Have you read the big news?
"Researchers Find That Organic Food Offers Few Extra Health Benefits Other Than Moral Superiority," reads the blaring headline from Jezebel.
"Organic Food Hardly Healthier, Study Suggests," was CBS's take.
More pointedly, according to The Washington Post, "Organic Food Adds No Vitamins for Extra Cost, Research Finds."
The reason for all the noise? A new study from Stanford, which seems to point out that organic foods aren't more nutritious and don't confer more health benefits than non-organic foods.
“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” Dena Bravata, MD, MS, senior author of the paper at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, told The New York Times. “I think we were definitely surprised.”
This is no small issue to modern moms who not only want to keep their kids healthy, but who also want the best value for their grocery dollars. Organic fruits and vegetables can cost anywhere from $.13 to $.36 more per pound than conventional produce, while organic milk retails for about $6 per gallon, compared to ordinary milk at around $3.50.
So what does this all mean? Can it really be true that buying organic food does nothing more than give us a green-colored platform from which to look down on other, non-organic mommies? We decided to dig a bit deeper.
Why Organic Costs More
For starters, "organic" food is not just fancy branding. Food is certified organic by the USDA only if it meets a long list of requirements, like being produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, or--in the case of meat--without routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food--from broccoli to beef--costs more because it requires more work and isn't industrialized (read: turned into something more akin to a factory than a farm) as intensively as conventional food. For example, beef cows that aren't raised using growth hormones take longer to mature into an edible size. You need much more organic fertilizer for an acre of plants than you would synthetic fertilizer. All these differences add up to higher prices.
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Despite the premium on pesticide-free produce, the organic market has continued to grow during the recession, up 12% in the last year to $12.4 billion compared to 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. And 78% of families report buying organic foods.
Are there millions of people (including maybe you) being duped into higher prices?
Should We Be Buying Organic?
There have been plenty of studies attempting to determine whether organic food is actually worth it--Dr. Bravata's is just the latest one spawning all these depressing (if you've been toting home bags of organic food from Whole Foods) or vindicating (if you decided long ago that it was all hype) headlines.
The study essentially examined four decades of research on the topic, comprising 237 studies on fruits, vegetables and meats. As with any study, the reality is more nuanced than a pithy headline can capture. The argument boils down to why you buy organic in the first place. Is the answer better nutrition, fewer pesticides, less hormones, it's safer for the environment, it tastes better? It could be for any or all these reasons, which Dr. Bravata acknowledged to The New York Times.
So, should you stop buying it? The answer: It depends. We took each of the main reasons families buy organic and figured out, based on the study's findings, whether or not it's worth the added cost:
1. If You Buy Organic for Better Nutrition
If you were hoping that organic produce would help your child run faster, jump higher or grow up stronger, this study will disappoint. Researchers found that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were not more nutritious, on average, than conventional produce, and didn't have higher levels of vitamins. There were also no health benefits to organic meats.
We say: Go conventional. Organic junk food is still junk food. And conventional fresh, healthy food is still healthy food. But wait, there's more ...
2. If You Buy Organic to Avoid Pesticides
The Stanford researchers did find that 38% of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectible pesticide residue, compared with just 7% of organic produce. (Organic produce can still be contaminated by nearby conventional fields.) A couple of studies the researchers analyzed showed that children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine.
Having said that, all the produce tested--organic or not--was under the allowed safety limits for pesticide residue. This is great news if you put your faith in the USDA, who sets those limits. However, if you believe that no pesticides is better than "safe" levels of pesticides, you might not be assuaged. Finally, this study did not include any long-term studies of the effect of pesticides on humans.
Why should you care about pesticides? A 2010 study found a close correlation between the amount of a certain pesticide present in children's urine and the severity of their ADHD. The effect was seen at low levels of exposure as well; kids with any detectable level of pesticides in their urine were twice as likely as kids with undetectable levels to have symptoms of a learning disorder, and prenatal exposure to pesticides can harm children's brain formation and lead to lower I.Q.s. However, at least one study has suggested that insecticide use in children's homes may be more to blame than their food.
We say: Pick and choose your produce carefully. Some produce contains higher levels of pesticide than others, making it more worthwhile to pay for organic. We have a list right here of the fruits and vegetables worth your money. Also, look at where your produce is from. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and advocate for safer food, says that produce grown in the U.S. and Canada has lower level of pesticides than that from countries like Chile. Finally, make sure to wash your produce thoroughly before eating it.
3. If You Buy Organic Meat to Avoid Food-Borne Illness, Antibiotics and Hormones
The study found that organic meats weren't any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. Coli. But when it was contaminated, organic meat was less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That means that if you pick up a food-borne illness from handling or ingesting undercooked organic meats and eggs, antibiotics will be more likely to take care of it. Public health advocates say overuse of antibiotics in farming has contributed to the spread of super-bugs in humans. There have been at least 24 outbreaks of multi-drug resistant germs in food between 2000 and 2010, though the government has just recently begun to curb the use of non-medical antibiotics on farms.
Eating meat and drinking milk raised without hormones might also be worth your while if you happen to have a daughter. A study released this August showed that girls as young as seven are hitting puberty at twice the rate of the late 1990s. The reason? It could be due to the obesity epidemic ... or hormones in their environment and food.
We say: Look for both antibiotic- and hormone-free products. Many producers of conventional meat and milk offer antibiotic- and hormone-free options that cost somewhat less than full-on organic meat and milk. No matter what kind of meat you buy, always cook it thoroughly to kill bacteria and handle it carefully in the kitchen.
You might also consider buying less meat in general. Not only is it pricier than vegetarian options, Americans eat on average 1.5 times as much meat as the USDA recommends. Instead, you can get your and your child's protein needs from soy, cheese, grains, nuts, legumes and leafy greens.
4. If You Buy Organic Food to Protect The Environment
Environmental advocates for buying organic point to the millions of tons of chemical fertilizer dumped on fields during the production of conventional foods every year, or the staggering amounts of waste and toxic gases produced by industrial animal farms that threaten the health of nearby residents.
We say: Go local. While not all farms represented at your local farmers' market will be officially certified as organic (going through certification is an onerous and expensive process), everything there is almost guaranteed to be more environmentally friendly than the same foods would be at a supermarket, and you can even ask the farmer directly about his methods. Most farmers' markets have strict standards for what they allow to be sold, including pesticide use, humane treatment of animals and how far away the food was raised.
On the other hand, foods trucked into your local grocery store from Mexico or flown in from another continent (for an average of 1,500 miles travelled) have a huge carbon footprint.
5. If You Buy Organic for the Taste
You would have a hard time denying the difference between a juicy, freshly picked berry and a larger strawberry with a flavorless, white core shipped in from Mexico. But all other things being equal, any strawberry is probably better than no strawberry at all in your child's diet.
We say: This is up to you and your children's preferences. You might find your kid is more inclined to eat a fresh-picked, organic heirloom tomatoes over another option, but, then again, he might not notice at all.
Tell us--do you buy organic foods for your family?