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Organic food and the definition of “healthy”

3 min read

Food Retail

A highly publicized study by Stanford University researchers published in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed key findings that proponents and critics of organic growing have been hotly debating. Day-one reports by mainstream media tended to lead with the finding that organic food doesn’t appear to be any more nutritious than conventionally grown produce and meat.

Another key finding, which likely didn’t make as many headlines because it’s practically common sense, is that food raised organically comes to us with less pesticide and chemical residue.

Is a well-washed locally grown apple better for me than a bag of “organic” corn chips? Of course. But it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The New York Times pointed out the real comparison: Are you better off paying more for organically grown strawberries, a fruit a nutritionist I once interviewed called a “pesticide sponge.”

The study found no difference in nutritional value of organic versus conventionally grown strawberries, but it did report a higher pesticide level in the conventionally grown version, and that’s the point that seems to be the jumping-off place for most of the disagreement. The Times reported that the study found that residue in conventional fruits, vegetables and meat was “almost always under the allowed safety limits.”

Opponents of organic and paying higher prices for pesticide-free food interpret that finding to mean conventional food is perfectly safe, while organic fans and food-safety advocates call that interpretation dangerous.

Deirdre Imus, founder and president of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center, took a more cynical view, writing for Fox News that the focus on equivalent nutrition “is a dangerous misinterpretation of information and worse, a potential ploy to encourage consumers to buy conventionally grown produce for the sole purpose of marginalizing the organic food industry.”

Debate became so heated that Christine Laine, editor-in-chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine, explained the journal’s standards to the Los Angeles Times and stood by the science. Laine said the study was unusual because of “not only the amount of interest but the fact that it’s been sustained, and the vitriol among the critics of the study. Certainly, with other things we’ve published, people have had different views of the results, but they don’t typically call for the paper to be retracted.”

In the wake of the study, WebMD contributor and registered dietitian Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen wrote “5 Mistakes People Make When Choosing Organic,” including assuming all ingredients are healthy if they’re labeled “organic.” “The key is to know why you are buying organic, and to remember that it is just one piece of the ‘health’ puzzle.”

Do you think the study will reduce demand for organic? Should it? Tell us in the comments.

Image credit: Renphoto, via iStockphoto