Organic is still not worth the extra cost

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

It may be hard to believe, but I’ve been plugging away at this blog since 2008. That’s 332 posts, and about 300,000 hits. I appreciate every one of you who’s stopped by (your individual thank you letters and boxes of chocolate, I believe, have been held up by postal authorities.) Some of my most popular posts have been about organic foods, chemicals, and food scares. Since I still get many questions about this, I figure it’s time for an organic update.

In 2008, I wrote about organic foods, arguing that their extra cost wasn’t justified by any measurable health benefits. Fruits, veggies, and other minimally-processed foods are very good for you and your children, and on a limited budget I’d rather you buy more of these than a smaller amount of the organic varieties. Has anything new been learned to change anyone’s mind about this?

Probably not. A recent meta-analysis looked at the health benefits of organic foods, and found that nutritionally, they’re essentially identical to conventionally-grown and products. There also doesn’t seem to be a difference in terms of contamination with disease-causing microorganisms. Either kind of produce might make you sick if you’re unlucky and don’t wash and cook your food well.

One demonstrable difference is that conventional foods are more likely to be contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. However, there’s still no evidence that the levels of these chemicals has adverse health consequences—and organic foods have chemicals, too. Just because organic pesticides are “naturally sourced” doesn’t mean they won’t be toxic if you eat them. Cyanide, rattlesnake venom, and smallpox are all about as natural as they can get. But I wouldn’t want them on my pizza. Also, using chemicals during production doesn’t necessarily mean that chemicals end up in the final product. For instance, rBST-treated dairy cows’ milk is chemically indistinguishable from the milk produced by cows that aren’t given this hormone.

A point in favor of organic products: I agree that animals raised in a less-intensive method are treated with less cruelty. But it’s not always clear that “organic” means “free range” or “bigger cages” or “free to romp around in daylight until they’re killed.”

The regulations regarding labeling of organic products remain complex, with multiple overlapping government and industry associations offering different sorts of assurances. For instance, the commonly-used “USDA Organic” seal from the National Organic Program certifies “95% organic content.” Is 95% organic enough?

I have one beef (ha!) with the organic lobby: their ceaseless and irrational fear of food irradiation. We have the technology to make food safer, less prone to bacterial contamination, and less prone to spoilage. No chemicals, no animal cruelty. Irradiation doesn’t make food radioactive, and doesn’t change the nutritional content or taste one iota. But I suppose it’s “unnatural”, so it’s “ungood”.

Keeping this in perspective: the biggest nutritional issue in the developed world isn’t really the micronutrients, or the chemicals. And it’s not whether Bessie the Cow was treated with hormones. The biggest nutritional concern we ought to be concentrating on is that we’re eating too much food. One of the best ways to reduce calories and improve health is to eat more plants—more fruits, more vegs, and more whole grains. The added expense of organic products makes this more difficult.

If you’ve got unlimited funds, buying organic has no downside. But for the many families who have to choose how to spend their food money, I’m still advising to buy conventional.

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2 Comments on “Organic is still not worth the extra cost”

  1. OldMDGirl Says:

    The other problem with “free range” animals is the acreage it takes to produce them. If the world consumed its current amount of meat, my understanding is that we would not be able to keep up that level of production if all the animals were “free range.” Also, the waste produced by all those animals still goes somewhere, and is less easy to manage since the animals roam over a larger area, and may in fact damage the environment more. These are probably arguments for encouraging less meat consumption.

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