by Marion Nestle
Sep 5 2012

Are organics more nutritious? Again? Sigh.

The latest study arguing that organics are not more nutritious than conventionally grown crops once again makes big-time news.

The last time I wrote about a study like this, I posted the British newspaper headlines.

Never mind the media hype.  Here’s what the authors conclude:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Isn’t reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic use precisely what organic production is supposed to do?

Organics is about production methods free of certain chemical pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge in plant crops, and antibiotics and hormones in animals.

This meta-analysis confirms that organic foods have much lower levels of these things.  I’d call that doing exactly what it is supposed to.

But what about nutrients?  I can’t think of a single reason why organics should have fewer nutrients than conventional crops, and plenty of reasons why they might have a bit more if the soils are rich enough.

Plants make their own vitamins.  The vitamin levels should not be expected to differ significantly.  The mineral content might.

But even if organics do have higher levels of nutrients, so what?  Will people eating them be healthier as a result?

Just as with supplements, additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier.

The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.  Nutrition turns out to be a better selling point than lower levels of pesticides and antibiotics.  It also makes better headlines, apparently.

But aren’t those lower levels—in production and in the body—good reasons to buy organics?

I think so.  You?

  • In the UK there is a significant difference in cost when it comes to picking organic food or not. For most people in the current financial climate this will be the decision maker. Do you guys think there is a significant enough difference to warrant the extra cost involved?

  • I agree with you, sometimes many businessmen take advantage to this, they think only on selling, not on the product though we cannot deny that some of the products available are really good and can really help us.

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  • Dear Ms Nestle,

    Regarding your statement, “Just as with supplements, additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier.” Could you please explain why not?

    As an IIN grad, holistic health coach, and personal fan of your work I could use a little help in understanding this statement. What about health issues based in chronic defficiency?

    Tracy Garrigan, CHC AADP

  • Kathy in WA

    I feel they completely missed the point also. Not only in regards to reduced exposure to pesticides — but also the overall environmental impact. A LOT of people I know, including myself, try to buy organic foods because they support the industry. These purchases are a way to vote with our dollars. They are a statement against the petrochemical-agribusiness industry in this country. They are an effort to reduce our reliance on petrochemicals. It is a “green” choice. I have never wanted to buy organic foods because they are supposedly “more nutritious” than non-organics. That is just a silly argument that, at least in my experience, most people don’t ascribe to.

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  • Thanks Marion! The media spin is misleading and really, one can suspects the attention is mainly to drive more traffic to media. For the very simple reasons you and others have stated, Organics are indeed more healthful.

    Moreover, organic produce (and local) just TASTES BETTER. If it tastes good, people will eat more of it, thereby get more nutrients, vs filling up on unheathful processed food. More is more.

    And, there’s also the issues of harmful effects of pesticides on farm workers and the effects of high levels of antibiotics on consumers.

  • Yoav Perry

    Here they go again, now they are trying to win points again for the industrial food-like substitutes. For the poor, uneducated and those who don’t think critically, the news that the cheap substitutes are “just as good” as that expensive fancy stuff are nothing more than further legitimization of the poor production methods, bad treatment of nature and animal, flavorless mindless feeding -only to save money so it could be spent on other mindless stuff.

    Before I dive deeper into cynicism however, I do believe that the word “Organic” had became as mindless as fast food and as meaningless as the now-banal use of previously meaningful words like “Awesome”. When I buy Organic Whipping Cream from Organic Valley only to find Carageenan in it and learn that it came from mixed herds of industrial factories that employ 40,000 cows, I ask myself what on earth is the meaning of this faux certification anyway? A great idea that in lieu of governance has turned into nothing more than just another empty health claim on a package.

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  • Norm Jenson

    It depends, doesn’t it, on if the difference in levels of pesticide have any health effects, not necessarily the amount. There’s no good evidence that it does.

    It’s not a zero sum game. Organic food is expensive, perhaps the health benefits of a gym membership or health insurance to cover annual checkups would provide better value for the extra dollars you spend on organic.

    Even the enviornmental argument is not that clear. There is this study that highlights some negative impacts of organic farming.

    Furthermore there is scant evidence that there is enough land to farm only using organic methods and still feed the world.

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  • Shaw

    Consumers are convinced organic is better for them; marketers will continue to exploit this; meanwhile, we will wait for the science to catch up.

    While we’re preoccupied with our own health, the health and welfare of animals on organic farms remains a very ignored question. Imagine taking your child to the hospital with a serious bacterial infection and being told, ‘sorry we can’t use antibiotics, but we will try some st johns wart.’ Imagine, in other words, being denied access to modern health care. That is what life is like for a sick animal on an organic farm.

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  • Tj Curran

    The clear perspective well known in the organic industry is that people don’t want pesticides anywhere around there food. So, just ask yourself why? Because pesticides are bad for you? Some say obvious, some say maybe, but we really will never know what the consumptions of even small traces of this stuff can do to you in the long term. It’s whatever you believe really. If you think it can effect you negatively in anyway, and have the money for an extra ten or fifteen dollars a week by all means go for it. If you feel the opposite, don’t follow other people’s advice, consume what scientist believe is almost identical to organically and see if it has an effect on you in the future. I personally buy organic because I think any form of toxins used in any product (food being the worst type) is that company clearly stating that they do what they do for profit and not in a philotranpic view. World peace, as a Niger topic, will never occur with careless actions by people, especially people with power

  • Victor

    A friend, with whom I disagree, dismisses organics on general.

    In regard to the Stanford study he writes to me,

    “The pesticide issue is a canard. Organic food has organic pesticides, but what’s the actual measurable difference? And where’s the evidence that these have an actual health impact as opposed to a hypothetical one?”

    What evidence might I use to refute this? Thanks

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