Is Organic Really Better For You? A Commentary on the Stanford Study

If you are a health-conscious consumer, you try to make educated choices when it comes to the food that goes in your shopping cart. Still, you may be confused by the debate over organic vs. conventionally farmed foods. Is choosing organic really better?

Statistics show more and more consumers think so, and for a variety of reasons. Some site concerns about the presence of pesticide and chemical fertilizer residues associated with commercially grown food products. Others choose organic because they support a sustainable approach to food production, while virtually all believe they get more nutritional bang for their buck with organic foods.

That’s why the study released by Stanford University earlier this month has many up in arms. Published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, university researchers presented results which compared organic and conventionally raised foods with regard to nutritional value–and concluded that no “significant” differences in nutritional content exist between the two. They support this conclusion by pointing to a meta-analysis summary composed of 17 human and 230 field studies comparing nutrient and contaminate levels in unprocessed foods (e.g., fruits, veggies, grains, dairy, eggs, and meat) over the past 40 years.

It’s not really surprising that Stanford researchers did not find significant differences in the nutrition content of the foods studied. It’s logical to assume that since the basic genetic components of organic and conventionally grown foods is the same (not including GMO’s which are a whole other can of worms), nutritional values would not fluctuate wildly.

In fact, other studies conducted as recently as 2011 analyzing the same research contradict Stanford’s findings by concluding the organic crops studied contained 12 to 16 percent higher nutrient content than conventionally raised crops.

Sadly, the mainstream media as a whole jumped the gun in its interpretation of Stanford’s findings, mistakenly reporting “organic isn’t healthier” while largely discarding other cautionary conclusions revealed by further reading of the analysis.

More telling perhaps, is the study’s conclusion that conventionally grown foods contain 30% more pesticide residue than organically grown food, a statistic that must surely be seen as “significant”.

Although researchers are quick to point out that the levels of pesticide detected in conventionally grown foods fell within “acceptable safety guidelines” set by the EPA, it is important to note that no long-term human studies have been conducted on the health effects of eating organic verses conventional foods over time.

What we do know for certain is that pesticide exposure, even in low doses, has been linked to a plethora of health related problems including infertility, birth defects, ADHD in children, and a variety of cancers.

The study goes on to point out that consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure, not only to pesticides, but to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

 Another overlooked but no less alarming statistic presented by the Stanford study findings was a 33% increased risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria when eating conventionally raised chicken and pork over their organic counterparts. These “superbug” strains of bacteria have become more prevalent due to common commercial practices of administering prophylactic antibiotics to reduce the spread of disease among feedlot animals kept in cramped quarters. The resulting concern for public health safety has led the USDA to routinely sterilize commercially harvested meat, a practice not necessary in organically raised animals.

Consider as well the humane practices employed by organic farmers raising animals for consumption: access to free-range, a natural grass-fed diet, and no use of growth hormones or prophylactic antibiotics verses large industrial farm operations which offer no such assurances to the livestock in their cramped feedlots.

Not addressed in the study are sustainable practices employed by organic farmers designed to ensure the future vitality and productivity of food shed soil, in turn yielding crops with higher concentrations of antioxidants and certain vitamins. When compared with conventional methods of industrial farming that deplete natural resources with chemical fertilizers that contaminate soil and ground water, sustainable farming would seem to be a component worthy of inclusion in the analysis.

With a planet full of people to feed and more on the way, doesn’t it makes sense to look at sustainable farm methods of food production that insure future productivity for the generations that will follow?

All this research supports one simple mantra for consumers: know where your food comes from, and concern yourself with the humane and sustainable ethos behind its production. Better still, patronize your local farmers’ market and develop a personal relationship with the farmers who feed your family. We cannot afford to be passive spectators when it comes to what we eat. More often than not, that means choosing organic.

Categories: Food PoliticsTags: , , , , ,


  1. Thank you for keeping us informed Karen! You Rock!

  2. Very interesting! My husband asked an intelligent question, “Who funded the Stanford Study?

    • Not surprisingly Gabriela, the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organic farm policy organization recently published the following statement regarding the funding behind the Stanford Study on organics: “We were not one bit surprised to find that the agribusiness giant Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural business enterprise, and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have deep ties to agricultural chemical and biotechnology corporations like Monsanto, have donated millions to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, where some of the scientists who published this study are affiliates and fellows,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Food and Farm Policy Director at the Cornucopia Institute. That explains alot!

  3. Great article. Also worth mentioning there are fantastic organic farmers that aren’t certified organic because they didn’t want to be involved in all the regulations but in fact hold themselves to a higher standard of “organic quality” than specified in the regulations for determining the classification. I don’t think Tara Firma farms is certified organic and yet their farming practices exceed the regulations. It’s like building a house better and stronger than the regulated standards but just not getting the permit.

  4. Great post Karen!! Also, organically raised chicken only means that the feed is 95% organic from the time the birds are two days old, that they cannot receive hormones or antibiotics, their wings can’t be clipped nor their beaks cut. Organic is not free-range (though a “free-range” label doesn’t necessarily mean the chicken has ever set foot on grass, but that’s a whole other issue) and it does not guarantee that the animals were not mistreated. Sustainable and local is where it’s at! Know your farmer, meet your meat!

    • An excellent reminder Danie that the definition of “organic” when it comes to meat animals requires the consumer to really investigate the farm practices utilized and, ideally, “meet your meat” as you so eloquently put it. Buyers beware–when it comes to animals raised for consumption look for the Global Animal Partnership certification sticker on meat you purchase. This organization offers a 5 step animal welfare rating that consumers can trust. Also, generally, if you look for words like “grass-fed”, “free-range”, “cage-free”, “humanely raised”, “sustainably farmed” along with organic certification, you have at least some assurance that you’re buying meat that was humanely raised. Best of all, go direct to the source or a farmers’ market and get to know the ranchers who supply your meat. Ask them questions; take a ranch tour. Seeing is believing!

  5. Great post, Karen!

  6. It was never about nutrition! Why in the world would anyone want to eat grapes that were sprayed with pesticide or eat meat injected with antibiotics. Repulsive. They should be looking at overall health standards for consumers,instead.

  7. Great comments on a popular subject.


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