Stephanie Watson

Organic food no more nutritious than conventionally grown food

To many of my friends, buying organic is more than a supermarket choice. It’s a badge of good parenting. They proclaim “I buy only organic” with the same flush of pride they assume when announcing their child has made the honor roll. As I guiltily follow their lead, I can’t help but wonder whether organic foods have as much of an impact on my family’s health as they do on my wallet.

Health experts and consumers have long debated whether organic foods are more nutritious—and safer—than conventional foods. “This is a controversy that’s been going on for a long time,” says Dr. Michelle Hauser, a certified chef, nutrition educator, and clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

A study released this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine tried to get to the core of this food-fueled debate, but it ultimately may do little to end the controversy. While the study finds that organics do have some safety advantages over conventional foods, nutritionally speaking they have little extra to offer.

The organic rationale

People who buy organic usually cite these reasons for their decision:

  • They’re safer. Fruits and vegetables labeled as organic are generally grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Livestock raised under organic practices aren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • They’re kinder to the environment. Organic farming practices are designed to be more sustainable, emphasizing conservation and reducing pollutants.
  • They’re healthier. A few studies have suggested organic foods might be higher in nutrients than their traditional counterparts.

Of these three reasons, the health claims for organic foods have been the most tenuous. To investigate these claims, researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic vs. traditional foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and the health outcomes of eating these foods.

The researchers discovered very little difference in nutritional content, aside from slightly higher phosphorous levels in many organic foods, and a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken.

Organic produce did have the slight edge in food safety, with 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods. In general, pesticide levels in both organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits. It’s still not clear, though, just what that means to consumers’ health. “Just because these foods aren’t going over what they call an ‘acceptable limit’ doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone,” Dr. Hauser says. There haven’t been enough studies evaluating pesticide exposure to confirm the health effects, particularly in children and pregnant women, she adds.

Organic chicken and pork were also about a third less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised chicken and pork. However, the bacteria that cause food poisoning were equally present in both types of foods.

Should you buy organic?

That’s a decision only you can make based on your family’s needs and wants, and your budget. If you’re buying organic solely for better nutrition, based on this review there’s no evidence you’re gaining any real advantages. But if you’re concerned about pesticides and you can afford organics, it might be worth it to buy them.

For many people, cost is the deciding factor. Organic foods are more expensive—and often significantly more so—than non-organic. A visit to my local supermarket revealed a huge price difference between a half-gallon of non-organic 1% milk ($3.25) and organic milk ($4.59). The same was true for just about every food I compared, from chicken stock ($2.59 vs. $3.59) to nectarines ($1.99 per pound vs. $3.99).

The Annals study won’t lay the “organic is better” argument to rest. However, it should at least relieve some of the guilt many of us feel whenever we steer our shopping cart around the organic produce case.

Organic alternatives

You can still buy organic without overspending by being choosier about the types of organic products you buy. Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases its “Dirty Dozen”—a list of 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest contamination levels. These foods might be worth buying organic, while the “Clean 15″—which are lowest in pesticides—might not justify the extra cost.

Purchasing food raised in farms in your area is another alternative to going organic. It ensures you’re getting the freshest foods at the peak of season. If your neighborhood supermarket doesn’t carry local produce, talk to the manager.

You may also be able to reduce your pesticide exposure from conventional fruits and vegetables by washing them with a mixture of water and mild dishwashing detergent before eating, and by peeling off the outer skin.

Comments:

  1. Felipe Velásquez - Dermatólogos en Medellín

    I think they’re necessary long-term studies to determine what actual clinical implication of the fact that 30% have found pesticide residues in non-organic food.

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for this very nice article about organic food.

  3. Edwin

    I always prefer organic food..i have my own farms and grow vegetation there..nothing can be compare with the quality and reliability of organic food and vegetables.

  4. Anonymous

    yes i choose organic food because they’re safer. Fruits and vegetables labeled as organic are generally grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Livestock raised under organic practices aren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones.

  5. anita nurani

    I buy organic food because its peak ripeness instead of spraying chemicals on them to make it look ripe.

  6. TV Aerial Bognor

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. santa

    Personal health also depends partially on the social structure of a person’s life. The maintenance of strong social relationships, volunteering, and other social activities have been linked to positive mental health and even increased longevity. Thanks.

  8. jaffa

    Most people eat out several times a week, so the notion of stockpiling food is a foreign concept. Grocery stores operate on the premise that most households only maintain a three day supply of food, relying on the just in time delivery system to resupply only when the last of an item is purchased. Problem is, just in time could leave your family high and dry at the very moment you need those goods most. Thanks.

  9. Annie

    It IS possible to buy practically only organic food even on a small budget, but in order to do so, one needs to perhaps drastically change his/her dietary habits. For example, consume vegetal proteins rather than animal. If you prefer animal proteins, buy organic meat for several meals during the week and get the rest of your proteins from eggs, soy, beans, nuts and seeds. Make vegetables and fruit the bulk of your diet, as well as whole grains. Enjoy cooking at home. Eat mindfully (while sitting at a table in a calm environment, not in front of the TV)–and only till your stomach is two-thirds full.

    As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

    Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford is excellent reading on this matter.

    We’re responsible for our own health, not Harvard. Please do your own research and listen to your body.

  10. Karen Jones

    Personally, we buy organic foods not because of the “extra” nutrient value but primarily because of the decreased contaminants.

    • Vishesh International

      Exactly! It’s not so much about what organic has to offer as an add on; but what it eliminates.
      And in that way organic food is MUCH more healthier.
      We export spices and the whole organic spice industry is growing steadily. Take Germany, for example, where only organic spices have been exported so far.

  11. Dan

    I buy organic food because of three reasons

    1. to prevent less pesticides in food.
    2. less chemical into earth
    3. organic produce are picked at its peak ripeness instead of spraying chemicals on them to make it look ripe.

    Even though their isnt any more nutrients value we get less chemicals in our body by using it.

    DAN

  12. Harry Brown

    To be practical, there is no way we know at present to feed the world without resorting to fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

    Yes we would all love to have true organics ( without bacteria thanks) but the population has outgrown the natural world. The fact is that without a stable food supply ( witness India’s shortage of onions at a low price recently) there would be social unrest, anarchy etc. Nothing motivates like an empty stomach! The compromise is regrettably the use of non- natural pest and weed control.

    Show us a different way to deliver food to the urban 50% of the world’s population that is practical, produces enough quantity and quality and you’ll get the Nobel Prize. In the meanwhile those who can afford so-called organics are the 1%

    There are higher health risks associated with personal life-style choices than eating commercially produced food.

  13. Lionel

    Thanks for this awesome article.Of course it is hard to measure the nutritional value of organic versus conventional, but what about growth hormones, GMO, pesticides, fertilizers and what else we can find in conventional foods. Not to mention that these are from huge manufacturer and not local, nor sustainable, nor supporting small family farmers.

  14. Harry Brown

    People believe what they want to believe.

    Unless you do research – just not reading other
    person’s opinions – you are none the wiser. Take
    time to read the original papers behind the
    study.

    As an observation, the quote is that organics
    have 30% less pesticides. In other words they
    still contain pesticides and of course we dont
    lnow the sample variance so it is quite possible
    that some organics exceed the “safe” limit.

    Having said all the above it is common sense
    to avoid chemicals where possible. Unfortunately
    it is not possible anywhere in the western
    world. “safe” levels are determined in a variety
    of ways, and take into account general societal
    health and well-being. Nothing is entirely safe
    - it is all marginal improvements – if you can affor
    so-called organic food horray – most of us can’t.

    It’s time the so-called organic industry defended
    their prices.

  15. Arpan Jain

    Study may be right on various fronts but, may prove wrong if we talk in Indian context, where farmers use pesticides illegitimately. In countries like India where such practices are going on people who organic, buy it because They are safe food, as compared to non organic options.

    Regards,
    Organic Sansar

  16. jane

    really surprised by this article. It seems the Executive Editor of Health does not understand what creates health, nor what affects it. Of course it is hard to measure the nutritional value of organic versus conventional,buy organic foods not because of the “extra” nutrient value but primarily because of the decreased contaminants. As stated above in the comments, I think it’s safe to assume that significantly lower levels of pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are very likely to be better in the long run.

  17. Naomi

    Please read the following article on the subject:

    “Stanford Scientists Shockingly Reckless on Health Risk and Organics,” by Frances Moore Lappe, Reader Supported News

    Your article is totally irresponsible and misrepresents the truth. I am cancelling my subscription to the Harvard Newsletter.

    • Chuck

      good bye Naomi, maybe the next study will suit your desires. this is just a research project, just because it didn’t reveal what you have been told for the past several years don’t react irrationally. I am on the other side and I thought it was accurate.

    • Wow

      Let’s be real, Harvard is probably the best you are going to get in terms of exposing the “truth”

  18. Breville JE98XL Juice Fountain

    I can only say:

    MAKE FOOD YOUR MEDICINE.

    It all comes down to the right quality and quantity one’s body needs.

    So yes, great post.

    Processing only with the best equipment.

  19. Chuck

    Thanks Stephanie,
    I have found out that this segment of believers love studies if it goes their way. I am constantly researching this subject and I am involved in the industry. We need to understand that all research is not going to satisfy our desires and beliefs. But I think that is why it is called research. Just because one study don’t go your way just wait and sooner or later one will.

  20. Roger

    If this article was writen by the Executive Editor, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Im out.

  21. Chuck

    Interesting, I would like to see the responses if the study had touted the organic food as being much more nutritious than nonorganic. We don’t need to throw conventional producers under the bus but maybe try to understand their practices better. the world’s population is predicted to double by 2050 and there is no way we can produce an adequate amount of only organic food for everyone, it is just not possible. The american consumer is so removed from the farm they have no idea how food is produced. We listen to people, usually a celebrity or tv doctor, to get all of our information. Please educate yourselves on the common practices of the American farmer and don’t rely on what you read on the internet or see on tv. The quality of our food is important to all of us, not just a select few. Organic growers are simply using media and other sources to their advantage, both in higher prices for their products and so called better products. We all need to work together and continue producing the safest, most affordable food in the world, for the American consumer. Over 300 million people live in the US and less than 2% of them produce the food we eat.

  22. Ed Kish

    Well, this is disappointing news. It’s an interesting one, nonetheless.

    Ed

  23. Annie

    I am so glad that the people in this comments section are well-informed and not afraid to look at truth, as it is! Thank you for commenting on this article!

    I, too, cannot believe the ignorance in this article, which to me just reinforces the role money plays in the U.S. food industry. It’s more than obvious that pesticides are harmful. I’m unsubscribing from all Harvard Health Publications. I kindly encourage Ms. Stephanie Watson to read The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II.

  24. marlene bracks

    Feed animals of the two groups and you will see what happens.

  25. James

    Are you literally declaring that food that’s 30% less likely to contain any trace of pesticide (also, ahem, variance in quantity please?) and 30% less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be no more healthy?

    How can you possibly justify that statement?

    As if somehow toxic chemical don’t negatively impact health, it really boggles the mind.

  26. Zapp

    As a biochemist, I consider ‘pesticide free’ a 10 times more important concept than “organic’. In practice, plants can only absorb from an organic or a chemically fertilized soil… ONLY SOME SPECIFIC NUTRITIVE ELECTROLITES, all necessary, all unique, which are exactly the same taken from the best organic soil or those taken from a hydroponic solution. Everything solid is a chemical, this is not a bad word. On the other hand how can we explain our absurd health records as compared to much simpler peoples in the world without our specialized and expensive medicine (Alzheimer, cancer, autoimmune)? If ‘we are what we eat’ maybe our contamination standards are wrongly conceived and badly defended

  27. Kaye Gartner

    “Organic produce did have the slight edge in food safety, with 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods”… 30% is a ‘slight edge’ when it comes to organic over non -organic foods. Yet 30% is heralded when it comes to a benefit for a drug over placebo, or an exercise program over inactivity….. interesting, isn’t it..

    Organic pork and chicken.. ‘about a third less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria”. This is surely a huge and important fact, that would see those interested in public health championing the consumption of these foods.

    In Australia, the CSIRO consistently finds higher nutrient levels, particularly all important phytonutrients in organically grown produce.

    Choosing what you eat based on price alone has led to the fast food industry and calorie rich, nutrient poor food. Is this writer suggesting we are wasting our money? Let’s talk in 20 years time!

  28. Pat

    Organic food may not be more nutritious but it is far more satisfying…over the years for the convenience of big Agri our food has become tasteless…thus we consume more trying to get that satiation that real foods give…I can’t wait for real tomatoes and peppers and peaches that through organic practices have so much flavor that candy isn’t even considered….
    With auto immune and switching as much as possible to non GMO food my flairs have decreased dramatically. And there are nutrients that we don’t measure…in such small amts yet necessary to he body. Organic chicken is as I remember it growing up on a farm full flavored and one leg or half of a breast filled you up… vegetables were so good that they often never made it from the garden to the house… These are the things that rarely in American food anymore w/o organic and fuel the obesity that plaques or country…food is more than nutrition …it is nutrition for the soul. ut no one is measuring that.

  29. Rona

    I am not against organic, but I think they are rediculous expensive. I buy coonventional products and peel everything before I cook or eat, such as cucumber, potato, carrot and fruits such as apple, pear ect… Our family are very healthy. We never have any food poisoning during our life time.

    • James

      Here in Portland, OR where demand is extremely high, organic prices are generally within 15% and are often the same price for the most common items.

      The price has more to do with demand than anything else. As more people are choosing them, they’ll become more competitive. Look for smaller farmers markets, don’t be afraid to haggle for quantity, a lot of times you can get significantly cheaper (and tastier) produce than at chain grocery stores.

  30. Robert Leopard

    I’m terribly disappointed in your article. You uncritically passed on the conclusions of a flawed study. If health @ Harvard.edu can’t do better I won’t waste my time reading it.

    Disappointing as it is to some, it seems clear that the basic nutrients are no different in organic vs. non-organic. There are phytochemicals made by plants in the absence of applied pesticides that may be beneficial, but the differences are likely to be subtile and inconsistant.

    Where this meta-analysis falls apart is their treatment of pesticide residues. They find a “30%” lower risk with organic. Unfortunately their criteria were trace/no trace. They didn’t compare the presence of multiple pesticides and ignored the extreme differences in quantities of pesticides present.

    This issue of antibiotics and their causing antibiotic resistance isn’t addressed.

    Shame on you for not providing a more critical analysis.

    • James

      For the record, I’d really like to know what percentage of the studies included in the meta-analysis were conducted using industry funding.

      The fact that the Stanford scientists can trumpet that themselves taking external funding without mentioning the funding of the source data in the meta-study(!) is mind-bogglingly disingenuous.

    • rbb

      I agree with your comments 100%!! I find this article mindblowing, screaming ignorance. we are not talking vitamins/minerals, we are talking about pesticides, antibiotics (and hormones when it comes to meat/animals). This article makes me question the reliability/validity of the information in this blog.

  31. Terrence

    I agree that the article seems to have a bias against organic. Organic produce feels better if you have allergies. Personally, I find less need for antihistamines if I consume organically oriented food. I really question the use of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics and genetically altered foods. It is not natural to have so many petrochemicals in foods. Who knows the effects of genetically altered foods over time? No wonder there is so much cancer today. One item that has not been studied is the health of people consuming organic. I have seen people from the same family with some people eating organics and others not eating organics. The people eating nonorganic foods often take multiple prescriptions while other people of the same genetics consuming organics do not need pharmaceuticals.

  32. Mildred Sanders

    I knew the agribusiness industry would make sure the headline “organics no better” was the talking point, and you fell for it as well.
    No, one can’t buy pesticide laden factory food guiltlessly. The environmental consequences and animal cruelty that accompany this mode of production has huge consequences.
    And you, like the rest of the media, dismiss the importance of lower pesticides on food, especially for children and pregnant women. At least half of cancer incidence has been attributed to environmental consequences. Considering the diverse foods the average American consumes, the chance of a negative impact from pesticides alone is very large.
    But consider the planet! The insects, the animals, the workers who must spray and handle the toxic foods! That’s a HUGE reason to buy organic. The cost of illness in the US is very high and rising. So paying more for organic food should be considered in that light. In the long run, we’re paying much less, in so many diverse ways, for a far better world.

  33. THEBLACKCAT999

    YET YOU FAIL TO MENTION THAT TODAYS CONVENTIONAL FOOD COMPANIES HAVE DRAINED OFF THE NUTRIENTS AND LEFT US WITH BOXES OF REFINED NON-NUTRIENT GARBAGE

    • THEBLACKCAT999

      you also fail to mention all of the unhealthy additives food companes arbritraily add to food and then wonder why there is an obesity problem; 50 years ago there was not a obesity problem and all this extra sugar frutose salt was not added to our food supply the food companies created this problem

  34. Jeanette Bronee

    wow….I am really surprised by this article. It seems the Executive Editor of Health does not understand what creates health, nor what affects it. Of course it is hard to measure the nutritional value of organic versus conventional, but what about growth hormones, GMO, pesticides, fertilizers and what else we can find in conventional foods. Not to mention that these are from huge manufacturer and not local, nor sustainable, nor supporting small family farmers. Admittedly there are many large organic companies these days, who are not local, nor farmers, and far more mass produced that I would prefer my organic food to be. But to completely negate all the studies of what the toxins in conventional produce do to our health overtime, and avoid taking the factory farming and abused animals into consideration, when commenting on the cost of organic food, is a sad sad sad reality of the ignorance of those who inform the masses.

  35. Jim Cota

    Personally, we buy organic foods not because of the “extra” nutrient value but primarily because of the decreased contaminants. As stated above in the comments, I think it’s safe to assume that significantly lower levels of pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are very likely to be better in the long run.

  36. Brittany

    This article is massively unresearched, is biased and belittles the whole topic of healthy food. In fact, I suspect the point was to cast doubt on the organic food industry in general. There is a massive amount of research already out there about the hazards of chemicals, genetically modified products and the lack of nutrition in processed, non-organic foods. I suggest that NPR do a follow-up interview with A.) Dr. Mercola of mercola.com, and B.) Pete’s Greens of Greensboro, VT and C.) New Day Farms of Virginia. Maybe you could shed a little more light on a very well-researched subject, instead of producing a sound-byte in such an agressive and superficial way.

  37. Gary Kee

    As a Chef and as a patient, I totally support organic farming and organic eating. I have a calcified chondrosarcoma tumor under my brain. I also used to have hyperthyroidism. 2 years ago, I started eating organic sprouted grain bread and organic fruits. I also tried to eat meat that don’t contain growth horomone and antibiotics. I found that my health is much better now. My hyperactive thyroid didn’t come back and I am more energetic than before. I believe organic is the way it was and the way it should be.

  38. A. Wayne

    When food aids the body against “antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” it is already “more nutritious.”

  39. Rodney North

    The Stanford study – and most of the media coverage of it (including this blog post) – suffers from a # of short-comings, not least that people are missing the point that the organic farming offers a host of environmental benefits and lowers the serious health risks otherwise experienced by millions of farmers and farm workers around the world, due to the high toxicity of the 5 BILLION pounds of pesticides that are applied annually to the world’s cropland.

    On Equal Exchange’s blog I’ve described some of these benefits, & provide further information resources & useful links:

    Additionally – yesterday Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine wrote a very good, yet concise, piece that helped illuminate some of the critical methodological shortcomings in the Stanford study, and how they seemed to have misrepresented (or poorly described) the actual findings. The gist is that even this study actually _confirms_ that eating organic is healthier in many important ways (and more so than suggested in the post above). For example, the suggestion that organic foods have only “30% fewer pesticides” is wildly off the mark. The real gap between organics and conventional produce is much greater.

  40. Vince

    This study overlooks one important consideration …what are the rates of cancer ;heart disease ect… in those who eat organic over a longer period of time.In fact the study notes “Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets” and what effect a “30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods” will have over time is still a significant question.