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Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer to Eat?

Robert Paarlberg is the B. F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.  His new book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs To Know, carefully examines and explains the most important issues on today’s global food landscape.  Politics in this area have become polarized and Paarlberg helps us map this contested terrain, challenging myths and critiquing more than a few of today’s fashionable beliefs about farming and food.  In the excerpt below we learn about the organic food.

Many who buy organic goods believe such foods are healthier than conventional foods because they contain more nutrients.  Others believe organic foods are safer to eat because they carry no pesticide residues.  Nutritionists and health professionals from outside the organic community tend to question both of these beliefs.

The strongest claim of superior nutrient content has been made by the Organic Center, an institution founded in 2002 to demonstrate the benefits of organic products.  In 2008, the Organic Center published a review “confirming” the nutrient superiority of plant-based organic foods, showing they contained more vitamin C and vitamin E and a higher concentration of polyphenols, such a flavonoids.  This review was rebutted, however, by conventional nutritionists who showed that the Organic Center had used statistical results that were either not peer reviewed or not significant in terms of human health.  Organic milk from cows raised on grass may indeed contain 50 percent more beta-carotene, but there is so little beta-carotene in milk to being with that the resulting gain is only an extra 112 micrograms of beta-carotene per quart of milk, or less that 1 percent the quantity of beta-carotene found in a single medium-size baked sweet potato.

Most certified health professionals find no evidence that organic foods are healthier to eat.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”  European experts agree.  Claire Williamson from the British Nutrition Foundation says, “From a nutritional perspective, there is currently not enough evidence to recommend organic foods over conventionally produced foods.”  In 2009, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study, commissioned by the British Food Standards Agency, of 162 scientific papers published in the past 50 years on the health and diet benefits of organically grown foods and found no evidence of benefit.  The director of the study concluded, “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally-produced on the basis of nutritional superiority.”  The acidity of organic produce was found to be higher, which enhanced taste and sensory perception, but there was no difference for health.

The claim that organic food is safer due to lower pesticide residues is also suspect in the eyes of most health professionals. The Mayo Clinic says, “Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to [pesticide] residues.  Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.”  Residues on food can be a significant problem in many developing countries, where the spraying of pesticides is poorly regulated and where fruits and vegetables are often sold unwashed, straight from the field.  Yet in advanced industrial countries, such as the United States, this risk is seldom encountered.  In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration analyzed several thousand samples of domestic and imported foods in the U.S. market-place and found that only 0.4 percent of the domestic samples and only 0.5 percent of the imported samples had detectable chemical residues that exceeded regulatory tolerance levels.

What are the tolerance levels?  The United Nations, through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), has established acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels for each separate pesticide. The ADI level is set conservatively at 1/100 of an exposure level that still does not cause toxicity in laboratory animals.  Moreover, actual residue levels in the United States on conventional foods are well below the ADI level.  For example, when FDA surveyed the highest exposures to 38 chemicals in the diets of various population subgroups, it found that for 4 of these 38 chemicals estimated exposures were less than 5 percent of the ADI level.  For the other 34 chemicals, estimated exposures were even lower, at less than 1 percent of the ADI level.  Carl K. Winter and Sarah F. Davis, food scientists at the University of California-Davis and the Institute of Food Technologies, conclude from these data, “[T]he marginal benefits of reducing human exposure to pesticides in the diet through increased consumption of organic produce appear to be insignificant.”

It is true that conventional foods are sometimes not safe to consume, but organically grown foods can also carry risks.  In 2006, bagged fresh spinach from a California farm in its final year of converting to organic certification was the source of E. coli infections in the United States that killed at least three and sickened hundreds.  In 2009, there were nine documented fatal episodes of salmonella poisoning from peanut butter and ground peanut products traced to peanut plants in Texas and Georgia, both of which had organic certification.

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15 Responses to “Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer to Eat?”
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gary Novosel and 1Earth1U, Becky Carter. Becky Carter said: Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer to Eat?: OUPblog (blog) His new book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs To Kno… http://bit.ly/dkp2ie [...]

  2. Timm! says:

    Two other things that the “Organic” label doesn’t mean: that the food is automatically better for the environment or a promise that the workers involved were treated and paid fairly. I can burn down 40 acres of rain-forest and plant organic veggies. I can hire migrant labor to pick my organic fruit and pay them very little, work them long hours and provide them with inadequate housing.

  3. John says:

    Timm! – Organic is better for the environment! It mean no pesticides going into the water supply

  4. Organic Food or what we call natural food is really safe to eat. As long as you follow the recommended dosage there is nothing to worry about. All you will feel is the benefits of it on your body.

  5. John says:

    Timm! – Organic is better for the environment! It mean no pesticides going into the water supply
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

  6. [...] people to buy from local farmers and to buy organic when possible.  That’s why I found this article very interesting. It essentially says that organic foods are not healthier nor are they any safer [...]

  7. JChan says:

    This article is not true. The FDA wants you to believe that pesticides are not harmful – read Maria Rodale’s book Organic Manifesto to get the real scoop. All these “researchers” listed are being paid off to shutup about how toxic the chemicals are in U.S. crops. Get smart and don’t believe what the media shoves down your throat.

  8. Meshia Renee says:

    i really think that organic good is safer because would you want you kids to eat something that has been sprayed with pesticides and does not use the healthiest items, NO!!!!!1

  9. [...] Lauren Appelwick, Publicity Robert Paarlberg, author of  Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a leading authority on food policy, and one of the most prominent scholars writing on agricultural issues today. He is B.F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Soon after his “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers” article in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Policy, Paarlberg was asked to testify in front of the House Committee on Agriculture. Below, he shares his thoughts on this invitation.  Read an excerpt from his book here. [...]

  10. DuncanM says:

    Generally I think organic foods like vegetables taste better and so feel as though they are better for you. On the other hand people are often put off buying organic veg because they have grown used to the uniform appearance of non-organic produce.

  11. angila says:

    According to my opinion, Organic Products are healthier as well as safer for us. there should not be any controversy on it because the point is very clear. They does not include pesticides, they grow in natural environment, they are full of nutritions and vitamins, they help to avoid many dangerous diseases like cancer. What else do you want from your food?

  12. Even if the FDA studies show a low exposure risk, do we really want to take a risk if not necessary. DDT was in use for a long time before its negative impacts were recognized. Unfortunately, it may take many years for the full impact of many of the pesticides in use today to be known. Each microgram of pesticide we ingest, through eating or drinking, or breathing pesticide overspray, can potentially remain in our bodies to build up a toxic load. If you can afford it, go organic.

  13. Dr Al Sears says:

    The food at major grocery stores travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there. A typical carrot is transported 1,838 miles. And a lot of produce even comes Mexico, Asia, Canada, South America and other countries.

    By the time it lands at your supermarket, it just isn’t the same as when it was fresh the ground or picked off the tree. Produce loses nutrients during transport. And it loses more while it sits on the shelves at the store, and more nutrients are lost in your refrigerator.- Dr Al Sears MD

  14. It is genuine that conventional foods are occasionally not secure to consume, but organically grown foods can also carry risks. The claim that organic food is safer because of lower pesticide residues is also suspect in the eyes of most health professionals.

  15. In my opinion, what should be also considered when talking about organics is the ground in which the food is grown. If there is no pesticides but the ground is poisoned who cares if it’s called organic.

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