Not so long ago, only "health food nuts" preferred organically grown fresh fruits, vegetables and meats over their industrial agriculture equivalents. Nowadays, lots of people look for the words "organically grown" when they want to eat healthy. But what if turns out those little labels don't actually mean what people think, and that the foods they feel so good about eating aren't that different from the store brand — except for the price tag at checkout?
That's the question raised by researchers at Stanford University in a study published this week, which found that the health benefits of organically grown produce, meats, eggs and cheeses are negligible when compared to their non-organic counterparts. Not only were foods labeled organic no more nutritious than other foods, which tend to be substantially less expensive, they were just as likely as the store brand to be contaminated by bacteria like E. coli and other dangerous germs.
The Stanford team based their findings on an examination of data from more than 200 previous studies of the health advantages of organically grown foods covering four decades of research. And while they found that conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, the levels were too low to cause harm, even when eaten over protracted periods.
Moreover, the nutritional content of most fruits and vegetables depended more on ripeness, soil and climate than on how they were farmed. Organic produce generally had higher levels of phosphorus and compounds known as phenols, which may help prevent some cancers. But the differences were so tiny researchers couldn't say for sure they conferred any overall health benefit. Meanwhile, some non-organic strains of fruits and vegetables actually had more vitamins and anti-oxidants than their pricier organic cousins.
Will any of this discourage people from pursuing healthier lifestyles by seeking out organically grown foods? Not likely. The organic produce market was a $12.4 billion business last year, and many people undoubtedly will see even minuscule differences in pesticide levels and bacteria resistance as worth the extra cost. Eating foods that don't contain synthetic pesticides, hormones or additives is a lifestyle choice as much as a strategy for dietary health.
That's because even for those skeptical of the health advantages conferred by of organic foods and farming methods, they have a generally positive impact on the environment. Organic farmers not only avoid the intensive use of pesticides to protect their plants, they also employ techniques like crop rotation and natural fertilizers that don't produce harmful agricultural runoff to contaminate rivers and streams.
Less farm runoff helps prevent algae blooms and dead zones in fisheries like the Chesapeake Bay, where massive die-offs of aquatic species have occurred. And organic farming has the potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. For many people, a healthier planet is as good a reason as any for eating organic, regardless of the health advantages such foods confer.
Of course, there are always trade-offs to be made. Organic products cost more to put on the shelves because they generally require more cultivation by hand, which in turn drives up labor costs that invariably are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Conversely, conventionally grown crops produced on an industrial scale have created a reliable, affordable food supply that proportionately has left fewer hungry people in America than virtually anywhere else in the world. Given the booming global population, there's obviously a balance to be struck between industrial and small-scale farming.
But we think most people are going to be sensible about their dietary choices and weigh the higher cost of organic products against a variety of factors, including nutritional content, environmental impact and pocketbook issues. This is, after all, only one study, and there's still a lot we don't know about the long-term effects of organic foods and farming methods. But even if one doubts the health advantages of eating organic, it's clear the environmental benefits are real.