WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2012 – Many consumers believe they are buying more nutrition for their buck when they purchase higher-priced organic products, but the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date, conducted at Stanford University, suggests that less expensive conventional foods may be just as healthy.
“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, according to a report on the Stanford School of Medicine’s web site. Bravata is the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.
Between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion, in part because consumers are willing to pay a hefty premium for products that they perceive to be healthier and more nutritious. Bravata said she conducted the research to try help her patients who were questioning the differences between organic and conventional food products.
Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, along with Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplinesand a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, did not find strong evidence that organic fruits and vegetables are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives. The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.
Factors like ripeness had a greater influence on nutrient content that the production methods used. For example, a pear grown and sprayed with an approved use of pesticides could easily contain more nutrients than an unripe organic one.
They did find that consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure, but the levels for conventional foods were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.
For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally.
After analyzing the data, Stanford researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
“Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Smith-Spangler according to the schools’ web site. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”
The Organic Trade Association said the review confirms that consuming organic foods reduces consumers’ exposure to pesticide residues and to bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which OTA says are among the top reasons consumers cite for choosing to buy organic products.
“Consumers seeking to minimize their exposure to pesticide residues will find that foods bearing the USDA Organic label are the gold standard. This is because organic foods have the least chemicals applied in their production and the least residues in the final products,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO.
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