When it comes to diet and nutrition, few concepts are misunderstood to the level of the term “organic.” And it seems everyone has an opinion (yes, including us here at Health Talk).
Recently, researchers at Stanford published a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” in which the authors pointed out that organic options may not necessarily be more nutritious than other options.
The study immediately went viral, getting attention from across the internet. Stanford’s own Scope Blog pointed out that only a handful of Stanford studies had received the amount of media attention this study attracted.
But, the study’s authors weren’t taking aim at organic food, they were simply trying to point out of the plenty of reasons to support organic food, nutritional value may not be at the top of the list. But their study does raise some good questions: Does organic mean healthier? Is it more nutritious? Less toxic?
I met up with two U of M researchers to break down the facts and found out the concept of organic is a little like an onion (organic onion or not, the onion isn’t the point…) in that the issue has layers of information.
In part one of this two-part Health Talk post, we’ll talk about what the term organic actually means. In part two, we’ll dig deeper.
What “organic” actually means
According to Will Hueston, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the School of Public Health and College of Veterinary Medicine, the term “organic” has different meanings, depending on who’s talking. For example, a chemist might say that most food is “organic,” not inorganic, because its molecules contain carbon. That aside, the common everyday label of “organic” refers to the farming practices used in raising an animal or producing a crop, not to the actual product itself.
“The term isn’t a ‘healthier’ stamp,” Hueston said, “but instead, signals the food was grown or raised in a specific environment.”
As for the findings in the Stanford study, Hueston pointed out that the authors were merely saying there is no scientifically proven health benefit to eating organic. But, that’s not to say there’s no actual benefit – the study’s authors were simply pointing out that scientific research hasn’t proven a health benefit. Yet.
As a result, consumers shouldn’t view an organic label as an indication of any rise in nutritional value. So if not for nutritional reasons, why choose organic?
According to Hueston, some of the “organic vs. conventionally produced” furor is driven by personal values and beliefs rather than health science. He points out that while the Stanford study showed testing detected some levels of antibiotics in more conventional foods than organic foods, the levels are below that considered by government agencies to be harmful to health.
Further, terminology used by producers – “family farms,” “industrial agriculture,” “big farmers,” “preservatives,” “pesticides,” “antibiotic free,” “hormone free,” – usually mean different things to different people, and the labels can often be misleading and very confusing.
To most people, organic means the food was grown or raised without the use of man-made chemicals or antibiotics, hence the commonsense notion these foods are more natural and therefore better for you. What some may not realize is “antibiotics” and “hormones” are not synonymous with man-made chemicals or additives. There are an abundance of naturally-occurring pesticides that can be used to grow produce. All animals produce hormones, too!
“Organic food production appeals to some consumers for a variety of reasons, just like locally-produced food appeals to others,” Hueston said, which is why choosing organic comes down to personal choice rather than scientific evidence of an enhanced nutritional benefit. This is essentially what the Stanford researchers were trying to say all along.
So, if organic isn’t a more nutritious option, why should people care?
Check back tomorrow as I explore the concept of organic food further with School of Public Health toxicologist, Elizabeth V. Wattenberg, Ph.D.