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Research shows little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional ones

I have a confession. I'm the mom of two young girls, and I don't always buy organic. Okay, I barely ever do. You may be thinking, "So what?," but in the pocket of the world in which I live, this is a big deal. Many (most?) people who afford it buy it. And some parents who do buy it look down upon those who don't. (Don't believe me? Come to the playground and watch as I tell some of the moms that the banana my 3-year-old is snacking on is not organic. You'll see what I mean.)

Here's the thing: I do buy nutritious food for my kids, and I try to instill in them healthy-eating habits. I love them and want the best for them, obviously, but I've never quite been able to justify buying organic. (Other people don't seem to have the same problem: Between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods - which sometimes cost twice as much as their conventional cousins - increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion.) Perhaps it can be blamed on my Midwestern frugality, or my tendency to reject things that I feel are being shoved upon me - hence my not wanting/having an iPhone, for example. But the bigger truth is that I haven't been convinced that organic food is that much better for a person, from a health perspective. (Show me the proof, and I'll open my wallet.)

Now, with today's publication of a study on the health benefits and risks of organic foods, I feel like I have a little ammunition to use against the judgmental moms. Researchers here did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods and found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives. (They did find, not surprisingly, that consumption of organic foods reduces one's risk of pesticide exposure, but even the conventional foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.) As I explain in our release about the Annals of Internal Medicine paper:

No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice, despite running what [senior author Dena Bravata, MD, MS, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and a chief medical officer of Castlight Health] called “tons of analyses.”

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said [first author Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS]. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”

During recent conversations, both researchers emphasized that their aim isn't to discourage people from buying organic if they want to do so - there are, after all, other reasons to choose organic besides health considerations. What they're instead aiming to do is provide clarity on a previously murky area and, in turn, help inform choices made in the supermarket. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations," Smith-Spangler told me.

As for me, I'm hoping the findings equate to fewer dirty looks on the playground.

Previously: When it comes to nutritional value, debating “organic” vs. “conventionally grown” may be beyond the point, Organic vs. natural: Tips for parents who want to go green, “Natural” or not, chicken nuggets are high in fat, sodium and People equate “organic” with “healthy,” risking poor food choices
Photo by mikecogh

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