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Freak-Out Fridays: Is Organic Produce Really Worth It?

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Welcome back to Freak-Out Fridays, where health experts weigh in on just how worried you should be about health threats in the modern world. Struggling with your own quandary? Send it to freakoutfridays@marthastewart.com.

Q: I’ve been spending a lot of money on organic groceries for years, thinking they were healthier for me, but this week all my friends were talking about a study showing organic produce isn’t any healthier than conventional fruits and veggies. (Here's the New York Times recap of the research.) Was it all a sham?

A: I've read this study and many related ones in detail, and we need to keep in mind that this new report isn’t definitive. Others have found organic food to be nutritionally superior, including a 2009 report by the French Agency for Food Safety, which found that organically-grown foods contain more minerals, antioxidants, and beneficial fats. In addition, a study that compared the nutritional content of organic and nonorganic chicken found that the organic samples were leaner and contained more healthful omega-3 fatty acids. An analysis of organic milk found that it packs more beta-carotene, vitamin E, and lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants known to protect vision.

But even if there were no significant nutrient differences, there’s much more to the organic versus conventional story. I believe organic food is superior for three key reasons: fewer pesticide residues; reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and the impact of organic standards on food sustainability. The Stanford study reported that the organic samples contained 30 percent less pesticide residue, a critical finding as emerging research indicates that pesticide residues may be a factor in rising obesity rates.

The Stanford report also noted that the risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria was 33 percent higher in conventional chicken and pork compared to organic. That’s significant because according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has contributed to the rise in drug-resistant germs.

The Stanford report also failed to take sustainability into account. USDA-certified organic food is produced without bioengineered genes (GMOs) or synthetic fertilizers. Fertilizer runoff has been linked to algae blooms in our oceans, and organic agriculture supports healthier soil and promotes broader biodiversity.

For all of these broader reasons, a commitment to organics is growing among consumers. According to a recent report from the Organic Trade Association, more than three-quarters of Americans choose organic foods at least occasionally, and about 30 percent have recently begun purchasing organic products. I know I’ll continue to do so, and I’ll keep recommending them.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is a Whole Living advisory board member and the New York Times bestselling author of S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim.

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