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Organic Foods vs. Conventional Produce

Speaking of Tom Philpott, he takes issue today with my contention that studies don't show that organic fruits and vegetables are measurably more nutritious than agriculture grown through conventional means. The most recent data on this come from a massive literature review commissioned by Britain's Food Safety Agency (their version of our FDA, essentially) and conducted by Britain's London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They concluded that a "systematic review of literature over 50 years finds no evidence for superior nutritional content of organic produce."

Philpott has a couple of problems with this. He notes that the Organic Center -- an outlet funded by organic food companies -- has published studies coming to a different result. He also notes that they published a critique of the British survey. Among their criticisms was that "the [British] team did not include total antioxidant capacity among the nutrients studied," which makes me pretty suspicious, given the wealth of studies showing that antioxidants do not appear to reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease or anything else.

Obviously, neither Philpott nor I are epidemiologists. We're not nutritional scientists. I won't pretend to be able to fully evaluate the worth of competing studies on these matters. Philpott also makes a circumstantial argument about nitrates that is plausible, but hasn't been studied. I'm skeptical, as a lot of these connections fall apart when studied. But you should check it out for yourself and decide.

At any rate, the hard evidence of health benefits for organic foods has been mixed at best. There are no long-term studies showing that consumption of organic foods will make people healthier over a long period of time. That's not to say organic foods are bad. They may taste better, or be more environmentally friendly. And we may even eventually find that they are healthier. But I'm much more worried about getting people to eat fruits and vegetables in general than I am about getting fruit and vegetable eaters to switch to organics. And what we do know is that organic produce is more expensive and harder to find.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 11, 2009; 5:18 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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"But I'm much more worried about getting people to eat fruits and vegetables in general than I am about getting fruit and vegetable eaters to switch to organics. And what we do know is that organic produce is more expensive and harder to find."

Agreed - and well said.

Posted by: tbass1 | August 11, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

i can understand that perhaps organic food is not any more nutritious than conventionally grown food.....but i cant imagine that organic food is not healthier and safer for our bodies.
imagine living for decades on a diet of foods that have been genetically modified, grown with an array of pesticides, treated with artificial flavorings, colorings,antibiotics, hormones, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and radiation in, day out.

how can that be as healthy for a human body as foods that are completely free of these additives?

sometimes, i also wonder when our food is zapped by the cashier with the "red laser," what does that do? after all, fruits and veggies are delicate, living things. i wonder if anybody has really investigated that.

Posted by: jkaren | August 11, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I would be much more interested in finding out if organically (no hormones, no pesticides in feed, no or few antibiotic) meat is more healthy than factory farmed meat. We know from painful experience that the mega slaughter houses that process factory meat are vectors for spreading e-coli and other contaminants.

Posted by: srw3 | August 11, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Well said. Folks have been pitching fits over the London School study, because they assume that organic food must be better, and that, therefore, the authors are undermining good nutrition with their study. As you point out, we can't bring assumptions to our evaluation of the results.

Posted by: kpidcoc | August 11, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

I enjoy reading Grist, but I doubt a Grister would trust a study saying that coal is clean that's put out by the coal industry and that contradicts the wider scientific consensus, so it's hard to see why they would believe a study saying organic food is more nutritious that is put out by the organic food industry and that contradicts the wider scientific consensus.

That said, being wrong about organic food is still a heck of a lot more benign than being wrong about fossil fuels...

Posted by: bluegrass1 | August 11, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Stick to your guns, bro. None of this "mixed at best" - the verdict is in, organics are no healthier than conventionals. Don't get drawn into this flat-earther climate-skeptic null hypothesis BS.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | August 11, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone really buy organic fruits/veggies because they believe they have more nutrition than conventionally grown products?

Everyone I know buys them in an attempt to avoid the pesticides that non-organic products are bathed in....

Posted by: anne3 | August 11, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Also, jkaren, if your post is satire I salute you - I really can't tell, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | August 11, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

There is, however, strong consensus that eating a diet very heavy in little or unprocessed plant foods, especially vegetables, substantially reduces the risks of cancer, heart disease, weight gain, and many other illnesses and ailments, if done over a long period, especially starting in childhood.

Great books presenting the scientific case are by Joel Fuhrman, a University of Pennsylvania M.D. who has taught nutrition at Cornell, "Eat to Live" and "Disease-Proof your Child".

Whether organic or not, there's no question you should be eating predominantly unprocessed or little processed plant foods to really lower your health risks.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 11, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

"Also, jkaren, if your post is satire I salute you - I really can't tell, but it is hilarious nonetheless."

actually, my post wasnt meant to be satirical.
but, if you found it amusing on a day when the news has left us little to laugh about, well then, i am taking that as a compliment!

Posted by: jkaren | August 11, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

I buy organic produce to reduce the pesticide load. Many pesticides have been shown to be carcinogenic. In that sense, organic foods are better for you.

On the other hand, what is with all of these greenhouse vegetables? Does anyone believe that hydroponically grown plants with limited nutrients will be more nutritious than ones grown in soil with trace minerals, and other things that we cannot yet imagine are important, beyond the NPK basics?

Posted by: carolcarre | August 11, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

I do a good deal of my family's fruit and vegetable shopping at farmers markets. Many of the things I buy are organically grown, but I buy them, in spite of the expense, because they are fresher, picked when riper (in the case of fruit), and hence taste better, than their supermarket counterparts. There is also, in many cases (cherries, apples, potatoes, squash, etc.), a much greater variety. Any health benefits, including pesticide load, are secondary.

Posted by: gbta | August 11, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

It is difficult to understand your skepticism towards organic foods after reading the cogent, comprehensive and compelling critique by the Organic Center. It is clear to me, as someone with training in study design and interpretation that the British meta study results are not credible. Furthermore the meta analysis you linked to that supposedly showed antioxidants to be ineffective acknowledged that no studies have been done - as of 2004 - that gave people a combination of antioxidants. Since then studies have shown that groups of antioxidant supplements are effective.

And by inaccurately concluding that organics are not healthier you perpetuate the marginalization of organics, which will of course guarantee that they remain higher cost products.

Posted by: oderb | August 11, 2009 9:22 PM | Report abuse

I've had this argument at various levels both professionally and personally.

Personally speaking, I completely agree with the conclusion here - Organics are not about health, it's about environment. It's still an important issue, but if you focus is on getting better nutrition, organic is not the number one way to go. (although studies have also shown that more recently picked produce have more nutrients, so more locally grown would have a nutritional benefit).

Professionally, I work on promoting better nutrition in schools. There are many organizations out there that want to promote organic food in schools. From my perspective, if you are focused on health, obesity prevention, and greater access to healthy food, this is not the way to go. The financial and institutional barriers to getting a fresh apple into a school are enormous - forcing that apple to be organic too make it almost unattainable. The real solution is to get more resources into school food, and then allow schools to spend it wisely (as they mostly do despite some mis-perceptions).

And my pitch... let's get more fresh produce and veggies into schools (organic or not) by ensuring a robust reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act - more money for better food!

Posted by: marklbishop | August 11, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

jkaren, I suspect Drew_Miller_etc was most amused by the laser question; I know I was. Lasers are light, and the ones in the supermarkets are far less powerful than the sunlight that fell on the fruits and vegetables in the field.

I share your concerns about pesticides, artificial flavors, and so forth, as well as some kinds of genetic engineering. But I don't oppose genetic engineering in general, since domestication is itself an act of genetic engineering. Compare almost any domesticated plant to its wild relatives to see the changes; corn/maize, bananas, and the cabbage family are especially interesting.

Posted by: kcc3 | August 12, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I'm with you Ezra, with one caveat. I'm pretty sure that organic produce is healthier for the people who grow it, seeing as they aren't being exposed to the volumes of toxic chemicals used on conventional produce.

I've never much been interested in the question of "are organic foods healthier?" Organic food, for me, has always been an issue of environmental and environmental justice -- organics are better for the planet and for the farmers and laborers who work at the intersection of economy and ecology, and that's enough of a good reason for me. It's the way of the world that advocates for any particular point of view tend to seek out evidence that shows their view to be beneficial in all regards and not just for some sector of things.

All that said, there are some foods that I suspect are likely to be definitively healthier when produced organically, basically any animal products (dairy, eggs, meat).

Posted by: JonathanTE | August 12, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse


i understand, in principle, how lasers work and affect our bodies with collagen and blood flow.
but i have to confess, when i see that red light pass over my lovely fruits and vegetables that i hand~select, i find it a little nefarious. it is living out an asimov short story.
besides which, i think i have eaten a lot of those bar-coded labels over the years!
who knows for sure that aspects of the colony collapse disorder of the bees, doesnt have to do with fields of genetically modified crops, and pesticides in them, systemically.
sometimes, i read the "monsanto" website to see how they are transforming our food. if you go over there, you can read about the new "smartstax" corn, and "herculex."
if you dont read their website, or related material, you soon realizethat you have no idea what is sweepingly being done to our food supply.
monsanto is changing the face of our planet with the way they are engineering our food.
doesnt it make you even a little bit nervous to put so much trust in this kind of scientific pioneering on a broad scale, with very little knowledge available to the consumer on what the actual effects are and the scientific studies that have been done?
anyone interested in what they are buying in the markets, should have a look at the monsanto website.

Posted by: jkaren | August 12, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I've been buying mostly organic prooduce for several years, and I've never thought they are more nutritious, so I'm surprised by that whole debate. For me, it's all about the pesticides. I'm just not convinced that decades of consuming lots of fruits and vegetables that have been treated with poisons will prove to be safe. (And some differences are noticeable: I used to get hives or itchiness after eating an apple with the skin on, even after washing it -- but that has never happened with an organic apple.)

Posted by: Janine1 | August 12, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I'm being completely honest and not at all facetious here -- I had no idea that ANYONE thought that organic food had a different 'nutritional content' than conventionally farmed food. To me, the reason to buy organic isn't because of what's in the food, but because of what's NOT -- pesticides, growth hormones, and other chemicals that don't count as 'nutritional content' but do affect human health when ingested.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | August 12, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I've bought organic fruits, dairy, meats, etc for years, but never for my health.

Rather, as one who's worked on farms I do it for the health of the farmers, and especially the millions of farm workers worldwide, who are otherwise often repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals. For example, look at this lawsuit over banana workers who became sterile, or had miscarriages, due to the pesticide Nemagon.

And I do it to reduce the quanitity of synthetic fertilizers that are washing downstream and creating deadzones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

And I eat organic to help fight climate change. As these UN-funded and British studies show, organic farming not only produces significantly fewer green house gases, it can also often help to sequester carbon. Part of this is due to how conventional farming releases carbon stored in the soil (and requires constant applications of fertilizers derived from fossil fuels) whereas organic farming builds up the health of the soil, part of which requires putting carbon BACK into the ground where's useful, not harmful.

Rodney North
Equal Exchange

Posted by: rnorth3 | August 12, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse


kcc3 is correct that I was amused by the laser comment. I am ideologically pro-GMO and pro-irradiation (meat that stays good forever?!?!) though, so I do disagree with some of your actual point as well. :-) Sorry if I was rude.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | August 12, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse


that is okay:-)
i like to read everyone's opinions. there is certainly a lot to wonder about, these days!

Posted by: jkaren | August 12, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

We really all should be aiming for sustainable agriculture rather than organic. Organic certfication is virtually impossible for farmers here in Mexco to attain. In addition, there are methods which do not harm the environment which might not be strictly organic which would probably serve us all and the planet at least as well.

Posted by: EKBuddenhagen | August 15, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

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