The new study -- a systematic review of prior research that pooled the findings from over 200 papers -- was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It included fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, dairy, poultry and meat. Researchers did find that consumption of organic fruits and vegetables reduced exposure to pesticide residues by about 30%. However, pesticide levels were generally within the allowable limits for safety for the conventionally grown foods.
Even one of the study's authors was taken aback by the findings.
"I was absolutely surprised," said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior research affiliate at Stanford and long-time internist who began the analysis because so many of her patients asked if they should switch to organic foods. But when it comes to health benefits, "there isn't much difference."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, any food that calls itself organic on its label must be "produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations." Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products "come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge bioengineering, or ionizing radiation." (Uh, sewage sludge bioengineering? Do we know about that?)
Still, only 95% of the ingredients in such a product must be organic, but the rest can be whatever the hell they want. In products "made with organic ingredients" up to 30 percent of the content can be, um, something else.
There was some evidence of higher antioxidant levels in organic produce, and higher omega-3 levels in organic poultry and dairy, in the new study. But again, no clear health benefits were discernible in connection to these.
However, "there are reasons not directly related to personal health why organic food may be 'better' overall," Dr. David Katz writes in USA Today. "In general, its production is kinder and gentler to the planet, and our fellow species." What a hippie.
He adds: "While we don't have, and are unlikely to get, definitive proof of personal health benefits of eating organic, it might be more reasonable for the burden of proof to go the other way: Since organic food is better for the planet and is likely to be better for health, we should accept it as such ... unless someone can prove it isn't ... Nutritious food is better for our health. Organic food may be as well, and it's better for the planet. So what may be best of all, systematic reviews notwithstanding, is to combine the two, whenever possible."
But remember -- if you do choose to eat organic, don't be a smug dick about it.