Spending Extra for Organic Will Not Probably Lower Medical Costs

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As a dietitian, when I counsel patients about how to adopt a more healthful diet, I often hear “but eating healthy is too expensive.” To which I often reply, “You can pay a little more for healthy food now or pay the doctor later.” However, there is one apparent exception to this train of thought. Spending more money on organic foods is not likely to make you any healthier in that effort to avoid the chronic diseases that cause doctor visits.

Between 1997 and 2010, sales of organic foods in the U.S. rose from $3.6 billion to $26.7 billion. Consumers can pay up to twice as much for organically produced foods, perhaps based on the common perception that organic foods are better for you than non-organic ones.

Dena Bravata MD MS, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler MD MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines, conducted an extensive meta-analysis of the current available data comparing organic and non-organic foods. More than 200 studies conducted between January 1966 and May 2011 were identified by the authors as being relevant.

Organic certification requirements and farming practices vary, but to be considered organic, foods should be grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, processed without irradiation or chemical food additives, and not grown from genetically modified organisms. For meat to be considered organic, the animal cannot be given unnecessary antibiotics or growth hormones and be fed an organically produced, pesticide-free diet.

For the most part, what the researchers found is that "there isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," says Dr. Bravata. There was no strong evidence found that organic foods are more nutritious (ie: have more nutrients) or carry fewer health risks than non-organic alternatives with the exception of the mineral phosphorus and with omega-3 fatty acid in milk and meat.

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Organic produce appears to contain more phosphorus than conventional fruits and vegetables. However, phosphorus deficiency in the United States is extremely rare, occurring only in people near starvation.

In a few small studies, organic milk and chicken contain more omega-3 fatty acids than the regular variety.

Although organic foods may not improve your nutrition levels, there may still be benefit to choosing them. Organic produces does reduce your risk of pesticide exposure as they have about a 30% lower risk of contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables. But even regular fruits and vegetables are within what the government currently defines as “safe levels,” notes Brevata.

Additionally, some studies have found that organic meats harbor less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. People may also choose organic because of taste preference, concerns about the environmental effects of conventional farming practices and to promote animal welfare.

Keep in mind that this is not likely the final word on whether or not organic is better for you. Most of the studies did not evaluate long-term human health as a consideration for purchasing organic versus non-organic as the longest study was only two years (the shortest – two days). There are also so many factors to take into consideration when talking about farming practices that a handful of research articles could not cover in its entirety, such as weather, soil type, animal genetics, and so on.

Ultimately, one should choose a diet based on what we do know are more healthful foods – whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Avoid excessive amounts of sugar, trans-fats and heavily processed foods. These dietary changes can potentially save a lot of money in reduced medical costs for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Journal Reference:
Crystal Smith-Spangler, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012; 157 (5): 348-366

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Comments

If you spend on nutritionally poor foods, you're getting less for your money anyway. But your medical costs will be lower if you don't eat pesticides and get sick from them. The Cornucopia Institute reminds us that even small amounts of pesticides can contribute to poor health because they are endocrine disruptors. Like anything, I suspect some people are more vulnerable to the effects than are others - worth thinking about too. I think it's good to be cautious. I can't imagine - from a common sense perspective - that consuming pesticides is healthy - regardless of vitamin and mineral content of organic foods vs not organically grown.