If you follow the media, by now you’ve read or heard several articles with titles like Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You (NPR) and Study Questions Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce (New York Times) based on a recent study by researchers at Stanford University.  Now as a graduate of that fine University I can tell you that I’m more than a little embarrassed by the fact that this ‘meta-analysis’ (which rather than conducting any original research drew conclusions from examining previous papers on the subject) seems to have borrowed a trick from the politicians–it sets up a ‘straw man’ (in this case, the idea that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic) in order to knock it down.  The idea here is that we gullible consumers think organic foods are healthier because they are more nutritious.  Boy, don’t we feel foolish to realize that the nutrition of produce has more to do with freshness than whether it was grown organically?  Oh, wait–we already prefer local foods (which tend to be picked more ripe and reach the consumer sooner) so maybe we figured that one out.  So why do we still prefer to buy organic?

Could it be because we think it’s healthier to ingest less pesticides with our food?  In fact, the  Stanford study found that organics were indeed much less likely to retain traces of pesticides than conventional foods (in fact, only 7 percent of organic foods in the studies contained detectable residues compared to 38 percent in conventional produce) but assures us that nevertheless in all produce the pesticides were still within federal standards.  Anyone reassured by that?  In fact, what is still missing in this puzzle are studies measuring the long-term effects of pesticides on our bodies.  Until such a time that we know how these substances may affect us from in-utero on it’s still probably in our best interest to be aware of which fresh fruits and veggies have been determined to contain the most pesticide residues.  The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce includes a list of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ most contaminated produce which may be your best bets to buy organic if you want to limit your pesticide exposure.

Now some commenters on this study have snarked about consumers fear of ‘chemicals’ as if we are all some idiots who don’t understand that the chlorophyll that enables plants to convert sunlight to energy is a chemical or that natural pesticides derived from such things as chrysanthemums are a chemical, too.  But pardon me if I am wary of laboratory-derived, broad-spectrum chemicals that have been created for the sole purpose of killing living organisms and haven’t been studied effectively.

Moreover, what about those antibiotic-resistant bacteria we are always reading about?  We’re not supposed to give our kids antibiotics anymore when they have an ear infection but what about the tons antibiotics the big conventional farms feed to their cows and chickens?  Turns out that the Stanford study concluded that organic meat contained measurably lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised animals.  Anyone else out there think that it might be a bit ‘healthier’ to avoid digesting these bacteria?  Sure, they are destroyed by thorough cooking, but ever eat rare meat–or fail to disinfect your cutting boards effectively?

Finally, as has been pointed out before, consumers of organic foods are paying more to support the health of our planet.  Whatever you can say about the comparative ‘health’ of the end products, organic farming methods are undoubtably more sustainable and kinder to the environment.  Yes, these methods–and therefore the produce created from them–are more expensive than conventional ones.  Are they elitist?  Only if you think keeping our planet healthy is elitist.  What is needed is not another study examining the comparative nutrition of organic food–what is needed is research toward the goal of increasing production and lowering costs using these methods.


  1. Good analysis of organic vs. regularly grown foods. Went to a chicken farm which uses only organically grown feed and the eggs tasted amazing. Of course, the farmer did not use commercial feed at all–perhaps the secret!

  2. Nice summary of the limits of these kinds of studies. The question about nutritional value is a fine one to ask, but it is only one component of the broader argument for why we ought to pay attention to how and where and by whom our food is grown.

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