Organic food is big business. Between 1997 and 2010, organic food sales in the United States went from $3.6 billion to $26.7 billion. Generally, prices for organic foods are significantly higher than conventional foods.
Most organic foods are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic foods are generally processed without irradiation or chemical food additives. Organic livestock are fed on organically produced feed, free of pesticides and animal byproducts.
But the big question is: Is organic produce a healthier living choice or a marketing tool for overpaying?
In a recently published paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine (“Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.” Smith-Spangler C et al. Ann Int Med 2012; 157: 348-366), researchers from Stanford performed an analysis of published studies on the health, nutritional and safety characteristics of organic and conventional foods. In total, 237 studies met the inclusion criteria.
The Stanford researchers were surprised that the research did not find support for the superiority of organic over conventional foods. There was no robust evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods. In other words, eating organic strawberries will not give you more vitamin C than conventional strawberries. Only phosphorus content (in one of the studies examined) showed superiority for organic foods, but is unlikely to be of any real significance, since it would take near-total starvation to produce dietary phosphorus deficiency.
Furthermore, the researchers found no decrease in the risk of bacterial contamination from organically produced food. In fact, several studies actually demonstrated an increased risk of contamination by E. coli in organic produce.
The authors did find that conventional chicken and pork have higher risk of contamination from antibiotic-resistant bacteria than does the organically-raised chicken and pork. Also, conventional produce has a 30% higher risk for pesticide contamination than does the organic produce, but the clinical significance of this is unknown.
The conclusion of this analysis was that there is not clear evidence of a marked health benefit from consuming organic versus conventional produce, but that organic produce might reduce exposure to pesticide residues and eating organic chicken and pork might reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.