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Is Organic the Healthiest Choice?

Bags with organic food labels

“To go organic or not to go organic?”

That is the question; it often pops up when there’s a conversation about food. No wonder, because even Walmart carries organic produce now, a sure sign that the organic idea has hit mainstream America. More than just produce, organic foods can be meat, dairy foods and grains. Even processed foods, such as canned beans, can be organic.

What’s the fuss? For the marketer, it’s money. Organic foods cost more to produce, and a certain niche of the marketplace is willing to pay a lot more for them—even twice the price of conventional foods.

But are organic varieties better for you? Depends on whom you ask and which studies you read.

In 2011, a study by British researchers at Newcastle University showed that organic foods had higher levels of some nutrients, citing vitamin C and antioxidant levels in particular. In the researchers’ meta-analysis—a method of combining the results of many studies in the hope of finding a pattern—they calculated that organic produce was 12 percent higher in beneficial nutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) than conventional produce. The researchers assumed the health benefits that would result and calculated that if you ate the same amount of produce but switched to all organic varieties, your life expectancy would increase by 17 days for women and 25 days for men. This is pretty much theoretical, but you get the idea.

Fast forward to September 2012 and you’ll get just the opposite conclusion from a study by Stanford University researchers, who performed an even more complete meta-analysis and found there was little evidence about actual health outcomes. The researchers found only 17 human studies and 237 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in organic and conventional foods.

Basically, the results on health outcomes were all over the map, precluding any strong conclusions about benefits from organic foods. There was evidence that pesticide exposure was lower when organic produce was eaten. (Good thing, as that’s one of the reasons people eat it.) As for chicken and pork: exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria was lower with organically raised meats, but overall bacterial contamination of chicken and pork was the same no matter how the animals were raised.

What to do?

Let’s remind ourselves that all the evidence proving the value of fruits and vegetables for better health arose from studies done on regular, conventionally grown stuff, not the organic varieties. Moreover, you’ll encounter huge risks if you avoid fruits and vegetables just because you can’t find or afford organic produce. So don’t bail on eating your fruits and veggies just because organic varieties are expensive or hard to find. There’s still plenty of action in that regular can of beans or supermarket broccoli.

That said, there are other reasons why people choose organic foods, and the choice doesn’t have to be all-or-none. I know someone who buys organic milk because she likes the taste. Fair enough. There’s also the issue of pesticides. Even if the levels in conventional foods are safe, people increasingly are eating for the health of the planet as well. Less pesticide use means less in our rivers and streams and less exposure for farm workers.

This is a personal choice and at this point, there’s no right or wrong here. I’m a clinician. I have enough difficulty getting my patients to eat—and to be able to afford—healthy, conventionally produced foods. I’m not about to discourage them from eating fruits and vegetables if they can’t get organic varieties. That would border on unethical, because their health is in far greater jeopardy from avoiding conventional produce.

Of course, you can take the “better-for-the-planet”  issue into the weeds, too. Is it better for someone on the East Coast to eat conventional carrots grown 50 miles away or organic ones grown in California and trucked all the way across the country? The fossil fuel used to transport them may cancel the benefit to the planet right there, but that’s a subject for another blog.

For now, eat more fruits and vegetables, whatever kind you like and can afford. Dietary changes for most people are best made gradually, and if you start eating more fruits and vegetables, that’s enough of a change for now. Be happy you’re doing something positive for your health.

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