VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Are Organic Foods Really Healthier?
September 12, 2012 - The high cost of organic food is the deal breaker for many eaters but some are willing to fork the bill in order to get the best nutrients. Until now, there have been many studies of organic versus conventionally produced food but no long-term studies that give real insight into whether healthy eaters are really getting what they are paying for. A team of researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, including VA Palo Alto Health Care System's Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, endured the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranging from two days to two years. After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.
The Stanford study stemmed from patients of Dr. Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of the paper written on the study, repeatedly asking about the benefits of organic products.
"There wasn't a comprehensive synthesis of the evidence that included both benefits and harms," said Bravata after researching within a large body of confusing literature on organic foods and coming up with no satisfying answer.
"This was a ripe area in which to do a systematic review," said first author Dr. Smith-Spangler, who helped to conduct the meta-analysis with Bravata and other Stanford colleagues.
During their research, they went through thousands of papers, identifying only 237 relevant enough to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. Many are still stunned by the results that came from this extensive study.
While shoppers will avoid products with pesticide residue when buying organic foods, they will have fewer benefits to leverage when justifying the high costs of buying these products.
"In some ways such findings are good for the average consumer who looks at food as black and white, and no longer will have the excuse that eating healthy costs too much," says Bria Heymach, recreation therapist and employee fitness & wellness coordinator for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. "However, if you are pregnant, have kids, or consider more global issues like the environment and farmers exposure, you still may want to consider organic, as the study admits much higher residue pesticide levels in non-organic foods."
Other Stanford co-authors are Margaret Brandeau, PhD, the Coleman F. Fung Professor in the School of Engineering; medical students Grace Hunter, J. Clay Bavinger and Maren Pearson; research assistant Paul Eschbach; Vandana Sundaram, MPH, assistant director for research at CHP/PCOR; Hau Liu, MD, MBA, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford and senior director at Castlight Health; Patricia Schirmer, MD, infectious disease physician with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System; medical librarian Christopher Stave, MLS; and Ingram Olkin, PhD, professor emeritus of statistics and of education.
The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in the September 4, 2012 issue.