Organic Foods: are we getting what we pay for?

by Ali Schumacher on October 24, 2012

Image courtesy of photopin.com

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:

Image courtesy of flickrCC.net

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.

Image courtesy of flickrrC.net

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.

 

References:

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.

 

 

 

 

Dan Kegel October 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm

For me, the appeal of organic farming is that it helps insulate us from
unknown future risks, e.g. a pesticide thought to be safe actually does
something nasty to the environment, like kill bees.

The present report doesn’t take those risks into account, so from my point
of view, it set up a straw man and then knocked it down, then proudly proclaimed
it had knocked the straw man down.

Ali Schumacher October 25, 2012 at 9:14 am

I do agree with you. And concern for the environment was another motivator of consumers. The article was not trying to say “stop eating organic food” but rather, if you are paying more just because you think it is nutritionally superior to conventional food, maybe you should rethink your purchases.
Thanks for your comment!

Martin October 24, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I never get why people think organic food (or “Bio” how we call it in Germany, not less idiotic) is good in terms of food safety or nutrients. The dioxin levels in eggs from free-ranged hens is much higher, there is higher risk for microbial contamination due to the extensive use of manure, and because of limited use of fungicides there is higher risk of exposition to really dangerous cancerogens like aflatoxins.

The most compelling reason for most people I know to buy and support organic is the reduced environmental burden and animal welfare. There are people out there who care not only about themselves, but also the future and don’t want to leave their children a burned-out planet.

But to get there (“saving the planet”) the organic movement will have to embrace relatively new concepts like GMO and stop the ban of synthetic pesticides. The use of e.g. copper is a serious problem in vineyards, in the ban of copper products in the EU will have a significant impact on organic wine industry.

They will also have to stop the increasing anti-science attitude many environmentalists are showing these days.

Ali Schumacher October 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Thank you for your comments Martin. As I told Dan above, environmental concern was flagged as a motivator for organic food purchase in the study as well but environmental effects were not covered in the Stanford review. The agricultural industry is a fascinating topic and something that anyone interested in the environment now and into the future should look more deeply into (perhaps a future blog post :) ). I really appreciate you bringing it up, I envisioned this post as a jumping off point for a conversation about our food and your comments are spot on so thank you.

Paula Johnson, PhD, MPH October 24, 2012 at 4:55 pm

The analogy given by the previous commenter (Kegel) may be quite appropriate, considering I heard (I cannot provide proof at the moment) that the Stanford study had a conflict of interest in terms of their funding, although not declared in the original article.
When I first read the press on the Stanford study, I was outraged that “organic” foods were being discredited. The Stanford researchers found eating an organic diet reduces exposure to pesticides on average 30%. But does it matter for our health? The researchers cannot answer that question, because for their review, they only looked for studies conducted in people who eat organic food and ignored studies that actually measure pesticide levels in people or studies in animals – both of which find effects on health – such as harm to the developing brain.
Honestly, I am disappointed in the ending of your review. You are just giving your opinion. To conclude that “there is nothing wrong or dangerous about conventional food” is a strong claim not backed by science. We don’t really know the extent of the harm posed by pesticides on our food or in our water and environment, particularly from cumulative exposures.
I’m glad you opened this discussion with a review of this controversial article. That was brave. You are not expected to know all the weaknesses of the Stanford study, but I encourage you to try to be more critical in your reviews. You may be interested in viewing some of the backlash (e.g. letters to editors of newspapers) that got published after synopses of the study were printed. Good luck!

Ali Schumacher October 25, 2012 at 9:23 am

Thank you Paula. I think your comments to be more critical are something I can (and should) truly take to heart. As I said to Dan, to me the Stanford article was more trying to debunk the idea that organic food has more nutrients than conventional food. The issue of pesticides was only touched upon (for good or bad) and I do agree that it is still unclear of long term effects and needs to be studied more.
My interpretation of the article, again perhaps something that I should have critiqued more, is that it didn’t really conclude much. It did not say stop eating organic or definitely continue to do so, but rather said “there is not enough evidence to say…”
Again, thank you for your advice! I’ll be using it as I go forward.

vnny October 24, 2012 at 5:28 pm

“Two of the main reasons were: it’s healthier and it’s safer.”

its “healthier” maybe because there is less pesticides.
i have 2 apples, one has less pesticides than the other (but both within “legal limit”) i consider the one with less to be “healthier” because pesticides on my apple is not considered to be a “healthy” add-on

its “Safer” maybe because there is less pesticides.
i have 2 apples, one has less pesticides than the other. i consider the one with less to be “Safer” because nobody knows at this point the long term effects of these things.

So yes, Healthier and Safer. But it depends how you define healthier and safer. Nobody i know buys Organic food because they think an organic orange has more Vitamin C.

Ali Schumacher October 25, 2012 at 9:27 am

Completely agree with you, safety and health are completely intertwined. An apple with fewer pesticides is definitely healthier than one with more. Perhaps I shouldn’t have divided the two so definitively and will look to embrace more complex relationships (instead of simplifying them) in my future posts.
Thanks for your comment!

vnny October 25, 2012 at 10:02 am

Ali,

I have a question. but first I am glad the study is looking at the nutritional benefit, or lack there of , of Organic foods and thanks for covering the topic.
that being said:

““the overwhelming majority of studies [found] ‘health’ to be the primary reason consumers buy organic foods.” They believe organic foods to be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. ”

So, my question is, was the term Health/Healthy/healthier somehow turned into “Nutrition/more nutritious” or did the overwhelming majority of studies find NUTRITION to be the primary reason consumers buy organic foods.

i haven’t read the study. do you see the confusion here?

Ali Schumacher October 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm

The term “health” was pretty broad in the study, mostly because consumers themselves would articulate many different things under the blanket statement of “because it’s healthier.” To consumers “healthy” did mean more nutritious, in addition to fewer pesticides, and also just a sense of organic food being generally “good” for you. So, to your point, it would be unfair to say nutrition is the number one motivator as health covered a much broader range of topics. Thank you for pointing that out to me and I will change the wording in my post.

Angela October 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Thanks so much for the post – and for the pesticide residue table. I try to buy organic food whenever I can, having researched pesticide (and GMO) risk for quite a long time. Again, this is both because of the residue and concerns for farm workers (wage, working conditions, health) and the environment (biodiversity/soil/water management etc ), although, to me, it also matters where you buy organic. This leads me back to your title and introduction. I thought it might have been nice to have a link to an article embedded that discusses the cost difference between the two ranges. For me, there was a question hanging there, why this was the case. Is food from intensive agriculture cheaper, because the prices are unnaturally cheap (because of worker exploitation, subsidies and farming methods such as monoculture) or are the prices for organic food unnaturally high (because, after all, ‘organic’ is big business, though probably again not for the farmers/farm workers). E.g. many food co-operatives, at least here in the UK, seem to be able to offer organic food comparatively cheaply ( e.g. http://fareshares.org.uk ). This is just a suggestion – I know this wasn’t your main topic for the post.

Manas October 29, 2012 at 3:29 am

Thanks for so inforamtive post. I agree that demand for organic food has increased drastically and this is also true that old women and children consumes this because for older age people there immunity system is not so well, and children’s immunity system is in a growing state so care has to be taken for both. Studies done tells us about the advantages and disadvantages of organic food. Its farming is not so harmful for the nature. Ans since blog tells us that it contains two nutrients in higher proportion then why not to try for it.For this i would say something is better then nothing. Health is an important thing which needs care so lets be healthy and be fit.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: