Many shoppers are willing to shell out more money for organic produce because they believe it is healthier — but a new report casts doubt on that. The Stanford University study challenges whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods grown with pesticides. We discuss the benefits of organic foods and the impact of ingesting trace amounts of pesticides. Do you buy organic? Will this new study change the way you eat?

Is Organic Food Healthier? 5 September,2012forum

Charles Benbrook, chief science consultant at The Organic Center, an Oregon-based research center
Crystal Smith-Spangler, physician and researcher at Stanford University's School of Medicine and co-author of the study on organic foods
Bruce Ames, professor emeritus of biochemistry at UC Berkeley and senior scientist at Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute

  • Livegreenoak

    This study will not deter our family from eating organic exactly because it does NOT test the long-term effects of drinking & eating pesticides. 

    Over the last few years I’ve heard on KQED reports about farmworkers getting sickened from pesticides, pesticides on strawberries that were considered unsafe (not that long ago) & a State Worker reporting how water pipes had to be replaced years earlier than expected because they were corroded by…pesticides.

    & you want us to eat that?  You’re nuts.

    PS. Given the large # of Pesticides being used, any studies need to be not just on individual pesticides but the results when they’re all mixed up together.

    • Rhet

      Stanford always takes the side of big business. Their proclamations are about as truthful as Monsanto’s press releases.

      • nafiss

        few years ago in France the same study was staged to attack organic food.  At least in France the critique was acerbic and the big business behind the research were identified.  What a farce.

  • Rhet

    Is consuming pesticides healthier?
    Is subsidizing the chemical industry good for the world, when their products contaminate the environment and our bodies?

  • Bob Fry

    My understanding is that studies concede that the urine of adults and children show higher pesticide levels after consuming non-organic produce but then say “we don’t know the long-term effects of that”. In other words, we’re involuntary test subjects for industrial ag…no thanks.

  • djconnel

    Additionally, without GMO labeling, organic is a way to avoid GMO, which are suspected of contributing to population increases in food allergies.

  • Karl Young

    All the breathless comments surrounding this study, implying that consumers are mindless robots that have been manipulated by organic industry propaganda and now spurned will abandon organic food en masse, seem more indicative of the state of media than the import of this study. That chemically intensive farming is unsustainable in the long run seems a reasonable thing to assume given current evidence. Ergo if one can manage it, buying organic is one thing people can do to try influence change in a useful direction. And I’m unaware of any studies showing that this could result in poorer health.   

    • Penny

      Hi Sweetie!  See my comment above.

  • Dave

    Because studying vegetables side-by-side in a lab is barely the tip of the iceberg, 
    lettuce agree the premise of this study is deceptively narrow: 

    To truly compare the benefits of organic produce, a phrase such as “more nutritious” should really encompass issues such as the effects of herbicides and pesticides on groundwater, the health of the bees and other insects that pollenate the crops, replenishment of the soil in which they grow, long-term sustainability of plant species due to crop biodiversity, preservation of a domestic, small-scale agricultural economy, to name just a few. 
    It’s unfortunate what will be ignored in most of the inevitable, anti-organic media coverage of the tiny scope of this study—namely the complexity resulting from billions of years of evolution, or at least tens of thousands of years of human agriculture.

  • Dan Priven

    If you cover a vitamin pill with poison, and then test it for vitamin content, it will test just as well – but which one would you want to eat?

  • sheela

    hmm… i thought after decades of using DDT, finally “they” came out and said its bad to eat food that has been grown in areas that used DDT.  How can they say using pesticides (which is NOT as nature intended btw) has no effect especially long term?  No, I am not about to gamble on our son’s long term health just because someone says its ok to eat.  Are they going to take responsibility if a few years later, the research shows its definitely not ok?  Maybe eating GMO food has no effect either….

  • Penny

    I live in an agricultural area, and many people I know work or have worked in the fields.  They and their children are exposed to huge amounts of chemical pesticides, herbicides, etc., many magnitudes more than the amount consumers of the produce they harvest are exposed to.  I buy exclusively organic foods, not to protect my own health, but to protect theirs.

  • Penelope

    I buy organic for the health of my environment – which then benefits my health.  In terms of the nutrition, I try to buy produce grown for flavor and color – which means that I buy whenever possible from my local farmers’ market.  Local farmers tend to grow heirloom varieties and pick much closer to peak ripeness.

  • mu_Zak

    A good portion of the argument for organic goes along with the great FDR quote “Ask not…” It’s about the stewardship and sustainability of the land. Crop space in the US is a bigger problem than any other in regards to continuing food production. Using up ag land is occurring across the country for all crops. Organic ensures that the land can be used sustainably forever. 

    I buy from an organic cotton farm called SOS in Texas because they are able to grow cotton organically and offer USA made clothing at prices cheaper than imported organic. It’s this kind of a model that will lead food producers to ultimately be able to produce organic food at more reasonable prices.

  • I think an heirloom vs. genetically modified study would be more useful. I believe the last time nutritional value of fruits and vegetables was measured was in the 50’s.  Pre-Monsanto corn and shipping tomatos.

    I grew up with a family in the produce business and was never under the impression that organic produce was somehow more nutritious.  Pesticide residue is the reason why you often see lists for the top 10 “dirtiest” vegetables (usually because we eat the skin).

    Did anyone think that organic produce was more nutritious?

  • Douglas

    Which studies were used? Who sponsored them? How old are they? Are they individually non-commercially peer reviewed?

  • Phil Lane

    There are a number of human-produced toxins in the environment which are of possible concern even at extremely low levels which are fat-soluble.  Not being able to afford a fully organic diet – and not convinced of the health effects of such a diet — I’ve taken an intermediate position and limited my organic products purchases to fat-containing items – organic butter, organic cooling oil, etc.  Could you comment on whether this is a sensible approach? Phil Lane, Berkeley, CA,

  • Phil Lane

    oops cooking oil not cooling oil

  • David

    I don’t buy organic food because I think it’s necessarily more healthful. I buy organic food more for environmental reasons. We don’t need a study to tell us that farmers get sick from working with toxic pesticides and herbicides and that these chemicals are extremely damaging to the environment, get into our water supply, etc.

  • Mare Bear

    Yes – Organic is better.  Let’s have full transparency in our food labeling — so we know whether we’re getting organic, genetically modified food products, or some other food product — so as consumers we can make an informed and safe choice for ourselves and our families.

  • sylvie

    Michael, What a disappointing show! A total waste of time….. 

  • Bob Fry

    Dr Ames seems to be missing the point of today’s Forum topic. Sure, stopping smoking, losing weight, and so on are more important, but HAVING DONE THAT, what are the practical (health) differences between inorganic and organic produce?

    • Rick Barber

      Professor Emeritus -> .9 probability of senility 🙂

  • Jennie

    While I understand the focus of this study centers on the nutritional value or organic vs. non-organic produce, I feel it is of utmost importance to remind people that eating an organic diet is also an act of social consciousness. By supporting organic agriculture, we lessen our dependence on petroleum- based fertilizers, keep our water cleaner, encourage bio-diversity, and protect those that grow and harvest our food from illness due to harmful exposure to insecticides.

  • Rick Barber

    I hate to sound a note that could be interpreted as anti-intellectual, but the vast majority of medical research is so outdated and lazy with its focus on “average individuals” without much concern for people who are in the extreme tails of the distribution of the effects they are measuring (add in the fact that the samples from which they are deriving their statistics are incredibly biased and you see something that can scarcely be called science)*

    In particular, while it might be the case that the levels of pesticide in conventional food is okay for an “average individual” there are people who are extremely sensitive to the presence of pesticides for which eating non-organic foods is not an option.

    If we were using representative samples and considering more of the distribution, we would have a more accurate picture to analyze than this straw man of consumption that this study looks at.

    *See any number of studies/magazine articles on population issues in clinical studies

  • Renatiux Ninenine

    We buy organic because we don’t want any pesticides or growth hormones in our bodies. We are glad we can afford them, and we will keep doing it in spite of this study.

  • I’ve read that NOT ALL VEGETABLES ABSORB TOXINS EQUALLY. I’ve heard many times that things like potatoes, and root vegetables hold more toxins than things like lettuce and broccoli. Have I been lead astray?

  • Bartdority

    It’s not just a question of pesticides. It’s a question of GMO seeds

  • Ken

    What about produce that tend to have high pesticide residue levels, such as the “dirty dozen foods”, which includes apples, lettuce, spinach and others – would the differences in pesticide levels (organic vs. non-organic) be more significant with these items?

  • Kim A

    While I appreciate the study and participants in the conversation this morning, let’s face it, this study is disappointing to those of us who care about organic for reasons beyond nutrition. Most Americans are motivated by the “me” factor and not the wider environmental issues. People will hear the headlines of this study and decide it’s not worth it to support organic farmers.  I buy organic for a variety of issues (environment, taste, worker safety and diseases (cancer) that are difficult to study because complexity of the problem). Why has our cancer rate gone up so significantly. No one can answer this question…yet.

  • Mare Bear

    It’s funny to hear your guest talk about ‘tiny, tiny traces of chemicals causing cancer’ — ignoring what we know about the many endocrine disrupters which are now in our environment – delivered to us through the plastics / petrochemical industries. These chemicals are chemically active at the level of 1 or 2 parts per billion and they affect all life in ways we are only beginning to learn about.

    • utera

      Yes you’ve found the link to cancer we’ve all been searching for, dude, go collect your nobel prize now.

      I wonder what kind of organic wood computer and keyboard you are typing this on right now?

  • Rick Barber

    It doesn’t sound like Dr Ames has read a paper in his field of study in several years.  I always enjoy it when old professors whom the field has passed by attempt to will the nuance out of an argument by force of their tenure and age.  It’s a sophisticated ludditism that reminds me of my grandfather trying to program his VCR by yelling at it.

  • Jerry Weltsch

    It does not matter whether organic is healthier. What matters is that organic farming is environmentally sustainable, and I am willing to pay more for organic produce and dairy to ensure that sustainable farming is supported.

  • Glass Brittany

    It keeps being said that organic food is more expensive than conventional as though that increased price is inherent, and not because of agricultural subsidies given to conventional farmers.

  • Smartaffair

    Three questions:
    1. Follow the money.. so who paid or gave them perks and goodies for this ‘study’? Not a peep about that key point.2. They found nothing.. so that proves.. that they found nothing. Right?
    3. People in countries that eat pesticide-free foods don’t have vastly fewer  cancers than us americans?

  • Barry

    Corn is now being GM’d so the can double the amount of roundup used on the plants. So toxics usage is going UP, not down. With the advent of resistant weeds, bacteria etc., we need to get back in balance. A good reason to eat organic all by itself. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid GM is buying organic.

  • Adam

    Stanford still sucks.  Go CAL!

  • Sam

    I thought Dr. Ames made some interesting points though:

    -the majority of pesticides we ingest are naturally
    occurring and they test carcinogenic at the same rate as the chemical pesticides
    (about 50%). 

    -our bodies have mechanisms to deal with these natural
    pesticides that we have evolved eating, and these same mechanisms can deal with
    the small amounts of synthetic chemicals we may ingest on conventional produce.

    -and so, eating conventional produce will not likely cause
    harm, and scaring folks about pesticides could cause more illness/death as
    those who cannot afford organic will not consume as many fruits/veggies…

    Also, the researcher from Stanford did not make
    recommendations on what to buy/eat, but is merely passing on info.  She stated herself that people buy organic
    for many reasons- not just (perceived??) superior nutritional

    If organic is in fact not more nutritious, nor pesticides
    (in the amounts that are found on produce) harmful to our health, then we
    should have access to that information just as certainly as we should if the
    opposite is the case!

  • Cmaddox

    Of course, what they didn’t mention is that the only reason there are pesticide residues on organic food is BECAUSE of the chemicals used on conventionally grown foods.  If all food were grown organically, we would have WAY less toxic material in our food stream and therefore in our bodies.   

    And I completely agree that the main reason to buy organic is to protect the health of the people who work in the fields, as well as of the planet.  

    And to the argument that organic food costs more, the real truth is that cost of most food in the US is way less than it should be.  If food were priced in such a way as to reflect the real costs of producing it, the cost of conventional foods would be closer to organic and we would be spending a more realistic amount on food compared to the rest of the industrialized world.  

    • utera

      Keep talking like that and you’ll get more people to vote for romney.

  • Linda

    I eat organic meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables about 90 percent of the time. I choose organic for many reasons, but primarily to avoid toxic pesticides and herbicides that harm my health, the health of farmworkers, and the health of the our water, soil, and air, not because I hope organic foods are more nutritious.  I think the reseachers were setting up a straw man when they asked whether  organic food is more nutritious.  They should have asked whether organic food was healthier for people and the environment than conventional food.  

  • nafiss

    Here the absence of government strict regulations with a lot of inspectors in the fields and the weakness of any existing laws, rather ordinances, is the culprit.  We need checks and balances to assure that a product is organic.  This is said, it is an utter neglect of one’s health to eat “conventional” foods.  We know indubitably the farce of comparing “conventional” to organic.  The devil is in statistics, a branch of mathematics that is the guide of all sciences.  We need reliable and independent scientists who can comb through the data from Stanford to reveal to us the trickery. Any one who took statistics knows how complicated a branch it is. This will take time.  Alas most of us will have forgotten.  I hope we won’t justify the data with economics and go cheap on the food we buy only to be stuck with diseases, unless Stanford will foot the bill.

  • Obrienbria

    Eating an organic diet makes one more aware of what they are consuming and hence might make healthier choices. 

  • 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

    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

    • utera

      Is that really all you have left now? Conspiracy theory?  Why don’t you just come out and call them liars then?

  • Alphasigma10

    Wow. The question is stupid, already! 

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