When a study comes out that shows organic oranges have more vitamin C
than conventionally grown oranges, it doesn't make the news. We fully
expect that. But when a study shows that there is no difference, it
makes headlines. The soundbite headline from recent meta-study by
Stanford says organic food is no more nutritious than conventionally
But that's an oversimplified description of what they actually found. In an article published on the Stanford School of Medicine web site, they report that the study found:
1. Organic produce contains more phenols.
2. Organic produce contains more phosphorus.
3. Organic milk often contains more omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Organic produce is 30 percent less likely to contain pesticides.
5. Children eating organic diets have lower levels of pesticides in their urine.
6. Organic chicken and pork are less likely to expose you to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Those are some of the findings of the Stanford study that created this headline: "Little Evidence of Health Benefits From Organic Foods." The Stanford study was a meta-study, meaning they looked at data from many studies. Another meta-study, which you can read about here, found the opposite. The study was by Newcastle University in England, and it found that organic produce was more nutritious, with more vitamin C, and "many more of the plant-defense molecules that in people help shield against cancer and heart disease."
How could these meta-studies come up with such divergent results? Partly because the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables not only vary by season and region, but can also vary because of the history of a particular plot. Let's say the soil has been exhausted by conventional farming for twenty years, and is then sold to an organic farmer who begins to build that topsoil back up. The first few years the crops might be relatively low in nutrients because plants can absorb more nutrients — especially minerals — from soil rich with living organisms. To create healthy soil full of earthworms, fungi, nematodes, bacteria, algae, protozoa, arthropods, insects and small vertebrates, it takes awhile. But when that soil has been built up, the food grown in the soil tends to be more nutritious.
On the other hand, a forest may have been burned to create fresh new farmland on rich soil. The food was grown conventionally but the soil has not yet been exhausted, so the produce may be very nutritious even though it isn't organic.
Organic food is usually more expensive than conventionally grown food. The Stanford study was trying to determine whether that extra expense is worth it to consumers. Does that food confer a big enough advantage to be worth it? This is a fair question, but it doesn't address a bigger issue. One of the main reasons to buy organic food is its affect on the environment. Conventional farming uses pesticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as artificial fertilizers. All of these can cause environmental damage. The toxins kill pests, but can also kill birds, mammals, other plants, the living organisms in the soil, etc. Chemical fertilizers run off into the rivers and eventually into the oceans and can cause algae blooms that suffocate fish, etc.
So even if organic food was no more nutritious, it would still be worth paying extra for. If you've ever been angry at a corporation for putting profits before the environment because it is morally wrong, then you know that buying food grown in a way that harms the environment because it is cheaper would be equally and similarly wrong.
Another aspect of this is the unknown effects of genetically modified organisms. GMOs cannot be used in organic products. Organic farmers are not allowed to use GMO seeds, and the animals cannot eat GMO feed.
Organic methods tend to be more humane as well. Chickens labeled "organic," for example, are cage-free, even if the label doesn't say "cage-free." And they never get vaccines or antibiotics.
Your best bet for the highest quality, most nutritional food that has the most benign effect on the environment is to always buy organically grown food. One of our most precious natural resources is healthy living soil. Organic practices take care of the soil, the most important foundation of all terrestrial life. For that reason alone, organic food is worth the extra price.
Read more: Does Dirt Need Saving?
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.