Is ‘Organic’ Food a PR Scam?

First the big news: A recent study performed by the Stanford University School of Medicine found “little evidence of health benefits from organic foods.” Let that one sink in for a minute.

Are those organic apples and peppers for which you fork over twice as much of your precious salary really no better than the perfectly shiny “modified” variety? After reviewing more than 237 relevant papers, the Stanford study’s senior author concluded 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.”

Wow. Color us slightly shocked. Researchers found that, while the consumption of organic produce did limit exposure to potentially toxic pesticides, organic foods were generally not more nutritious and did not “carry fewer health risks” than their non-organic brethren—and FDA-approved “organic” foods aren’t 100% pesticide-free either! Researchers were, by their own admission, “a little surprised” by these results.

This study amounts to a big PR challenge for companies that base their sell on the health benefits of all things organic, since it pretty much relegates their claims to the land of unproven marketing doublespeak.

Wait a minute, though: the Los Angeles Times takes issue with the study’s conclusions.

The paper’s editorial board points to the pesticide issue, noting the survey’s finding that “38% of conventional produce contains pesticide residue (compared with 7% of organic produce).” The board also mentions the potentially significant (if often unclear) environmental benefits of organic farming, fishing, and livestock practices; most importantly, the piece reminds readers that the Stanford study only considered produce and meats. This point is especially relevant when considering the fact that the majority of the American diet consists of processed foods, none of which were included in the data set. We have to agree that this is a major omission.

The only definitive conclusion that can be drawn from the study is that research on the subject is surprisingly light–the senior Stanford researcher called existing studies “confusing” and “not very rigorous.” The true value of the “organic” label remains an open-ended question—but we still feel like this development is bad news for companies using the designation as a major selling point. The issue will not be resolved anytime soon; check back for updates.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the “organic” phenomenon. Is it the future of food, or is it an over-hyped snake-oil salesman’s scam?