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Is Organic Worth It? The Debate Continues.


A new study questions whether organic produce is more nutritious. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Is organic food more nutritious than conventional food? According to an independent report commissioned by the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency, the answer is no. But perhaps we should be asking a different question: Does it really matter?

It certainly does to some people. The report, which surveyed 162 studies and was released at the end of July, caused an outcry when it concluded "there is no good evidence" that the differences in nutrient content between organic and conventionally grown foods "are relevant to consumer health."

The sharp-tongued British restaurant critic A.A. Gill told the Sunday Times of London that the report proved "organic has no more meaning than a marketing tool." Meanwhile, the Organic Center, a research firm in Boulder, Colo., relased its own report, accusing British researcher and public health nutritionist Alan Dangour of downplaying positive findings about organic food.

Among other criticisms, the center complained that by implementing a strict cutoff date, the report failed to include important, superior studies that revealed positive effects of organic foods. A four-year European Union study, published in October 2007, found that organic milk contained 60 percent more antioxidants and healthful fatty acids than normal milk. It also showed that organic tomatoes, wheat and onions had vitamin levels up to 20 percent higher than conventional crops.

Sales of organic food continue to skyrocket. According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. sales of organic food and non-food products reached $24.6 billion in 2008, up 17.1 percent from 2007. So it's no wonder that people want to know whether they are getting their money's worth.

But is looking at nutrients the right way to judge organic food?

For me, it's beside the point. The organic label doesn't guarantee better nutrition -- or better flavor, for that matter. Organic rules speak to how and which pesticides are used; whether animals used for food are given antibiotics and hormones, and they ban the use of genetically modified seeds. By choosing organic foods, you support farmers who limit the amount and types of pesticides they use. That theoretically helps the environment and certainly limits the amount of residue on your food. (Check out which fruits and vegetables contain the most residue on the Organic Center's pocket guide.)

In my experience, some organic food does taste better (though it can sometimes look uglier than conventionally grown produce.) But it depends on the farmer, the weather and the crop. The quantity of nutrients was never my concern. Seriously: How many organic carrots or beets would I need to eat to increase my antioxidants levels or vitamin A intake to make a difference? People who want to be more healthful can make the simple decision to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and leave it at that.

What do you think? Would you buy organic food because it's more nutritious, or for more holistic reasons?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  August 5, 2009; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, organic, sustainable food  
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Comments

Jane,

I saw this study when it came out a few weeks ago and thought the exact same thing. I think you would find most people who "go organic" do it not for increased nutrition but rather so that they can have control over what they put in their body.

I know many parents feel this is a critical choice for their kids. There is also anecdotal evidence of cases where going completely organic has resulted in dramatic changes in kids with developmental disorders, etc. Although the jury is still out in those cases, I always thought the main point of eating organic was to eliminate all of the pesticides, antibiotics, etc from the food chain and keep them out of your system.

I think many parents want to go organic for their kids and their family but are daunted by how difficult or expensive they think it's going to be. That's the idea behind a website I'm just getting off the ground (http://easygoinggreen.wordpress.com). It's possible to go organic, you just have to do it in small steps.

Thanks for making this great point (and by the way as a former news person, loved the way you lead into it, really hooked me in).

Posted by: easygoinggreen | August 5, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Well said. I buy organic for my family because of what's not in it, as you described. And reducing pesticide use isn't just good for the environment, it's better for farm workers too.

Posted by: ColleenFoodieTots | August 5, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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