Organic no better than conventional? Baloney


After reading reports of a study suggesting that organic foods are no healthier than conventional foods, and then reading the source of those news stories in the current issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, I find that my reaction is mostly one of annoyance. Did I read the same study those other reporters read?

The study, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review,” assessed other studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods as well as 17 studies of humans, including three that measured clinical outcomes. It found no significant difference in the allergic symptoms between those eating conventional and organic foods and no significant difference in nutrient levels of various fluids produced by adults, but it did note that two studies found significantly lower urinary pesticide levels in children. It found no significant differences in nutrient levels in the foods themselves, but it did find a 30 percent lower risk for pesticide contamination on organic produce and a 33 percent lower risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic chicken and pork. 

The free abstract of the Annals report is 16 sentences long; the first mention of contamination levels doesn’t occur until sentence No. 8. I guess my fellow journalists got through the stuff about nutrients and then were too weak to go on. Could be all the pesticides in their systems.  

I sprung for the $19.95 to read the whole report, and at about page 11, I found something else pretty interesting: Organic milk and chicken meat had significantly higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts. And that’s just organic; the report didn’t compare grass-fed to grain-fed. There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that eggs, milk and meat that come from pastured animals have more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids than their grain-fed (and other-stuff-fed) counterparts. For example, a study published in the March 2010 Nutrition Journal concluded that cattle fed primarily grass had a significantly higher omega-3 content, and a more healthful ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, than grain-fed beef. (Just FYI, wild-caught fish aren’t made of omega-3s. They eat it, directly and indirectly, from plant material, namely algae. That’s the ocean equivalent to grass-fed.)

I have a few other observations as well. 

1. “Significant differences” in pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is, in fact, significant. I don’t know about you, but I’d really rather consume fewer toxins and pathogens, regardless of whether doing so also gets me more vitamins.

2. Not all organic foods are created equal. There’s Organic, and then there’s organic. The USDA’s National Organic Program regulates the established standards for agriculture products labeled as Certified Organic. As you can imagine, those standards are the result of much political wrangling. I’m not saying they’re bad or useless; I’m just saying they represent a compromise among many different parties and interests. So they they tend to leave a good deal of wiggle room. Because of this, a very large company whose goal is to sell as much Certified Organic produce as possible may employ very different growing and processing methods than a small organic farm whose goal is to feed a local few while serving as a good steward of the Earth. Both will raise food without synthetic pesticides or hormones, but the small farm—which may be Certified Organic, or may just use what it calls organic, sustainable or natural methods—may also cultivate fertile soil; it may focus on maintaining a balance between destructive and beneficial insects; it may go out of its way to humanely raise stress-free animals on a natural diet. And that organic food may very well have more nutrients in it. This study lumped together several different organic standards.

3. What, no taste test? There are other reasons to choose organically grown foods—and, per item No. 2, small-farm, naturally raised foods—other than their nutritional benefits. Namely, taste. Everyone knows you can taste the love that Grandma puts in her food. Well, you can taste the care put into lovingly raised food, too. The egg yolks of pastured hens are more deeply colored and flavored than conventional. Super-fresh tomatoes and peppers taste a million (approximately) times better than two-week-old, refrigerator-truck-transported. And fruits and vegetables raised in living, rich soil can’t help but have more complex flavor than plants raised in the biologically sterile, “dead” soil found on conventional farms. I don’t have the stats on this, but I’m willing to bet that people are more willing to eat “healthy” foods that taste good. And that, my friends, is a health benefit of organic foods.

4. What about the environment? This study did not include an analysis of the effects of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on the environment. They are, by definition, toxic. They pollute water sources; they kill beneficial plants and animals; they disrupt naturally symbiotic relationships between species. And sooner or later, those toxic changes affect human health, too. But it would be difficult to measure their impact, since there is no control group. We’re all exposed to those chemicals.

Bottom line, there are healthful reasons, beyond the nutritional benefits that have been measured so far, to buy organic foods: namely, fewer pesticides, fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and better outcomes for Planet Earth. My conclusion is this: Buy Certified Organic when you can, but even better, buy local when you can, from a farmer you know, whose practices you have inquired about and agree with. Then, you are certain to taste the difference—and you might even get some as-yet-unreported health benefits, as well.

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  • Keith

    Great article! Debunks myths promulgated by the food corporations.

  • ElizabethFlorio

    I’d read those articles and was very confused. Thanks for straightening it out, Deborah.

  • Jason

    Were you able to buy the report without becoming a member of the Annals of Internal Medicine site? If so could you give a link to the web page you accessed it from?



    • DeborahG

      Jason, I was able to purchase the report by scrolling to the bottom of the abstract and clicking a link to Buy This Article. I was then prompted to register (for free), and then I was I able to purchase access to the article. I am not a member. To reach the abstract, click on the hyperlink at the beginning of the second paragraph, above.

    • Danielle

      Jason, if you have a card for just about any public library – definitely for any university library – you can have free access to an enormous range of journal articles for free through your library’s website. Look for their link to ‘online resources’ (or something similar) and search by journal title, article title, author’s name, topic… depending on what you’re looking for (a specific article, or any articles a given subject, etc.). The search features are quite sophisticated – can take a bit of learning and getting used to, or maybe ask a librarian to give you an introduction to it – but it’s well worth it.

      There is usually a delay of a few days to as long as six months before the material is available there, as the publishers make their money from both library subscriptions and people who can’t wait – but if you can, it will all be there. The Annals of Internal Medicine has a relatively short delay; their Aug 21 issue is available now through my local public library.

  • Ken_Lewis

    I carry lots of questions on this topic. For example:

    1) Is it better for me to drink the raw milk sold at my CSA (“for animal consumption only”) that is full fat, and neither homogenized nor pasteurized, or the local processed milk sold by the CSA that has their cows graze freely yet supplements that with a huge amount of conventional feed, or the organic milk that is sold in conventional grocery stores that is skimmed and lactose free?

    I currently am with the last option, but I am afraid that my organic milk comes from cows that are fed lots of soy and other grains. The lactose free is suppose to keep down inflammation (which is related to better health in general).

    2) Is a locally grown vegetable that uses some sprays better for me than a California organic that is commercially farmed, older (because shipped across the country), picked prematurely (to ship safely), and over-watered (grown for weight-based sales, not for quality)? The local sounds more nutritious, yet the price is some chemicals/toxins.

    Note, I assume their study compares commercially farmed conventionals and commercially farmed organics. It would likely get much different results in nutrient content if they compared commercial versus local farming practices.

    3) What is better- local free-range eggs given conventional feed and lots of love. Or, organic mass produced, “free range” eggs?

    • DeborahG

      Ken, your excellent questions point to one of the biggest challenges of the quest to become a more thoughtful eater: Making wise consumption decisions isn’t just a matter of buying one brand over another, or always buying at farmers markets, or even choosing the pricier product on the assumption that it is “better.” Instead, you have to step back, think about what’s important to you, and then do the research to find out which option best meets those goals. (“Research,” though, can be as simple as asking the person who’s selling it.) For example, is your personal goal to reduce the use of fossil fuels? Or to try to prevent artificial chemicals such as fertilizers from getting into our water supply? Or to support the methods that cause farm animals the least amount of suffering? Or to select the food that simply tastes the best? There are no wrong answers here, by the way. Our food system is changing rapidly, and all these ideas and production methods are being explored. I think you just have to identify and prioritize your own preferences—say, exposure to the least amount of artificial chemicals first, flavor second, fuel conservation third—and then make the best purchases you can based on that formula.

      For me, personally, humanely raised is most important, cuz that’s just who I am. Local is more important than Certified Organic, but sustainable growing methods (especially no pesticides, no Roundup, no Miracle Gro and the like) are much more important than local. And regional is better than transcontinental, and all of those are more important than international. Taste fits in there as well—if something fits all my preferences but just doesn’t taste the way I’d like, I’m more likely to skip it than to settle for more chemicals in my system.

      But to be clear, I’m not telling you to follow my preferences; they’re just my preferences. You might end up with an entirely different priority list. If you’ve stopped to think about where your food comes from and why you make the consumption decisions that you make, than you’ve helped nudge our nation toward a better food system.

      And, hang in there on the sustainably raised, grass-fed, pasteurized local milk thing … word on streets … er, farms, is that it’s coming soon! I’ll write about it when I can also tell you when and where to get it.

  • Dee Conton

    Thank you, I was reading the same articles and I also thought the authors missed the importance of the pesticides which increased with the non organic foods.