American Society For Nutrition

The Organic Quandary

The Organic Quandary

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 08/17/2009 at 05:07:18 PM by Student Blogger

By: Caitlin L.

The review conducted by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) and recently published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review” has created quite a debate in the nutrition community.  From the day of its release everyone from nutrition professionals to foodies, from farmers to environmentalists were discussing the results.  Even Dr. Alan Dangour, the head researcher behind the study has been receiving hate mail for his role.  As was to be expected, the media took the story and ran with it: “Organic food no healthier than conventional” screamed the headlines, or in other words to the consumer, “Don't waste your money”.  The bottom line according to the FSA press release: “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority”.  Big words.  Words that can have huge implications for the organic market, but will they? Following the results of the study, the question remains: Are nutrients the sole reason people choose to purchase organic products?  Is health for the average consumer defined by more than the level of DRI nutrients in food?
With the release of movies such as “Food, Inc.”, or books such as Michael Pollan's “The Omnivore's Dilemma”, it's no wonder there has been a consistent growth in the organic food industry.  According to the Organic Trade Association, the sale of U.S. organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to approximately $20 billion in 2007.  While this growing trend has slowed slightly in line with the rest of the slowing economy, there is something driving people to purchase organic food.  So what is the reason when according to the news, consumers have been wasting their hard earned money?   I couldn't help but wonder if this study would change people's minds about the organic industry if they now knew that an organic orange has no more vitamin C than a conventionally grown one? 

While my sample size was small and the participants (though varied in backgrounds) were not necessarily representative of the American population as a whole, the responses to my survey came back thoughtful and realistic.  These consumers spend their money on organics because they “believe that what you put in your body is in direct correlation to your health and well-being” and because they want to make “an effort to support sustainable/eco friendly businesses over business that don't engage in sustainable/eco friendly practices” and “to support farmers who care about the earth (who) are trying to make healthier food while saving the earth from harmful chemicals and pesticides”.  In sum, these average consumers who purchase organic food do so because of their desire to support better farming practices and not because of the level of nutrients in the food products.  They do so because whether or not studies have shown that pesticides used on foods are linked to health problems, they'd rather not take that risk. 

We may accept (until further research reveals otherwise) that organic food does not provide higher nutrient values, but what about the larger question of health benefits?  According to the FSA statement “…there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic foods.”  But that truly depends on your definition of health, and for many that definition encompasses more than individual nutrients.  While some may take this study as an argument against organics, it appears that many support the industry for reasons other than a sense of nutrient superiority.  With the continual growth of the organic industry, more research will be conducted and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning of the debate.

4 Comments
Posted Aug 19, 2009 12:34 PM by M@
I haven't formed a strong opinion on organic food yet, but I've heard a lot of arguments on both sides. Some claim organic food is not really green because it takes more resources and burns more fuel to produce food using less efficient organic methods. Would be interested to hear if anyone has the expertise to weigh in on this argument?

I completely agree with you Harini, this is part of the reason I joined a CSA as well. It's a catch 22 because getting organic food into a big business such as Wallmart gives the opportunity for different populations to purchase organic food, but the question for many is at what cost? As you said, many people argue that you can't put

sustainable and organic in the same sentence anymore. Hopefully with the growth of the industry, the original mission of the movement won't be completely forgotten.

Posted Aug 29, 2009 11:02 AM by Emily
While organic foods may not necessarily be advantageous because of superior nutrition content, they do not contain pesticides. Since we don't know the long term effects of consuming GMOs or pesticides. That's reason enough for me to eat organic (and preferably local) produce.

Great post Caitlin!