A review of published scientific studies by researchers at Stanford University, published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concludes that organically grown food is neither safer nor more nutritious than foods grown conventionally.
Alice Park explains the conventional wisdom:
Organic foods are grown without man-made pesticides or heavy reliance on antibiotics and growth hormones to boost yields; organic farmers also use natural-based fertilizers, such as manure, and raise livestock in less-confined spaces — all of which some growers say are key contributors to a healthier and sometimes more nutritious product. Consumers who buy organic have been willing to pay up to twice as much for goods with organic labels.
But according to the study’s principle author:
“We did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or healthier than conventional foods,” says Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor in the division of general medical disciplines at Stanford.”
But what about pesticides?
While the researchers found little difference in nutritional content, they did find that organic produce were 30% less likely to have pesticide residue than conventional fruits and vegetables, which makes sense given that organic farmers depend less on synthetic pest-control methods. Neither organic nor conventional foods showed levels of pesticides high enough to exceed food safety thresholds.
That should be reassuring news for those who don’t buy organic, though my instinct still tells me that no pesticide is better than some pesticide at any level.
And bacteria? What about all the antibiotics used in livestock on conventional farms? This is interesting:
Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce. Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork.
For some consumers, this may be enough reason to buy organically grown food. Antibiotic resistance is a real and growing threat to human health. For others, it may be the perception that food grown organically is kinder to the environment. What is clearly healthier for people AND the environment is to buy produce as close to home as possible. This means buying fruits and vegetables when they are fresh and in season locally and not transported when they are in season half a world away. When there is less distance from tree or plant to market, fruit and vegetables should be riper and tastier. Buying your meats locally means less handling and less chance of spoiling and bacterial contamination.
Here’s a question we should all be asking ourselves: Do we even know where our food comes from? I think the answers might be surprising and would be a good starting point when discussing the origins of many human diseases, including those caused by obesity.