Believe me, I jumped on the organic food bandwagon immediately upon entering college. I was an organic, pescetarian (fish eater) who worked out twice a day, took my vitamins, practiced yoga and attended occasional drum circles. Yea, I was that guy. I really enjoyed my life. Everything seemed easy when I was living off of student loans and a hefty income tending bar, but things (and people) change.
Now that I’m no longer receiving grants or loans and I have more financial responsibilities, other than paying my rent on time, I asked myself if
buying all of those pricey organic foods was really worth it. Was I really getting a better deal? Were those organic foods really making me healthier? Well, the answer may surprise you.
In short, the answer is no. Organic foods were not making me healthier, per say.
According to a study by Stanford University, organic food is neither more nutritious nor any less prone to bacterial contamination.
But, before I continue talking about organic, let’s examine what organic means.
Organic vs. All Natural
You may recognize some of these labels from the food in your grocery store: organic, natural, free range, certified, kosher, no antibiotics, fresh or frozen poultry.
Let’s break down these terms:
Organic - The National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory framework governing organic food in the United States. It’s part of the USDA. For crops, the organic seal means that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms were not used during production. Organic livestock must meet USDA health and welfare standards, utilize no antibiotics or growth hormones, use 100% organic feed and the animals must be allowed access to the outdoors. In other words, if I were food, I would not be labeled organic.
Free Range- This label applies to chickens and turkeys. It basically means that the animals were provided unlimited access to food and fresh water with continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.
Certified- This means that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has officially evaluated the meat product for class, grade and other characteristics.
No Antibiotics- This means that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.
Grass-Fed- Grass-fed means the animal received a majority of their nutrients from grass. “Organic” animals may feed on grain during their life cycle. The grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.
(Definitions thanks to USDA.gov)
Here’s a short excerpt of an article, by Michelle Brandt at Standford’s School of Medicine, regarding the procedure:
For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.
The article continues on to say, “After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.”
So there it is, organic foods have nothing in them that distinguishes them from their conventional counterparts. But, organic foods do have an advantage in one area. It’s like Miles Davis said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” So what is consistently missing from organic foods?
If you’re thinking pesticides, you’re right.
The study found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional produce. That’s not to say the organic produce was 100% pesticide free, however.
The researchers say that the amount of pesticides present on any of the produce was so low that it ‘fell within the allowable safety limits.’
Pros and Cons
Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference. Conventional foods are cheaper, but can have more pesticides. Organic foods are less likely to have pesticides, but are more expensive for consumers. Some would argue that organic foods also taste better.
So what are we supposed to do?
Buy what makes sense for you. We live in a world where the very air we breathe is filled with chemicals. So don’t fret if buying organic produce doesn’t fit into your budget. If you want to spend the extra money on organic, sustainably grown produce, do it.
As for me, I’ll continue buying whatever I can afford. Right now, that conventionally grown cucumber for 99 cents looks very appetizing.
If you’d like more information about what the Standford study left out, read Tom Philpott’s article here.
Here’s an opinion piece written by Mark Bittman calling the study ‘flawed.’