Is organic food really better for you?

Over the past decade, our society is growing increasingly aware of our reliance on chemical products and their impacts on the environment and our health. So last week, a new study by Stanford University researchers on the benefits of organic foods received a lot of media coverage.

The systematic review, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, examined 240 studies organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, poultry eggs and milk — 17 studies of humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels.

It found that more one-third of conventional produce had detectable pesticide residues, compared with 7 percent of organic produce samples. And it found organic meats were one-third less likely to carry bacteria resistant to antibiotics than conventionally produced meat.

But the study also found that organic foods, on the whole, don’t contain any more vitamins or nutrients than conventional foods.

It’s good to have a wide-ranging review of organic foods. Even more interesting is the media coverage of the study. Some new stories, like this one from the Guardian, have focused on the lack of a difference in nutrient levels. Other news coverage has pointed out that the purpose of purchasing organic foods is to avoid pesticide use because of its impact on human health and the environment.

The bottom line: it’s important to understand all of the findings in a study. Sometimes, that requires looking past the headlines in media outlets so that you can get the full story.


  1. D Harris says:

    Title: What difference does pesticide make?
    First: Congratulations Cornell on promoting science-based learning and rational thought.
    Second: That there is no difference between the nutrient value of organic vs conventional foods is not news but it is worthwhile never-the-less to see evidence for this conclusion reinforced.
    Finally: I am interested in the pesticide residue. Q1. If conventional foods are carefully washed, is there still a measurable difference in pesticides when compared with organic foods? Q2. Does the pesticide on conventional foods affect health at the levels in which it occurs? What is the evidence?
    I would be interested if anyone knows of quality reviews regarding either or both of my questions.
    Thank you

  2. Weight Control says:

    Thanks for a great article. I really thought that I was getting more vitamins and nutrients from organic foods. However, it still is worth knowing that there is less pesticide residues.

  3. I recently researched what exactly the term ‘organic’ means. It turns out ‘organic’ actually stands for something. When a product is labeled as such, you are guaranteed to have at least 95% organic food in your food product.

    On the other hand… the term ‘natural’ does not mean anything. The FDA has no definition for it and food manufacturers are allowed to use it anyway they see fit. It means whatever the manufacturer wants you to think it means.

    Go for the organic label. Never mind the rest, because it’s all misleading nonsense.

  4. Sheri says:

    Marianne and Mike both make great points. There is clearly plenty of variation in our food supply. It seems like the sensible thing to do is to give some real thought to where your food is coming from.

  5. Marianne says:

    I think that many americans are looking a “magic pill” or a magic formual that will make us healthier. Your bottom line indicates that it’s necesssary to engage our minds and give it some thought. I have found the lists of fruit and veggies which consistently test high for pesticide residue such as the one found here very helpful in making these decisions. Thanks for the bottom line!

  6. I have been getting on my high horse a lot today it seems!

    I would have to say that apart from contamination, the vital test is the quality of the soil. If the soil is depleted of all the “good” stuff a plant needs to grow then organic or not it is not going to have all the vitamins and minerals that a “healthy” vegetable or fruit should have.

    That’s why I am skeptical of hydroponics – the plant only gets what the farmer provides in solution. In healthy, naturally enriched soil the plant has a “smorgasbord” and can take up what it needs without restriction.

    It’s all interesting!

    Cheers, Mike FD

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