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No difference with organic food


The article talks about a study where they say there is no nutritional difference between organic produce and standard produce.

While I can see an argument for that the article goes on to state that meat, dairy and eggs had the same results as well. I don't buy that at all. I think what is misleading is the 'organic' label. I mean if you feed a cow organically grown corn you're going to get the same result as if you fed it the garbage they usually get.

This article just talks about nutrition as well. I'm sure many of you can attest to the difference between a farmer's market tomato and a supermarket tomato. Now whether taste affects nutrition is something different. I'm of the opinion that evolution has geared our taste buds to make nutritious foods the best tasting ones. But that's a tangent.

So does anyone have any thoughts on this?

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  1. I'm not surprised by that, especially the (junk science) health claims made by some organic food advocates.

    However, the studies only looked at nutrition and did not look at "contamination" or unwanted chemicals that tag-along for the ride.

    I'm not a buyer of organic foods, but I do believe in the ideal of sustainable farming and the avoidance of unneeded drugs and pesticides... especially in animals used for meat.

    1. Here's the response to the study results from the Soil Association.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Interesting response. I would also like to point out that the article in question is a *review* article, not original research. It would be really interesting to look at the methodology employed by the various studies, as well as the funding sources. Methodology is as important as results, since the methods can sway the results. My guess is that the methods are rather varied.

        Also, as dave_c pointed out, this work focuses solely on nutrition, not on sustainability or environmental concerns. Given that many people purchase organics with environmental concerns as the impetus, it is somewhat disingenious of the mainstream media reporting these conclusions to neglect to mention this. FWIW, I buy some organics and some conventional produce, so I am hardly in either camp.

        1. re: nofunlatte

          Here's another rebuttal, by Paula Crossfield in the Huffington Post,

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              She writes "I’m surprised that investigators of this caliber would focus so narrowly on nutrient content."

              I'm not surprised. That is the hallmark of good science. Well defined questions about things you can measure. In this case: is there a nutritional difference between conventional and organic foods?

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            The Soil Association's response is a bit disingenuous because the EU study that they cited was published after the cutoff date for the selected papers. The parameters for any study has to be set in the grant application.

            This article from the Independent has a more substantial interview with Dangour than the BBC blurb:

          2. In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan cited some research that showed carrots grown in California were nutritionally inferior to those grown in Michigan. The govt chose to ignore that because it conflicted with the idea that food is a standardizable commodity--carrots is carrots.

            And what does "nutritious" actually mean? That the known, measurable nutrients are roughly equivalent? How many new "nutrients" have been discovered since vitamins were defined--omega 3s, phytochemicals, flavenoids...? Are we confident we have them all mapped out?

            These metastudies, as nofunlatte points out, are based on other studies which may or may not be reliable. Some may have been paid for by ADM or Monsanto--"gee, chemically grown food IS better. Thanks for the paycheck!"

            And the organic cow fed with organic corn will still be providing corn-based nutrients, as captainspirou points out.

            I think the "food as commodity" philosophy, and being so reductive about nutrition, is what locavores and the original organic food movement object to. Carrots is NOT carrots.

            It's not like I eat all organic or local. But I'm cynical about this type of study.

            3 Replies
            1. re: coney with everything

              Did Pollan say exactly what differences there were between the California and the Michigan carrots?

              'Nutritionally inferior' could mean many things. There could be a difference in sugar levels. It is well known that the sugar content of wine grapes varies with location and growing conditions. How about mineral content? Wasn't Michigan part of the goiter belt, an area where iodine deficiency was prevalent. If Michigan carrots were identical to California ones, but with lower iodine level, they could be described as nutritionally inferior.

              In layman's usage, 'nutritional' is a very fuzzy idea. A careful scientific study would have to identify a whole suit of measurable quantities - calories from sugars, a whole raft of vitamins, a dozen minerals, plus the latest darlings, flavinoids and antioxidants. With multidimensional criteria like this it is hard to identify clear 'winners'. You can, of course, assign weights to each and consolidate them onto one scale, but who's to say Pollan's choice of weights is better than the government's or ADM's?

              1. re: coney with everything

                That was a bit of sloppiness by Pollan. While he did cite source material for some of his claims, that one stood bare and had no attribution. I would reserve any judgment on that "conclusion".

                1. re: coney with everything

                  At some point, that "nutritionally inferior" becomes so many angels dancing on the heads of pins. We're discovering new compounds because we have new scientific means to measure increasingly smaller and possibly insignificant stuff, but humans have lived healthy lives for millennia by eating well-balanced diets without worrying themselves sick about things they couldn't measure before.
                  And then all of whatever is intrinsically in a certain food product can be destroyed by poor handling, storage, or preparation.

                  All studies have the potential of bias. Why should you assume that one by industry sources is, while cutting the organics lobby and their supporters a pass? They have some of the most potent advocates in Washington and the media of any groups, and huge bucks behind them. They're the ones trying to damage the reputations of corporations and industry, and claiming that their food is superior contrary to this study and many others.

                2. "I think what is misleading is the 'organic' label."

                  Why "misleading", please?

                  In the UK, "organic" is a specific definition with legal status. We know what we mean when we read organic. If the Food Standards Agency has examined research into, say, a nutritional comparison between a carrot grown organically and one grown non-organically and found no significant difference, that is an answer that will surprise few people. I'd have thought it odd if the use or non-use of pesticides in itself provided increased/decreased nutritional benefit. By the way, I buy organic carrots when available (as I buy any organic fruit and veg in preferance to non-organic - except when there are veyr high food miles).

                  And, just to take up your point about cattle feed.....in the UK, beef cattle are routinely grass-fed if they are to achieve organic status (although they can be given organic feed in winter). This link, to my usual supplier, will probably clarify it more for you: http://www.manserghhall.co.uk/html/be...

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: Harters

                    If that's the case then the study is fundamentally flawed. I have read numerous articles that say that grassfed cattle have much higher level of omega3 fatty acids then ones fed on grain. If they weren't able to identify that then their standards of what is nutritious needs to be evaluated.

                    1. re: Captainspirou

                      Not really - as I mention, our beef cattle (whether organic or non-organic) are usually mainly pasture-fed.

                      As such, there wouldnt be anything to compare in a study - only whether the pasture was or was not organically grown.

                      1. re: Harters

                        Well I guess I'm ignorant. I've never imagined non-organic treatment of grass. Do people actually use fertilizers to raise grass?

                        1. re: Captainspirou

                          I've absolutely no idea.

                          But if there's no difference in how the pasture is grown, then there's obviously absolutely nothing that the research could compare between nutrional benefits of UK bred organic or non-organic beef cattle.

                          1. re: Captainspirou

                            Pastures often include legumes such as clover or alfalfa instead of or in addition to grasses. These will help supply nitrogen to the grass as well as often have higher protein than straight grass. Calling animals grass fed when they are really pasture fed reflects sloppy thinking or ignorance of what pastures are. Dairy farmers in particular want high quality pasture and hay that may be all alfalfa or clover or have a good deal of clover in with the grass. Alfalfa rates high in the parts of the United States where it can be grown successfully.

                            Nitrogen fertilization is sometimes used on grass to boost quantity produced as well as protein content. Since all proteins use amino acids, which contain nitrogen, as building blocks, adequate nitrogen in the soil is essential to produce high protein levels in the forage. There are wide regional variations in pastures as well the sorts of management practices needed. Potassium fertilization is sometimes used for alfalfa when soils are not naturally high in potassium.

                            1. re: Captainspirou

                              It doesn't have to be fertilizer. Any compound that isn't considered acceptable to the organic process needs to be absent from the land for 7 years in order for the real estate to meet organic standars.

                              1. re: Brandon Nelson

                                Don't different countries have differing standards set by whatever groups decides those standards?

                                There are many farms that lack official "certification" that grow according to standards or even higher strictures but can't get it through no fault of their own. They may abut roads or other farms that could be treated with chemicals for instance.
                                Some farmers simply don't want to bother or hate dealing with paperwork.

                                1. re: MakingSense

                                  Paper work isn't the only issue, cost is too.

                                  And you are correct, no 2 entities define "organic" the same.

                                  1. re: Brandon Nelson

                                    Sometimes it's the same damned produce. Some is just deemed "worthy" to be called "organic" because somebody does the paperwork, while the other guy doesn't.
                                    Guy #2 would more than make up for the time and aggravation of the red tape by the inflated prices he can charge for "organic" stuff, but he doesn't want the intrusion of some outside "authority." They don't like to be told what to do, even if they're doing it on their own.

                      2. Most farmer's market produce is not organic. It often tastes better than super market produce for other reasons, such as being picked at riper stages, freshness, and varieties that taste better but maybe don't hold up as well.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mrfood16

                          You're right. Which is why I put a much bigger emphasis on something being local rather then organic.

                          I live in Southern California in a fairly affluent neighborhood so 'organic' is one of those buzz words that gets people to shell out a few more dollars on food. So my local farmer's market actually is mainly organic and they let you know at every opportunity. So that is why I would think that most farmer's markets are the same.

                        2. I'm sure there is a connection between taste and nutrition, though it may not be sophisticated. We detect sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and savory (though with smell we detect more things). Sweet things are generally calorie richer, a big plus for a hunter-gatherer, but not so much for a modern donut eater. We need salt to replenish that lost via sweat. Bitter helps us detect, and avoid, some poisonous foods (like broccoli?). Our taste for savory (umami) may tie in with our carnivorous past.

                          Those farmers market fruits and vegetables may be tastier than the supermarket ones. But the supermarket convenience foods are also tastier - taking advantage of our evolved taste for sweet, salt and fat.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: paulj

                            True. But one was evolved over thousands of years so that the ones that survived ate food that was good for you. Processed foods takes advantage of the taste without giving you the benefit of what is in the plants. If this went on for another few thousand years I'm sure our taste buds would develop to find convenience foods repulsive.

                            So I guess the good rule is that it's ok to rely on taste when it comes to plants and wild animals. However with processed foods your taste may fool you into thinking it's good for you.

                            1. re: Captainspirou

                              "But one was evolved over thousands of years so that the ones that survived ate food that was good for you."

                              Not really. Throughout evolution humans and our ancestors ate what was available. Until very recently we were hunter gatherers and there really much choice in what we ate.

                              1. re: Captainspirou

                                A few thousand years is, I think, too short of a time to make much difference in human evolution. Just not enough generations. Also such a change would depend on humans who have the 'repulsion' living to child bearing age at a greater rate. Or to put it another way, people who don't like the taste of processed food have to have more kids, and have to pass that preference on genetically. Living longer after childbearing age doesn't make much difference.

                                Social preferences and values do evolve more rapidly, as does technology. Those will have a lot more to do with human eating practices in the near future, than any physiological change in taste buds.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  I wouldn't say it's too short. Think about the plague or black death in Europe and Asia. Half the human population at the time died. Those that survived were those that had resistance to the disease and it's still present in our DNA today. That was only a few hundred years ago. Now I'm not assuming the development of new taste but that those taste already exist and that those who are more inclined towards healthy foods will survive and pass on their genes. Now I admit it is a stretch to assume that our taste buds will evolve to that. But it is not invalid to think that our current sense of taste are absolutely important towards survival before processed foods and that it is a good indicator of nutrition.

                                  1. re: Captainspirou

                                    Hey, if we lost half one more time, the lucky survivors would all have second homes for free, and no weekend traffic jams...no overfishing...

                                    1. re: Captainspirou

                                      But do people who like to eat healthy food have more offspring than those that prefer processed foods? The 'healthy eaters' may live longer, but much of that time is in their non-reproductive years.

                                      Also, we haven't established that people who are 'more inclined towards healthy foods', are that way because of a genetic difference in their taste buds. I suspect it is more a matter of cultural conditioning. So far I've only hear about genetic differences that cause some people to avoid foods like broccoli and cilantro. Some people taste compounds in those foods that most of us don't.

                              2. No difference? Sure there is. It costs twice as much. It's the Botox of the eat heathy cultists who used to drive Volvos but can't afford them now.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: Veggo

                                  The chic Dupont Circle organic farmers' market in Washington DC is held on Sunday mornings from 9 AM until 1 PM.
                                  People can attend that instead of traditional church services.

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    The very downscale and mostly organic (70%+) farmers market on Thursday from 9am to 4pm in the WIC offices (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) parking lot in Salinas, CA derives about 90% of its revenue from senior assistance and WIC farmers market vouchers. The market manager is trying to get a card reader to accept SNAP EBT (food stamps) to be of even more service to the immediate neighborhood. The prices for organic produce at this farmers market are equal to or as much as 20% higher than the non-organic produce at the neighboring markets from my rough eyeballing and much fresher.

                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      MW: IF organic and non-organic produce are nutritionally equvalent, is it correct for the financially challenged to be lured to organic at the premium price? I'm not trying to be stubborn or argumentative, I think it is a fair question for debate. And I don't think freshness is correlated; any type of produce can be fresh or wilted.
                                      MS: THOSE people get a hall pass to skip church because they allready have backstage passes when they join the Big Man.

                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        I simply said that they "can attend" the farmers' market - by choice. They could have gone to Friday, Saturday, early morning, evening, or no services.
                                        There was no judgment about their potential salvation (or even whether they believed in it) through food or faith.

                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                          I'm all for giving people a little wriggle room, but let's not get too moribund on a fun site!

                                        2. re: Veggo

                                          I mentioned "fresher" not to say that there's a correlation but to show that there are other reasons why people will pay a premium for produce, organic or not. In fact, other than displaying CCOF certification on their ag ID's, I don't think the farmers at this market promote that their goods are organic on other signage. OTOH, free from pesticides could motivate participants at this market, many of whom have connections to farmworkers in Salinas, the Salad Bowl of the World, and have seen the skull and crossbones in the field.

                                          "organic ghetto"

                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                            There's a "skull and crossbones" on organic pesticides which are also poisonous, but are allowed to be used. All chemicals have to be applied with care and warnings are posted.

                                    2. re: Veggo

                                      Ah yes. The myth of organic produce costing "twice as much." Sure, some chi-chi organic produce from fancy name-brand farms costs twice as much (or maybe even more) than conventional produce -- some farmers charge what they think the market will bear. But not all organic produce -- maybe not even most organic produce -- is that much more expensive, and sometimes it's not any more expensive at all.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler


                                        You're absolutely right. Upthread I mention my regular meat supplier who is now wholely organic (certified by the Soil Association - the major UK body). I first started buying from them when they were in partial transition. I checked prices then and still do periodically, against supermarket pricing. I found their lamb was cheaper than supermarket non-organic. Their organic pork was about similar to non-organic, but free-range, supermarket products. Organic beef, however, tended to be dearer than supermarket - but it was not easy to find a great range of organic meat at the supermarket. I reckon that, across the whole, my purchases costs about the same.

                                        When it comes to fruit and veg, though, organic is almost invariably more expensive. I suspect that this is because we are a small country and we havnt got too much land farmed organically, so foodstuffs are imported (although we also import a lot of non-organic fruit and veg.

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          Some friends and I buy and share a couple of whole lambs from an organic farm (although I'm not sure the lamb is actually certified organic). It's definitely cheaper than regular supermarket lamb, and it's the best lamb I've ever eaten.

                                          I was in the supermarket last night, and the Fuji apples in both the conventional and organic sections caught my eye, so I did a quick comparison: conventional Fuji apples: $1.59/lb; organic Fuji apples, $1.79/lb. So the organic was 12.5 percent more expensive.

                                      1. re: billieboy

                                        This is the same Marion Nestle that was cited earlier.

                                      2. Personally, I don't buy organic food for the nutritional difference, although if they are better that's great. I buy mostly organic food for 2 reasons:

                                        1) Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and especially chemical fertilizers don't just affect the foods they are used on, they impact the environment as well. For example, Oceanic "Dead Zones" are largely caused by the runoff of chemical fertilizers leading to eutrophication>algal blooms.

                                        2)The health impacts of foods containing pesticides might be debatable, but I'd rather lower my risk if I can.

                                        12 Replies
                                        1. re: pickledtink

                                          Don't forget the fact fact that organic farmers have kept the genome diverse by raising species that bi farms can't, or won't.

                                          Heirloom varietals still exist because of small scale niche producers.

                                          1. re: Brandon Nelson

                                            Absolutely. Monocropping a.k.a "big agriculture" threatens biodiversity, which threatens the long-term survival of a given type of plant. I could get more scientific than that, but I don't want to get myself going :)

                                            1. re: pickledtink

                                              How else do you grow wheat, soybeans, corn, rice, sugar cane, etc. for a population of 300 million plus enough for export? That's not possible on small organic farms.
                                              USAID, CARE, and the UN aren't sending organic lettuce to Congo and Darfur.

                                              1. re: MakingSense

                                                That's the fundamental problem isn't it? We sell them our food but at the same time destroy their farming. The predominate occupation for people in poverty is in fact farming. Organic farming was never meant for export and the attraction to it is that it must be local for it to make sense.

                                                Think of it like Walmart. The argument is that the lower prices is a good thing but they push out a lot of smaller stores in the community. In the end they must close shop and a lot of them wind up working for Walmart. They get paid much less at Walmart so even though the items they buy cost less in the end there is a net loss in the community.

                                                If you truly believe our place is to make the world's food then the countries we are selling to should have a product for us in return. So there is no moral argument against selling food to most of industrialized Europe and Asia. But Congo or Darfur isn't going to be making cars anytime soon so taking away one of the few occupations that truly anyone can do is really not a benefit to the country.

                                                1. re: Captainspirou

                                                  Congo and Darfur are refugee situations. They're not farming, nor are they able to, nor will they be able to any time in the foreseeable future.
                                                  India was an importer of food and they are now a net exporter. Our sales to them did not destroy their farming. It helped them while they developed.
                                                  There is a role for large scale agriculture. We will always need food for export for various reasons. Countries that have to have food given to them or are unable to produce enough to feed their own people are not usually in a position developmentally to produce much in the way of exportable products that return enough foreign exchange to survive economically, nor to progress. These are the world's basket cases.

                                                  Marginal businesses often fail in areas where a Walmart stores locates if they are unable to adapt to the changing business climate. Some change and proper, while others close. New businesses open as a result of the development around the new Walmart store, usually resulting in a net gain of jobs for an area and an increase in the tax base. The new jobs may be several miles down the road, but they are new jobs and are an economic asset to the area served by the Walmart.
                                                  Many more people are able to buy many more items at lower prices much closer to their homes, resulting in fewer miles driven and money saved both in gas and purchases, than when they were forced to pay high prices at small stores or drive long distances to discount stores for affordable goods.

                                                2. re: MakingSense

                                                  I'm not saying that all big agribussiness is bad, only that some organic faming s providing an essential service by keeping genetic diversity alive.

                                                  1. re: pickledtink

                                                    I agree, but it's not just "organic" farmers who do this. There are lots of small farmers who don't bother with organic certification, or who may use Integrated Pest Management methods, who are doing just as much to keep that diversity going. They deserve a lot of credit too.

                                                    I think it's foolish to bash so-called "agribusiness" in general when they have done a great deal of good. It would be nice if everyone in the world could eat from a nice garden that had adequate rainfall and few pests or diseases, but that's not reality. If my garden fails, I can go to the store. If a subsistence farmer's crop fails, his family starves. Science and technology have developed crops that are drought and pest/disease-resistant, and these have meant the difference in life and death in some areas of the world. No-till farming has meant less erosion in areas where there is drought, saving the land for future generations, and building up its fertility. That wouldn't happen without some of the scientific advances from "agribusiness." Maybe we're not happy with all they do, but they also have made miracles possible.

                                                3. re: pickledtink

                                                  this is a red herring. there are huge organic growers and small conventional growers, too. varietal mixes, ownership structures, etc., are almost exactly the same. Earthbound Farms farms more than 40,000 acres now. i think what's happening is the common confusion of "organic farming" with "creative farming." the latter is what's important and it can be done by organic farmers, non-certified organic farmers and farmers that use chemicals responsibly.

                                              2. re: pickledtink

                                                Ummm don't those pesticides, herbicides and fungicides impact the people in the fields who are growing the food as well as the general environment? There may be a question as to the impact of trace elements of those chemicals on me but there is way too much evidence about long term intense exposure to laborers who are breathing the stuff all the time.

                                                Same with the chickens/cows/pigs. Maybe the organic free range chicken from my local farmer has no more nutrition than the Safeway chicken but I assure you, it tastes a damned sight better AND I don't have to deal with the guilt of knowing that an animal lived a life in torture and misery so that I could pay $.89 a pound for my chicken dinner. And while it does cost more, well, that just means I eat less meat and that isn't so bad either.
                                                For me it would be unethical to say that I think all people have equal rights except farm workers who should have to breathe toxic chemicals I wouldn't spray on my lawn. And if its wrong to keep 40 cats in a single house, why is it okay to keep chickens similarly confined? I guess I am just striving for consistency in my life.

                                                1. re: jenn

                                                  of course, if misused, any of those things can be dangerous. But farms are full of dangerous things that are absolutely necessary and harmless if used correctly. and there are very strict regulations about how those things can be used (which is not to say that regulations are always followed).
                                                  As for the flavor of organic chicken ... compared to what? compared to an arkansas battery hen? probably. compared to foster farms? possibly. compared to a free-range non-organic hen? questionable. taste rocky and rosie side by side and see. remember, it's all a matter of gradations.
                                                  40 cats? i'd say that was a matter more for your neighbors. it's like that argument against foie gras: "would you like to have a pipe shoved down your throat?" Well, no, but I don't swallow fish whole either, so maybe these analogies are sometimes flawed.

                                                  1. re: FED

                                                    Agree with all points. I've found, actually, that the quality of chicken is more affected by the way it's processed than anything else: air-chilled chicken has both a better texture and a better flavor due to not being waterlogged and/or infused with salt solution.

                                                  2. re: jenn

                                                    It's perfectly possible to keep 40 - or 400 - cats in a single facility at a well-maintained animal shelter. It's not allowed in a residential setting for sanitation reasons.
                                                    A chicken house can be maintained in a clean and safe manner. They must comply with regulations and are inspected by authorities. "Cat houses" aren't.

                                                  1. Here's a summary of the week's debate from Slate.