Americans may be bargain seekers, but not at the expense of their health. A recent survey showed that more people are buying organic, despite the rise in food prices.
The research, conducted by Harris Interactive for Whole Foods Market, is marked with bias, but it points to an interesting trend: a majority of Americans, 73 percent, will not compromise on food quality.
Whether or not consumer demand for drug and pesticide-free food really is as large as the survey claims, there is no doubt that sales of organics have grown considerably. The U.S. market for organic foods has risen from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $28.6 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association.
While many consumers believe that organic foods are worth the added cost—in some cases double that of non-organic foods—a September 2012 report from Stanford University suggests that the higher price might not be worth it. The highly publicized study concluded that “there isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods” in terms of nutrients or health risk.
Given such strong consumer support for organic foods, Stanford researchers were accused of ties to the agriculture industry, but study authors said that they received no industry compensation for their report.
Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said that the problem with the Stanford report is not so much with what they said as it is with what they did not say.
Dr. Forman is a lead author of a study released Oct. 22 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). He said that when it comes to the question of nutrient content in the comparative studies available, both Stanford and the AAP drew the same conclusion.
However, according to the AAP, the data was not very insightful.
“This is a major public health issue, and as far as I can tell, totally ignored when reporting on the Stanford study.”
– Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York
“We wanted to be pretty clear that those studies are mixed and fraught with problems of confounding variables and varying testing techniques for the nutrients,” Dr. Forman said, adding that many critical factors determining nutrient content were sorely lacking.
Similarly, when examining the issue of pesticides, both groups agreed on the facts—people who eat conventionally raised food experience considerably higher pesticide exposure. However, their interpretations were decidedly different.
Stanford researchers said that the pesticide issue was meaningless because levels found on the conventional produce did not exceed government standards.
“Whereas we say, government standards aren’t a bright line below which there are no health effects,” explained Dr. Forman. “They are complicated numbers, derived at by taking everything into consideration, and are not exclusively health-based.”
According to the AAP, evidence suggests that children are “uniquely vulnerable to chemical exposures” from conventional produce—even at federally acceptable levels. But Dr. Forman said that the ones most victimized by industrial agriculture are the people working the fields.
“Clearly, the reduced use of pesticides is much better for the farm workers who are totally not represented,” said Dr. Forman, referring to studies that show poisoning and even long-term neurocognitive damage of farm worker offspring.
The safety of conventional fruits and vegetables may be in dispute, but it is not so with meat. Both studies agreed that the excessive, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in conventional factory farming increases the risk of exposure to drug-resistant bacteria.
“This is a major public health issue, and as far as I can tell, totally ignored when reporting on the Stanford study,” said Dr. Forman.
“This is a big deal. You know, the CDC spends a lot of time investigating multi-state outbreaks that traces some of this stuff right back directly to animals,” he said. “And surveys of animal meat show over and over again that organic has less drug resistant bacteria on it.”
Despite the benefits organic farming provides, not everyone can afford it.
While Dr. Forman suggests that most Americans could do with less meat, the AAP advises that any fruit and vegetable consumption is better than none at all, and it offers tools for consumers to determine which conventional foods have fewer pesticides.
Price is the biggest obstacle in choosing organic, but it does not have to be. Dr. Forman said that there is a growing body of evidence showing that organic farming techniques could be just as cost effective as conventional, as long as there is policy to support it.
“I think we need to slightly alter the playing field so that we at least support and encourage organic production in the same way that we have the chemically-based conventional production,” he said. “I think if we do that, as the market grows, those cost differentials will decrease.”
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