Organics Offer No Clear Nutritional Advantage, New Study Finds

A new "meta-analysis" by Stanford University finds few differences between conventional and organic produce and meat, with exception of lower pesticide residue levels.

Organic fruit and vegetables have no clear health advantages over regular produce and are no more nutritious despite often costing twice as much, a new study by Stanford University has found.

The study, released Tuesday, used data from more than 200 earlier studies conducted over the past 40 years. Researchers, who did not use any outside funding in order to not be perceived as having bias, looked at for evidence that organic fruit, vegetables and meats had more nutritional benefits and less dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli.

But the only advantages to organic products researchers found was that these tended to have less pesticide residue, although the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits. According to their analysis, 38 percent of non-organic produce contained pesticide residue compared to only 7 percent in organic produce.

No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce.

There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The U.S. sales of organic produce increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion over the past 15 years, according to researchers, affiliated with Stanford’s School of Medicine.

Mark Kastel, a senior farm policy analyst with Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin organization that promotes organic food as a way to support family farms, released a statement Tuesday, saying Stanford researchers "failed to look outside the box" discounting many studies that have shown decreased nutritional content in the conventional food as a result of poor soil. 

He also said that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food, contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. 

“Consumers should not lose sight of the important impacts of organic agriculture, which produces foods without the use of toxic pesticides that have been linked to an array of health problems, including cancer and ADHD in children," Kastel said. "This study confirmed once again that organic foods contain significantly lower levels of pesticide residues, and that alone should be enough reason for every family to consider exclusively purchasing organic foods."

Do you buy organic? And will these findings impact your shopping habits?

Sheri Cardo September 04, 2012 at 09:51 PM
"Less pesticide residue" is not a small advantage and "under allowed safety limits" doesn't mean safe.
John Richards September 04, 2012 at 10:53 PM
The FDA's "allowed safety limits" are without scientific merit since they have not done long term studies on the effects of low doses of pesticides. Agent Orange and DDT were once considered 'safe' also.
Sheri Cardo September 04, 2012 at 11:59 PM
Michael Pollan responds: "The meta study found less pesticide residue, higher levels of anti-oxidants – plant phytochemicals thought to be important to human health, and less antibiotic-resistant microbes in organic meat. But then they say it might not be significant. I don't think they defined signficant." http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2012/09/04/michael-pollan-organic-study/
David Keller September 05, 2012 at 05:01 AM
None of the "significant levels" of residues, pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, preservatives, pharmaceuticals or other allowable chemicals, are set without significant industry "input" - i.e., lobbying, campaign contributions, lawsuits, and financial pressures from the regulated industries. And we know just how well Congress does with their regulated industries, like banking and securities... Missing from their lists, no doubt, were the large number of "emerging toxics", like chlorination byproducts, plasticizers, etc. that are being shown to be hormone or genetic disruptors, among other impacts to human, animal and plant life. Organic foods offer consumers, producers and distributors the opportunity to grow, harvest, process, sell and enjoy their foods, soil, water and air without such risks. That, in and of itself, is a very significant value of organic foods, above and beyond any nutritional considerations in this meta study.
Russ Oertel September 05, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Looks to me like Monsanto got to Stanford. This is very sad.
bruce mallon September 05, 2012 at 02:46 PM
organic foods don't have chemicals added by the farmer and don't harm our planet to grow. that's enough for me. the added good flavors, freshness and benefit to local economies are other reasons for me. eat local, eat seasonal and live longer with a healthy planet to boot.
Carol Treacy September 05, 2012 at 03:15 PM
The study also failed to mention that pesticides, no matter how small the amount, can be stored in muscle and fat and accumulate over time. What kind of effect does that have on humans and, more significantly, children?
Bookworm September 05, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Organic as defined by the feds is still a compromise, although much better than conventional as defined by Monsanto.
Regina Leoni September 05, 2012 at 04:00 PM
I agree with everything Ms. Cardo says, and would like to add that I chose to buy organic food whenever possible to support safer working environments for farm workers. The men and women who grow our fruits and vegetables can be exposed to significant amounts of toxic pesticides working on large-scale conventional farms. Prolonged exposure to pesticides can have devastating consequences; I've read some horrific tort cases where farm workers have given birth to babies with severe birth defects because of their exposure to pesticides at work. It's important to recognize that there are many factors to consider when choosing between organic and conventional produce, not just nutrition.
Stinky September 05, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Organic farmers may use chemicals, they are limited and thought to be safe.
Stinky September 05, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Better than organic is produce grown without ANY chemicals. Organic farmers can use organic chemicals, which are thought to be safe. GMOs can be labelled organic!
Darris September 05, 2012 at 06:03 PM
I don't want to feed my family ANY pesticides, thank you! The worst offender for pesticide residues is dairy. Let's get that information out to the general public!
Graham Lower September 05, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Cite your sources, else you are part of the problem, not the solution (this goes for other posts as well).
Dee Baucher September 06, 2012 at 05:01 AM
Agree with all the others and am so gratified to see that so many have seen through the false implications of the reported Stanford study (with financial interests of the study that have not been disclosed here). In comparing organic to non-organic produce, this study only looked at 3 vitamins (C,E, and A) and none of the co-enzymes that are so critical for nutritional integrity of food. So the conclusion that the nutritional content is equivalent (between organic and non-organic produce) is not well founded. Furthermore, the cumulative effects (over many years) of the known pesticide and herbicide toxins in the non-organic food represent an extreme health hazard that has been well documented. For this study to have attempted to minimize that established detriment to our health is unconscionable. This study should be discredited in the context of other well-respected scientific studies (including international) that have clearly demonstrated nutritional superiority of organic produce and significant health consequences of ingesting known toxins in our food.
leo smith September 06, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Farmers be they organic or non organic work hard to preserve their soil and their lively hood. The amount of pesticides used now and several years ago is quite lower. There is pestitide on it but in much lower amounts. Yes it does go into fats but it also comes out at what rate I do not know and this is not stated. I have also seen farmers that haved bathed in the stuff live to over 90 with no effects. are heavey inscetides bad yes but remember they also helped us get rid of yellow fever and quite a few inscet carried disease and is being sprayed now to combat disese carried by insects. Since hay is sprayed probably there is residue in milk but to say it is there oh my gosh with out the current levels and if it is harmfull is on the silly side. and most vegibales by the time they reach our table unless you buy them direct from farmer and use immedietaly or use forzen ones or grow you own really have lost a lot of their nutritatinal value.
Dee Baucher September 08, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Mr. Smith: Regarding the toxicity of pesticides, and the farmers that you say "bathed in the stuff" and yet "lived to 90 with no effects".... we all remember hearing the same thing about heavy smokers who seemingly also had no ill effects. So what? There will always be people, who for a variety of individual genetic and other reasons, are less vulnerable to the deleterious effects of any particular toxin. That still doesn't bode well for most of us. In California, the utilization of pesticides is documented by state agencies... and where they are used, county by county, in terms of how much has been sold and used for each specific type of pesticide in each county. Maps of pesticide useage throughout the state can be shown to be completely reflective of the maps of cancer incidence (especially particular types of cancers) throughout the state. Some of our counties have epidemic numbers of specific types of cancers, related to the heavy exposure of these toxins. If you or your loved ones were among those who were unfortunate enough to have developed one of these cancers, you might not be so eager to rationalize the use of these substances.


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