organic grower could have higher risk of bacterial contamination than another, and the same could be said of a nonorganic grower.

Here’s my news flash (internally funded): I don’t care if you eat organic food or nonorganic food, but if you’re looking for a pathway to better health, try eating smaller portions, don’t eat junk, and exercise regularly.

By Susan Crowell

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