They’re touted as being better for you. But the next time you’re at the market, you may want to think twice about spending extra money on organic food. According to a new study, there’s no evidence that they provide any additional health benefits.
Researchers at Stanford University found that organic foods are no more nutritious and have just as many health risks as their conventional counterparts. They did find that organic foods have lower levels of pesticides.
“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, which being published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In a comprehensive analysis of over 200 earlier studies, the research team compared the nutrient and contaminant levels of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs that were grown organically and conventionally.
Other than phosphorus levels, no significant differences were detected in the vitamin content between organic and conventional foods. And researchers noted that because few people have phosphorus deficiencies, that fact had little clinical significance.
“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said study co-author Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”
While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, they noted that organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides, and that the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.
Generally grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, the popularity of organic food is skyrocketing. In the U.S. sales between 1997 and 2011 jumped from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion, even though organic foods can cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts.
But researchers were quick to point out that their aim was to educate, and not discourage people from buying organic products.
“If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” said Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy. She cited taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming on the environment and animal welfare.
“Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Smith-Spangler, an instructor at Standford’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”
One factor affecting food quality and consistency, according to Smith-Spangler, is the variation found in farming practices, including testing methods and physical factors affecting the food, such as weather and soil type.
She added that people needed to aim for healthier diets overall, emphasizing the importance of eating of fruits and vegetables “however they are grown,” noting that most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount.
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