Stanford researchers created a stir these past couple weeks by releasing a study questioning the nutritional advantages of organic food over conventional.
They concluded that organic food does not offer “clinically significant” nutritional benefits.
Is that true?
Yes and no. Whether organic food has nutritional benefits over conventional has long been up in the air. Every time a study comes out saying it does, another comes out saying it doesn’t. It’s been difficult to get a conclusive answer.
And the researchers are right in the sense that if we’re looking for benefits and having a hard time finding them, then it’s very likely that, on the balance, there aren’t meaningful benefits. Otherwise, couldn’t we find them?
But nutritional benefits have never been the big reason to buy organic food. Organic food isn’t about getting more nutrients; it’s about taking pesticides off our land and out of our bodies. It’s about growing food in natural ways that are better for the soil, better for our water, better for preventing an escalating war between pesticides and the increasingly resistant pests they’re trying to kill, and better for keeping unlabeled and untested GMOs out of our food supply until we know whether they’re harmful or not. It’s also better for keeping down greenhouse gas emissions because it doesn’t require the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, which take huge amounts of fossil fuel to produce.
So, in some ways, the Stanford study was a red herring, creating a big story about how organic food isn’t any better than conventional, in a way in which we already knew it probably wasn’t much better than conventional. The study does acknowledge the benefit that comes from the elimination of pesticides (and, in animal products, antibiotics), though this did not receive the same headlines.
But could the Stanford study also be wrong? There are unquestionably studies out there that have concluded that organic food has more nutrients than conventional food. Commonly, these studies find that organic food has more vitamin C, antioxidants and phenolic acids. They also find, though, that conventional food often has more protein and vitamin A.
So is it a wash, as Stanford’s study suggests? I’m not so sure. Though I agree there’s not a compelling case that, absolutely, organic food has more nutrients than conventional food, there’s a much more compelling case that organic food has different nutrients than conventional food.
Does this difference matter? Clearly, we don’t know right now. But there are two things that are clear. One is that organic food has a different nutritional profile. So even if you’re not necessarily getting something “better,” you’re getting something “different.”
And two, the foods that seem to cause us the most harm–margarine, soda, white bread and a wide range of other processed foods–are not the foods our ancestors thrived on for centuries (without incurring the “diseases of civilization”–diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, certain cancers). We’ve changed these foods, and our bodies don’t seem able to handle that change.
And if by shifting to conventional agriculture we’ve inherently changed our foods by changing their nutritional profile, my guess is (at least until evolution has millions of years to work its magic on us) it’s not going to be a helpful change for us. If our experience with food so far is any indication, messing with what we humans have eaten all along has been very unfriendly to our bodies and our health.
So, maybe foods are supposed to have more vitamin C, antioxidants and phenolic acids than conventional foods currently have. And maybe they’re supposed to have less vitamin A and protein than they currently have. Maybe food is all about striking the right balance, and by farming with fossil fuel fertilizers instead of, say, humus, and by protecting plants with chemical pesticides instead of leaving them to build their own natural defenses, maybe we’re throwing off that perfect balance that nature has created.
But who knows. Certainly, there’s no hard scientific evidence to support this theory because no one’s ever tested it. My guess is, no one will, any time soon. And, to be honest, this probably isn’t a huge change that will have a dramatic or immediate effect on our bodies, even if conventional agriculture does throw of food’s nutritional profile. So I’m still not sure that nutritional benefits are a great reason to choose organic, any more than they were before the Stanford study.
But it’s also important to recognize the study’s limitations. Not only did it look at nutrition only in terms of absolute quantities of nutrients, rather than the relationships among them. It also merely reviewed existing studies, and mostly only very short-term (e.g., two year) studies at that. Two years won’t necessarily give organic agriculture a chance to bring about all of its benefits, for instance the wholesale rebuilding of soil that can take a decade or more.
So, do take note of this study’s findings. It may not be worth it to shell out more for organic food if what you’re looking for is a greater amount of nutrients. Take some vitamins if that’s what you want. But there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic, and it just might give you the right nutritional balance as well.