“Organics,” said the headline, “not really very much better for you.” And a million mothers wept.
Organics not proven “healthier”
Indeed, according to a survey of a number of research studies — one of those “studies of studies,” as I think of them — there are very few proven health benefits to consuming organic produce over conventional produce. The nutritional content is identical, says one study; the pesticide residue remaining on conventional produce once it’s consumed is teeny. The study also looked at the differences between organic and conventional pork, chicken and dairy products.
That’s not to say there is no difference at all. Here are some of the observable benefits to nutrition when choosing organics:
- Organic produce has a “30% lower risk of contamination with pesticide residues compared to conventional produce,” says Stanford University study author Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler.
- Due, in all likelihood, to the use of antibiotics in conventional farming practices, there is 33% greater risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in non-organic pork and chicken.
- Omega-3 fatty acids — those are the good kinds — were found in higher levels in organic milk and chicken.
“Evidence” or observation?
Many media watchers and grocery buyers considered this a definitive answer to the question, “are organics worth the money?” (and that answer, they found, was “no”). But there is a lot more to the question than the simple yes/no. It begins with the studies studied.
Of the 237 studies the researchers chose to include in their survey, none of them were long-term. They ranged in timeframe from two days to two years. There were none of those “longitudinal” studies, that show the benefits or drawbacks of diets over a long time frame. And there has really been a sea change in the way agriculture works in the past 80 years — that’s only the lifetime of one generation of people.
A lot of the concerns about chemicals and pesticides, as they work on the human body, are that they’ll persist and affect our offspring; in other words, that the effects will only become clear after many years, even a generation or two.
Pesticides can affect us in many ways, not just through ingestion but through their presence in the water and soil, and anyone who is eating organic produce and dairy is likely also eating conventional produce and meat and dairy — not to mention breathing the air and drinking the water in which pesticides are floating.
Given the above, it’s really hard to find a control group, one that has no exposure to pesticides. And these studies haven’t really operated in that manner, in any case, mostly simply measuring nutrient levels and not demonstrating any long-term benefits or risks of organic or conventional produce.
So the result is simply one measurement of “value,” the nutritional content vs. the pesticide exposure; slightly better for organic milk and chicken, slightly more scary for conventional produce.
What are you paying for with organics?
If you’re trying to make the decision, “organics or not?”, it’s more helpful to decide for yourself why you’re spending money on organic produce. If you’ve somehow come to the conclusion that organics are for you because you believe there will be more Vitamin A and C and B-12 and no other reason at all, well, it’s kind of silly. But that isn’t why most of us spend more money on organic food.
For me, it’s a complex system of reasons, including that I believe I should spend dollars on farmers and companies and organizations that are operating in line with my values, chief among which is that we should have the lightest possible impact on the environment. It’s quite clear that pesticides are not a light impact on the environment, and I believe that most farms using organic principles are also doing a lot of other things I support.
Another reason is that I worry that the impacts of many pesticides haven’t yet been demonstrated, and we’ll see a lot more about how dangerous they are in the future. Already one study of (admittedly, quite intense) exposure to pesticides shows that children in some populations are far more likely to have pervasive development disorders.
Should you buy organics over conventional produce and other products? For most of you, if you have read this far without rolling your eyes, the answer is likely “yes,” as long as you can afford it; and if you feel you can’t afford it, cooking more from-scratch meals and eating more whole foods could be a route to affordability.