What’s In A Label? Conflicting Studies Over Organic Food Obscure An Already Complicated Issue

If you paid much attention to food news last week, which, uh, maybe you didn’t, you probably caught multiple reports on a Stanford study indicating that organic food doesn’t carry more nutritional value than conventionally-produced foods. This is one among a slew of recent studies and reports slamming the organic label, which is not as rosy as some people think it is. Sadly, many of these studies aren’t examining the deeper problems within industrial organic1 and how the label is handled, leaving people with some erroneous impressions about what’s at stake here.

If food politics seems a little outside of the usual purview here, consider it guest poster’s prerogative, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Food is becoming a looming social issue, thanks to increasing food prices worldwide. More and more people are living in a state of food insecurity, and climate change is putting additional pressures on the food system. It’s part of the cultural, and pop cultural, zeitgeist, and it’s only going to get bigger from here. Awareness of food politics equates not just to a greater understanding of and connection to the food system, but having the tools to work on fixing the system.

This most recent study is, to be more precise, a systematic review, looking at a span of articles in publications like MEDLINE and Agricola spanning 1966 to 2009. The researchers looked at comparisons of organic and conventionally-grown foods to determine whether the claim that organic food contains more nutrients is true, which a lot of supporters argue it is. After reviewing the available information, the researchers found that: ‘The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.’

Chuck Benroot points out that the study’s definition of ‘significantly more nutritious’ is a bit fuzzy, which makes it difficult to gauge the accuracy of the findings. As he puts it:

The Stanford team does not define empirically what it means by a food being ‘significantly more nutritious’ than another food. In carefully designed studies comparing organic and conventional foods, organic farming leads to increases on the order of 10% to 30% in the levels of several nutrients, but not all. Vitamin C, antioxidants, and phenolic acids tend to be higher in organic food about 60% to 80% of the time, while vitamin A and protein is higher in conventional food 50% to 80% of the time.

If we are to be generous with the Stanford researchers’ findings, it would seem that organic food is comparable to conventional food in terms of nutritional value, though that’s actually in doubt. Were it true, it would not mean, however, that organic food is not healthier, which is an issue some of the media seem to be struggling with, or at least their headlines seem to be fond of claiming that organic food ‘is not healthier than conventional food.’


The study’s conclusion also noted that organic foods tend to be less likely to contain pesticide residue, as well they should be, since pesticide use is restricted under organic regulations, and they are also less prone to containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That’s two health benefits offered over conventional agriculture, and significant ones.

To digress for a moment about farming and nutrition, because this is an important point, the conditions in which crops are grown actually matter a lot in terms of their ultimate nutritional value. Farmers point out that when food is grown on responsibly-managed soil, the soil should contain more nutrients for plants to uptake, which equates to more nutritional value in the resulting crop. What this study highlights, thus, is more complex than ‘organic food is less nutritious,’ because we don’t know enough about the circumstances in which the crops studied were grown. The organic label is rather freewheeling when it comes to soil management, and that means that some organic produce may be produced on soil in conditions similar to that used for conventional agriculture, ergo one would expect it to be comparable nutritionally. What would be more interesting to see is a comparison study looking at conventional, industrial organic, and small-scale permaculture farming methods.

Furthermore, there’s another component to this that has to be considered, and that’s the health not just of food consumers, but of food producers. Food must be viewed as a whole system, and there’s where organic food, even industrial organic, wins out over conventional. The restrictions on the use of agricultural chemicals equate to healthier farming communities (via Grist, which has a roundup of some other responses to the study), including not just field workers but surrounding cities and towns. Conventional agriculture is notorious for pollution, including chemicals in groundwater and waterways, which can cause widespread environmental health problems. Pesticide drift is also a significant issue in farming communities; when crops are sprayed, those chemicals do not stay put.

The people applying agricultural chemicals and handling treated products rarely wear even the most basic of protections or receive safety training, because many are undocumented immigrants, treated as disposable labour. Consequently, many develop severe and irreversible health problems including neurological damage, lung problems, and skin disease. It should come as no surprise to learn that many lack access to even the most basic of health care. Crops produced without the use of these chemicals are obviously going to carry clear health benefits for workers, so even if consumers didn’t experience a health benefit, the people who make their food certainly do.

Fair labour, which does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with the organic label or other types of farming, is also a key component of food safety and protection of the food system. Workers should be treated with respect intrinsically on a human rights basis, but healthy, happy workers making fair wages with access to services they need are more efficient, more productive, and more likely to raise concerns with employers if they identify potential health hazards that could affect consumers.


The organic label is flawed in a number of ways, none of which are evaluated in this study, but some of which are highlighted by the study’s conclusions and the media response to it. Perhaps the key issue with the label is that while it may have been developed with good intentions historically, it does not take into account the entire food system, looking at farmers, labourers, the sustainability of farming, and consumers; instead it sets up a series of prescriptive measures focusing on specific issues, many of which have been weakened by the industrial organic lobby, which wants to make it as cheap and efficient as possible to produce organic food in order to exploit the label.

Responsible farming techniques are critical now more than ever, with available farmland shrinking and climate change forcing farmers and landscapes to adapt. Those who build up the soil rather than stripping it are preserving usable land for future generations and may also be creating healthier crops for end consumers. Good soil management techniques also tend to promote environmental health; no chemicals to poison the environment, and no loss of topsoil to harm waterways. Furthermore, they benefit workers, who have a healthier, safer environment to labour in. Without analysing the detailed conditions on farms, any study on the nutrition of various crops is going to be flawed.

The dilution of the organic label has occurred without the awareness of many consumers, who have a very specific vision in mind when they purchase organic food, but it’s not the reality on many organic farms. More truth in labeling, and a more accurate array of food labels, is critical to reform the food system.

Whether consumers choose to buy organic is up to them, but they should note the problems with the label and the larger issues that come with it. It may offer health and environmental benefits, but possibly not as many as they think, and while buying organic can send a message that consumers are concerned about the environment, it also sends a message that they are willing to pay a premium for a label that doesn’t mean what they think it means. The capitalisation of the organic label should concern consumers, and so should studies like this, but perhaps not for the reasons the media think they should.

The issue here is less about whether organic food is more nutritious, and more about what it means and the differences between consumer perception and reality.

1. It’s important to examine different scales of organic food production when talking about the organic food label. Industrial organic is comparable, in many ways, to conventional agriculture; it’s produced on the same scale, often side by side with conventional crops, using identical labour practices (no part of the organic labeling covers fair labour practices) and very similar farming techniques with a few small tweaks to earn that coveted organic certification. Smaller organic farms may practice more aggressive organic agriculture in the spirit with which the movement began, focusing on responsible crop and soil management, as well as treating their workers fairly. Even smaller farms may have highly progressive farming practices, embracing techniques like permaculture or biodynamic agriculture which are organic by nature, but they cannot afford the costly certification practice and thus are forced to use the ‘all natural’ label, which is not regulated in the case of crops. Return