The word is pleasant, nice-sounding with no sharp edges. It brings to mind naturalness. From the Earth. Not larded up with additives or chemicals.
The word is organic.
The value of organic vs. non-organic food has been the subject of a fair amount of debate. Now, a Stanford University study has catapulted that debate back into the headlines.
“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata of the Stanford School of Medicine, senior author of a paper on the subject published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine on Sept. 4. The paper reported on an analysis of existing studies that examined organic foods vs. conventional foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies products as organic if they meet requirements such as being produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, or antibiotics or growth hormones. Sales of organic foods reached more than $31 billion last year, up from $3.6 billion in 1997.
Bravata, a physician and senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, said that patients often asked her about the health benefits of organics, and she didn’t know how to answer them. She studied the literature, and found a confusing array of often contradictory studies, some of it in trade publications. The Stanford study examined 237 papers on the topic. The group was unable to find specific organic fruits and vegetables that were the healthier choice when compared to their conventional counterparts, and was unable to find greater health risks associated with non-organic food.
So does this mean consumers should not buy organic? Not necessarily.
“If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” Bravata stated, naming taste preferences, environmental impact, and animal welfare. “Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said research team leader Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor at Stanford’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”
This study can be viewed as a positive for producers and consumers of non-organic food. It can also be seen as providing an opportunity to move forward with research and debate on what we consume, how and why. And it can be seen as a challenge to prove the benefits of organics.
Duke University offered an inaugural class on the subject, “Food Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Why, What and How We Eat,” this year, a course that was open to all members of the community. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers “What’s Dinner? Toward Understanding an Endangered Species,” an interdisciplinary honors course that takes a close look at food through the lenses of cultural, social, economic, and environmental sustainability. In 2009, a six-part Sustainable Food Systems Seminar alternated between the two campuses.
It is a very important topic, with far-reaching implications for consumers and producers alike. Though the Stanford study might not point to health benefits of organics, it sheds light on what we can expect from the label, and the more information we have on what we eat, the better.
— The Durham