Organic Foods: are we getting what we pay for?

by Ali Schumacher on October 24, 2012

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Since 1997, sales of organic food in the United States have increased from $3.6 to $26.7 billion.  It’s not surprising as  “going organic” has become somewhat fashionable, not to mention that purchasing organic food sold in stores like WholeFoods, often referred to as WholePaycheck in my household, costs up to 2x as much as conventional food.  An article in the New York Times in 2008 expressed sticker shock resulting from the $4.50 loaf of organic bread and $7 gallon of organic milk.

To many in our society, these prices are worth it.  After all, being able to consume food without pesticide and chemical fertilizer residues, and antibiotics doesn’t seem like a ridiculous request.  However, a recent study by Stanford University suggests that positive benefit of organic food might not be living up to what its faithful followers hold it to.

Studies have attempted to characterize the typical organic food consumer.  Reviews of consumer information have revealed that the majority of organic food advocates are older women with children living in their household. But perhaps more important than information regarding who is buying, is information regarding why they’re doing it.  Researchers from the Journal of Consumer Behavior gathered information on why consumers are motivated to make the organic purchase.  Two of the main reasons were: it’s healthier more nutritious and it’s safer.

Health benefits of organic food:

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As the article states, “the overwhelming majority of studies [found] ‘health’ to be the primary reason consumers buy organic foods.”  Although the term “health” included a broad range of topics, some consumers stated that they believe organic foods to be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.  However, results from the Stanford review reveal little convincing evidence that this belief is true.

The review analyzed 5,908 articles comparing different aspects of organic versus conventional food like nutrients, production methods, chemical residues, and their health effects on human beings.  The results in terms of nutrition?

  1. there was no significant difference in the vitamin content of organic and conventional foods (including plant as well as animal products)
  2. only 2 nutrients (of 11 reviewed) were significantly higher in organic than conventional produce

The two nutrients were phosphorus, whose main function is in the development of bones and teeth, and phenols, believed to function like antioxidants and possibly be cancer preventing.  Despite these differences, levels of other nutrients like potassium, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber were shown to be no different in conventional versus organic food.

Food safety in organic vs. conventional food:

The review compared levels of pesticide contamination, bacterial contamination, antibiotic resistance, fungal toxin, and heavy metal contamination of organic and conventional food as well.  The results?

  1. organic produce had 30% lower risk for contamination with any detectable pesticide residue than conventional produce
  2. there was not a statistically significant difference in the prevalence of E. coli contamination between organic and conventional produce
  3. bacterial contamination in animal products (like Salmonella) was present in both organic and conventional foods and the difference was not statistically significant
  4. the risk of antibiotic resistance was 33% higher among conventional animal products versus organic ones

It is important note that although pesticide levels were higher on conventional produce, no study found levels that exceeded the maximum contamination allowed in stores.  Still, evidence is clear that organic foods deliver on one promise: they have less contamination from pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

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Pesticides can have different effects on health.  They may irritate the eyes or skin, damage the nervous system, and some are even carcinogenic.  These dangers are present, but the dose of pesticide contamination on produce sold in the US is regulated and too small to have an immediate adverse health effect.  There is no need to fear conventional produce, but if the idea of eating an inorganic apple makes you a little nervous, there are suggestions on which products you may wish to consider buying organic.  Fruits and vegetables like apples, peaches, bell peppers, and strawberries are found by the USDA to have higher level of pesticide residue than other produce.

So what’s the verdict?

Honestly, I think it’s up to you.  Organic food has its benefits, but there is nothing wrong or dangerous about conventional food either.  No matter which you choose, you can stay safe and eat healthfully and nutritiously.



Hughner, RS., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Schultz, CJ., and Stanton, J. (2007). Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food. Journal of Consumer Behavior 6: 94-110.

Martin, A. & Severson, K. (2008). “Sticker Shock in the Organic Aisles.” New York Times, April, 18.

Smith Spangler, C., Brandeau, M., Hunter, G., Bavinger, C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, PJ., Sundaram, V., Liu, H., Schirmer, P., Stave, C., Olkin, I., Bravata, DM. (2012). Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives. Annals of Internal Medicine 157(5): 348-366.