Last week, the media made one of their occasional nutritional pronouncements: “Organic foods not healthier,” read headlines around the world. The Stanford University study on organic vs. conventional produce was ripe for misinterpretation — particularly given the sensational press release, “New study undermines health benefits of organic food.” It was widely reported as a “gotcha” moment for the organic food movement, as if we’ve all been hoodwinked into buying precious, expensive produce based on patently false health claims.
I’m no scientist, but I have been cooking and advocating organic foods for 40 years because I’m convinced that they are healthier — for our bodies, for the people who grow them and for the earth. Nothing in the Stanford study changed my mind; read closely, it actually supports what we know — that organic foods contain far fewer pesticides that are proven harmful to our health than conventional foods. And it’s silent on perhaps the most important issue: that organic foods help sustain a healthy environment for ourselves and our children.
The study (it wasn’t actually new research, but a meta-study of existing data, mixing apples and oranges of studies on population and produce nutrient and contamination levels) concluded: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
But this doesn’t mean that organic foods aren’t more nutritious — just that there’s very little evidence. Determining whether organics are more nutritious would require a huge, lengthy study comparing a large group of people eating strictly organic foods to a control group eating conventional foods, measuring their health outcomes over decades. No one has done that.
Instead, the Stanford researchers looked at studies demonstrating clinically significant improvement in subjects after short periods of eating organic foods. Not surprisingly, they found few. As Charles Benbrook, a researcher at the Organic Center in Boulder, Colo., notes, this is a fairly ridiculous standard. Switching from conventional to organic food isn’t apt to show huge clinical improvements in health within two years, curing heart disease or cancer. Organic vegetables are healthy, not magical.
The only short-term studies the Stanford researchers looked at that showed big differences in health outcomes were important ones; during pregnancy and the first few years of life, organic foods can reduce the odds of the adverse health problems that have been linked to the consumption of pesticides — birth defects, behavioral and learning problems, and autism, among others. Given years of research that confirms organophosphate pesticides can harm both fetuses and young children, and the widely growing consensus that they contribute to our ever-increasing cancer rates, I’m more than convinced that it’s healthier to eat organic.
In reporting the study, the media used the words “healthy” and “nutritious” as if they were interchangeable. If a vegetable is “healthier” because it has more vitamins in it, as you might list them on a package, then no, organics don’t necessarily contain “significantly” more nutrients. But the nutritional content of a piece of produce isn’t what makes it “healthy.”
To me, “healthy” means that we aren’t spraying toxic chemicals on the food we eat; we aren’t dousing agricultural workers with those poisons; and we aren’t depleting the earth with chemicals. “Healthy” means that we are nourishing the soil with compost; we’re keeping the water clean; we’re preserving the earth for future generations; and we are treating nature and our bodies with respect, not reckless disregard. “Health” means foods that are picked ripe and bursting with flavor, that are so delicious that children and adults alike will want to eat their fruits and vegetables. And more fruits and vegetables, we do know, means better health.
Nora Pouillon is chef at Washington’s Restaurant Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the country.