Is organic food healthier?

I recently had a discussion with a friend about organic food. She is a proponent; I was a little skeptical —do organic vegetables really have less pesticide? Does milk from organic cows raised contain lower levels of antibiotics and hormones? The answers, it turns out, are slightly mixed, though the preponderance of info I gathered suggests that there is limited (if any) benefit to eating organic food.

As background, organic farms limit or completely curtail the use of pesticides on crops and antibiotic use in animals. Most regular farms reported some antibiotic use, though rates are highly variable. The question is what ‘organic’ vs ‘regular’ farming ultimately means for us, the consumers of these food products.

I searched the literature fairly extensively and kept an open mind. As I mentioned, the answer seems to weigh against any benefit from organic food. This is not to say there were no differences, but my read of the data suggest differences are quite small if any. Here are some facts.

One research article favorable toward organic products came from Stanford University. This study found that 38% of conventional produce contained detectible pesticide residue, compared with just 7% of organic produce. Of note, all the produce tested–organic or not–was well below the safety limits for pesticide residue.

I concentrated my search on organic milk and meat. I figured that fruits and vegetables could be washed to remove superficial pesticides. In terms of milk and meat, the studies I found generally indicated similar levels of hormones and toxins in organic and regular products (see here and here). Admittedly one study indicated that organic milk may contain fewer saturated fats than regular milk, but I discount this both because there was more variation by season than by comparing regular vs organic and also because nutritional recommendations favor skim milk anyway.

What about the question of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, since antibiotic overuse leads to resistant strains of bacteria? Two studies looked at the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic vs regular-farmed cows (see here and here). Surprisingly, there was no difference in the rates of resistance between farming methodologies.

Finally, the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the subject. They conclude that organic produce is lower in pesticide concentration but they do not find any evidence of differences in terms of health benefits or risks. Further, there did not appear to be any differences in organic vs regular meat or milk.

Organic food has become big business. The NY Times wrote a great article on the topic. Over time, big companies have been entering the ‘organic’ food business ever since they saw there’s a market for such products, especially one in which consumers willing to pay a premium. Big companies have often acquired ‘organic’ brands. Once in the hands of big business, profit takes precedence over ideology.

On that note, a “certified-organic” label is overseen by the National Organic Standards Board. With increasing corporate representation, the Board has gradually expanded the number of additives that can still be used and still be in compliance with an organic label. The number has grown from 77 in 2002 to more than 250 today (including carageenan, docosahexaenoic acid algae oil, or DHA, and arachidonic acid single cell oil, or ARA). Mmmm  . . . . delicious!

sources: Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized? (NY Times); Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? (Mayo Clinic); Comparison of Prevalence and Antimicrobial Susceptibilities of Campylobacter spp. Isolates from Organic and Conventional Dairy Herds in Wisconsin (American Society for Microbiology); Comparison of Antibiotic Resistance of Udder Pathogens in Dairy Cows Kept on Organic and on Conventional Farms (Journal of Dairy science); Comparison of contaminant and residue levels in organic and conventional milk and meat products from Northern Italy (Food additives and Contaminants); Management Practices and Reported Antimicrobial Usage on Conventional and Organic Dairy Farms (Journal of Dairy Science); Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review (Annals of Internal Medicine); Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices (Journal of the American Dietetic Association); American Academy of Pediatrics Weighs In For the First Time on Organic Foods for Children (American Academy of Pediatrics)

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1 comment for “Is organic food healthier?

  1. Marisa
    March 30, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Many books have been written on this topic. The gist of most of them is that organic farming has become big business, but is probably still better than large-scale conventional farming practices. The most common recommendation is to shop at your local farmer’s market where you can get to know your food supplier and their growing practices. While many small farmers follow organic practices, they oftentimes are not labeled as organic as it is an expensive label to acquire.

    It would be nice to see some studies on the health benefits of milk from a grass-fed cow raised on a small farm compared to milk from factory-raised cows fed corn and soy. Probably not a study anybody would ever pay for. However, there have been a pleasantly surprising number of studies on gut microflora recently so maybe there is hope for more nutrition and food systems related studies in the future.

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