Organic vs Non-organic

Friday, September 07, 2012

Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and professor of Sociology at New York University, co-author with Malden Nesheim of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, discusses the recently revived debate over the benefits of consuming organic vs conventional foods.



Marion Nestle

Comments [66]

TNC from QNS

This is very strange. I have been exposed to various health food fads since the 1970s (whole foods, organic, etc.) and I never met anyone who said organic foods were more nutritious. Not once. Claims are made that organics are healthier for you but this is not the same as saying the foods contain more nutrients. As pretty much everyone else pointed out, the healthier aspect is the lack of inorganic pesticides and other chemicals. For many of us--including my parents back in the 70s and myself as a parent today--that benefit alone is worth the increased cost.

Another thing, a few people have mentioned that the foods they taste from local farms taste much better than the food they get in the grocery store. I agree. However, if they are getting these items at NYC Green Markets--including the big ones at Union Square and Grand Army Plaza--the vast majority of that food is not organically grown. You ever notice that one stand at Union Square selling the lettuce and other greens for like $10/lb? And then all the others are selling lettuce for $2 a head? That should give you a clue right there. There was actually an article in the NYT this weekend about how most small and medium-size local farms are not going organic because they cannot make any money.

Sep. 10 2012 07:40 AM
Alethea Adsitt from Brooklyn

The assertion Ms. Nestle makes that organic food is for the wealthy is ludicrous. Especially as a professor of public health, where education is vital, I am shocked at her position that almost reads as learned helplessness. There are many farms in NY State that offer CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) shares that have tiered pricing. The lowest income bracket (which I was on before I got out of grad school) comes out to less than $15/week for 2 big bags of amazing food! And they drop off in numerous neighborhoods. Also, farmer's markets accept food stamps/WIC, so why this apathetic position?

I haven't read the study, but this whole segment seems a little slapdash, and likely misinformed, and overly simplified, trying to shed light on an issue but raising more questions about the validity of the content than making me think about an alternative position.

Sep. 07 2012 11:42 AM
Natura from NYC

If anyone believes ingesting pesticide residues-with their toxic, hormone-disrupting effects on people contributes to human health, I suggest they visit the Environmental Working Group's website and read more about the side-effects of these chemicals. Not only does eating organic vegetables and fruits keep more of these toxic chemicals out of peoples' bodies, but reduces peoples' exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria. See their latest response to the Stanford study:

I believe the quality of the soil where the food is grown biodynamically is superior, and the water runoff less toxic. There are studies by agronomists who connect the use of genetically modified seeds in the decline in the health of herds fed the food grown from those "Roundup-Ready" seeds. Organic food, which does NOT use GMO seeds, does not produce those problems. Here's just one link to an interview with an agronomist about some of the problems now being discovered, as a result of following this GMO-mode of food cultivation:

The Stanford study does not address enough of the problems with non-organic produce.

Sep. 07 2012 11:42 AM

@kaili baucum

That would be a good topic - but probably better suited to Lopate's show where guests are usually more informed and not interrupted. There have been studies on this -- and some suggest that local buying results in more fossil fuel usage. Big Ag is pretty efficient at production and distribution. You can have local and organic and still be efficient, but in general, Big Ag is more efficent from a delivery perspective. I believe that local is better for overall ecological health, but fuel efficiency is not an automatic benefit.

Sep. 07 2012 11:41 AM
kaili baucum


Can you get someone on the show to discuss the impact of shipping in organic produce from far off places on the environment? It seems that local produce would prove more environment friendly than some organic produce. I'm not sure that some/most/all organic eaters are weighing the impact of the truck emissions being released as their organic produce crosses the country when they make the "organics are better for the environment...if they're no earth health doesn't matter...." argument.

I don't know the answer here, but it seems like it's worth looking into.

Sep. 07 2012 11:31 AM
Henry from Manhattan

I like to support local agriculture too. Up to a point.

I still like coffee and chocolate and bananas and pineapples, and fruit and vegetables that don’t grow here, or don’t grow here year round.

I like international trade. I like areas to grow food that can grow food easily rather than struggling to grow everything in my climate. I like efficiency of scale that stocks supermarkets across the county with abundance so that we have the luxury of arguing about which blueberries taste better or has "more nutrients".

Sep. 07 2012 11:28 AM

Good effort at questioning the "science" - worthy of any religious fundamentalist's screed.
Query dearie:
Could you cite a written work of Ms. Nestle's that warns against expecting "organic" (? as opposed to 'petrochemical'?) food to be more nutritious?
My expectation is that any such statements are recent and in the context of the current controversy.

Sep. 07 2012 11:28 AM
Donna Walsh from Katonah, NY

I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as a child and it had a profound impact on me. In Silent Spring Ms. Carson asserted that uncontrolled and unexamined pesticide use was harming and even killing not only animals and birds, but also humans. She raised the concern that if all birds were destroyed we would never hear a bird sing again. Ms. Carson's documented scientific research caused me to choose to support organic farming and eating from that moment on....for the benefit of all living creatures and the health of the earth itself.

Sep. 07 2012 11:27 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Well said Carolita. To say that an heirloom tomato, grown in season, that's allowed to ripen naturally, as opposed to its gas ripened, pesticide, GMO counter-part, or a chicken that is allowed to run around freely, as opposed to one that has to stand in its own feces and pumped with just enough anti-biotics to keep it alive until slaughter - taste the same, is ridiculous.

Sep. 07 2012 11:27 AM
Karen from NYC

Also: my husband had a few medical issues associated with aging, and was told by his doctor that all his blood tests were "perfect" (I'm purposely being vague here). Our son, who is interested in alternative medicine -- much to the initial scorn of his Mom and Dad, I might add -- said "No way!", and designed a supplement/herbal regime for his Dad.

The medical issues were completely resolved in one week.

So my theory -- in addition to my DNA comment -- is that our knowledge is limited in this area. "Garbage in; garbage out": if we are looking for the wrong things in the wrong places, we'll get the wrong answers.

Sep. 07 2012 11:26 AM
Amy from Manhattan

There's an indirect effect of organic food on human health, at least for animal products: overuse of antibiotics in non-organically raised animals has promoted the increase in resistant strains of bacteria, which threatens the health of the general population, even those who eat only organic meat & dairy, because the bacteria spread by other routes than being eaten in food.

Sep. 07 2012 11:26 AM
Tara from new york city

No one has mentioned endocrine disrupters. Huge issue for national health linked to pesticides and hormones added to the food supply.

Sep. 07 2012 11:25 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

Again who funded the study? What dose it mean when the guest says it is an “independent study.” This dose not tell us anything. Show me the money.
Your guest views are well known. Her nutritional views are always pro mass industrial food production. The more chemistry the better.

Sep. 07 2012 11:24 AM
Paul Langer from Long Island

Since "organic" foods are relatively new, it's doubtful that anyone in the studies has been eating them for their entire lifetime. That makes the studies invalid.

Sep. 07 2012 11:24 AM
Paul from UWS

Can your guest comment on the study duration. 2 years vs 20 or 40 years makes a bit of difference in terms of pesticide effects and accumulation in the body.

Independent study?
Does your guest know that Stanford receives millions of dollars from "Food"
conglomerates such as Cargill. Scientits at Stanford also serve on the board of Monsanto. One of their scientists, Olkin, also was responsible for the junk science behind the tobacco industries attempt to prove their product was safe.

Sep. 07 2012 11:24 AM
Henry from Manhattan

Organic does not necessarily equal local. That’s a conflation.

My health food store has plenty of shipped organic produce. Apples from New Zealand. Bananas and pineapples from where ever.

Sep. 07 2012 11:23 AM
g from staten island

The speaker is talking about pesticide residue consumed in "small amounts". Well, small amounts mutltiplied times each day, week, month, year equals a lot of pesticide. Children used to consume small amounts of lead in paint dust--oops, now they are lead poisoned. Getting rid of lead paint in houses before-I think it is from before 1974- requires special techniques so the lead dust is not further spread around. How many years did it take to discover asbestos dust lead to serious lung disease. We cannot eat pesticides for decades while we wait for studies to determine we've been poisoned.
If pesticides were so good for you, the government would not suggest you stay inside during hours of spraying for West Nile Virus. "Bug spray" used during hiking would not be suggested for you clothes only, not your skin.
Also, non-organic produce has more likelihood of being genetically engineered.

Sep. 07 2012 11:23 AM
XTina from e. village

Yes, it hasn't 'identified a benefit'. That's because they have no idea what to look for. These studies are a waste of time becuase scientists have no idea what is healthy, so they don't know what to look for. Look how long it took them to figure out that vitamins exist.

Sep. 07 2012 11:22 AM
honey boo boo from Palo Alto (former NYC)

i have been listening to Brain for years. the quality of the callers for this segment are so poor, so ridiculously ill informed, i am about to tune out of Brain's show until it is over. this segment is so bad (caller wise) i actually came here and wrote a comment, another thing i have never done before.

Sep. 07 2012 11:22 AM
LaurencePassmore from Manhattan

The level of emotion on this thread is pretty remarkable. This is an *independent* study from Stanford that addressed an important question: is organic food healthier than non-organic? This may not be the only question worth addressing, but the health argument is thrown around a lot, including by several callers. Even your guest keeps on saying things like "the science isn't there yet" to demonstrate a difference (implying that there is a difference to be found).

Sep. 07 2012 11:22 AM
Karen from NYC

Could not keep holding, but the NYT reports that what was formerly regarded as "junk" DNA has now been identified as a key factor in controlling genes and has an important impact on who gets what diseases.

So isn't our info in this area pretty primitive, and so isn't anecdotal evidence important? Eating chemical-free, organic foods has, I believe, kept my family a lot healthier -- from 2 or 3 colds per year, to zero -- as Bill Clinton would put it -- colds in two years.

So we will keep eating organic.

Sep. 07 2012 11:22 AM
Henry from Manhattan

As Nestle said, organic versus conventional with all other conditions being equal ends up in a wash. People can’t really tell any difference.

The organic “tastes better” argument is a very weak argument.

Sep. 07 2012 11:22 AM
Milton Huertas from Seattle, WA

My children suffered from allergies, asthma, swollen face...switched to organics and the allergies, asthma, and swollen face went away. Many other parents we know claim the same.

Sep. 07 2012 11:20 AM

The study did not show no health benefit to organic food. The study showed 1) consumption of organic food may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and 2) the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Authors also noted studies were heterogeneous and limited in number and publication bias may be present. So -- there is not adequate evidence of a statistically significant difference, not proof that there is no difference, in nutrition. But there was evidence of less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic chicken and pork and evidence of less pesticides. That's not no health benefit to me. I was actually very excited to read these results, because to me it is a positive study demonstrating that my use of organic foods is reducing exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I see this as a positive study.

Sep. 07 2012 11:20 AM

Organic has now become a part of agri-business. So even if fruits & veggies are grown "organically" -- which is becoming increasingly difficult to prove -- they're still being harvested early and transported great distances. Far better is eating food that is locally grown food from farmers who are using sustainable methods. Many are not certified organic because this is an expensive bureaucratic hurdle. But most importantly you're getting food freshly picked with maximum nutritional value.

Sep. 07 2012 11:20 AM
Suzanne from Plainfield, NJ

Thanks for having Ms. Nestle on regarding this topic. When this study came out, I braced myself for the haters out there, who always send me anything negative about Whole Foods Market, organics, etc. People have this bias and I don't know where it comes from. I suppose it's as Michael Pollen says, we are spoiled by cheap food and we want everything cheap, but it costs more to grow organically, sustainably and raise animals more humanely. Organic has always been about environmental sustainability. This would take a more long term study to "prove" it. But you don't need science to perceive that chemicals and antibiotics aren't something you want to put in your kid's bodies!

Sep. 07 2012 11:20 AM

I know BL does not acknowledge commentors here, but these comments are correct: organic is not about nutrition rates, but about toxin levels. The study is misleading and this show is adding to that confusion when it could be providing clarity. bad segment.

Sep. 07 2012 11:19 AM

Organic means to me as a consumer that I don't have to worry about pesticides or GMOs. Organic food is also a reality check - what it really costs to grow food. Our cheap food is a mirage. People used to spend a greater percentage of income on food - now it's electronics etc.

Yes the health argument that makes us so "emotional," Marian - try getting a terminal diagnosis and not getting outraged at what agribusiness gets away with.

Sorry but I can't wait for science to confirm - that confirmation is likely to be temporary anyway. Tradition is a better way to know how to deal with food.

Animals for meat and dairy should all be grass fed - that's "beyond organic."

Sep. 07 2012 11:19 AM

Here is the link to the meta study:
I don't think including anything pre-1990 is even possible, definitionally. And I am not sure how the thesis squares with other research, such as the recent study showing organic strawberries do have an impact on fruit and soil quality.

Sep. 07 2012 11:19 AM

agggg, this meta study used studies that were only 1-2 years long. Long term effects of pesticides/herbicides were not covered!! So you can't say that this study shows that pesticides aren't harmful to your health.

I only buy organic; not only for my health, but for the farm-workers health and for the environment.

Sep. 07 2012 11:19 AM
John A

I'd bet serious money that taking just the tomato, that tests would verify its more nutritious. I eat 96% ordinary, 4% locally grown and have noticed much more flavor. Probably will switch.
Bravo the caller that said you're a part of the planet, poison that and it's no longer equal. Right.

Sep. 07 2012 11:18 AM

Most organic foods taste waaaaay better (unless it was transported from thousands miles away...). Always a difficult choice: do you buy organic blueberries from Chile, or blueberries from a farmer's market that were picked yesterday with a little pesticide on them..

Sep. 07 2012 11:18 AM
Henry from Manhattan

For the record. Pesticides are used in organic certification. Organic is not pesticide free, it just uses “natural” pesticides, and “natural” pesticides can be just as toxic as “synthetic” pesticides.

With that said, organic does seem to fair better by having less pesticide residues.

Sep. 07 2012 11:17 AM

Who funded the study? It has been presented that there was no corporate money behind the study, that is was entirely academically funded,'s a meta-study. So who funded the studies that this study is studying?

Sep. 07 2012 11:17 AM

I'm pregnant, and so I only eat organic fruits and vegetables, (if they are berries or have a thin skin) dairy products and meat, even though we can't really afford this, because I just don't know how the pesticides (and hormones and antibiotics in meat and dairy) will affect my baby. Once I stop breast feeding I'll probably return to conventionally grown foods. I don't know, I just don't want to take any chances.

Sep. 07 2012 11:16 AM
M. L. from New York, NY

I try to buy organic (or locally raised) meat because it tastes better, and I believe the higher cost reflects the _true_ cost of raising meat. My impression is that factory farming of meat is closer to animal cruelty.

Sep. 07 2012 11:16 AM

Wrong guest for the topic. Lets get some soil scientists on the line.

Sep. 07 2012 11:15 AM
Chris Lightcap from Brooklyn

This is the third or fourth time I've heard this story on NPR this week, and no one has raised the issue that is the most important one for me. How the food tastes! Organic milk simply tastes better than non-organic milk. It reminds me of the way milk used to taste when I was growing up. The same can apply to meat, vegetables or fruit..To me this is one of the most fundamental indicators of the overall quality of food, however subjective that may be.

I am however, not as sure about pre-packaged "Organic" foods made by large corporations... for example a lot of the things aimed at kids like cereals are loaded with 10 times more sugar than Cheerios and not at all vitamin fortified.

Sep. 07 2012 11:15 AM

Two questions: what was the time frame of the studies? I believe some claim that there's a long term accumulation of toxins. Second, is there a differentiation between specific produce where some are safe and others less so?

Sep. 07 2012 11:15 AM
Molly from Brooklyn

I have been buying solely organic produce since having a baby in March because I read somewhere that there are chemicals found in non-organic foods that mimic human hormones like BPAs can do in plastics. I wonder if your guest have ever heard about that.

Sep. 07 2012 11:15 AM
ethan from bk


this is the best series of callers you've had in at least a year.

Sep. 07 2012 11:15 AM
Henry from Manhattan

According to a Nielson poll, fifty-one percent of people believe that organic is “more nutritious,” so people complaining that the study is missing the point, is missing the point that the study is debunking a prevalent misconception.

If you are pro-organic, this is a good thing, it's better that people understand what organic is and not believe nonsense.

Sep. 07 2012 11:14 AM
Lunah from Philly

If one of the benefits to eating organic is "doing right by the environment," at what point does the environmental cost of shipping cross-country, or internationally, organic produce from point a to point b outweigh that benefit?

Sep. 07 2012 11:13 AM
Neil from Vero Beach, FL

What about the pesticides (neuro-toxins)that your avoiding by eating organic. That is definitely a health bonus.

Sep. 07 2012 11:13 AM
Capper from NYC

Can't we say that it's about supporting "local" farms. Not that all local farms are organic certified, but most are I think to compete. I'm all for supporting local farms.

But also, apples that are not organic tend to have a wax finish, which is horrible.

Sep. 07 2012 11:13 AM
Jenn from Ontario, Canada

Question for the guest - I thought organic foods were supposedly healthier because these foods naturally develop anti-oxidants in response to threats from the environment, whereas foods sprayed with pesticides don't need to develop this defence mechanism, so are therefore less rich in antioxidants?

Sep. 07 2012 11:12 AM
Macie from nyc

So organic is proven better for the environment, but hasnt' been proven for better human health?? Really? Is the guest really making the claim what we eat from the soil doesn't affect our health?

Shill. Next guest.

Sep. 07 2012 11:12 AM
DAN from manhattan

Couldn't it be that not seeing a health difference in people is that we are all exposed to a baseline of toxins, even if we choose organic food? In other words, we are all made sick to a certain degree by the environment- choosing organic is at least a step in the right direction!

Sep. 07 2012 11:12 AM

With enough fertilizer and a couple of other petroleum based products, non organically can be grown on the moon. Organically grown good needs real living environments to live and grow. That alone makes organic food better for human health. Just because humans don't include all points on the impact chain of a food doesn't mean human health Is not impacted if the entire chain is calculated.

This question is based on a selfish and cynical way of viewing food.

Sep. 07 2012 11:11 AM
Jamie from Times Square

This is NOT news!! Why is this on the air?? No one ever said that organic food had more vitamins. Yes please, tell me who funded this study?? (Now my father-in-law in Nebraska can say "I told you so." This is just great.)

Sep. 07 2012 11:09 AM
NJ Professor from Bergen County, NJ

I don't think anybody thinks that organic food has more nutrients or better nutrients, it is just CLEAN. Long term studies should look at diseases that come from eating non-organic foods, dirtier with chemicals. Higher incidence of some kinds of cancer might be related to what we eat.

Sep. 07 2012 11:09 AM
Eric from NYC>

The main advantage of organic farming is that it is better for the land on which the food is grown, including soil fertility, chemical runoff and sustainabilityl.

Sep. 07 2012 11:08 AM
Shana from Brooklyn

Just want to second the comments already posting. Organic food proponents do not typically tout that it is more nutritious, though what constitutes nutrition and how it is measured should be considered. Choosing organic food is about reducing the amount of toxic chemicals in our bodies and environment. Agricultural pollution causes significant damage to the land and water. Pesticides and herbicides are neuroendocrine disruptors that have long term, multi-generational impacts on health, including reproductive problems and contribution to illnesses like cancer.

Sep. 07 2012 11:07 AM

As other commenters have noted, the point is reduce pesticide consumption. I don't blame researchers for trying to answer this question but, to be clear, this is not the question on most people's minds.

Sep. 07 2012 11:07 AM
Shana from Brooklyn

Just want to second the comments already posting. Organic food proponents do not typically tout that it is more nutritious, though what constitutes nutrition and how it is measured should be considered. Choosing organic food is about reducing the amount of toxic chemicals in our bodies and environment. Agricultural pollution causes significant damage to the land and water. Pesticides and herbicides are neuroendocrine disruptors that have long term, multi-generational impacts on health, including reproductive problems and contribution to illnesses like cancer.

Sep. 07 2012 11:06 AM
Andrew from Eden

Does anyone have a link to the report? All I can find are comments on it.

Report aside, the planet has evolved for millions of years on organic food. How do we justify that we can now throw science and chemicals in every aspect of our lives without doing a generations long study. Not only do organic and additive/antibiotic free foods taste better, they make me feel better. Keep big oil out of my life

Sep. 07 2012 11:06 AM
carolita from nyc

First of all, organic tastes better. Taste is what converts most of us to going organic. Second of all, the first thing I noticed after the better taste was that organic food spoils a lot less quickly than non-organic does in my fridge. It becomes worth spending a little more on a lettuce that's not going to be a puddle of brown in my fridge in a couple of days, since I buy enough groceries to not have to shop every day.

But even more to the point: this study seems to be talking purely about nutrients and not the level of satisfaction. If your food tastes like cardboard, eating isn't as satisfying. You're not going to look forward to that salad. Maybe you'd rather have more carbs or more sweets. Eating food that tastes better is good for you, good for your health, good for your morale. I remember eating crappy food and thinking, huh, this is what I get for not being rich. But then I realized I was actually saving money in the long run by buying organic when it came to certain items.

Sep. 07 2012 11:06 AM
Pat from Maplewood

The study asked the wrong question, which should have been, "What are the benefits, if any, of farming and consuming organic products?"

Which makes me wonder who funded the study in the first place it's the most important question that no one in the media has yet answered.

Sep. 07 2012 11:06 AM

All you need to read is Michael Pollan's section in the farmer Joel Salatin, whose family ingeniously restored the soil on its Polyface Farm - no petrochemicals allowed. (The family has a veg garden, mostly they farm beef and poultry - also dairy) The whole book is both informative and entertainling - he obviously loves biology and he loves writing about it as much. (Botany of Desire is also quite wonderful but not about food sources)

Sep. 07 2012 11:06 AM

The study is moot, and I am 100% in line with all of these other posts. No one ever claimed that organic food has more nutritional value or was "healthier." You don't eat organic fruits and vegetables because they contain more vitamins--you do it to limit your exposure to pesticides and and to support responsible and sustainable farming. And the side effects of consuming pesticides are cumulative. Repeated consumption of non-organic fruits and veggies can cause fertility problems, among other ugly side effects, and exposure in children can lead to ADHD and lower IQs. So again, it's not about the nutritional value, per se, it's about what the pesticides do to your body.

Sep. 07 2012 11:04 AM
Michelle from Brooklyn

I prefer organic because it's better for earth, not necessarily because it's better for me.

Sep. 07 2012 11:04 AM
fairy from nyc

this "study" reminds me of the early cigarette ads that showed doctors recommending one brand over the other - sounds bogus.
mention the magic seeds of Monsanto!

Sep. 07 2012 11:02 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

What a silly study. As the other posters have said. I thought the whole point of buying organic, was to avoid pesticides/anti-biotics/GMOS, NOT to get "more nutritious" products.

Sep. 07 2012 10:56 AM

Getting More Nutrients is not the point of organic farming.

It's Fewer Toxins.

Sep. 07 2012 10:12 AM
Terry from NYC

The point isn't that organics are somewhat more nutritious, it is that they do not pollute the environment at the level of industrial farming does. It means that trace elements of chemicals such as round-up are not being put into our bodies over a long term basis. I have never once thought an organic vegetable has more vitamins than a non-organic one. But it is clear that a non-organic vegetable equals an unmeasurable amount of pollutants going into our environment and into ourselves.

Sep. 07 2012 10:06 AM

Shame on you, Brian! Why are you giving this bogus study any air at all - the study suggests faintly - says nothing. It's not a story. Someone is cleverly using you the media to plant seeds of doubt - read the comments on the Morning Edition pages. A great many listeners mistrust the whole piece and even compare NPR's reorting to Fox's - and day 2 they refuse to accept NPR's typically arrogant response to their outrage. BRIAN YOU ARE NOT FOX!!!!!!

Sep. 07 2012 10:06 AM

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