Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

No Link Between Organics And Human Health, Study Says

A new research meta-analysis shows no health benefits to eating organic. Critics say it misses the point.

Drawing of a bag with the word

Photo: 401(k) 2012 (Flickr)

If you pay more for organic food because you think it's more nutritious, researchers at Stanford University say you should probably save your money.

A new study finds no evidence that organic foods are healthier than conventionally-grown alternatives.

Researchers at Stanford University amalgamated results from 200 peer-reviewed studies that assessed differences between organic and non-organic foods and between the people who eat them.

Most of the studies looked at the nutritional contents of the foods as well as their levels of pesticides and harmful bacteria. Some of them focused on potential connections between organics and human health conditions like allergies or eczema.

Results: Inconclusive

Proponents of organic foods have been quick to leap on weaknesses in the study, several of which have been acknowledged by the study authors.

Several studies bucked the overall trend, identifying health benefits including higher levels of some nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids; others had inconclusive results.

Benefits Beyond The Human

Critics have also contended that the Stanford study does not account for the ethical motivations that drive many organic consumers.

Organic farming methods have been proven to be less damaging to the environment than conventional methods.

Also, by refusing to purchase organic livestock and dairy, consumers are choosing to support farms that raise livestock in conditions that do not require antibiotic use to prevent rampant disease spread among animals.

“The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable,” critiques Michael Pollan. “That’s the stronger and easier case to make.”

What’s The Nutritional Content Of A Red Herring?

Critics of the study are also claiming that few organic consumers cite nutrition as the main reason for their choices.

“Plants make their own vitamins. The vitamin levels should not be expected to differ significantly (between organic and conventionally-grown produce). The mineral content might,” says food policy critic Marion Nestle. “But even if organics have higher levels of nutrients, so what? . . . Just as with supplements, additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier.”

And while the study does claim that samples of conventionally-grown produce indicated pesticide levels well within federal limits, they also indicated that pesticide levels — as well as levels of irradiation, herbicides, antibiotics and several other contaminants — were significantly lower in organic produce.

Asks Marion Nestle:

Aren’t those lower levels — in production and in the body — good reasons to buy organics? I’d call that doing exactly what it is supposed to.

Read More:

  • Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For you (NPR)
  • Don’t Give Up On Organic Food, Our Experts Urge (Consumer Reports)
  • Are Organics More Nutritious? Again? Sigh (Food Politics)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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