If you are a health-conscious consumer, you try to make educated choices when it comes to the food that goes in your shopping cart. Still, you may be confused by the debate over organic vs. conventionally farmed foods. Is choosing organic really better?
Statistics show more and more consumers think so, and for a variety of reasons. Some site concerns about the presence of pesticide and chemical fertilizer residues associated with commercially grown food products. Others choose organic because they support a sustainable approach to food production, while virtually all believe they get more nutritional bang for their buck with organic foods.
That's why the study released by Stanford University earlier this month has many up in arms. Published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, university researchers presented results which compared organic and conventionally raised foods with regard to nutritional value — and concluded that no "significant" differences in nutritional content exist between the two. They support this conclusion by pointing to a meta-analysis summary composed of 17 human and 230 field studies comparing nutrient and contaminate levels in unprocessed foods (e.g., fruits, veggies, grains, dairy, eggs, and meat) over the past 40 years.
It's not really surprising that Stanford researchers did not find significant differences in the nutrition content of the foods studied. It's logical to assume that since the basic genetic components of organic and conventionally grown foods is the same (not including GMOs that are a whole other can of worms), nutritional values would not fluctuate wildly.
In fact, other studies conducted as recently as 2011 analyzing the same research contradict Stanford's findings by concluding the organic crops studied contained 12 to 16 percent higher nutrient content than conventionally raised crops.
Sadly, the mainstream media as a whole jumped the gun in its interpretation of Stanford's findings, mistakenly reporting "organic isn't healthier" while largely discarding other cautionary conclusions revealed by further reading of the analysis.
More telling perhaps, is the study's conclusion that conventionally grown foods contain 30 percent more pesticide residue than organically grown food, a statistic that must surely be seen as "significant." Although researchers are quick to point out that the levels of pesticide detected unconventionally grown foods fell within "acceptable safety guidelines" set by the EPA, it is important to note that no long-term human studies have been conducted on the health effects of eating organic verses conventional foods over time.
What we do know for certain is that pesticide exposure, even in low doses, has been linked to a plethora of health related problems including infertility, birth defects, ADHD in children, and a variety of cancers.
The study goes on to point out that consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure, not only to pesticides, but to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Another overlooked but no less alarming statistic presented by the Stanford study findings was a 33 percent increased risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria when eating conventionally raised chicken and pork over their organic counterparts. These "superbug" strains of bacteria have become more prevalent due to common commercial practices of administering prophylactic antibiotics to reduce the spread of disease among feedlot animals kept in cramped quarters. The resulting concern for public health safety has led the USDA to routinely sterilize commercially harvested meat, a practice not necessary in organically raised animals.
Consider as well the humane practices employed by organic farmers raising animals for consumption: access to free-range, a natural grass-fed diet, and no use of growth hormones or prophylactic antibiotics verses large industrial farm operations which offer no such assurances to the livestock in their cramped feedlots.
Not addressed in the study are sustainable practices employed by organic farmers designed to ensure the future vitality and productivity of food shed soil, in turn yielding crops with higher concentrations of antioxidants and certain vitamins. When compared with conventional methods of industrial farming that deplete natural resources with chemical fertilizers that contaminate soil and ground water, sustainable farming would seem to be a component worthy of inclusion in the analysis.
With a planet full of people to feed and more on the way, doesn't it makes sense to look at sustainable farm methods of food production that insure future productivity for the generations that will follow?
All this research supports one simple mantra for consumers: Know where your food comes from, and concern yourself with the humane and sustainable ethos behind its production. Better still, patronize your local farmers' market and develop a personal relationship with the farmers who feed your family. We cannot afford to be passive spectators when it comes to what we eat. More often than not, that means choosing organic.