Tomayto Tomahto

What should we really know about organic foods?
By Amy Vergin

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review” published in the Sept 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

A study like this was bound to emerge. Organic products are on the rise, leaving little room for bigger corporations that utilize pesticides and chemicals to control the outcome of what our society eats. A large part of this discussion hinges on what “organic” means. According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), to qualify as organic, crops must be produced on farms that have not used synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (except for a few on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances) for three years before harvest and have a sufficient buffer zone to decrease contamination from adjacent lands. Genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge are also prohibited.

With more focus on organic farming, farmers’ markets, and the push to eat local and organic, consumers are asking the hard questions. Is organic actually healthier? What does it mean when we say “health benefits” relating to eating organic? Wouldn’t consuming pesticides affect your overall health? How can it be that there is no difference between organic and non-organic foods?

The study from Stanford University was a meta-analysis of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods. What the researchers found was that organic fruits and vegetables are not noticeably more nutritious. They also found that there were no obvious health advantages to organic meats. The study failed to emphasize that traces of harmful chemicals are less likely to be found on organic produce.

“People don’t buy organic food just because they think it contains slightly higher levels of nutrients, they buy organic for many other reasons, primarily to avoid toxic pesticide residues and toxins that have been genetically engineered into the food,” said Charlotte

Vallaeys, food and farm policy director at the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit organic farm policy organization.

What’s worse than being remiss on failing to adequately report on pesticides, Stanford has a close partnership with the Freeman Spogli Institute, which financially supports researchers and the chemical and agribusiness industry. Companies like Monsanto (the leading producer of genetically engineered seed and the herbicide glyphosate) and Cargill (a producer of food ingredients such as starch, glucose syrup, and vegetable oils and fats for processed foods) have donated to the institute. Though specific researchers claimed not to have received funding from these outside corporations, their internal funding is directly related to these donations.

A report titled “Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages” published in Pediatrics in October of 2012 aimed to shed some light on this recent study. It stated that organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease and that organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches.

It also stated that studies have not demonstrated any detrimental or disease-promoting effects from an organic diet (something that, of course, cannot be said of conventional farming). If organic farming has a lesser environmental impact and keeps pesticides off food—which will decrease the exposure of pesticides to our families—then it stands to reason that your overall health and well-being would be increased.

Stanford’s study pointed out that, from a strictly nutritional standpoint, organic food is not better for your health. And the report in Pediatrics agrees, to an extent. It said that while consumers believe that organic produce is more nutritious, many studies have demonstrated no important differences in carbohydrate or vitamin and mineral content. (There are exceptions: organic leafy vegetables, such as spinach and lettuce, were found to have higher vitamin C levels than their conventionally grown siblings.)

Overall, your nutritional intake is not affected by the choice to eat organic or conventional produce. Is this the reason people make the choice to eat organic? Hopefully not. The definition of organic food stated previously says that organic foods are produced without modern synthetic inputs like synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The Stanford study found that 38 percent of conventional produce contained detectable residues, while about 7 percent of organic produce contained residues due to neighboring farms and drifting chemicals.

According to the report in Pediatrics, pesticides have a host of toxic effects that range from acute poisonings to subtle, subclinical effects stemming from long-term, low-dose exposure. Farmers exposed to these pesticides and fertilizers have been known to have respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatological conditions, depression, neurological deficits, and cancer—just imagine what ill effects could come from consuming these pesticides on a continual basis.

Organic meats, like chicken and pork, were also less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While the study seems to focus on the nutritional benefits, consumers must realize that “nutrition” isn’t the whole picture when evaluating the health of a particular food. Nutrition is the good that the food will do for your body: the macro- and micronutrient content. It’s what comes along with the nutrition that is the sticking point.

Stanford’s study claimed little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, but it’s easy to discredit these findings simply by knowing the definition of organic. If avoiding pesticides is considered part of keeping yourself healthy, it’s a moot point.

You will always be able to find some study or report or professional agreeing or disagreeing with assertions pertaining to our health and well-being. Remember that while the nutrients are the same, the effects of pesticides can be life-altering.

Be informed. Make decisions based on the facts.