Is Organic Food Actually Healthier?

An expert explains what science really says about eating organic

More often than not, organic food comes at a higher cost than conventional, non-organic food. So, naturally, we want to know whether or not it's actually worth the extra money—if it's actually healthier.

Well, the answer is, it might be, but not because it has a greater nutritional value.

"A widely-cited Stanford study published in 2012 which reviewed over 200 articles on the topic found that that there’s not good evidence that organic foods have a higher nutritional value," says Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, senior advisor for healthcare solutions to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

She added that a 2010 review concluded similar findings, pointing out that there isn't much data to support any claims that organic foods are healthier from a nutritional standpoint.

There's also the concern of pesticides, though.  

"As for safety, the Stanford study found that you're less likely to ingest pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria if you choose organic," Muth said.

She also mentioned a study involving preschool children from Seattle. Researchers found that compared to kids who ate organic, the kids who ate a conventional diet had significantly higher levels of pesticides in their urine.

"But higher urine pesticides haven’t been connected to real health outcomes, although intuitively it seems like a good idea to minimize consumption of toxic chemicals," Muth added.

If you are concerned about consuming pesticides and would rather avoid them, Muth says that their is likely value in following resources like, the "clean 15" and "dirty dozen," that indicate which foods have the least and most pesticides.

"The 'clean 15' and 'dirty dozen' from the Environmental Working Group is actually a pretty good resource and gives you a good indication of relatively how much pesticides are contained in the conventionally-grown produce," Muth said. "The clean 15 have not much and are just fine to choose conventional with little risk of high intake of pesticides. The dirty dozen on the other hand tend to have a lot higher levels of pesticides."

The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "dirty dozen" list includes:
Sweet Bell Peppers
Cherry tomatoes
Snap peas (imported)

The EWG's "clean 15" list includes:
Sweet corn
Sweet peas (frozen)
Sweet potatoes

As Muth pointed out in an article on the ACE website, at the end of the day you have to make your own decision about buying organic foods.

She wrote, "It may be that the spirit of organic foods (which you can often tap into at a local farmer’s market or by nurturing your own garden)—like good use of natural resources, minimal use of toxic compounds, sustainable farming and supporting local business—is more important than whether or not the food is actually grown organic."