Organic foods are not necessarily better

September 4, 2012 – Will eating expensive organic foods make you healthier? Maybe not, shows a new research review.

The review summarizes evidence from hundreds of organic food studies. It is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Some of the studies compared organic milk, meat, eggs, and produce to non-organic foods. These studies measured nutrients in food as well as contaminants like pesticides and bacteria. A few studies have attempted to find health differences between people who ate only organic or non-organic foods.

After weighing all the evidence, the researchers conclude that organic foods do not appear to contain any more vitamins or nutrients than non-organic foods.

Non-organic fruits and vegetables were 30% more likely to contain pesticides than organic fruits and vegetables. But since it’s rare for a product to exceed the pesticide safety limits set by the FDA, the researchers say it’s unclear if reducing an already low exposure makes a difference.

The review also shows that organic meats are less likely to harbor “superbug” bacteria that are resistant to antibiotic treatments. But researchers say most antibiotic-resistant infections in humans stem from misuse of antibiotics, not from eating contaminated food.

Ultimately, the researchers say there’s no evidence that people who stick to organic diets are healthier than people who eat non-organic foods.

Not everyone agrees.

Organic or not?

“There are many different reasons people choose organic. They might be concerned about animal welfare or the environment. They might do it for taste,” says researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, from Stanford University in California. “I haven’t found nutrition to be a major reason for choosing organic food.”

Nutrition experts have praised the research for helping to dispel some myths that might scare people away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“When we talk about organic, it’s really the process, not the product. The process of organic farming is different from conventional farming, but that doesn’t mean the food is bad or unsafe,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, MS, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Dobbins points out that organic foods can cost twice as much as non-organic foods.

“I don’t want that mom who’s in the grocery store to feel guilty if she can’t afford organic. That mom shouldn’t feel like she’s making a lesser choice,” Dobbins says.

Other experts, however, called the new review misleading.

“The message the general public is going to get is that there is no health benefit to organic food, so why go after it? Why pay a slightly higher price? I think the science and the facts support the benefits. very significant and important long-term goals,” says Charles Benbrook, PhD, professor of agriculture at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.

Benbrook points to a similar review published last year that came to the opposite conclusion. This study, conducted by British researchers, found that organic fruit and vegetables contain around 12% more disease-fighting nutrients than non-organic foods. Sticking to organic produce, the researchers concluded, would equate to eating 12% more regular fruits and vegetables.

Other experts say the study’s findings aren’t expected to change the top reasons people choose organic foods.

“Nutrition is a lesser concern. It’s not the main reason people buy organic food. If you eat organic food, you should always eat a varied diet, it won’t solve all health problems. It is marketed as being pesticide-free and antibiotic-free, and this was strongly supported by the study,” says Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

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