Organic Food Isn't More Nutritious, but That Isn't the Point

That doesn't mean it's not healthier. How our obsession with organics' "healthiness" led us away from the term's roots

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Of all the food-related countercultural buzzwords that have gone mainstream in recent years, organic ranks among the most confusing. Like its cousins (cf. local, free-range, or worst of all, natural), the term's promotion by grocery stores everywhere has caused it to escape the strict definitions laid out by the USDA . But from Stanford University comes new research suggesting what we should have known all along: organic food isn't actually more nutritious than traditionally-farmed goods.

In a widely publicized and discussed analysis of more than 200 studies comparing organic to regular food products, researchers have found that organics don't have more vitamins or minerals (with the lone exception of phosphorus, which we all get in sufficient amounts anyway). Nor do they have an appreciable effect when it comes to heading off food-borne illness, although the germs found in conventional meat do have a higher chance of being drug-resistant (more on that in a bit).

That we needed a study to understand how nutritionally similar organic foods are to non-organics is a perfect example of the way we've lost sight of what the term really means. It's worth keeping in mind that organic refers only to a particular method of production; while switching to organic foods can be good for you insofar as doing so helps you avoid nasty things like chemicals and additives, there's nothing in the organic foods themselves that gives them an inherent nutritional advantage over non-organics. In other words, it's not wrong to say organic food is "healthier" than non-organics. It's just unrealistic to think that your organic diet is slowly turning you into Clark Kent.

(You laugh, but according to a Nielsen study cited by USA Today, a ton of people believe just that, or something close to it. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they bought organic food because they thought it was more nutritious.)

Still, there are important reasons beyond nutrition to choose organic foods. Let's start at the source: USDA rules prohibit food makers from labeling something organic unless it can prove that at least 95 percent of a product was made using organic processes, which are themselves defined as:

A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

For all the attention devoted to the ways organic is better for you, we should remember that organic began chiefly as an argument about the environment. From the agency's perspective, to buy organic is to respect the land your food came from. It means taking pains to ensure that your farms remain bountiful and productive, even decades from now. The case is one part self-interest over the long term, and one part a statement of ethics. Not really what you'd expect from a mechanical bureaucratic institution.

Buying organic is also a statement about public health. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of antibiotics. Conventional farms have been putting the stuff in animal feed for decades -- even though we've known since the 1970s about the health hazards that the animal use of antibiotics poses for humans. Reducing society's chances of inadvertently creating a superbug is a good reason to purchase organic foods.

There are the more immediate health benefits of buying organic: you'll avoid the chemicals, preservatives, and hormones that conventional farms often use to treat their foods. In the Stanford study, just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have traces of pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally-farmed produce. Again, that doesn't mean organic foods will supercharge your health -- you'll just be at less risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances, for whatever that's worth to you. Quantifying that benefit is a contentious area and certainly worthy of more research.

And then there's the reason many people find most compelling of all: the health of workers in the field. For some consumers, buying organic is a human-rights issue. Reading Atlantic contributor Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland on the ruinous health problems of tomato planters and pickers in Florida because of the use of herbicides and pesticides is enough to make almost anyone choose organic over non-organic. Yes, there are safety rules in place for the use of these lethal chemicals, but as Estabrook's work and the the work of others shows, those rules are frequently not followed.

Even if organic foods may not be uniquely nutritionally fortified as many of us have grown accustomed to thinking, don't write them off just yet. They still mean a great deal. And besides -- it seems unfair to judge organic crops for failing to do something they never claimed to be capable of in the first place. They're simply the victims of our projection.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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