Every Saturday morning, my wife heads to the local farmers’ market to buy our weekly supply of fruit. She enjoys both the market’s friendly vibe and the interactions with the vendors. And the whole Caulfield family loves the fruit, especially the organic apples. They taste so ridiculously good that our entire stock is often devoured before we get to Monday morning.

Given this long-standing family tradition, you’d think I’d be a big supporter of organic food. You’d be wrong.

Rather than signalling an endorsement, the Caulfield organic fruit habit highlights the complexity of the factors influencing how and why we purchase and consume particular foods. Consumers of organic food are not a homogenous horde of tree-hugging hipsters. People eat organic for a whole bunch of reasons, including a belief that it is more nutritious, safer and better for the environment.

Or, like the Caulfield family, some consumers may simply have an appreciation for the place where it is sold and the way organic food tastes.

But for some people buying organic is also a form of self-expression. Eating and espousing the values of organic food is part of a broader worldview. It is seen as a socially responsible and necessary part of a sustainable lifestyle. It is closely linked to a personal ethic about how we should live.

Setting aside, for just a moment, the complexities underlying purchasing preferences, let’s take a look at what the available evidence actually says about whether eating organic is really worth it. Keep in mind that organic food can be much more expensive than conventional food. One media analysis, for example, found that the cost of an organic Thanksgiving dinner is nearly double that of a conventionally grown spread.

Let’s start with nutritional value. This one is easy because the data are relatively straightforward. There is no convincing evidence that organic food is nutritionally superior. A well-known 2009 systematic review, for instance, done by a team from the Faculty of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, concluded ”there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.” This conclusion has been found by several other research teams, including a much-publicized 2012 study by a group of researchers from Stanford University.

But even if there were slight differences in, say, the presence of some micronutrients — a claim that is often made by the advocates of organic — it is difficult to see how these tiny variations could have an impact on health. Indeed, if nutritional value is your concern, your focus should be on the basic goal of eating enough fruits and vegetables — a health target that is met by only a small minority of Canadians.

What about pesticides? Is organic food safer? Here things become a bit more complex, but only slightly. Yes, conventionally grown food usually has more synthetic pesticides, but the amount of residue present is, in general, far less than the allowable limits. There are no studies that definitively find existing levels of pesticides pose any kind of health risk. As summarized in a 2013 document from Health Canada: ”To date, there is no evidence to indicate that there is a health risk from eating conventionally grown produce because of pesticide residues, or that organic foods are safer to consume than conventionally produced food.”

Moreover, we should not forget that organic farmers still use pesticides. The pesticides in this case are simply organic or ”natural.” But just because a pesticide is ”organic” or ”natural” does not mean that it will necessarily be safer or, in the aggregate, less toxic.

It is also worth noting that a 2014 analysis using data from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found that nearly half of all Canadian organic fruits and vegetables had synthetic pesticide residue. How it got there is unclear. But it serves as a warning that if, despite existing evidence, avoiding pesticides remains your goal, paying a premium to eat organic may not do the trick.

Finally, let’s consider the environment. This is, I think, the toughest and most complex issue in the organic versus nonorganic debate. Advocates of organic farming suggest it is less polluting, promotes more biodiversity and is better for the soil, among other benefits. And there are studies to support these views.

Critics point to research that demonstrates that organic farming is far less efficient and, as a result, requires more land, which, when you are thinking globally and long term, isn’t good for the environment (or for feeding billions of humans). In addition, there are studies, such as a 2012 analysis from the University of Oxford, that suggest that when measured per unit of product (as compared with per unit of land), organic farming can be worse for the environment.

The bottom line: even a generous interpretation of the existing evidence does not support a staunch, unwavering advocacy of an organic-only approach. It certainly does not support the idea that eating organic is necessary for personal health. And this brings me back to the issue of eating organic as a form of self-expression.

Because eating organic is often, as a 2013 study from Sweden frames it, a way of establishing ”how one wants to be identified by others,” it can be very difficult to have a dispassionate discussion about the best way forward. This is particularly so given that the food industry — the organic food market is worth billions — uses marketing strategies that leverage the self-expression character of eating organic in order to sell product, thus further entrenching myths about the value of organic food. If someone has internalized the ethos of organic as a personal philosophy, a critique of organic food can be interpreted as a critique of the individual, which is hardly the foundation for a constructive, open-minded discussion.

But promoting healthy eating habits and feeding the world in a sustainable manner are far too important to let our personal biases and predisposition dominate the decisions (and, yes, I realize that science-geek evidence advocates like me also harbour a host of data-twisting biases). We need a rational, evidence-based assessment of the true benefits and risks of both organic and conventionally grown foods.

I’ll close with a word about the wonderful farmers’ market apples that sit in my refrigerator right now. Blinded taste studies have found that organic fruits and vegetables do not, in fact, taste better than those that are conventionally grown. Will this counterintuitive bit of scientific data keep me from loving those apples?

Nah. And the carrots taste pretty darn good too.

Photo: Shutterstock by mythja

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Timothy Caulfield
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a professor in the faculty of law and the school of public health, as well as research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.

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