Organic or not? The latest study that’s keeping people up at night

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“43.92, please” the dude at your local grocery store chain emptily mumbles, as he robotically arranges your two bundles of organic mint, four organic radishes, and one organic caramel stuffed marshmallow into your hand-sewn, Hemp Ziploc bag. You demonstratively hand him your organic credit card made from naturally-fallen bamboo leaves, and think to yourself “Gosh, I’m so healthy, and such a socially-responsible rockstar. Look at that guy with his inorganic apple! He should be arrested for abusing his body.”

OK, so maybe not. For sure, not everyone who eats organic green beans tacks it onto their psychological resume as a moral credential. If they have the option and the means, most people who choose to buy organic purchase cite health and environmental reasons. But a recent study grabbed all the sexy headlines, sending everyone’s reasoning on a Teacups ride. Newspapers are screaming: “Organic is no better than conventional!” The collective gasp of horror could be heard throughout the globally-warmed planet, (or at least throughout the artificially freezing grocery store I go to). Is it true!?

First off, before anyone’s organic underwear gets uncomfortable, let’s be clear what this study, and this blog, are NOT addressing. People choose organic for reasons other than personal health such as animal welfare, soil sustainability, local farming support, etc. That is not what this study looked at, nor what I will talk about here.

Now, about the study that’s hogging the press. It’s a systematic review of over 200 studies to answer targeted questions about the health and safety of organic compared to conventional foods (1). One of the great things about this study is that the researchers did not use outside funding to avoid any perception of bias. Additionally, they went into the study thinking that organic foods would come out on top, therefore their results surprised them.

They did not find evidence for organic foods being safer or more nutritious than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Gasp!

Gasp! How could they say this? How could they say that an organic orange doesn’t have more Vitamin C than a conventional one?!

Pretty confidently, as it turns out. There were no significant differences in the levels of measured nutrients between organic and conventional foods (2).

What about the pesticides?

Not surprisingly, organic produce had a 30% lower risk for contamination with any detectible pesticide. But even with most of the studies oversampling from farms that had the highest reported pesticide levels, it turned out that the conventional produce actually had levels well below the amount considered safe by the USDA. In fact, for both the organic and conventional produce that had detectible pesticides on them, the level was still within limits of what is considered safe.

Wait…how could organic produce have ANY pesticides on them?! How shady is that!?

It’s not their fault. Some pesticides can taint the organic products through run-off from neighboring fields or during processing. No shade.

What about bacteria? Can’t I just eat organic produce straight off the rack, whereas with non-organic I have to wash it like crazy?

Not an awesome idea to just shove a piece of fruit directly in your mouth from the grocery store bins. It turns out the likelihood of finding e.coli on the produce was equal for organic and conventional produce. In fact, all but one of the studies found that the risk of e.coli contamination is actually higher in organic produce…which basically means wash it before you eat, no matter what type of berry you buy (3).

They looked at meats, too. Organic and conventional chickens were equally as likely to have campylobacter (about 67% hit rate for organic and 64% for conventional) or salmonella (an average of 35% for both!) The high prevalence of the bacteria is what surprised me the most. The moral of this story is: 1. cook your meat, and 2. don’t lose any bets that involve drinking raw chicken juice.

OK, but what about Super-Bacteria and antibioticized cows?

The risk for getting a bacteria that is resistant to some antibiotics is 33% higher in conventional chicken, but the authors qualify this by saying it is unclear how much using antibiotics in livestock actually contributes to the resistant infections humans end up getting.  Over-prescription of antibiotics (to us, not the animals) is the major cause of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

I’m outraged! I thought I was being healthier by eating organic produce!

There are no long-term studies of health outcomes comparing organic vs conventional foods (4). In the studies done on human outcomes, there weren’t any observed health benefits to eating organic compared to conventional. The studies looking at levels of antioxidants in people’s blood, LDL cholesterol, levels of polyphenols, and antioxidant activity didn’t find any difference when comparing organic or conventional diets.

But there ARE studies showing the positive health outcomes of eating fruits and vegetables in general, whether organic or not!

What about my kids?

For pesticide levels: Only 3 of the studies measured the pesticide in kids’ urine. One study found significantly lower levels among kids on organic diets, but the study was not designed to test for what this means for their health.(5)  Another study put kids first on a conventional diet then on an organic one, and found the only big predictor of how much pesticide was in their urine was how much insecticide the house used, not the diet. Be tough. Kill spiders with your thumb instead.

Way to deflate everything I ever believed in. So is this study saying I should not bother with organic?

This study isn’t saying what you should do either way, it wasn’t designed to answer that question, which the authors of the study clear about throughout all their interviews with the stressed-out media (5). It’s your decision, and this study did not look at taste, sustainability of farming practices, etc. Basically, what the study found is that if you were buying organic just because you think it has more nutrients in it, then there is no evidence supporting that decision.

Organic produce can be 15-60% higher priced than conventional counterparts, and some people do not live near a store that sells organic products. Therefore, for some of us, the decision isn’t really a decision. The government is saying that the detectible levels of pesticides found in the products are safe, so therefore those who choose not to or cannot spend their money buying organic are OK.  If you decide that even the possibility of a risk is something you are not willing to live with, and you have the means, then that’s OK, too. Yay. Both win!

Do you have an opinion or are you just going to hang out on both sides of the fence?

Both sides

The USDA comes out with an annual report on pesticide residues on produce and other foods with results similar to what this systematic review found, which is that the levels in foods are safe for adults and kids (6).  Something called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) qualifies the claims by saying while it’s better to eat conventional produce than none at all, there are some foods if you can you should purchase organic (aka, the Dirty Dozen plus 2). Some say the EWG is biased against industry, is instilling fear so they can provide a pat solution, and isn’t basing their lists in true analysis especially since they do not report how they analyze the raw data from the USDA. Others argue that the EWG report is designed for public and environmental safety, and is a non-profit with good intentions, and therefore a valid source.

I have not analyzed the database myself, and don’t have the information to fall either way on whether the Dirty Dozen is something that is in line with the data or not. But I’d say, if you are worried at all and can afford to make some organic product decisions, why not use the Dirty Dozen as a guide? If you cannot afford organic foods or don’t have access to purchasing them, no stress, either; it should not sway you from eating fruits and vegetables!

Whatever. You bashed Meryl! I’m still offended.       

Meryl Streep is the greatest actress ever, how could I even touch her? I actually have no idea whether or not she buys organic produce, but I got the idea to play off her character in this movie from this funny website.

Don Hertzfeldt’s way to eat more fruits and veggies

Eat fruits and veggies however you can.

Marily O.

MS, RD, PhD

PS- When it comes to Lakers v Celtics, I’m Lakers all the way. That picture was for demonstration purposes only.

(1) Here’s the reference:

Spangler-Smith, C., Brandeau, M.L., Hunter, G.E., Bavinger, C. Pearson, M., Eschbach, P.J., Sundaram, V., Liu, H., Schirmer, P., Stave, C. Olkin, I., Bravata, D.M. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? Annals of Internal Medicine, 157.

Let’s start out by saying the studies analyzed varied in many ways, like size of population (from 6-6630!), what they tested in people, if there was an intervention, how they tested their produce, etc. Therefore, it’s tough to compare them all. Additionally, the authors also noted that if the study finds null differences in nutrients, the study tended to not publish all the details, so a number of the “null effects” studies were not included in their analysis, which could actually lead them to detect differences where there may not be any.  Finally, studies that don’t have significant results tend not to get published. If I do this huge massive study to see whether chewing orange peels helps your sexual prowess and I find out it has no effect, not a lot of people are breaking a limb to come publish that.

(2) There was a significant difference in phosphorus amounts for organic above conventional, but that seemed to be driven by one study (when they took that study of the 223 out, the effect went away.) And we get plenty of phosphorus in our diet, anyway, so that’s nothing to get too excited about.

(3) No studies actually looked at produce before and after washing to compare how effective washing was, though. Still good to wash it anyway. Just imagine how many hands (and floors!) have brushed that soft delicate peach before you take a bite!

(4) Only 3 studies in this review even looked at actual health outcomes and only one of them found a significant result….which was that consuming organic meat in the winter seemed to be a risk factor for campylobacter infection…but take it with an inorganic grain of salt. It’s just a correlation.

(5) One interview was on Doctor Radio, and another on NPR.  The doctors / authors did not make a recommendation either way on what you “should” do, because this study wasn’t designed to do a cost-benefit analysis.

(6) This most recent report was the first time baby food was included. No residues that exceeded safety levels were found in the baby food.   The USDA says that even non-organic babyfood is safe, more so now because the EPA has successfully phased out most pesticides used in children food.

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