If you want to eat healthier, choose organic…right?
Not necessarily, according to new research from Stanford University, which concludes there isn't much difference health-wise between pricier organic foods and their cheaper, conventional counterparts.
In fact, there was no consistent differences seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient – phosphorous – was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce. There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Researchers were not convinced that conventional foods pose a greater health risk than organic ones, nor that being labeled "organic" meant there was a 100 percent guarantee that it was pesticide-free. They did find that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, but overall, they found that all foods fell within what's considered safe.
Spending on organic food has grown considerably in the past decade, going from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $24.4 billion in 2011. Organic products often cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts, but should families be spending the extra money? Especially in these times when the grocery bill is already painful?
"I am an anti-organic person because of the exorbitant prices that are charged for things marked ‘organic,’ and now that the Stanford study indicates there is no nutritional advantage, what's the point?" asks Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org.
But there are other reasons to buy organic besides nutrition, argues Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action: Organic produce may be more crucial for children and certain chemically sensitive adults than for others. "We believe that buying and eating organic products will result in a revolution to the food supply and benefit small farmers and progressive entrepreneurs." It is also healthier for the environment not to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which run into waterways and have the potential to harm wildlife, says Sherry.
"Sadly, the Stanford study presented a biased and incomplete assessment of the evidence, omitting key studies of pesticides effects on children, and focused narrowly on nutritional characteristics that have never been the chief benefit of organic production," says Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with EWG.
Bottom line, is it worth the extra cost? "There are few studies available on the long-term effects on the consumption of organic food," says Mitchell Earl Gibson, a holistic medical physician and author of The Human Body of Light. "Whether it's worth the extra cost remains to be seen. My wife and I buy organic meat because it tastes better. Consider price, nutrition, availability and quality of product when deciding on buying organic versus traditional."
WHEN TO BUY ORGANIC
Most experts will agree that spending more for "organic" on every food you consume is not the best use of funds, but there are some foods that contain more pesticides than others, and might be worth the extra cost.
For example, the Stanford study found that 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides, and nearly 80 different pesticides were found on lettuce samples. Another study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that analyzed pesticide residue tests conducted by the USDA and FDA between 2000 and 2010, found that every single nectarine tested had measurable pesticide residues, and 64 different chemicals were found on grapes, which had more types of pesticides than any other fruit. The list below comes from the EWG:
Foods with the highest levels of pesticides: 1. Apples 1. Asparagus
3. Sweet bell peppers
6. Nectarines (imported)
11. Blueberries (domestic)
13. Green beans and kale/greens
Foods with the lowest levels of pesticides:
10. Sweet peas
11. Sweet potatoes
13. Sweet corn
15. Cantaloupe (domestic)