September 6, 2012

Studies reveal raw truths on organic foods

A review of studies finds little increase in nutrient or vitamin content, but some buyers say their goals are to avoid pesticides and help local farmers.

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

A study released this week casts doubt on the idea that organic foods contain more nutrients than conventional foods, but some experts and shoppers say nutrition isn't why they buy organic food.

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Beth Taylor of Portland shops at the Fishbowl Farm stand Wednesday at the Portland farmers market in Monument Square. She said she tries to buy organic because she wants “clean food” grown mostly free of such things as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Anna Korsen of Portland, shopping with her 2-year-old son, Arlo Korsen-Cayer, says, "I tend to buy organic because of the impact conventional farming has on the environment and the pesticides that are in a lot of conventionally grown food."

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


In 2010, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association counted 582 organic farms in Maine, which generated over $36 million in sales.

The study, conducted with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Planning Office and the University of Maine, also found that “organic farmers are more likely to be younger and female than their conventional counterparts,” and that organic agriculture creates slightly more jobs per farm than conventional agriculture.


U.S. Department of Agriculture’s legal definitions:

100 percent organic: Can contain only foods grown or produced without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, radiation, genetic engineering, antibiotics or hormones.

Organic: Must be made from 95 percent organic ingredients that meet the above criteria.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients that meet the criteria.

LABELING: The name of the certifying agent, such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, must appear on the label. Anyone certified through MOFGA can use the USDA organic label, the MOFGA label or both.

Several Mainers said Wednesday that they choose organically grown food because they want to ingest fewer pesticides and they support the more environmentally sensitive practices of organic farming.

"I tend to buy organic because of the impact conventional farming has on the environment and the pesticides that are in a lot of conventionally grown food," said Anna Korsen of Portland, who shopped Wednesday at the farmers market in Monument Square with her 2-year-old son, Arlo Korsen-Cayer. "I don't want that in my body or my family's bodies."

In the study, published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, a team led by two physicians at Stanford University examined previous studies comparing the nutritional quality of conventional and organic food. The team found that organic food can reduce exposure to synthetic pesticides, but it did not find statistically significant evidence that organic farming boosts the vitamin or nutrient content of produce.

The review of 237 research papers, including 17 studies and six random clinical trials, did find that organic milk may contain higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and that organic chicken and pork contained fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised products.

The study's authors based their work on the premise that consumers choose organic food because they believe it is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown and raised food. Yet Mainers who buy organic food, and researchers who study organic farming, say the study misses the mark.

"It's a red herring," said Molly Anderson, chair of Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. "It's asking the wrong question. The nutritional reasons are not the reasons why I think people are buying organic."

Instead, she said, consumers are being driven toward organic by the issues of conventional farmers who routinely feed antibiotics to healthy animals, and the use of synthetic pesticides and subsequent soil and water degradation.

Many public health experts have blamed the use of antibiotics in conventional farming for the rapid rise in antibiotic-resistant strains of deadly bacteria.

"(The researchers) were operating within that very narrow and non-systemic viewpoint that a physician has, of what affects an individual consumer, and not what affects ecosystem health and the health of the population," Anderson said. "To my mind, that's not why we buy organic, to get a little extra vitamin C. We do buy it to get a little less pesticide residues and to support a healthy environment and the continued efficacy of antibiotics on which the population depends."

The study's findings didn't surprise Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. She has conducted comparable trials on wild blueberries, with similar results to what the Stanford researchers found.

"We haven't seen a lot of differences when we've looked at conventionally grown produce and organic produce," Camire said.

But Camire agreed with Anderson that superior nutrition isn't the driving factor behind sales of organic food.

"It really comes down to do you want pesticides," she said. "Organic practices are oftentimes better for the environment. It's something that I think a growing number of consumers are thinking about."

Her assessment was echoed by shoppers Wednesday at the farmers market in Portland.

"I feel like organic is better for the environment altogether and better for our health," said Susan Lakari of South Portland. "I try to buy organic when I can. I like to support the farmers because I think they're working hard."

Beth Taylor of Portland agreed.

"I'm looking for clean foods that keep farmers clean," Taylor said after buying organic heirloom tomatoes.

Some shoppers, such as Matt Powell of Scarborough, said other factors influence their purchases of organic food.

"I buy what looks best," said Powell, who buys organic and conventionally grown produce.

After buying organic vegetables at the farmers market, Rachel Lawrence of Gorham said, "I shop here more because of local. I'm less focused on organic."

Catherine Morlino, who was visiting Maine from Boston, said that although she buys organic food, supporting local farmers is more important to her.

"I look more for local," Morlino said. "I like to support local businesses in general."


Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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Today's poll: Organic food

Do you think buying organic food is worth it?



View Results