There is little nutritional advantage to organic food

There is little nutritional advantage to organic food

In many of our local supermarkets, there is a section of organic produce in addition to produce that is traditionally farmed. For those of us selecting and preparing food for our families, we often wonder what items, if any, we should purchase with the organic label.

When I shop, I typically choose traditionally farmed foods for my family’s meals. There are certain items I choose to purchase organically grown, if available; but most I leave on the shelf. Ultimately, I value meals eaten at home, with a variety of colors on the plate, more than organic exclusivity.

Some of my families, however, feel very strongly about the benefits of living organic. It seems that family values, lifestyle, or financial means often dictate organic choices, rather than nutritional goals.

Here’s what we know

It is hard to say that organic items are a more nutritious option. We know organic produce (as all produce) is only as nutritious as the ground it came from. Studies on organic nutritional quality is difficult to generalize, therefore, since product comes from so many different farms. In addition, we know that the “organic” label means different things on different products. These labels can be confusing, and in some instances, deliberately misleading. Together, it is sometimes difficult to actually know what you are getting.

On the other hand, organic produce does offer decreased consumption of pesticide residue. We know chronic exposure to pesticides used in traditional farming is harmful to humans. The challenge, however, is that most of the studies showing harm from pesticide exposure are from observations of farm workers with direct exposure to these chemicals. The effect of pesticide exposure through consuming traditionally farmed produce is less clear.

All considered, according to a recent review in Pediatrics, experts concluded there is little nutritional advantage to organic food. The authors did conclude, however, organic food production does provide less exposure to pesticides, while likely having less environmental impact.

More practically speaking, if choosing organic foods is going to limit the rest of your grocery budget to more processed food items, then organic is likely not worth the money.

But, if you are organic-curious, here are some suggestions:

1. Buy seasonally. Seasonal produce is often less expensive than out-of-season items. Often, organic and non-organic seasonal selections will have very similar price points.

2. Think about supporting local famers who supply healthy food. In Kansas City, we have great local markets in different parts of the city. Local and regional farmers can bring their produce to us, allowing our dollars to support their efforts. Get to know your local markets in Kansas and Missouri.

3. If you want to include some organic items in your grocery budget, focus your buying habits to limiting your child’s exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group has a list of the “dirty dozen.” These produce items are the ones testing highest in pesticide residue, and likely should be the first choices when make a buying change. Regardless of the produce you buy, common sense dictates a good wash before consumption.

4. What about milk? There is no evidence that organic milk has clinically relevant superiority to conventional milk. Hormones in milk are not  biologically active once in the stomach. Organic or otherwise, milk should not be a significant part of your child’s diet (see my Milk Rules for more info.) Bottom line: Buy organic milk for the taste, not the nutrition.

My greatest goal is for families to eat together as often as possible, regardless of organic items on the plate. Prioritize family meals, keep tech off the table, and enjoy.

Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.

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  • Price Weston

    Most studies don’t look at antioxidents rthat require sufficent minerals in the soil but instead on look at things tgat require oxygen, water, and nitrogen. That way they can say rhere is no advantage to organic. Gaming the research I call it.

    • _userM9801

      The quality of the soil does affect the quality of the food grown in it, but that’s regardless of whether you grow the food “organically” or conventionally.

      • Molly_Rn

        And the microbes in the healthy soil are killed by pesticides and herbicides. Why is this so hard for people to understand?

        • dooberheim

          Actually, genetics dictates the quality and nutritiousness of produce far more than soil quality does. Soil quality is more important for yield, not nutrition.

  • _userM9801

    You mention pesticides more than once, but not the residue on organic food, which actually kills people by the score: E. coli.

    Yes, organic foods are less likely than conventional foods to have pesticide residues, but organic foods test higher in e. coli. Pesticide exposure is hard to understand and scary, but pesticides on food are typically found at levels thousands of times lower than harmful levels. E. coli, which comes from fecal matter (“organic fertilizer”), just sickens and kills people. Even in tiny amounts.

    A couple of years ago, vegetable sprouts from just one single organic farm in northwestern Germany caused an E. coli outbreak that sickened nearly 3,000 people and killed 29, according to the head of Germany’s national disease control center. If they’d been sickened and killed through pesticide residue rather than poo residue, we’d have never heard the end of it. Instead, all the super-mommies still think “organic” is sooooo much healthier than that awful conventional stuff.

    Especially for families with pregnant mothers and/or small children, I would think the threat of poo residue with organic foods worth mentioning at least as much as the “threat” of pesticide residue on conventional foods. Honestly, if something on their food is going to sicken or kill them or their kids, it’s probably more likely to come from organic foods than from conventional ones.

    • ninguem

      Actually, I have to agree with M9801.

      I am not clear if there is a direct advantage to organic foods.

      Nevertheless, I shop at the organic stores all the time.

      There can be taste advantages to organic foods.

      There may be a theoretical advantage to that pesticide-free food.

      The price you can pay includes E. Coli outbreaks, that can be fatal. So be careful what organic foods you get, and from where.

      The farms used to be local, and there’s an advantage to that.

      I also remembered the occasional rotten egg in the carton, as a little kid.

      • _userM9801

        Your rotten egg anecdote reminds me of my mother setting the (home grown) broccoli to soak in saltwater an hour or two before cooking it. As she’d pick out the little white grubs which would float to the surface, salt-poisoned and air-starved, she’d sing, “See? Mother Nature gives this broccoli her seal of approval! It’s good for her babies, it’s good for us!” Hahaha. That was in the days before Whole Foods, and when “organic” simply meant “carbon-based”.

    • Trey

      Very true, most food danger comes from nice friendly “natural” and “organic” pathogens. Safe food handling and storage techniques save far more lives than simply “buying organic” does.

  • azmd

    I would invite you to educate yourself a little more regarding the effects of pesticides on children and on developing fetuses, by reading this article:

    There is a growing body of evidence that pesticide exposure in utero and in childhood is linked to birth defects, childhood cancer, cognitive delays, and adverse endocrine effects.

    I am quite frankly shocked that any thoughtful pediatrician would actively encourage the parents of their patients to preferentially buy “traditionally farmed food.” Knocking down the straw man of the nutritional benefits of organic food is a clever way of disregarding the more important benefit that organic food confers, which is that of being pesticide-free.

    • EE Smith

      Did you read that study? Most of the pesticide exposure they’re talking about has to do with direct exposure to pesticides (farm workers, industrial exposure, parents using too many pesticides in the home or yard). Not pesticide residue on food.

      • Molly_Rn

        But the soil remains poisoned and that does affect our children. And the poison accumulates over time and the organisms in the soil that make for healthy soil are killed. Read the New York Times article “Some of My Best Friends are Germs” by Michael Pollen.

        • Trey

          In response to an article on whether it’s superior to feed children “organic” food, you replied: “There is a growing body of evidence that pesticide exposure in utero and in childhood is linked to birth defects, childhood cancer, cognitive delays, and adverse endocrine effects.” But the pesticide exposure being analyzed there didn’t come from children eating conventionally farmed foods, it came from external environmental exposure.

          • Molly_Rn

            The quote wasn’t mine but I do believe that exposure to chemicals whether from our furniture and carpet to the food we eat and the dust particles blowing off conventionally farmed land do us serious harm and most especially our children. And by the way where do you suppose the pesticides in “the external environmental exposure” come from??? They come from the farms that grow the food with pesticides and herbacides. Why don’t you just drink a cup of “Roundup” and see if it effects you?

          • Trey

            “Why don’t you just drink a cup of “Roundup” and see if it effects you?”

            If you cannot understand that it is perfectly safe to feed your child well-washed celery from a conventional farm, but not safe to have them drink straight herbicides, I don’t think there’s any point in trying to reason with you.

          • Molly_Rn

            Trey, the Roundup goes on the ground and in the run off into our streams and lakes that people use for drinking water.

          • Trey

            So does dog shit. I wouldn’t recommend feeding that to your child either.

          • Molly_Rn

            Dumb answer.

          • Trey

            It’s all your straw man deserved. Food safety is a science, not an airy-fairy “belief system” that everything “natural” is “good”; everything man-produced is “evil”.

          • Molly_Rn

            You need to educate yourself about what happens to pesticides and herbicides.

          • Trey

            You chose one of the safest non-residual herbicides in existence, glyphosate, as your “what if it gets in our streams?!” bogeyman. Please don’t presume to lecture me as to who needs “education” here.

          • Molly_Rn

            Big Ag doesn’t use the safest non-residual herbacides, they use the cheapest and most powerful. Talk to the folks trying to solve the pollution problem of Puget Sound from run off of herbicides and pesticides.

          • Trey

            Washington State hosts the nation’s fastest growing population of vaccine deniers.

            The population of Puget Sound and surrounds is more at risk from “earth mothers” who refuse to vaccinate their children because “IT’S NOT NATURAL!!!!” than from glyphosate run-off.

            Again, there is some basic education lacking here, but not on my side of things.

          • Molly_Rn

            Nope, Oregon has us beat. I too believe the vaccine deniers are a menace to society but that has nothing to do with our states efforts to reduce runoff from agriculture of pesticides and herbicides that are polluting Puget Sound amongst other waterways. Man, You just don’t get it do you.

          • E.R.A. Triano

            I think you might want to Google glyphosate and look at the latest studies before you argue that particular point any further.

      • E.R.A. Triano

        So it’s OK to kill migrant workers and their kids, because who cares about them? Just so long as the food that reaches YOUR table is OK? That’s vile.

        • Guest

          You are insane.

          • E.R.A. Triano

            Possibly true, but my observation regarding your comment is relevant, and your response to it is irrelevant and childish.

  • Obinna Akunna

    This is shocking coming from a pediatrician and this is the problem with medicine today.

    On any given subject, medicine says….”the evidence shows that x and y does not cause z”. So go ahead and eat x and y because the evidence as of TODAY is that it is safe. How stupid is that? Do you want to trust your nutrition to today’s prevailing wisdom or use the preponderance of centuries of evidence?

    Let’s put it this way….Is there really a doubt that the obesity epidemic or the rising cancer rates is from anything other than our environment and the food we eat? Are we really that arrogant to think that our genetically engineered food is just as good as organic ones just because we add nutrients back? Can we really be stupid enough to continue to trust the recommendations of “experts” or the FDA?

    From your post, it seems like we are. You are entitled to your opinions….but please stop spouting it off as facts.

  • Guest


  • Obinna Akunna

    Yes, we science deniers will continue to shop at Wholefoods, believe in cooking our own food and trust the safety record of herbal medications.

    • Guest

      You said: “Is there really a doubt that the obesity epidemic or the rising cancer
      rates is from anything other than our environment and the food we eat?”

      That is not scientific fact. Shopping at Whole Foods will not prevent cancer, or obesity for that matter.

      • dooberheim

        “Is there really a doubt that the obesity epidemic or the rising cancer rates is from anything other than our environment and the food we eat?”
        According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of cancer is actually down 20% since 1990. Cancer is not on the rise.
        As far as obesity, is there any doubt that cheap, sugar and fat laden foods, as well as a pervasive lack of exercise, is the cause of our obesity epidemic?

      • Sonia

        Actually there’s some very interesting evidence that childhood obesity is directly connected with anti-biotic usage. One wonders how this might be compounded and expanded when you account for anti-biotics in animal feed.

        Google this phase “Giving antibiotics to babies ‘raises obesity risk’” for an article on a 10.000 subject study.
        Here’s an excerpt:

        ~ Dr Leonardo Trasande, a paediatrician at the New York University School of medicine, said: “We typically consider obesity an epidemic grounded in unhealthy diet and exercise, yet increasingly studies suggest it’s more complicated.

        “Microbes in our intestines may play critical roles in how we absorb calories, and exposure to antibiotics, especially early in life, may kill off healthy bacteria that influence how we absorb nutrients into our bodies, and would otherwise keep us lean.” ~

  • Molly_Rn

    There is a huge advantage to the soil and to the planet by growing organically. The burden of pesticides and herbicides that kill vital soil organisms and pollute our creeks, rivers, lakes and ocean would be gone. How can eating food that hasbeen sprayed and grown in soil that has these chemicals in them be good for anyone? We are performing a wild science experiment on ourselves and our planet with these hundreds if not thousands of chemicals that have not be thoroughly been tested for their effects (including cumulative effects) on us and the planet.
    We have problems with autism, obesity, cancer and these have increased as the amounts of chemicals in our food have increased exponentially. Maybe there is a link. Maybe we should not allow this use of chemicals until the science has proven them safe.

    • Trey

      Millions upon millions of people would die of starvation if you were to impose “organic” farming principles on the world.

      • Molly_Rn

        What proof do you have of this? Please do not offer proof either provided by, bought by or created by industrial agriculture. If people didn’t waste land and resources on beef, we could feed everyone organically. Organic doesn’t mean no fertilizer or irrigation, just that the fertilizer is organic.

        • dooberheim

          But how many people would want to give up their hamburgers? Beef is the quintessential American meat. We’ll continue to raise it, just as we’ll continue to drive huge cars in the face of expensive fuel and climate change. Sure, organic agriculture is better for soil, but it’s also more expensive, and it really isn’t any better for you. Some things you won’t change, no matter how much you may be right.


          • Molly_Rn

            Actually organic fodd is better for you unless you are fond of eating pesticides and herbicides. Beef is the quintessentially marketed to stupid American’s meat “It’s what’s for supper”; the beef producers tell you that beef is American by God so you should eat it. We ate fish, eels, pork and chickens before we ate meat in the US. If we stopped subsidizing big ag then organic would not be more expensive.

  • SBornfeld

    Well done! The trope about organic produce not being nutritionally superior is a straw man we can do without. How do you feel about antibiotic residues in milk?

    • Trey

      Even “organic” farms use antibiotics on sick cows. What, do you think they just let them suffer and die?

      All food animals in the US, “organic” or not, that are treated with antibiotics must go through a withdrawal period before their meat or milk can be shipped to the market. All milk loads are tested for antibiotics, and any tanker which tests positive for a drug residue is rejected before entering a dairy plant and does not enter the market for human consumption.

      The most recent national survey (2012) found that only 0.017 percent of all bulk milk tankers showed any sign of an animal antibiotic drug residue. That figure is based on information reported to the Food and Drug Administration’s National Milk Drug Residue Data Base by state regulatory agencies under the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments. It is a fact.

      There are much better arguments against humans drinking huge quantities of cow’s milk — “organic” or not — than the antibiotic hysteria.

      • SBornfeld

        I think you know I’m talking about antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth, not therapeutic antibiotic use.
        If every lot of milk is tested for antibiotics, the residue would obviously not be a concern (though of course promotion of resistant bacterial strains in meat, not milk, are a concern).
        In practice, I wonder how comprehensive the testing is. I have zero first-hand knowledge of this–just the word of an acquaintance who is an inspector in the USDA–who told me there is no way all lots of imported food can be inspected. Perhaps state testing of mild is comprehensive and effective (though I’m inclined to doubt it).

        I see no hysteria here, but anyone reading MMWR has to be concerned with the consequences of antibiotic overuse–quite apart from residues in food.
        What would you consider “huge quantities”?

        • Trey

          Imported food is a whole ‘nother kettle of (contaminated) fish. In fiscal year 2009, for example, the FDA only tested one-tenth of one percent (!) of imported seafood products for residues, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Despite there being evidence that up to 10% of imported farm-raised shrimp, for instance, is just crazy full of drugs like enrofloxacin, chloramphenicol, and nitrofuranzone at levels way exceeding anything resembling safety (20x the FDA limit of nitrofuranzone in some samples I saw tested last year).

          Then there are all the other contaminated products (from mouthwash to heparin) we import, and do only cursory testing on.

          We are very good at setting and enforcing standards for American-farmed food, IMO, but completely drop the ball when it comes to letting in products from countries with no standards whatsoever.

          • SBornfeld

            I infer that you are involved at the regulatory level.
            I thank you for your informed reply.

      • Debbi Baglione

        Actually most organic farmers use holistic and homeopathics to treat sick animals. If they have to use antibiotics they will detox the animals!!!!!

        • Guest

          Homeopathy doesn’t work for cows any better than it works for humans. Not treating your animals’ infections is animal cruelty, you should be turned in to PETA.

          • Debbi Baglione

            hmmm interesting because I have never taking an antibiotic in my 43 years of life, neither have any of my animals. And I know quite a few farmers who would disagree with you. Plus there are also herbs and minerals that heal and cure

  • Maisy

    Professor Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), conducted a study in 2008 that monitored pesticide levels in children who normally at non-organic fruits and vegetables but who were given only organic over a five-day period. “During that five-day period, most of the pesticides [in the children’s urine] disappeared,” Lu said. “We believe the most vulnerable population would be small infants and children, because of their small body weight.” Possible negative health effects from pesticides include impaired mental development or problems with motor skills.

  • Vikas Desai

    It’s time to quell the nonsense being fed by fear mongerers in regards to hormones in food being the cause of all our woes.

  • E.R.A. Triano

    There is some good (and not uncommon) information in this article, however, the headline is unhelpful and maybe even harmful. A lot of people don’t read past headlines, don’t care about worker exposure, and will glom down inferior food and mindlessly repeat “Oh, you know, studies have shown that organic food isn’t really any better for you.”
    It’s not just about how many vitamins are in this piece of spinach… it’s about living in a world of limited resources, a world we all have to share.

  • Daniel Keskitalo

    the point of organic is less poison, not more nutrition, why do these same idiot articles keep popping up?

    • R Brian Gardiner

      Because the pesticide companies pay these morons to write these deliberate and misleading articles. Just like the tobacco companies

  • Samurai

    The above article and the article it quotes from are both dancing around the real issue that organic farming is good for humans, good for the environment and essential for the long term survival of our species. The medical establishment, paid to pump humans full of poison in the form of pharmaceuticals, is being exposed for what it is, a feudal guild that is not concerned with the health of the patient. The chemical establishment, beginning with Monsanto, is being exposed for pumping us full of poisons using the indirect route or GMOs and pesticides.

  • Kim Rossi Stagliano

    I love docs who bash healthy food – organic is not about nutrition, it’s about toxic pesticide load. But hey, if people eat well and stay healthy, pharma doesn’t make money. And docs today are pretty much the final sales arm for pharma – not healers.

  • Cassia Leet

    this article is PROPAGANDA…Monsanto and the other food giants are desperate to make consumers think their GMO pesticide laden food is safe… Buy organic to save the planet and health.

  • Michele Boy

    Did you really just say that it is ok to let the farm worker get sick due to exposure to pesticides? And can you not see that he is the canary in the coal mine?

  • Debbi Baglione

    What a ridiculous article. Of course organically grown food is healthier, it’s not overloaded with chemicals…..It has been proven pesticides cause harm to people, animals and Mother Earth!!!

  • Jeff Simon

    Beet kale salad from organic sources = healthy.
    Beet kale salad from toxic pesticide sources = unhealthy.
    If you have to wear a hazmat suit to ‘dust’ crops, what kind of density do you have to possess to think this wouldn’t impair the value of the food when it gets to your plate.

  • Disqus_P908fS3

    Good grief. A swarm of tinfoil-hat wearing scientifically illiterate alt-health moonbats has just homed in on this post.

  • ednak

    Natasha, you poor thing. So very ignorant. Big Pharma and Monsanto certainly trained you well to trumpet their toxic propaganda. I truly feel sorry for the children you “treat” with your allopathic modalities.

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