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Is That Right? "Eating organic food just makes sense."

"Eating organic food just makes sense."

That's what Safeway says in the section of its Web site devoted to the grocery chain's "O" line of organic foods.


But new research casts doubt on that assertion.

A study in the September issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed all the scientific studies reporting chemical analyses of foods produced organically or conventionally that were published between 1958 and 2008. Culling those that employed flawed methods or were otherwise of poor quality, the team of researchers whittled the batch down from more than 52,000 to 162. Examining those studies' findings, the researchers found that organically produced foods (including both produce and livestock) offered no nutritional advantages over conventionally produced foods.

The study focused on 11 key nutrients and "nutritionally relevant substances," from Vitamin C to zinc, and found no appreciable differences in content of those nutrients between organic foods and conventional foods. The only exceptions involved phosphorus, nitrogen and acidity; the authors observe that the slight variations in these are likely attributable to variations in fertilizers used and not likely to influence human nutrition. In the end, the study says,

One broad conclusion to draw from this review is that there is no evidence to support the selection of organically produced foodstuffs over conventionally produced foodstuffs to increase the intake of specific nutrients or nutritionally relevant substances.

The study's authors emphasized, though, that organic food isn't WORSE than conventional. Nor did they examine differences in levels of contaminants (such as pesticide residue) between organic and conventional foods. The researchers noted that the quality of existing research was by and large pretty poor and urged scientists to beef up the quality of their work in the future. Finally, the authors said the environmental impact of producing organic versus conventional foods needs much more research; as it stands, there's not enough solid evidence to say that organic methods are better for the environment.

For the record, Safeway is of course far from alone in touting its organic food offerings. In fact, organics are central to the operations and images of such businesses as Whole Foods Markets; Whole Foods announced two weeks ago that it has completed the arduous process of getting every store in the chain individually certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers organization.

With some exceptions, organic foods tend to cost more than conventionally produced ones. So for those of us trying to eat well on a budget, organic food might not make so much sense after all.

Are you committed to organic food, or do you think it's a scam? Take a moment to vote in today's poll, and voice your convictions in the comments section.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 31, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

I don't really understand the point or impact of the study. Most folks don't buy organics because they think the blueberries or sweetpotatoes have more nutrients - they buy them because they don't have pesticides, antibiotics (meats), etc. It's a weird study ...

Posted by: MomSarah | July 31, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Agree with MomSarah. If your focus is on nutrition, then either buy local or buy frozen; most of the fruits/veggies have been sitting around for a week by the time they even make it to the grocery store, organic or no. When I bought organic milk, it was for the hormones/antibiotics; fruits/veggies, for the pesticide residues.

I agree the marketing campaign doesn't seem that logical. Then again, neither are people's buying decisions, really. They may be tapping into that gut sense that some people have that more natural = better, even if they can't explain why or support it with scientific studies.

Posted by: laura33 | July 31, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

agree w/ MomSarah.
Environmental Working Group reported the same a while ago - that there's not much nutrient difference in conventional vs organic.
Going further - EWG has also rated specific foods for pesticide use/retention and allowed the customer to figure out what to buy organic (or not) - e.g., apples should be bought organic bcz of pesticides.
I don't buy that "organic foods tend to cost more". If you're ONLY definition of "cost" is $$ then sure. If I want to try to avoid cancer at some point in my future, then no...organic doesn't cost more. And regardless, if you look around a bit - esp in the DC region, you'll find that organics *don't* cost more - e.g., 2 lbs of organic strawberries from Trader Joe's = $5. Cheaper than the conventional at ANY grocery store.
And, for full disclosure, we haven't set foot in a Whole Foods in over a year (and probably longer). Whole Foods is by far the MOST expensive for organic foods..but hey, that's their customer base.

Posted by: robjdisc | July 31, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

In addition to the reasons listed in the comments above, some people (including me) choose to buy organic for political reasons. Some large food companies produce "suicide seeds" that don't reproduce, forcing farmers to keep buying them. The practice has cost many smaller farms in America (and elsewhere in the world) their livelihood. The only way NOT to support companies like Monsanto is to go organic.

Posted by: JBourgeios | July 31, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I'm well aware that there's no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. When I buy organic, it's not because it's better for me, but because I want to support agricultural practices that are less harmful to the earth. And eat less poison.

Posted by: MaxineofArc | July 31, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the above I buy organic (and local) for environmental reasons not because I think it's more nutritious. The organic produce I buy from the local farm may be more expensive, but at least the extra dollars are keeping a small local farmer in business.

Posted by: skm1 | July 31, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I buy organic meat not because of extra nutrients, but because I don't want the hormones and antibiotics and other junk in there. There was a recent study linking breast cancer to beef eating, and the likely theory was the hormones in the beef.

I also by organic products for less animal cruelty, like cage free and free range poultry and meat. I am a carnivore, but that doesn't mean the animals should have a miserable existence before they are food.

For produce, I don't like the pesticides. So I guess it is more a matter of wanting LESS stuff in there, not more!

Posted by: cjbriggs | July 31, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The organic certification process was never meant to assure anyone of higher nutritional content. The absolute value in buying organic is the assurance that a food was grown or raised without the addition of chemicals, GMO's, hormones and antibiotics that are so commonly found in conventional foods. Because I am also concerned about nutritional value, I simply buy local as much as possible because, as everyone knows, fresher is better! So, studying the comparative nutritional value of organic vs. conventional foods is not needed at all. What we need are more and better studies on the long-term health effects of consuming GMOs, genetically modified foods, which are becoming prevalent in all the conventional foods we eat. Due to weak studies, we truly do not know the long-term effects of consuming all these DNA-altered food ingredients, and the only way to avoid them now is to buy organic. Food labels are not required to list GMOs, but organic standards prohibit them. Unfortunately, organic certification standards are under attack by conventional producers who want to see them watered down. They have succeeded in introducing labeling for various levels of organic that confuse the public. To be sure you are getting the protection you want and are paying for, check out the Organic Consumer Association's Website, www.organicconsumer.org.

Posted by: JoyceBJ | July 31, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Correction to my posting above! The Organic Consumers Association's Website is: www.organicconsumerS.org. (Note the plural "s" before the ".org".)

Posted by: JoyceBJ | July 31, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Sometimes I really wish that there was no media reporting of scientific studies. This is a ridiculous "study" that tried to prove/disprove something that nobody seriously ever claimed. But many in the "media", using their traditional oversimplification, are just translating this into "organic is no better than non-organic". See some of the misleading headlines from news.google:

1) 'Organic' May Not Mean Healthier
2) Organic food not healthier, says British study
3) Are organic foods better?
4) Are organic foods that much better for you?
5) Value of Organic Food Questioned Again

Posted by: ogs123 | July 31, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

People are going to latch onto this study because it seems to definite that organic isn't healthier, as most headlines have proclaimed. But not even checking the amount of pesticides in the traditional pretty much makes the study useless in my opinion.

And those who exclusively buy OG (I wish I were included among them), shouldn't be made out as "suckers" because of studies like these, especially since they likely do it for environmental reasons as well as for their health.

Posted by: sarahabc | July 31, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I can't detect any difference between the two nor have I seen any serious studies that one is necessarily better than the other in any important aspect. So, I'm a naysayer on the whole organic movement, as just another marketing tool.

With that said, I go buy food where I can get detectable quality at a better price. In short, I'm neither a quality shopper nor a price shopper, but a value shopper. This means that I'll buy organic over conventional when the value is comparable.

Posted by: JoStalin | July 31, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

This kind of muddying study is exactly the kind of thing that Michael Pollan rightly decries in his book 'In Defense of Food.' While he is no great fan of organic foods, he pointedly reveals the wrong-headedness of the conventional food industry's reliance on nutritionism - a hackish belief system which encourages making food choices based largely on the presence of well-known nutrients. Instead, he makes a strong case for a healthful diet based on common-sense criteria - such as choosing to eat foods with proven historical health benefits, and passing on foods that contain ingredients whose effects are uncertain. In this basic regard, this study falls flat by refusing to acknowledge the health effects of non-organic inputs for conventional foods such as higher toxicity pesticides and fertilizers with questionable content. Indeed, the enormous problems with the corporate organic food industry notwithstanding, there should be little argument that organic foods carry less risk.

Posted by: jcfifer | July 31, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with MomSarah; it is not about nutrition, it is about pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. the French did a study last year that showed that showed that children who ate organic foods had much less pesticide residues in their blood stream compared to children who ate conventional foods. but to those who cannot taste the difference between local, organic and conventional milk should have their taste buds checked out.

Posted by: valerieG1 | July 31, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

It is unfortunate that the only "brand" that responsible growers can strive for is organic. "Organic" does not necessarily mean sustainable or humane.

Buying local is more important to me than buying the organic label. Dealing with farmers I trust, who are willing to discuss their methods and allow visitors to tour their facilities, means that I will be buying food from people who use pesticides, fertilizers and other materials judiciously. Many farmers who don't get the organic label use what I consider to be best practices, but there is no label to distinguish them from the big farms that don't.

I would much rather deal with local producers who care about protecting both their good name and the environment than ship organic produce from California (or farther).

Posted by: drmary | July 31, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

The other point is to not ingest killing poisons into your body. I'm not sure it will be done but what about a long term study which compares the cancer rates from ordinary people with those that eat only organic foods?

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 31, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Wow your readers are far more intelligent that your articles. Is this part of giving the people what they want or dumbing down the world? My poll answer was none of the above because you DIDN'T HAVE AN OPTION OF:
"I ONLY BUY ORGANIC."
And plus... since when is it called "traditional" to spray foods with poison and strange for food to be "organic"? Did you know that humans were growing food long, long before pesticides and patented seeds came along?
I don't believe even the study on nutrition contents because there are so many variables such as soil quality and, like someone else said, the time it travels from the farm to the store.

Posted by: bbrownatw35th | July 31, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure some non-organic or genetically altered foods are more nutritious. But this is about keeping toxins out of my body and living longer. Some people pay a lot of money to get cancer and die by smoking. I'd rather be addicted to organic food , have to pay more and live longer !

Posted by: RhodaS | July 31, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

My son has life-threatening food allergies and I firmly believe that the recent explosion in food allergies in children will one day be tied to toxins in our food and environment and/or the genetic modification of foods. Anything that can keep them out of our bodies and out of the soil/environment is a good thing, even if the nutritional value is no greater. This study and the headlines it has made are so misleading and off-point.

Posted by: levelhead1 | August 3, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Traditional? We only started spraying food crops with chemicals in the last .01% of agricultural history (at most). For about the same percentage of sports history, athletes have dosed with steroids. Interestingly, the impact on the body from steroids is much like that from chemicals on our arable land. It boosts production but with crippling repercussions later for fertility. Let's call 'organic' traditional and the other stuff something else - like 'sprayed' or 'foolish.'

Also, notice how the price of non-sprayed crops goes down the more people buy it. Next step is to stop funneling our tax dollars towards non-organic agriculture (Farm Bill) among other perverse subsidies.

Posted by: xanthemia | August 3, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

As all previous posters have said in various ways, the freedom from contaminants is the major reason for buying natural, rather than being a trivial side issue.

Having said that, the eggs our five (extremely) free range hens lay are visually, tastefully, textureally(?) and probably nutritionally superior to factory-farm eggs. They have far more colorful yolks which stand right up in hemispheres as they fry, and the yolks break far less easily than the 30-60 day old eggs in the store. The chickens eat a widely varied diet of bugs, seeds, etc., only supplemented by commercial organic feed. The hens are not subject to the various diseases and environmental damage of factory animals, and I am convinced that the eggs of healthy chickens are better for my family.

I also think that other farming practices common in my grandfather's time would produce healthier meats and produce of all kinds. I object to the categorization in your survey of "better living through chemistry" agriculture as traditional.

Posted by: angusgoodson | August 3, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

As all previous posters have said in various ways, the freedom from contaminants is the major reason for buying natural, rather than being a trivial side issue.

Having said that, the eggs our five (extremely) free range hens lay are visually, tastefully, textureally(?) and probably nutritionally superior to factory-farm eggs. They have far more colorful yolks which stand right up in hemispheres as they fry, and the yolks break far less easily than the 30-60 day old eggs in the store. The chickens eat a widely varied diet of bugs, seeds, etc., only supplemented by commercial organic feed. The hens are not subject to the various diseases and environmental damage of factory animals, and I am convinced that the eggs of healthy chickens are better for my family.

I also think that other farming practices common in my grandfather's time would produce healthier meats and produce of all kinds. I object to the categorization in your survey of "better living through chemistry" agriculture as traditional.

Posted by: angusgoodson | August 3, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

This study answers a question that no one is asking. I don't buy organics because I think I'm going to get more nutrients. I buy organics because I want less preservatives, antibiotics, chemicals, etc. Has WaPo researched the study to find out who sponsored (i.e. paid) for it?

Posted by: SouthernerInDC | August 3, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

For most Americans the argument organic / conventional is moot.
Let's get every man woman and child to eat their daily requirement of fruits and vegetables first, and then worry about growing methods.

http://www.fooducate.com/blog/2009/07/30/why-the-organic-vs-conventional-argument-is-moot-for-most-people/

Posted by: Fooducate | August 4, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

What a silly study. I'm an organic farmer and have never told a customer that my organic produce has higher nutritional value. What I can say is that it's never been touched by a synthetic pesticide or herbicide and it's grown locally. Buy local, buy organic!

Posted by: shequiltz | August 4, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

The reasons eating organic are 1)Freedom from pesticides, chemicals, hormones, toxins 2)Safer ground water, safer environment, 3) Increased levels of anti-oxidants and flavinoids and 4)Great taste, vibrant colours, more easily digested and ease of cooking.
The studies sponsored by anti-organic industries will always portray organic food as not superior. It is just like the reports sposored by the cigarette lobby. Smoking is safe according to the cigarette manufacturers.

Posted by: infonet | August 5, 2009 1:19 AM | Report abuse

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