Organic Is Worth It—and Here's Why

The nutritional reasons for eating organic are rock solid, according to research. Add the environmental, economic, and wellness reasons, and it's a no-brainer.

May 11, 2010

Help yourself: Organic food is nutritious, but that's not all it gives you.

Maybe you heard the hullabaloo over a 2010 journal review written by a well-known researcher who has spent a lot of time discrediting the nutritional benefits of organic food. In the article, Joseph Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus of food toxicology at Rutgers University, suggested that organic food might not be worth the cost. This "new" review didn't include any new content, or address dozens of recent studies that prove the nutritional value of organic food. Nevertheless, nutritional considerations certainly influence the food choices we make, so it's a worthy conversation to have.

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That said, eating organic involves a lot more than the nutritional content of the food itself. In 2010, the mainstream medical community—in the form of the President’s Cancer Panel—took the major step of urging Americans to eat organic food because of its many benefits, including the fact that it's grown without chemicals, pesticides, drugs, and hormones linked to cancer, as chemically grown foods are.

But back to nutritional content, where organic still appears to have an edge over conventional, even if the differences are more complicated to measure than you might think. "We agree that many variables impact the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods, that differences can vary by year, and that more research is needed to accurately quantify the differences," explains Chuck Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, which generates peer-reviewed research on organic farming and products. "The [UK-based] Soil Association and The Organic Center have never stated that organic food is always more nutritious,” says Benbrook. “But on average, across years, types of food, soils, genetics, and so on, it’s about 25 percent more nutritious. That’s what the literature shows."

But again, the difference between organic and chemically grown food is not just a matter of nutritional content; it’s a matter of what organic food doesn’t contain, namely pesticides. With organic farming, these substances are less likely to be in the air we breathe, the soil we till, and the water we drink. Which is precisely why Phil Landrigan, MD, environmental health expert and professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, prescribes organic food. "For me, the most compelling argument for organics has always been the reduction in pesticide exposure," says Dr. Landrigan.

Compelling is right. Mainstream research has linked pesticide exposure to a higher incidence of leukemia, childhood brain tumors, breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, miscarriage, birth defects, diabetes, obesity, developmental problems, and many other ailments. Dr. Landrigran cites a recent peer-reviewed study of people who ate conventional food, then switched to organic and saw an 85 to 90 percent decrease in pesticide levels in their bodies. When they started eating conventional food again, their pesticide levels shot back up. "To me, that's a very compelling finding," he says.

Beyond nutrition, consider these benefits of organic food and why it's better for our bodies, the environment, and the economy:

•  Organic food cannot be grown using chemical pesticides that make us sick and put a burden on our healthcare system. Pesticides used in chemical farming have also been implicated recently in colony collapse disorder in bees, a disaster that threatens our food supply. (Bees pollinate our food crops.)

•  Organic food cannot be grown using human sewage sludge, a nasty by-product of wastewater treatment plants that must deal with heavy metals, plasticizing chemicals, chemicals from personal-care products, and pharmaceutical drugs.

•  Organic meat and dairy animals cannot be raised using growth hormones or antibiotics, both of which are used to prop up animal health in crowded, filthy conditions such as cattle feedlots or battery-cage chicken operations.

•  Organic farming nourishes the soil, creating better conditions for crops to thrive during droughts. Healthy soil's spongelike quality also reduces flooding, saving taxpayer money and headaches. The beneficial microorganisms in soil also trap carbon, helping to keep it out of the atmosphere where it exacerbates climate change.

•  Organic food cannot be grown using genetically engineered seeds. These manipulated seeds, commonly used to grow corn, soy, cotton, and canola, are made to withstand heavy doses of pesticides that cover the plants and eventually end up inside them (and us).

•  Organic eating even has the potential to lower taxes.