Organic vs. Non-organic: Healthier vs. Less so?

Mark Bittman says Yes.

I tried to ignore the month-old “Stanford study.” I really did. It made so little sense that I thought it would have little impact.

That was dumb of me, and I’m sorry.

The study, which suggested — incredibly — that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” caused as great an uproar as anything that has happened, food-wise, this year….

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point. Even Crystal Smith-Spangler, a Stanford co-author, perfectly captured the narrowness of the study when she said: “some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” That’s because they didn’t look — or even worse, they ignored….

Suspect conclusions derived from suspect studies are increasingly common. In the last couple of weeks: having a poor sense of smell might be linked to being a psychopathPeople who read food labels are thinnerG.M.O.’s give rats tumors. (That one in particular violated many rules of both science and ethics.) Usually these “revelations” are of little more than passing interest, but they can sometimes be downright destructive. Susan Clark, the executive director of the Columbia Foundation, summed up the flaws of the Stanford approach perfectly in a letter to her colleagues:

“The researchers started with a narrow set of assumptions and arrived at entirely predictable conclusions. Stanford should be ashamed of the lack of expertise about food and farming among the researchers, a low level of academic rigor in the study, its biased conclusions, and lack of transparency about the industry ties of the major researchers on the study.  Normally we busy people would simply ignore another useless academic study, but this study was so aggressively spun by the PR masters that it requires a response.”

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  • In other news, sweatshops in Pakistan have been proven to be no less productive in making soccer balls than US based factories…

  • And, coming up next, a new study may settle the debate for good: Do endangered species really not tase as good as their domesticated fellow quadrupeds?

  • RobS

    Thanks for the laugh, Nate… 🙂

    I’m a bit disheartened though at the people that are “righteous” by shopping at Whole Foods, and because their grocery bill is double mine, they figure they don’t need (or aren’t able to) give to any kind of charity. I mean, it does resonate with Nate’s point in #1 there.

    If our individual budget priorities put $10/pound stuff chicken ahead of any kingdom work, then it’s a bit sad. Oh, and I’ll lump the iPhone 5 contract in there too just to make sure no one feels bad. Priorities, priorities…

  • John I.

    This just in from Canada: “Snow is white”. Our man in the field will be giving an on-location report during the 6:30 international news. Stay tuned for breaking developments.

    I think we should update Twain’s old saw to something like “who cares what the facts are, statistics can and should be used to fund the education of a prof’s kids.”

  • John I.

    Or how about, “It’s cheaper to buy the stats and spin them than to find out what the facts are and deal with them.”

    Good grief, can I really have gotten this cynical in my 40s?

  • Mark Hubbard

    I have not looked at that specific study closely but every other study ever conducted comparing “organic” and conventional food production has not found any nutritional differences (nor environmental benefits either)! One might expect differences if one thinks there is some New Age/Gaia concept to the unity of the universe. Scientifically, one would not expect any differences. Plants and animals do not distinguish between the origin of a nitrogen atom or the source of a protein that might kill an insect pest.

    “Organic” claims irritate me as a scientist studying agriculture and as a Christian who battles for the truth.

  • NateW

    Personally, I feel more strongly about buying local meat and produce than organic. I’ll spend more to know that my money is supporting humanizing labor and kinder treatment of animals and the earth, but I also have sympathy for those families who shop for groceries at the super Wal-Mart and bulk stores because they can’t afford to feed their family at Whole Foods and doesn’t live in an area with access to local produce.

    Justice is a slippery thing.

  • @ Mark Hubbard “every other study ever conducted comparing “organic” and conventional food production has not found any nutritional differences (nor environmental benefits either)!”

    Have to disagree on both points, Mark. Maybe you’ve not read the Brandt study or Benbrook’s response to the Stanford study? F.M Lappe’s response to the Stanford study? To-date, the Brandt study is the most comprehensive meta-analysis comparing organic and non-organic. It found organic fruits and vegetables to have on “average 12% higher nutrient levels.”

    U.S. non-organic farming communities are shown to be afflicted with higher rates of: “leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma” — in addition to skin, lip, stomach, brain and prostate cancers,” reports the National Cancer Institute. And, at a global level, “an estimated 3 million acute pesticide poisonings occur worldwide each year,” reports the World Health Organization. Another health hazard of pesticides, not hinted at in the Stanford report, comes from water contamination by pesticides. They have made the water supply for 4.3 million Americans unsafe for drinking. Buried in the Stanford study is this all-critical fact: It includes no long-term studies of people consuming organic compared to chemically produced food: The studies included ranged from just two days to two years. Yet, it is well established that chemical exposure often takes decades to show up, for example, in cancer or neurological disorders. The New York Times notes three 2011 studies by scientists at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan that studied pregnant women exposed to higher amounts of an organophosphate pesticide. Once their children reached elementary school they “had, on average, I.Q.’s several points lower than those of their peers.”(Lappe)

    Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director at National Academy of Sciences, introduces his response: “I am among a small group of people who, by virtue of professional interests and responsibilities over the last decade, have read 200 of the 298 references cited in the Stanford paper … The Stanford report’s unorthodox measure makes little practical or clinical sense. What people should be concerned about [is] … not just the number of [pesticide] residues they are exposed to but the health risk they face.” Benbrook notes “a 94% reduction in health risk” from pesticides when eating organic foods. I encourage you to read the entire Benbrook paper. It may not change your mind, but it will enlighten you to a number of key studies showing marked health advantages of organics over non-organics.

  • Some reasons we buy organics when possible:

    1. It sustains local farmers and businesses.
    2. It often tastes better.
    3. It is, on balance, generally better for the soil and environment – no inorganic / synthetic pesticides filling our ecosystems. Yes, I know some organic pest control methods are not so good, either. But they are proven far safer than inorganic methods
    4. It’s healthier for the workers cultivating and picking the foods.
    5. I’m not convinced that GMO’s are safe in the long-term (just as I am not convinced that long-term, prolonged cell phone use is harmless).
    6. No antibiotics and other dangerous chemistry in our meats.
    7. Healthier — Stanford study notwithstanding.

  • John

    While the conversation is interesting, no one has really exposed 1) what is wrong with the methodology/criteria of the Standford study. It doesn’t help to throw a bunch of other studies out there contradicting it when we don’t have the same information for those either. 2) If the goal of the Standford study was limited to determining nutritional value alone (and I can’t say whether it was), then why is there such a surprise regarding the conclusions it makes? Does the Stanford study attempt to measure any harmful side effects? If not, you cannot blame a study for not doing something it does not set out to accomplish.

  • John L.:
    The studies and authors you cite do not hold up under critical analysis – especially Benbrook. I will try to track down the info but it may take awhile. Also, I don’t think one can expect anything but bias from (btw, I and every scientist I know disagree on scientific grounds with all 7 of your points from the last post, e.g. taste differences are varietal -not anything to do with production methods.) I recommend the following for starters:
    Maybe we should agree to disagree…
    Thanks for the read!

  • John L

    @Mark “I and every scientist I know disagree on scientific grounds with all 7 of your points from the last post”

    OK, let’s start with #1. Please cite scientists and papers that refute #1. I’ll wait.

  • PLTK

    Aren’t there really several separate issues:

    1) nutritional value
    2) environmental impact
    3) potential for harm (e.g., chemical/pesticide residues)

  • jon

    As a farmer, let me state for the record that faking organic certifications is easy, and it happens often. We don’t have any organic farms, but another farm in our valley has organic sections. They treat the “organic” fields with the exact same pesticides they do the non-organic ones. They just falsify their records for the inspector.

    Literally what happens with current USDA organic certifications is this (I know because we use the USDA for our food safety program, which is equally suspect):

    1. The farm requests an audit for certification
    2. The USDA sends an auditor.
    3. The audit is 90% looking through paper records (there is no attempt at making sure the paper records are accurate or reliable, just that whatever the audit requires is there).
    4. The auditor visits the actual production area that is being audited for 10% of the time to make sure there is no glaring discrepancies with the farm’s paperwork.
    5. The auditor approves or denies a temporary certification.
    6. The auditor returns for an “unannounced audit” (which is usually planned a month in advance) to check that the paperwork is still being followed (looks for records between the two audits).
    6. A one year certificate is sent to the farm.
    7. A year later, the farmer calls the USDA for another audit.

    The farm is responsible for actually following their own policies and procedures, and maintaining paperwork, but there is no accountability beyond checking to make sure that there is some sort of a paper trail.

    On the food safety side, it is not uncommon for a farm to set out pest control traps and bait stations one month before the audit in order to have accurate, up to date paperwork, only to remove them after the audit. There is no incentive or accountability to make sure farms actually go through the legwork of having a good food safety (and I’m assuming Organic) operation.

    Note: customers are generally allowed to request their own 3rd party audit, though that has never happened with us. Customers have only ever asked us for a copy of the certificate that was mailed.

  • jon

    With regards to organic tasting better, my guess is that it has less to do with the process and more to do with the freshness of the product. If a farm is using organic materials, the shelf life of the product is much shorter than someone using chemicals to maintain ripeness. As a result, the customer is getting a much fresher product.

    I truly doubt somebody who purchases organic can tell the difference between a fresh, ripe organic product and a fresh, ripe non-organic product. The biggest difference is that the non-organic product looks nicer.

  • jon

    @John L

    1. organic is largely a marketing technique. Most small farmers cannot afford to certify their products as organic, and thus should not be marketing their product as such.

    2. see my previous comment, I really believe it’s about the freshness of the product

    3. soil management is a serious issue, and organic farming can help maintain the ground.

    4. inorganic chemicals are designed to have a period of time after which they are rendered inert. They actually physically break down without residue and have negligible effect on a picker if wait periods are followed.

    5. GMO is not the same as organic/inorganic.

    6 & 7. You can find as many well researched papers on both sides of these issues to have a strong stance for supporting or not supporting organic farming.

    One thing we know for sure: organic farming will raise the cost of food for everyone in the world. Is it worth it? For the past forty years, the American economy is largely based on the fact that food is cheap. We have tried everything possible to produce more food at a lower cost. Organic farming will certainly have some effect. The formula is more complex than anyone gives it credit for.

  • Holly


    You can’t neglect to mention the unintended effect that the American demand for organic (cotton, specifically) had on third-world workers who work and live near to the organic farms: insect-borne illnesses and deaths, mostly for vulnerable children of the workers.

    There truly are no comprehensive studies which prove that organics are better for humans. The Stanford study has caused an outcry, sure – but it is the largest to date and it uncovered nothing all that shocking. It examined over 200 other studies.

    Truly, without judicious use of pesticides and genetic research we could not feed the world. Most of the strides in the reductions of global hunger and extreme poverty can be traced to both of these factors.

    I sell chicken eggs from my mini-farm. My hen’s eggs are cruelty free, cage free, free-range, hormone free, antibiotic and pesticide free and shucks….my four year old daughter even kisses the chickens on the beak for you to make them produce better – the hens couldn’t have a happier life and the eggs couldn’t be healthier. I have local friends who are so consumed with the organic culture that they won’t buy them because I don’t feed them the remaining 25% of their feed (that isn’t bugs and seed from free-range or kitchen scraps) with non-gmo or organic feed. There is a lot of snobbery and hype with organic – you couldn’t pay me to purchase organic because of this! Not to mention – and this is huge for me – I couldn’t afford to GIVE AWAY NEARLY AS MUCH MONEY if I bought organic. Organic seems selfish to me.

    Honestly, I view organics as a racket. It’s grown like crazy largely based upon emotion and frustration with the traditional medical system. It runs on hear-say and fear and emotional manipulation. Follow the money, though – the producers at the top have grown rich.

  • Chuck

    I agree that the study seems to totally miss the point. IMO the main reason to consider buying organic is to prevent the possible negative health effects of consuming pesticide treated products over a long period of time. It’s not so much a matter of scientific evidence one way or the other but rather a matter of conscience – what one prefers and feels is best for his/herself and loved ones.
    I agree that organic has become, at least in part, a marketing scheme. I also agree that there are those out there who have become militant about their organics. So much silliness indeed. For many of us however buying organic, especially for certain products, seems to make sense. I am glad to have the option.

  • Hi Jon,

    From one organic farmer to another…. (you can ask Scot if my wine grapes are any good)

    I don’t know where to begin, but I will say that you are probably correct on “freshness” (and I would add nutritional content) being the reason that organics taste better. The produce we purchase at our local co-op is often harvested and delivered that same day. Grocery store produce can often be many days old. The concentration of phenolics, phytonutrients, enzymes, and other taste- and nutrient-factors are generally proportional to shelf-life.

    You cite USDA, but there are in fact a number of independent organic certification groups in general acceptance, and it is very difficult to overcome their audits. You can’t simply “fake” a random soil analysis, which are mandated. I agree with many of your statements. And as an engineer who farms avocationally, I am not an evangelist for either camp.

    Not all inorganics simply “decompose” — many stay active indefiniately. Water-borne antibiotics from non-organic meat production are becoming a serious health concern in many places. The WHO and NCI have shown direct and conclusive links between pesticides and farm-worker poisonings and long-term diseases. And you bring up a good point – organic fertilization methods are top-soil sustainable whereas fossil-based methods are generally not.

    @Holly “There truly are no comprehensive studies which prove that organics are better for humans.”

    Holly, this isn’t true. Even Jon admits “You can find as many well researched papers on both sides of these issues…” He is correct.

    Let’s start with Benbrook. He was Executive Director at National Academy of Sciences, arguably the most prestigious scientific academy on the planet. He is one of the planet’s leading authorities on organics, bio-nutrients, and pesticide toxicology. Here’s his response to the Stanford study, “I am among a small group of people who, by virtue of professional interests and responsibilities over the last decade, have read 200 of the 298 references cited in the Stanford paper … The Stanford report’s unorthodox measure makes little practical or clinical sense. What people should be concerned about [is] … not just the number of [pesticide] residues they are exposed to but the health risk they face.” Benbrook notes “a 94% reduction in health risk” from pesticides when eating organic foods.

    Holly, I empathize with your concern of organics as “racket.” And in some ways, I agree with you. But in many substantive areas, organics provides clear benefits to systemic health (farm workers, soils mangement, water supplies, local sustainability, etc..). Fourms like this help to sort out the myths from the facts. But unlike @11Mark who simply makes a blanket assertion that all organic claims are false (surprising for a “scientist”), the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

  • Mike M

    I try not to critique an article (or movie, book, or TV show) until I’ve read or seen it myself so I won’t comment on the study. Much like some people shouldn’t criticize a certain way of eating until they’ve given it a shot themselves. No one I know can describe in writing what an apple truly tastes like.
    Read Jordan Rubin’s “The Maker’s Diet” as a starting point. Rubin researched the foods God recommends to eat and those to avoid. While we Christians aren’t bound to the Dietary Laws (nor to the rabbinical hedges currently placed around them), we figure that God’s good advice from over 2000 years ago is still probably good advice.
    As far as cost is conerned, there’s no way to prove that organics are more expensive. And going organic is certainly not going tob ruin the world’s economy. I can have a meal of kombucha tea, free-ranges eggs, and organic spinach for breakfast and it would cost less than an egg mcmuffin and large soda. AND I wouldn’t be hungry again in two hours because of nutrient density of my meal. You can actually meet your daily protein requirement by eating 100 snicker bars per day but would you really want to

  • Mike M

    One more thing: am I seeing a trend here of equating self-sacrifice and self-imposed deprivation as prerequisites for being “missional?” Not only in this post but also in the home schooling posts, is it really necessary to brag about depriving yourself and your family of a good education and good eats so that you can better serve others?

  • alastairblake

    “The study, which suggested — incredibly — that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,”

    nutritious in what the food offers is one thing. no surprise there.
    what about the harmfulness of what is added into/onto food that is not organically grown?