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Is Organic Food Healthier?

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Is that Stanford study right? Is organic food really no healthier?

Last week, Stanford University researchers published a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that they said showed organically-grown food to be no more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. Chaos ensued, as consumer advocacy groups, fellow researchers and environmental and parenting organizations condemned the study, suggested financial ties to food giant Cargill motivated it and even filed a petition to have the research retracted from its journal.

As of publication, a petition with Change.org had 3,351 signatures, on the grounds that it didn't factor in the potential health consequences of genetically modified foods, high fructose corn syrup and other additives that are found more often in conventional foods than in organic ones. As Rosie Mestel wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The scientists weren’t studying genetically modified foods (though if GMO foods were in the conventional data, one might think that GMO-caused health factors would have revealed themselves in the results). And they weren’t studying high-fructose corn syrup -- they were only reviewing fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, dairy, poultry and meat. Not processed foods.

The article, in other words, wasn’t about the entirety of everything that people think is wrong about the way our food is grown and produced today. It wasn’t even about every type of difference between organic and conventionally grown food.

Alarmists were not the only ones sounding the alarm, so to speak. As HuffPost's Lynne Peeples reported, a researcher who published a similar analysis in 2011, Kirsten Brandt of Newcastle University, had several criticisms. During the course of her research, she discovered that organic food was indeed nutritionally distinct from conventionally grown food.

"The choices they made don't seem to make sense -- they seemed to include ones where the difference was smallest to begin with," Brandt told Peeples. "I'd like to know why they chose these and not others that were just as well-described in the same papers they included."

As for the study itself, what were they actually trying to prove?

Researchers Dr. Dena Bravata, of the Center for Health Policy, and Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor for Stanford's Division of General Medical Disciplines, conducted an analysis of the 17 most relevant studies that compared the health of subjects who ate either organically or conventionally grown food over periods as short as two days and as long as two years. They also looked at 223 studies that compared organic and conventional foods in terms of levels of various nutrients, as well as bacterial, fungal and pesticide contamination.

They found very little difference between the composite nutrient profiles of organic and non-organic foods. And while they found that conventionally raised pigs and chicken were more likely to yield meat that was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant microbes, the overall microbial levels on organically and conventionally-grown foods were similar.

They did find two studies that showed how children who ate conventional produce had higher pesticide levels in urine samples than those who ate organic foods.

"There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," Bravata said in a statement about her study's results. Smith-Spangler added that she was surprised by the results.

Given that similar analyses have found different results, it makes sense to take all of these studies with a grain of salt. While we might not yet know the health impact of the differences between organic and non-organic foods, we have plenty of information to make a personal decision in the supermarket aisle that extend beyond nutrients.

Avoiding pesticides and antibiotic-resistant infections are two good reasons to eat organic food, but they aren't the only ones: some believe that organically-raised animals are also more humanely raised and evidence shows that organic farming is the more environmentally-friendly option. And given the lack of longitudinal study, it's impossible to know what long-term health outcomes both of these options would have.

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