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Published November 16, 2012, 11:40 PM

Organic vs. ‘ordinary’: Advocates committed despite doubts in studies

FARGO – Organic bananas ring in at about 99 cents a pound at area grocery stores. Non-organic bananas are about 31 percent cheaper at 68 cents a pound.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

FARGO – Organic bananas ring in at about 99 cents a pound at area grocery stores. Non-organic bananas are about

31 percent cheaper at 68 cents a pound.

While organic foods are typically more expensive than conventional foods, cost isn’t something that deters Morton resident John Kannenberg from buying organic foods. Kannenberg is a health educator and consultant for his business, JK Health Coaching. He and his family have an organic garden and eat a primarily organic diet.

“We don’t view it as an additional cost,” he says. “We view that as an investment that pays off in healthy living.”

A new meta-analysis (reviewing and combining the findings from independent studies) released this fall by Stanford University researchers suggests that people like Kannenberg might be handing over extra cash for food that’s not healthier than its conventional counterparts.

The Stanford researchers found little evidence of health benefits from eating organic food. The analysis also generated minimal evidence that conventional foods posed greater health risks than organic products.

“Organic” is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The methods, the USDA says, integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used. Organic products must have a USDA organic seal present.

“I’m not saying the study is wrong, but from what I’ve read, I think it’s full of holes,” Kannenberg said. “Conventional versus organic – that’s already kind of a loaded statement itself. For almost the entire existence of our planet, it’s been organic. That was the conventional. Now organic, that’s not the conventional way of doing things?”

In contrast, scientists at Newcastle University in England performed a meta-analysis, which was released in 2011, and they found that organic produce was more nutritious.

North Dakota State University professor and Extension food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson says it’s not easy to determine if organic food is more nutritious or worth the extra cost.

“This is still a controversial issue, and I don’t think we have all the answers yet,” she says. “There aren’t long-term studies that show they’re extremely different.”

Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown, is Garden-Robinson’s bottom line.

Fargo resident Sergey Nam says that organic is worth the price because it’s an investment in his health. He’s been on an organic diet ever since his parents visited from Uzbekistan two years ago and noticed that the meat and produce they were eating in the U.S. didn’t taste like the meat and produce they ate at home.

“The mass production of foods, bioengineering and other factors has changed the food we eat and not in a good way,” Nam says.

He eats organic to avoid genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals. Despite the meta-analysis released by Stanford, Nam says he plans to continue to eat organic to avoid GMOs. Organic agricultural products should have minimal, if any, GMO contaminants, according to the USDA.

“I’m OK spending the extra money on organic because first of all, it’s not a budget buster for me,” he says. “I don’t eat a lot, and also I’d say that the prices at Cash Wise are not that much higher than the prices of non-organic foods. I think in the long run, eating organic food is more beneficial than eating GMO food.”

Another Fargo resident, Christine Forbes, says she’s experienced the benefits of eating organic, and she’s OK paying extra for the food.

Forbes was diagnosed with cervical cancer and Stage 2 endometrial cancer in 2008. A chef friend urged her to change her diet. She became vegan and buys mostly organic food.

“I think there’s a whole package there,” she says. “There’s a mind-body connection with eating organic.”

Though some research, like the Stanford meta-analysis, says organic foods are no more nutritious, Forbes, who is now cancer-free, says she’s not willing to expose herself to chemicals, no matter how small the exposure might be.

“I also do it for the environment,” she says. “I try to buy organic produce that’s on sale, and I try to eat foods that are in season so I don’t pay a lot more.”

Eric Berg, North Dakota State University professor of meat science and associate department head of animal sciences, doesn’t think people gravitate toward organic foods because of their nutrient value anyway. He thinks people are more interested in the way organic foods are produced.

“Wellness is so much more than what you eat. There’s a whole mental state involved,” he says. “If you believe that eating organically raised beef is better for you, and you don’t mind paying that extra money, you’re talking yourself into feeling better about what you eat. There are plenty of studies that look at attitude about what you’re eating and positive mental wellness.”

In terms of nutrient value, Berg says there’s no difference between organic and commercial meat.

Studies like the one released by Stanford don’t sway Kannenberg. For him, there’s no debate when it comes to organic versus conventional. He plans to continue eating an organic diet.

“What are the ways, that as responsible members of society and of our families that we can limit our exposure to known toxins, carcinogens, etc.?” he says. “One way I feel we can do that is by not putting them in our mouths.”