Marion Nestle: Organic Health Study 'Asking the Wrong Question'

While Stanford University researchers say organics are not necessarily healthier, they may be focusing on the wrong issues

Stanford University researchers recently announced that organic products aren't necessarily healthier than generic products, and now every healthy-eating tote-bag-toting grocery shopper is feeling jipped. But perhaps they're thinking of it the wrong way.

Researchers concluded that organic fruits and vegetables don't have more vitamins and nutrition than their generic counterparts, and they weren't any less prone for bacteria contamination.

And while generic produce did have more pesticide residue, levels were "almost always" under the safety limits set by the Environment Protection Agency.

So what's the benefit of going organic? Researchers did find that organic meats, while no more healthier, were less prone to bacteria contamination. Furthermore, organic milk tended to have more omega-3 fatty acids. And finally, as New York University professor Marion Nestle points out, eating organic is not only about nutrition, but also about environmental health.

"Organics is about production methods free of certain chemical pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge. The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing," Nestle told us in an email. "The public is willing to spend more for more nutritious food but environmental health is a harder sell as is lower levels of pesticides — which this study clearly confirms."

Nestle also mentions that differences between produce tend to be small, and results can be affected by researchers' choice of growing condition and nutrients. But in general, plants will have the same nutrition based on what they need; richer soils may produce better crop, but fruits and vegetables will only produce the vitamins necessary to survive.

Still, this doesn't mean we should stop paying for organic food, Nestle says. "Are organics healthier? Unquestionably yes — for the planet," she wrote. "They also reduce levels of pesticides in blood. There are questions about whether lower amounts of pesticides in the body are bad for health (here, too, the science is difficult) but I don’t see they could be good. This and other such studies are asking the wrong question."

Other organizations are pointing out that lower levels of pesticides are still important factors to consider, especially as past sudies have shown that prenatal pesticide exposure could damage IQ. In the meantime, here are 10 reasons why organic food is so expensive, so you can decide if it's worth it.