Organic’s Missing Message


The headlines were pretty straightforward: Study Finds Organic No Healthier Than Conventional. The report was published in the most recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, and was authored by researchers at Stanford University.

The authors reviewed 17 studies in humans and more than 200 studies examining nutrient content. While they did find the earlier studies showed an average 30% reduction in the risk of pesticide contamination from eating organic produce, they noted that the “differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small.”

In other words, neither statistically meaningful nor serious enough to mention.

The Organic Trade Association puts an admirable spin on the findings, and put out a press release playing up the pesticide residue levels (as well as very narrow findings associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria).

“Organic foods have the least chemicals applied in their production and the least residues in the final products,” said Christine Bushway, the OTA’s executive director and CEO.

Looking at the scope of the study, one can’t help feeling as if the findings are incomplete, at best. It reviewed evidence comparing the “health benefits” of organic and conventional foods. By “healthy” it seems like the Stanford researchers mean nutritious. They stated as much in their conclusion: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” they wrote.

Perhaps that is the missing piece here. The health element of organic consumption isn’t straight nutrition. No one should expect super doses of vitamins and nutrients just because they ate an organically grown apple. That’s much too simplistic, and much too easy.

What consumers can count on is that good health will result from eating organic. The foods they are buying were grown using methods that forsake chemicals, enrich the soil instead of depleting it, and sustain the land on which these items were farmed.

The difference is delicate, but sharply defined.

Organic practices broaden the definition of health to something a bit more spiritual, beyond the reach of hard science, and in so doing become the strongest evidence yet against studies like this.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

TBS (not verified)
on Sep 5, 2012

What troubles me is the level of trust consumers place on supermarkets to determine what is or is not "healthy". This is a tremendous responsbility. Supermarkets do a disservice by continuing to push a method of farming that is neither sustainable nor capable of feeding more than a very small percentage of consumers. So let's call it like it is; organic food is a lifestyle choice that has nothing to do with nutrition or food safety.

Pequotjohn (not verified)
on Sep 5, 2012

Then, perhaps instead of calling such products "healthy," they should be called "spiritually sustainable." The parsin that this columnist does is so fine and so tenuous that it might just as well say, "our assumptions aren't so much based on science as upon faith." Pass the collection plate, please!

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