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Published: Saturday, 9/8/2012

Food for thought

Past generations would have marveled that many Americans today are prepared to pay top dollar for familiar food marketed as "organic." But they lived in a world that was innocently natural, not one in which chemicals are ubiquitous in everyday life.

In those days, an apple was an apple, picked from a tree with little regard for what had been sprayed on it. But with growing public interest in science and the environment, many people became concerned that an apple a day might not keep the doctor away, if fertilizer or bug spray could cause a health problem.

Although science could not definitively prove such fears, it seemed intuitive to many people that the use of pesticides and other chemicals, even in low amounts that were deemed safe, wasn't worth the theoretical risk. The organic food movement was founded on the idea that natural is best.

But what if it isn't? That counter-intuitive notion was delivered this week in a paper written by researchers at Stanford University. In a comprehensive analysis of existing studies, the researchers did not find that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional foods, although they can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure. These findings were a surprise even to the research team.

So where does that leave the consumer who is prepared to pay more for an organic label? Knowing that science often changes its mind in light of new reports, such consumers aren't likely to want to be exposed to more pesticides.

Besides, even if the health benefits are not yet obvious, other reasons exist for favoring organic. Dena Bravata, the chief author of the paper and a senior affiliate with Stanford's Center for Health Policy, cited taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming on the environment and animal welfare.

In the end, the market will decide, but it would be a shame if the organic movement were to wither because of this one study. It's just more food for thought in a nation that doesn't think nearly enough about the importance of a healthy diet.

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