When it comes to organic food, everyone has an opinion, so it can be hard to decide what to purchase when standing in the produce section. And the results of new study only add to the confusion: Organic food may not be healthier than non-organic food.
Researchers at Stanford University reviewed 17 previous studies that compared outcomes between consumers who ate organic food and those who didn't, as well as 223 studies that analyzed the key nutritional content of the foods, including fats, minerals, and vitamins. The results? There was little difference in nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown foods.
“We did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or healthier than conventional foods,” Crystal Smith-Spangler, M.D.,an instructor in the division of general medical disciplines at Stanford and author of the study, told Time magazine. “And both organic and conventional foods seem to have a similar risk of contamination with bacteria, so consumers shouldn’t assume that one type of food has a lower risk or is safer in terms of food-borne illnesses. Both are equally likely to be contaminated.”
However, Smith-Spangler and the other researchers discovered that organic produce were 30 percent less likely to have pesticide residue on them than conventional fruits and vegetables. So what's the verdict? Should you buy organic food—or at least organic produce?
Yes, says David L. Katz, M.D., founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
"First, only one and a half percent of Americans meet the daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables, so eating any produce, whether organic or not, is a good thing," he says. "But yes, I believe that organic is better for the environment, for our health, and for animals."
To meet the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) standards, organic farms can't use synthetic hormones and antibiotics, pesticides, or fertilizers. Organic livestock must also have access to pastures during grazing season. In contrast, conventional farming methods include pesticides and raising animals in crowded indoor conditions with antibiotics added to their feed, a reason many consumers choose to buy organic.
However, even though the conventional produce were more likely to have pesticide residue and organic livestock was less likely to harbor bacteria that's resistant to antibiotics than conventional livestock, the study found that all foods had been exposed to bacteria. Additionally, all levels of pesticides found on the non-organic foods were within the USDA's recommended safety levels.
"Chemicals that are designed to kill things are not good for us," Dr. Katz says. "But these safe recommended standards are based on animal studies that show a very, very low risk of harm to the individual."
In other words, Dr. Katz says, if you're in the position to buy organic, you should do so, but if you're worried about the cost, don't let this study deter you from eating produce at all.
"Check the dirty dozen list and the clean fifteen to see when it pays to buy organic," he says. "The typical American diet includes almost no produce, so any produce at all is a good thing."