The release of the Stanford University meta-analysis of data on organic food that shows no nutritional benefit to eating organic has garnered a great deal of media attention since its release. For parents deciding what to feed their families and whether the expense of organic is worth the cost, it’s good to take a moment and see what’s actually in media accounts of the study so you can make an informed decision.
What was the study?
The study was a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies on organic food, which means that there was no new research, rather it was a synthesis of existing data to determine which way the existing studies, taken together, pointed. It looked at organic produce, dairy, and meat. It focused on the nutritional values of the food. To avoid the appearance of bias, they accepted no outside funding for the study.
What did it say about the nutritional benefits of organic food?
The biggest news out of the study is that the scientists involved found no real nutritional benefit to organic food. Prior to this study there was evidence that pointed in both directions, so both pro-organic and pro-conventional sides could make a case regarding the superiority or equivalence of organic and conventional foods. In a few cases, there did seem to be some minor differences. For example, organic produce was higher in phosphorous, but a lack of phosphorous is not a problem for most Americans. More importantly, organic dairy seemed to be higher in Omega-3 fatty acids which does probably confer a health benefit.
What about pesticides?
For many consumers, avoiding exposure to pesticides is a major reason to go organic. The study demonstrated that organic foods were much lower in pesticides than conventional foods although both fell well below USDA standards, but for many people who feel that the USDA standards are too loose, that will be of little comfort. Children who eat organic have lower levels of pesticides in their urine. Minimizing pesticide consumption is probably a good idea for children and pregnant women.
Does this mean organic is a waste of time?
That depends on your reasons for going organic. As mentioned above, many pregnant women, parents, and people who are just concerned about pesticides in their food will still likely see value in going organic. The study doesn’t and isn’t meant to address environmental reasons for going organic, which is another big driver behind people’s decision to eat organic. Finally, there are those who believe that organic food tastes better, and there is nothing in the study that addresses that. So there are still a lot of valid reasons to eat organic, but it looks like nutritional content probably isn’t one of them.
What’s the bottom line?
Ultimately, this is a personal decision, but at Brooklyn Supper we’ve advocated for a flexible approach to organic – emphasizing alternatives to those conventional foods that are the worst offenders when it comes to pesticides and animal welfare, but not shying away from a farmer at our local market just because he or she isn’t organic either. To be honest, though we were surprised the study didn’t find a nutritional benefit to organic food, we don’t see any reason to change our approach. Every family is different, so your own mix of taste, economic, health, and environmental preferences will lead you to your own conclusions, but it’s good to have the facts.
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