Daily Dispatches
Associated Press/Photo by Chris Gardner

Organic or bust?

Food

Instead of owning health insurance, Geyserville, Calif. mother Marci Lee relies on buying organic food. While loading her cart with cantaloupes, tomatoes, and cilantro at a local Whole Foods store, Lee said she shops strictly organic to avoid synthetic pesticides and genetically-manufactured foods: "This is our health insurance."

Die-hard organic devotees like Lee are skeptical of a Stanford University study released this week that found organic meat, dairy, and produce no healthier or significantly safer than food produced using conventional farming methods. But for budget-conscious shoppers, the study raised questions about the nation's $24 billion organic food industry and whether its nutritional benefits outweighed the higher price tag. Organic foods can cost up to a third more than conventional foods.

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In the largest review of its kind, Stanford researchers analyzed four decades of studies comparing organic and conventional foods. To their surprise, they found that on average fruits and vegetables labeled organic did not contain more nutrients, while organic meats showed no obvious health benefits. The risk of contamination by harmful bacteria like E. coli was unrelated to farming methods. And while conventional foods did have more pesticide residue, the levels still fell below the allowed safety limits.

"There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," stated Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford's Center for Health Policy and senior author of the paper.

The findings have fueled ongoing debates between scientists, organic food advocates, and shoppers. On Wednesday, London's Daily Telegraph columnist Harry Wallop decried the booming organic food industry as a "great middle-class con trick."

Vegetable and plant physiologist Milt McGiffen at University of California, Riverside, agreed: "Researchers have spent years trying to prove that eating organic has greater benefits. The hard proof just isn't there."

Meanwhile, organic food advocates say Stanford researchers underplayed key differences the study did find between the two types of food: Organic produce was far less likely to retain pesticide residue. Organic milk contained more omega-3 fatty acids, while organic chicken and pork contained lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"Those are the big motivators for the organic consumer," Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association told The New York Times.

The trade association reported a 12 percent growth in organic produce sales last year from 2010. Organic food production is governed by numbers of regulations mostly prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides, additives, and hormones.

But McGiffen sees a "growing mistrust" in the now-commercialized organic food market: "It's everywhere now, even in the large-scale, Central Valley farms I visit."

For some, that will be a deterrent, along with the soaring cost and questionable health benefits, he said. McGiffen predicts increasing support for locally-grown produce, along with personal and community gardening.

At Whole Foods, Cindy Hassen offers her squirming 3-year-old daughter a snap pea while selectively filling her cart with organic fruits and vegetables. "I try to buy organic, as much as I can, especially now that I have a child. I'm trying to make better choices for her," said Hassen, 44, of Santa Rosa. She hadn't heard of the Stanford study. "I've always just assumed organic food is more healthy."

Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and three young children.

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