Stanford study notes organic foods not necessarily more nutritious

What’s the difference between an organic tomato and a conventional one?

Potentially nothing, Stanford researchers argue via their controversial study, published Sept. 4 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which finds organic foods to be no different in nutritional value than their conventional culinary counterparts. The report — a compilation of 237 various studies (conducted from 1966 to 2011) exploring the nutritional and contaminant components of organic foods — took all of four years for the 12 researchers on staff to complete, yet may represent a lifetime of restructuring for the organic food market.

"It became much larger than we expected," Crystal Smith-Spangler, a primary care doctor at Stanford University and lead author on the study, told USA Today.

And according to fellow researcher Dena Bravata, MD, MS, senior author of a paper, the only difference between tomatoes and tomahtoes truly is the way they roll off the tongue, not down it.  

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” Bravata said in a news release.

Among the most integral findings uncovered by Smith-Spangler, Bravata and the rest of their team were as follows: 

  • Organic foods and conventional foods do not differ greatly in their vitamin contents, a result researchers arrived at after reviewing studies investigating the presence of vitamins A, C and E in organic eats.  
  • Organic produce had minimal detectable pesticide residue (7 percent) compared to conventional foods, which showed a pesticide presence of 38 percent. Three studies found such residue to exceed the maximum amount permitted by the European Union on organic or conventional produce.
  • Bacterial contamination risk was equal for both organic and conventional foods.
  • Organic chicken and pork were found to be less likely targets for anti-biotic-resistant bacteria.   
  • Organic milk contains more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally processed milk.

Given the tremendous variance in price tags between organic foods and those lacking such distinction — between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion to $28.6 billion, with organic products costing nearly twice as much as conventional items — the Stanford team was prompted to research whether science bolstered the bold pay sticker.

“Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Smith-Spangler. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” she continued. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”

For some experts, the report comes as a blessing of sorts, confirming at last the prescriber’s plea that, nutritionally, patients can consume either organic or conventional food as long as that food is healthy. Many are pleased that patients who can’t afford the steeper prices no longer have to worry about malnutrition when purchasing healthy foods without the organic label. As Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, MS, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told WebMD: "I don't want that mom who's at the grocery store to feel guilty if she can't afford organic. That mom shouldn't feel like she's making a lesser choice."

Naturally, such claims have also garnered a great deal of grief from the farmer’s field to the consumer’s kitchen table — an overwhelming sense of woe that eventually made it’s way to the electronic and parched pages of news outlets across the country.

"The message the general public is going to get is that there are no health benefits from organic foods so why seek it out? Why pay a slightly higher price? I do think the science and facts support some very significant and important long-term benefits," says Charles Benbrook, PhD, a professor of agriculture at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash, in a WebMD article.

“The facts can be ignored, or spun a certain way with all the buts and howevers you want, but that doesn't change the truth -- or plain old common sense -- which suggests it's probably not a great idea to eat something that's been doused in poison,” Maria Rodale, CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc. and book author, wrote in her Huffington Post response. 

A Los Angeles Times editorial reads: “What's most glaring about the Stanford review is what's missing from it, which is any examination of processed foods. You can't get a realistic picture of health effects by looking at fruits, veggies and meats but none of the processed items that make up the bulk of the American diet. Is a kid's peanut butter and jelly sandwich more healthful if it's made from organic ingredients? A lack of comprehensive research on the totality of what we eat means we simply don't know.”

Others said the organic point doesn’t really hinge on nutrition at all.

"Nutrition is a lesser concern. It's not the main reason people are buying organic. If you eat organic food, you still need to eat a varied diet, it's not going to solve every health woe. It's marketed to be pesticide-free and antibiotic-free, and that was strongly supported by the study," Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said.

“All the food I buy is organic. I don't want those chemical pesticides and herbicides on my food and I don't want a noxious, unstudied concoction of them skulking around my body wreaking all kinds of havoc. Likewise, I'd like to drink water free of atrazine and other toxins, and breathe air that isn't polluted with farming chemicals,” Rodale wrote.

Regarding pesticide preference, Bravata told the New York Times: “Some of my patients take solace in knowing that the pesticide levels are below safety thresholds. Others have questioned whether these standards are sufficiently rigorous.”

Diehards of the organic movement may understand that point, although a 2010 Nielsen study indicated a great many opt organic because of the potentially misguided notion that the chow is more nutritious — 76 percent of people purchased organic products believing they were healthier; 53 percent passed over the pennies because organic allowed them to avoid pesticides and other toxins; 51 percent did it because they believed the ‘O’ was more nutritious; and 49 percent made the buy because organic farming was though to be better for the environment.

A study published by British scientists last year found the opposite of the Stanford cohort (organic fruits and vegetables contained about 12 percent more disease-fighting nutrients than non-organic food, the Brits surmised) adding yet another layer of complexity to the organic debate.

Whether patients subscribe to the market or not, Smith-Spangler was fervent about one final thing: eating healthy. Organic sticker or otherwise, that is the most important advice to follow she said.

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