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A Few Things to Remind People Quoting That Organic Food Study

Man, one document says organic food might not be worth the dollar and you'd think an organic vegetable had held up a bank.

Whoa, slow down, internet and television news! Man, one document says organic food might not be worth the dollar and you'd think an organic vegetable had held up a bank.


Yes, there was a review of studies that did not prove that organic diets are more nutritious (which is different than proving that they are not, by the way).

But here are a couple of things to remember:

The studies that the review looked at were small. The summary specifies that as a limitation.

Nutrients are only part of the equation. A lot of people buy and eat organic because they are concerned about the amount of pesticides they consume when they eat conventional vegetables. Despite the way it has been frequently framed, the review confirmed that people consume more pesticides with conventional veggies than with organics: "Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

Highly quoted was that the conventional diet mostly fell within allowed limits for pesticides. Here's what you should know: The EPA sets these limits. There is concern that the limits are not actually in line with what is safe. And, of course, the decision to buy organic or not will be (and should be) inevitably more granular than yes or no—it's down to what a consumer can afford and where risks are highest. Here's an EPA blog post citing the Environmental Working Group's handy Shopper's Guide to Pesticides:

While EPA establishes the maximum pesticide tolerances in order to protect human health and the environment, certain types of produce naturally tend to retain and absorb higher levels of this pesticide residue.

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Caveat emptor! Or, better yet, what's Latin for "Buyer Be Responsible"? Want to complain about the high cost of organics? You get what you pay for. And when I say "you," I mean it in the history-of-the-world, responsible-consumer sense. Here's NPR:

[Organic methods] 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.

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More clearly: "Informed buyers of organic aren't expecting to get more vitamin C from their strawberries. It's what's not in the strawberries that makes organic better: toxic pesticides. And it's what's not running off the fields and into the water supply. And it's what's not poisoning the people who work in those fields, and the honeybees who pollinate them."

The review was inconclusive. That's why it made headlines—because it didn't say conclusively that organic vegetables are more nutritious. (Again: It didn't say that they weren't more nutritious; it said that it wasn't made clear in the particular group of studies reviewed.) But this other study, which is a huge, century-spanning effort, has already made some useful observations on the impact of long-term organic farming:

So far, the researchers have found that the organic tomatoes have almost double the concentration of two types of flavonoids — quercetin and kaempferol — which are considered to be healthful plant compounds with potent antioxidant activity. The 10-year mean levels of quercetin were 79 percent higher than those in conventional tomatoes, and levels of kaempferol were 97 percent higher.

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Photo via Flickr (cc) user woodleywonderworks.

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