Metastudy: No Nutritional Advantage In Organic Foods

“Something is pulling us toward those organic veggies that are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers,” blog NPR’s Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles this morning. But a new metastudy out of Stanford University suggests that whatever it is, it’s not based on scientific proof that organic produce –- a flourishing $12.4 billion slice of the food marketing industry –- is any more nutritious than conventionally grown crops. 

The researchers did find that there was less pesticide residue on organic foods –- an average of 7% vs. 38% -- and that consuming them may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The analysis of four decades of research, which is published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine but released to the press in advance, examined 237 studies over a four-year period.

“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and an author of the paper, tells the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang. “I think we were definitely surprised.”

The researchers “concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli,” Chang reports. 

A smaller study done in 2009 by Alan Dangour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with a European emphasis reached similar conclusions, Elizabeth Weise reports in USA Today. But Consumers Union scientist Urvashi Rangan reminds Weise that organic farming started as a movement designed to be better for the environment and for farmers. 

"The health benefits really ended up being almost inadvertent, a nice fringe benefit" of farming in a sustainable way,” she says. "Is it in some ways healthier to have less pesticides in your body, especially if you're a kid? Absolutely," she maintains.

But the study also concluded that “the vast majority of conventionally grown food did not exceed allowable limits of pesticide residue set by federal regulations,” NPR’s Aubrey and Charles point out. As for why there is any pesticide residue on organic foods at all, “sometimes chemicals drift over from nearby crops, or produce is handled in the same warehouse as organic produce,” Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, tells CNN’s William Hudson.

“Specialists long have said that, organic or not, the chances of bacterial contamination of food are the same, and Monday's analysis agreed,” writes the AP’s Lauran Neergaard. “But when bacteria did lurk in chicken or pork, germs in the non-organic meats had a 33% higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics,” according to the researchers.

Farmers say feeding animals antibiotics is “necessary to meet demand for cheap meat,” observes Neergaard. “Public health advocates say it's one contributor to the nation's growing problem with increasingly hard-to-treat germs.” 

Meat is a comparatively small portion of the organic market -- $538 million in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association, but it is also the fastest-growing sector, up 13% last year.

NPR’s Aubrey and Charles also suggest that, somewhere down the road, vegetables might be marketed based on their nutritional content, including “signs in the supermarket that advertise, for instance, iron-rich beans. Maybe they'd be organic, or maybe not.”

The Stanford study is making news across the globe this morning, but the debate is not likely to put it to rest. “Critics say the work is inconclusive and call for more studies,” reports the BBC. The Soil Association in the U.K., for example, says "studies that treat crop trials as if they were clinical trials of medicines, like this one, exaggerate the variation between studies, and drown out the real differences." It points to a U.K. review paper that “found that most of the differences in nutrient levels between organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables seen in this U.S. study are actually highly significant."

In any event, anti-produce zealots are not being given permission to wave the findings in your face, demanding more hot dogs and potato chips in place of tomatoes, bean sprouts and Anjou pears. Crystal Smith-Spangler, a primary care doctor at Stanford University and lead author on the study, tells USA Today’s Weise, “There is overwhelming evidence that eating produce improves health -- so whatever you choose to buy, load up on fruits and veggies.”

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5 comments about "Metastudy: No Nutritional Advantage In Organic Foods ".
  1. Walter Graff from Bluesky Media , September 4, 2012 at 8:18 a.m.
    People pay more for less pesticide residue when you ask. And Organic vegetables have far less residue. Worth the price.
  2. Steven G from none , September 4, 2012 at 8:53 a.m.
    Research from Universities is always suspect due to the heavy funding by the biotech industry. They do not want to offend the people paying them their salaries. The main reasons people eat Organic foods: 1) Tastes much better 2) Contains no genetically engineered “food” (there unfortunately may be trace contamination) 3) Contains less pesticides, antibiotics, hormones The biggest threat facing the human and animal kingdoms is genetically engineered “food” which contains hundreds of mutations that are an inadvertent effect of the gene insertion process. Animals are fed this food and as a result their organs are damaged and then we eat essentially sick animals and animal by-products of sick animals. There is a lot to this story. See this 2012 video for an explanation of the science behind why genetically engineered foods are such a threat: http://seedsofdeception.com/store/dvdcd?product_id=124
  3. Mark Burrell from Tongal , September 4, 2012 at 9:02 a.m.
    Farmers say feeding animals antibiotics is “necessary to meet demand for cheap meat,” observes Neergaard. “Public health advocates say it's one contributor to the nation's growing problem with increasingly hard-to-treat germs.” Who wrote this piece? Monsanto?
  4. John Meyer from Encompass Media Outdoor , September 4, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.
    IF it tastes better it is probably better for you, this study brought to you BUY Monsanto.
  5. Melissa Pollak from none , September 4, 2012 at 7:31 p.m.
    "Research from Universities is always suspect due to the heavy funding by the biotech industry." Actually, the federal government supplies the vast majority of funds used to perform research conducted at colleges and universities; industry supplies a relatively small amount of funding. I haven't watched the video Steven G recommend, but I'm pretty sure that, like him, it's also not a reliable source of information.