Buyer Beware: There Might Be More to the Organic vs. Conventional Food Debate Than We Thought


I’m a big proponent of buying organic food versus non-organic, but now I’m a little flummoxed. “In the largest review yet of studies that compare conventional to organic foods, researchers found no major evidence that one type is healthier than the other in measurements like nutrient content, allergic response or infection rates,” Discovery reports.

“Perhaps more revealing, the review found very few studies that systematically examined the health outcomes of eating one kind of diet compared to the other. Out or more than 200 studies that were ultimately included in the new analysis, many were small or funded by interest groups. Each was designed in a different way and focused on different kinds of measurements or health outcomes, which were complicated by differing definitions of ‘organic’ or incongruous agricultural practices.”

Yet, many people, myself included, have always taken for granted that organic food is better for you. And that notion has been reinforced in the press on a number of occasions. For example, an 2011 ABC News article makes it seem like there’s no need for debate: “We all know that pesticides and other chemicals can cling to the foods we eat and most of us want to minimize our exposure. That's why some people buy organic. Scientists have shown that children age 5 and under ingest an average of eight pesticides each day. And young children, whose internal organs and systems are developing rapidly, are particularly vulnerable to pesticides' harmful effects.”

MORE: Hell, No, We Won’t GMO: More People Choosing Non-Genetically Modified Foods


But, not so fast. The report in Discovery states, “Two studies looked at children and both showed higher levels of pesticides in kids who ate a greater proportion of conventional foods. But again, measurements in both groups of kids were well below concerning levels. And some studies showed that people were exposed to more pesticides from household use than from food . . . Together, the results are too inconclusive and disparate to draw any major conclusions, said Betsy Wattenberg, a toxicologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In order to really know anything about food-related risks that people tend to care most about, such as cancer or reproductive and developmental health issues, we would need carefully controlled studies that last for years or even decades.”

The Royal Society of Chemistry seems to echo Wattenberg noting, “Without the use of pesticides, organic crops develop a natural defense mechanism in the form of chemicals all called phenols. The organic supporters claim that these chemicals are antioxidants and that organic fruit and vegetables are better at protecting the body from cancers and heart disease. Organic skeptics argue that these natural pesticides may be a potential health risk and insist that there is no evidence to show health gains from organic food. The lack of evidence, however, may be due to the difficulty in conducting such a study.”


Which brings us full circle back to the Discovery report which concludes by quoting Wattenberg: "It is really difficult to draw a conclusion from the paper except that there is a lack of good comprehensive studies . . . I wouldn’t say the conclusion is there’s no difference (between organics and conventional foods). It’s that we just don’t have the evidence to say there’s no difference, which is different from saying there’s no difference."

I’m not sure which camp that leaves me in. But considering the price differential between organic and conventional foods I may now, on occasion, consider my options more carefully.

Are you surprised by the results of this research? Does it change your mind about buying organic foods?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |