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Study sticks fork in organic claim

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Cody Fleming with Kilmer’s Farm and Orchard in Inwood, W.Va., loads peaches into pint-sized containers at a farmers market at the Southwest Waterfront in the District in 2011. A new study led by a Stanford University researcher looked at whether foods not exposed to pesticide are healthier. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

Apples are apples and oranges are oranges, and it makes little difference whether they are bought as organic products or not, a new study concluded this week.

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, a researcher at the Stanford University in California and lead author of the study in Annuals of Internal Medicine, published Monday by the American College of Physicians.

“My colleagues and I were a little surprised that we didn’t find that,” she said.

Instead, they found only “limited evidence of the superiority of organic foods.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) said the study confirms what it has said all along — that eating organic foods reduces consumers’ exposure to pesticide residues and bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

“Consumers … will find that foods bearing the USDA Organic label are the gold standard,” said Christine Bushway, executive director and chief executive of the trade group.

“This is because organic foods have the least chemicals applied in their productions and the least residues in the final products,” she said.

The top reasons people choose organic foods are “reducing exposure to pesticides” and “avoiding antibiotics in the food supply,” the OTA said, citing a 2011 study of attitudes and beliefs.

But Alex Avery, author of “The Truth About Organics,” said the Stanford study is both old — and familiar — news.

“It’s just another in a long list of unbiased institutions that come to the same conclusion: that there’s marginally less pesticide residues, and that’s about the only difference,” said Mr. Avery, director of research and education at the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute.

The difference in risks for pesticide residues, while seemingly large, is “like the difference between a penny and a nickel. It’s inconsequential,” Mr. Avery said.

The debate over what’s the healthiest food — and is it worth the extra price — has long captivated American consumers.

To be certified as organic by the federal government, food products must be processed by Agriculture Department standards, which means they are organically produced and virtually free of certain pesticides, fertilizers and growth hormones and antibiotics. Ionizing radiation to kill pathogens, and genetic engineering are taboo.

Whole Foods Market, the popular chain for natural and organic foods, lists about 90 ingredients, including aspartame sweetener, bleached flour and hydrogenated fats, that it will not accept in its products.

Buying organic can cost twice what it costs for conventional foods, but the quest for the best has led to more than $26 billion in organic food sales.

The OTA survey in 2011 found that despite the slow economy, more people were buying organic, at least occasionally.

“It’s clear that with more than three-quarters of U.S. families choosing organic, this has moved way beyond a niche market,” Ms. Bushway said at the time, noting that the trade group’s survey of its members estimated that the U.S. organic industry grew at a rate of nearly 8 percent in 2010 and “is one of the few components of the U.S. economy that continues to add jobs.”

But is organic really more healthy than other foods, Dr. Smith-Spangler and her colleagues wondered.

They reviewed 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, eggs, chicken, pork and meat. They compared health, nutritional and safety characteristics or organic and conventional foods.

While there were modest differences in the estimated risks of exposure to pesticide residues or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, evidence “does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods,” they concluded.

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About the Author

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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