by Marion Nestle
Aug 7 2009

Organic nutrients: the debates continue

The Food Standards agency has issued a statement in response to the outpouring of outrage over its study demonstrating that the nutritional value of organic foods is, on average, equivalent to that of conventional foods.  In defense of the study results, the CEO of the agency says:

Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.  The review…focused on nutrients where statistically significant differences were seen. Arbitrary quotes or selective use of the data from the other papers which were of less robust scientific quality should be treated with caution. The important message from this report is not that people should avoid organic food but that they should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing.  Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”  Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices.  Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods.  But so what?  Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient.  What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share.  What should be at stake is the need to produce food – all food – more sustainably.

  • Janet Camp

    Thanks for pointing to the facts. As I posted earlier on this topic, there is a widespread notion (myth) that conventionally produced foods are “deficient” and that the soil they are grown in is “devoid of nutrients” and so on. While I concur with you totally about the actual benefits of organic methods, I am happy to see a voice of reason on this issue. Did any of these multitudes pay any attention in biology class?

    I am very unhappy with the role of coops in all this. Now that they’ve banded together, they are as guilty of marketing ploys as any supermarket ever was. When I worked at one, we were pushed very hard to always keep the “big four” well stocked–cookies, crackers, chips, and cereal (boxed and packaged to look just like all the advertised brands, not bulk); oh, but all these empty calories are ORGANIC! They use the same wasteful packaging in most cases as any other store (there are happily, a few trends away from this) and they issue coupons for pre-packaged junk food and unnecessary supplements the same as the supermarket. While I appreciate that they offer grass-fed meat and the freshest produce around in the winter and still offer bulk foods, I am disturbed by these trends (all in the name of profit–of a bit different type is all).

  • Organic foods have been taking a beating this past week. But, luckily, this article has responded to many of the conventional food supporters. Here’s the link for anyone interested in reading it.

  • OrganicGeorge


    I recently read someone quoting you that the word “sustainability” is not the organic regs.

    As someone who was and is very active in organic politics I would like to make a comment, if in fact the quote was correct.

    In the 80’s & 90’s sustainable farming was more about using less pesticides. If my memory serves me correctly there was a Time magazine article on sustainable farming in late 80’s. At the time it sustainability was the least toxic approach to chemical farming. Not something you would want to promote in organics.

    The organic community has always viewed it’s self as the original sustainable farming program.

    Sustainable, like Local, are nebulous in their definitions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Local/Sustainable farming, but without the hard work of putting the principals down on paper Local/Sustainable remains in the eye of the beholder.

    I fear that these words are already being co-opted by corporate media marketing mavens who will glom onto any “hot” word to help sell their products.

    If you haven’t kept up with the news from USDA you will see that Kathleen Merrigan is cleaning up the organic program by accepting the resignation of the NOP director and hiring staffers from the hill that know how organics should work. She has also boosted the grant money for organics, issued a directive that all USDA departments will integrate organics into their departments and is undoing the damage done by the NOP staff. I think we are on the verge of a golden era for organics.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

  • I have preferred organic versions of certain foods (strawberries, apples, celery, kale, etc.) not because of differences in nutrition but because I want to avoid residues of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and any other -cides that are used in conventional agriculture. Somehow proponents of conventional agriculture tend to steer the conversation toward comparison of nutrients and omit discussions of toxic residues on some fruits and vegetables.

  • Irene Theodore Heinstein

    Hello Marion
    Just learned about your interesting and informative blog and will be checking back often. Following the organic discussions out there in the media, I too am confused. Since I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe’s I seem to be buying a lot of organics, not all by choice but some by availability, and I want to know more.

    I’m interested in your pet food book which I plan to buy. Martin’s caregiver has two young dogs, a Welsh Corgi and a chihuahua. They visit here 2-3 times a week and I’ve been concerned about their food and issues of specific potential health problems for each breed I look forward to the book and also to seeing you again one of these days.

  • Marta

    While it is good to note that organic vs. non-organic food are often nutritionally equivalent, it is important to note as Marion stated that a lot of the weight in organic foods is the environmental beneifts of purchasing organic food: better use of farm-land, less harmful pesticides, and less damage to the life cycle (ex: harmful contaminents entering food cycles of animals affected by pesticides). Overall I tend to find organic foods taste better but more importantly purchasing organic for me is about stopping the cycle of poorly manufactured and/or farmed food. I personally make the choice that I don’t want to consume fruit that was raised with potentially harmful pestitides. The nutritious value may be no different from non-organic foods but the environmental implications should help us all make the choice to go organic.

  • Thank you, Marion, for bringing the real point to attention here. I don’t believe that all consumers of organic foods do so because we believe they are of higher nutritional value. We do so because we don’t want to put chemicals and other toxins in our bodies and want to encourage the agriculture industry to continue to find more sustainable ways to produce food. We need to get toxins out of our food supply and we voice this with our organic purchases (and lack of purchase for conventional food).