Organic produce. (Siel Ju: Flickr)
Organic produce. (Siel Ju: Flickr)

As Amy Standen reported this morning for KQED, researchers at Stanford University have combed through hundreds of scientific papers, comparing organically-grown produce to conventional. In one important respect, they found very little difference.

The study, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, didn’t ask whether organic fruits and vegetables are better for the environment, or create a safer workplace for farm workers.

It didn’t ask whether organic foods taste better, or whether trace amounts of pesticides can affect human health over time.

Rather, said physician Dena Bravata, the study’s co-author, the question was:

“What is the evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in either their nutritional benefit or their safety?”

The answer? There isn’t much evidence of that at all. Bravata says when it comes to healthfulness, “there is, in general, not a robust evidence base for the difference between organic and conventional foods.”

Over at NPR, the Salt blog added this context:

When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that’s true whether they are organic or conventional. One carrot in the grocery store, for instance, may have two or three times more beta carotene (which gives us vitamin A) than its neighbor. That’s due to all kinds of things: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather.

So there really are vegetables that are more nutritious than others, but the dividing line between them isn’t whether or not they are organic. “You can’t use organic as your sole criteria for judging nutritional quality,” says Smith-Spangler.

Of course, people may have other reasons for buying organic food. It’s a different style of agriculture. Organic farmers often control pests by growing a greater variety of crops. They increase the fertility of their fields through nitrogen-fixing plants, or by adding compost instead of applying synthetic fertilizer.

That can bring environmental benefits, such as more diverse insect life in the field or less fertilizer runoff into neighboring streams. But such methods also cost money. That’s part of what you are buying when you buy organic.

So if you really want to find the most nutritious vegetables, and the organic label won’t take you there, what will?

At the moment, unfortunately, there isn’t a good guide. But a lot of scientists are working on it.

In the meantime, Standen reports, children who ate organic produce had less pesticide in their urine than kids who ate conventional produce. But in both groups, pesticide levels were below federal limits.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional? Probably Not. 6 September,2012Lisa Aliferis

  • This is a very misleading title… maybe organic fruits and veggies have the same amount of nutrients as conventional but they are healthier because they don’t have pesticides and are guaranteed non GMO. And besides I wouldn’t believe the FDA limits on pesticides… Especially not while they are being heavily lobbied by pesticide companies.

    • Lisa Aliferis

      You raise a fair point. The headline now says “more nutritious” as opposed to “healthier.”

    • I thought I had posted a reply to this hours ago! My apologies. Your point about the title is certainly fair. I changed “healthier” to “nutritious.”

  • Lisa Moskow

    Your (KQED) organic versus
    conventional program is very irritating
    The fact that Stanford did the study means nothing since Stanford is a
    private school supported by large corporations who specialize in fleecing the public. Most of us do not need a scientific study
    to tell us that we don’t choose to ingest chemicals and pesticides into our
    bodies. We certainly don’t want to
    ingest Roundup Ready every time we eat corn or soy or

    canola and so on. Monsanto is spending millions to stop
    the labeling of GMO foods. They
    don’t need to sponsor a specific Stanford study—all they need to do to achieve
    their nefarious ends is contribute enough to an institution to ensure
    that scientists self-censor themselves.
    I am disgusted when I see
    “science” used to undermine basic common sense.

    We all know that foods are
    not equal in flavor and nutritive value.

    Some “conventional” foods
    are okay, but have not gone through the hoops of organic
    labeling—if this “study” used those foods (like foods from many private
    gardens), then there could easily be no difference between them and certified
    organic foods. We also know that
    cattle are dying from GMO diets
    and that lacing crops genetically with pesticides just creates stronger pests
    and the need for more pesticides.

    We also know that we are
    suffering from a widespread health crisis in this country. Please spare us from such phony baloney

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Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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