Is organic healthier? Not so much, but it’s key to why consumers buy

Patient after patient asked: Is eating organic food, which costs more, really better for me?

WASHINGTON — Patient after patient asked: Is eating organic food, which costs more, really better for me?

Unsure, Stanford University doctors dug through reams of research to find out — and concluded there’s little evidence that going organic is much healthier, citing only a few differences involving pesticides and antibiotics.

Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides, including for children — but the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, the researchers reported Monday.

Nor did the organic foods prove more nutritious.

“I was absolutely surprised,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior research affiliate at Stanford and long-time internist who began the analysis because so many of her patients asked if they should switch.

“There are many reasons why someone might choose organic foods over conventional foods,” from environmental concerns to taste preferences, Bravata stressed. But when it comes to individual health, “there isn’t much difference.”

Her team did find a notable difference with antibiotic-resistant germs, a public health concern because they are harder to treat if they cause food poisoning.

Specialists long have said that organic or not, the chances of bacterial contamination of food are the same, and Monday’s analysis agreed.

But when bacteria did lurk in chicken or pork, germs in the non-organic meats had a 33 per cent higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics, the researchers reported Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

That finding comes amid debate over feeding animals antibiotics, not because they’re sick but to fatten them up.

Farmers say it’s necessary to meet demand for cheap meat.

Public health advocates say it’s one contributor to the nation’s growing problem with increasingly hard-to-treat germs. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, counted 24 outbreaks linked to multidrug-resistant germs in food between 2000 and 2010.

The government has begun steps to curb the nonmedical use of antibiotics on the farm.

Organic foods account for 4.2 per cent of retail food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It certifies products as organic if they meet certain requirements including being produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

Consumers can pay a lot more for some organic products but demand is rising: Organic foods accounted for $31.4 billion sales last year, according to a recent Obama administration report.

That’s up from $3.6 billion in 1997.

The Stanford team combed through thousands of studies to analyze the 237 that most rigorously compared organic and conventional foods.

Bravata was dismayed that just 17 compared how people fared eating either diet while the rest investigated properties of the foods themselves.

Organic produce had a 30 per cent lower risk of containing detectable pesticide levels.

In two studies of children, urine testing showed lower pesticide levels in those on organic diets. But Bravata cautioned that both groups harboured very small amounts — and said one study suggested insecticide use in their homes may be more to blame than their food.

Still, some studies have suggested that even small pesticide exposures might be risky for some children, and the Organic Trade Association said the Stanford work confirms that organics can help consumers lower their exposure.

CSPI’s DeWaal noted that difference, but added that the issue is more complicated.

Some fruits and vegetables can harbour more pesticide residue than others — she listed peaches from Chile as topping a recent testing list.

Overall levels have dropped in North American produce over the last decade as farms implemented some new standards addressing child concerns, she said.

“Parents with young children should consider where their produce is coming from,” DeWaal said, calling types grown in the U.S. or Canada “a safer bet” for lower pesticide levels.

As for antibiotics, some farms that aren’t certified organic have begun selling antibiotic-free meat or hormone-free milk, to address specific consumer demands, noted Bravata. Her own preference is to buy from local farmers in hopes of getting the ripest produce with the least handling.

That kind of mixed approach was evident in a market in the nation’s capital Thursday, where Liz Pardue of Washington said she buys organic “partially for environmental reasons.”

Pardue said she doesn’t go out of her way to shop organic, but if she does, it’s to buy mostly things that are hard to wash like berries and lettuce.

Michelle Dent of Oxon Hill, Md., said she buys most of her groceries from regular chain stores but gets her fruit from organic markets: “It’s fresh; you can really taste it.”

Anna Hamadyk of Washington said she buys only organic milk because she has a young son.

“I would love to buy everything organic, but it’s just too much money,” said Hamadyk, who also shops at local farmers markets.

Just Posted

Snowfall warning issued for Central Alberta

Environment Canada issued a snowfall warning for Central Alberta Friday afternoon. Warning… Continue reading

POLL: Most people don’t want cell phones in the classroom

Sixty-six per cent of Advocate readers who responded to an on-line poll… Continue reading

Grassroots movement to clean up Red Deer is gaining momentum

Homeless people need more attention than shopping carts, says former councillor Cindy Jefferies

Lacombe cracks down on messy properties

Crackdown to target longstanding offenders

Red Deer citizens restrain suspect motorist who caused several collisions and fled

Police thank the public, but caution about getting into ‘harm’s way’

Updated: Grey Cup in Red Deer to raise funds for military families

Money raised will go to the Military Family Resource Centre and be used locally

Mistrial denied in Calgary murder trial over jury’s visit to hotel Denny’s

CALGARY — A Calgary judge has denied a request for a mistrial… Continue reading

Former Canadian astronaut says space shuttle is a vehicle of hope

OTTAWA — Sending messages of hope from space is a big part… Continue reading

Canada requests trade panel on uncoated groundwood paper ruling by U.S.

OTTAWA — Canada has requested a NAFTA trade panel review a U.S.… Continue reading

B.C. premier apologizes for removal of 1950s totem pole at Canada-U.S. border

SURREY, B.C. — Three First Nations in British Columbia gathered today to… Continue reading

Tail with a happy ending: Dog rescued from fighting ring, ready for police work

Dallas’s ear-to-ear grin and bright brown eyes seem to sparkle with joy.… Continue reading

Liberal leader doubles down on notion that $75 weekly grocery bill is possible

MONTREAL — One day after being ridiculed for saying it was possible… Continue reading

Jury resumes deliberating man’s guilt in Calgary mother of four’s death

CALGARY — Jurors are continuing to deliberate the guilt of a man… Continue reading

Ontario finance minister projects $15B deficit for province

TORONTO — Ontario’s finance minister said the province will have to make… Continue reading

Most Read