by Marion Nestle
Jul 30 2009

Today’s huge flap about organics: forget nutrients

I’m in London and today’s tabloid Daily Express has a headline in type two inches high: “ORGANIC FOOD NO HEALTHIER.”  The article begins, “Eating organic food in the belief that it is good for your health is a waste of money, new research shows.”


Really?  This surprising statement is based on the conclusions of a lengthy report just released from the British Food Standards Agency, Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature.  This report, done by excellent researchers at the prestigious London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looked at the results of 162 studies comparing organic to conventionally grown foods for their content of nutrients and other substances.  Although it found higher amounts of some nutrients in organic crops, it found higher amounts of others in conventional crops, and no difference in others.  On this basis, the report concludes:

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Food Standards Agency says:

The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.

Fine, but do animal welfare and environmental concerns not matter?  The authors of the report summarize their findings in a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The paper concludes:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Oh?  I thought that’s what organic foods were about – production methods: no antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  I thought better production methods were the precise point of organic foods.

But these authors did not compare amounts of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  They did not look at any of those things.  They only looked at nutrients.  This is an example of nutritionism in action: looking at foods as if their nutrient content is all that matters – not production methods, not effects on the environment, and not even taste.

I’m surprised that investigators of this caliber would focus so narrowly on nutrient content.  There is no reason to think that organic foods would have fewer nutrients than industrially produced foods, and there are many reasons to think that organics have greater benefits for the environment, for pesticide reduction, and for taste, all of which affect human health at least as much — or more — than minor differences in nutritional content.   I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably.  I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics and this study does not even begin to address them.

[Posted from London]

  • A. Craig


    I guess I’d be interested to know whether or not you’ve actually sat and read OPFA? You seem to have some awful misconceptions about what qualifies for “organic” in the United States. No hormones, herbicides, pesticides, or sewage sludge? Really? Soluble Kelp (a MAJOR organic nutrient) is full of hormones…just because they’re plant hormones doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t detrimental in excess. Pesticides? Come now…you certainly must know that “organic” doesn’t mean they don’t use pesticides. And you must know that while those pesticides must contain naturally derived ACTIVE ingredients (azidrachthins, pyrethrins), the INERTS can be anything from petroleum distillates to god knows what. (And thanks to EPA labelling standards, we probably won’t EVER know what’s in them…) Not to mention the problem large commercial “organic” operations have with remineralization of the soil…no wonder the resultant produce is less nutrient dense. As a professional in the field, I’m slightly aghast at your confusion of what qualifies as “organic” and what is truly “sustainable”. And BioSolids are the wave of the future for “organic” nutrients.

    It really feels like you’re doing your readers a disservice by continuing to promulgate the idea that “organic” means “better”, when in fact, as it currently stands, it just means “different” and “more expensive”. Perhaps we need to shift the debate a little…because as it stands, your claims as to what qualifies as “organic” are NOT in-line with the regulatory standards for “organic”.

    Austin Craig

  • Pingback: Organic Food Fight « Lettuce Eat Kale()

  • True Organic food, esp cabbages and vegetables and well grass fed chicken and beef are 10 times better then shop rite or pathmarks crap.I bought a combo of kale cabbage , mescula, and parsley from Diamond Organics, which knocked my socks off lasted 3 times longer then big box bought, and was very filling. Grass fed beef has 70 less sat fat then corn fed cattle which stands in a cell 12″ longer n wider then the animal till it dies. Nice.Just like pond salmon sucks, Alaska Salmon is tops. I could go on and on but most people are too stupid to care. Rich Schultz Ridgewood, N.J.

  • Где-то я уже видел аналогичную статью, но все равно спасибо

  • С большего, афтар голимо отжег!

  • Pingback: Organic Food Fight()

  • Eva

    Read Michael Pollan’s -In Defense of Food-. Great book with lots of layman terms that help regular people like you and me sort through all the dietary confusion!

  • Pingback: Are Organics More Nutritious? Again? Sigh. | The Health Care Blog()