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Is Buying Organic Worth It?

KUT News

A Stanford University study published today doubting the health benefits of organic fruits, vegetables and meats has some Texas farmers raising questions.

The study, authored by Dena Bravata, MD, MS, was published in today’s issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. It found no consistent differences in the vitamin content of organic food versus the cost-cutting, conventionally grown alternative.

“That study doesn’t really look at a lot of very important factors,” says Judith McGeary, founder of the Texas-based Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. “Vitamin content isn’t the only issue, even for adults. One issue is the exposure to pesticides, which are to be blunt, poison. And the study did show that there was significantly less exposure to pesticides from organic produce than from conventional."

Researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats. But McGeary points out that the study completely ignored beef: a mainstay of the Texas diet. She says that the difference in health benefits from beef boils down to grass-fed, which can be organic, versus the conventional, grain-fed option.

“Grass-fed (beef) is higher in omega three … It's often higher in vitamin E and lower in saturated fats,” McGeary says. “There's just a long list of nutrient differences in grass-fed meats that have significant health benefits for people.”

The U.S. organic industry was valued at $29 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. It continues to boom, jumping nearly eight percent in the last year. But some are already suggesting that the study will trigger a debate about the value of this expensive alternative in an otherwise wounded economy.  

The New York Times writes that “The conclusions will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying.” NPR’s food blog The Salt notes all veggies are not created equal:

When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that's true whether they are organic or conventional. One carrot in the grocery store, for instance, may have two or three times more beta carotene (which gives us vitamin A) than its neighbor. That's due to all kinds of things: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather.

“Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, a co-author of the report says in a statement. “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.”

In Texas, McGeary urges consumers to buy local. “The great thing about buying local is you can ask the questions. You can ask, ‘Where did this food come from? How is it raised? Why should I buy it?’” she says. “Americans’ health is getting worse and worse and worse. And we know that our health is linked to our nutrition and our diet. There are ways to address that. And the best way is to know where your food is coming from and be able to take some control over the nutrition in it.”

Reshma Kirpalani works as a freelancer at KUT News.
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