Over the last decade or so, sales of organic foods have increased tenfold, despite a cost difference that may be as much as 100%. Organic foods are, in general, grown without pesticides, antibiotics, radiation or hormones. Consumers may purchase organic foods for multiple reasons, including concerns regarding health, environmental consequences and animal welfare. However, the data regarding purported health benefits of organic foods are not clear. Last week, in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine (157:348-366), authors from Stanford University took a look at this topic, and concluded there was no evidence to suggest that there are marked health benefits from organic food.
In total, 237 studies were reviewed. There was no significant difference in the nutrient value of organic as compared with conventional food. There was a 30% higher risk for pesticide presence in regular food (38% versus 7%), but the levels of such chemicals were very low and of unclear, if any, health significance. There was no difference in the presence of disease-related (or pathogenic) bacteria. However, conventional pork and chicken were more likely to contain bacteria that were resistant to 3 or more antibiotics, likely secondary to the use of such medications in non-organic animal husbandry. The meaning of this is unclear as the major cause of antibiotic resistance in humans appears to be inappropriate use of such medication in human patients, not in animals. Finally, there have been no scientific comparisons of patients eating organic food versus conventional food with an analysis of their health outcomes. Absent this data, there is no scientific proof of the superiority of organic food.
Dr. Dena Bravata from Stanford’s Center for Health Policy said “When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food. I think we were definitely surprised.”
The study is interesting, and certainly shows there is no current scientific evidence to guide your food purchase decision making. However, the totality of the data is not robust and differences may not have been detectable because of study design or size. I think that, in the end, consumers need to do what they think is best for them. If it strikes you as common sense to eat food with minimal chemical and pesticide exposure, then go organic. On the other hand, if cost is an issue, there is no reason to feel that you “must” purchase organic foods in order to keep your family healthy. Of much greater importance is a balanced diet, an adequate intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a relationship with a primary care provider that allows you to follow your BMI, blood pressure, blood glucose and blood cholesterol as aids in helping you assess how to best eat and exercise.