If organics aren't healthier, why do shoppers still purchase them

September 05, 2012

A new study from Stanford University shows no relevant difference in nutritional profiles of organic and conventionally grown produce. Supermarkets should consider the other reasons shoppers want to buy organics.

While the modern organic farming movement was primarily born out of efforts to use agriculture practices that are gentler for the environment, many consumers agree to pay more for reasons that have gone further. One of those key perceptions - that organic products are more nutritious - has been challenged by results from a Stanford University study recently published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

Twelve researchers looked at 240 studies that were conducted from 1966 to 2011 and investigated nutrient and pesticide levels in both organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The results showed no significant differences in the nutritional profiles of both types. Specifically, when the researchers tested for Vitamins A, C and E, they found little to no difference in organic versus conventional.

A recent SupermarketGuru quick poll shows that 46% of consumers that buy organics make these purchases because they feel they are more nutritious. And while this Stanford study has potential to dispel that belief, the 70% that cited a reason for purchasing organics being "the health of me and my family" are not completely off base if the belief is that the health benefit is in the absence of pesticides.

While the research at Stanford shows no nutritional differences, the results of the study do show a significant difference when it comes to pesticide residues. Detectable levels were found in 7% of organics and 38% of conventionally grown foods. Scientists speculate the pesticide residues in organics are coming from either residue in the soil or drift from other farms. (On a side note, some pesticides are allowed in organic farming. For more information, read The Challenge of Disease Control in Organic Crops.) The SupermarketGuru poll shows that "avoiding pesticides" is actually the number one motivator for buying organic with 78% citing this reason.

So is the debate actually about pesticides? This latest Stanford research showed that in only three of the studies pesticide residues were higher than the maximum level allowed by the European Union in organic and conventional produce.

In a recent Food, Nutrition & Science article, a spokesperson for The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit organization which represents organic and conventional farmers and farms of all sizes, emphasized that "the mere “presence” of a pesticide does not mean that the food is harmful." To demonstrate this fact, the Alliance has provided a pesticide calculation tool, developed by Dr. Robert Krieger, Toxicologist with the Personal Chemical Exposure Program at the University of California, Riverside, to see how many servings a man, woman, teen or child could consume and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues. For example, a woman could consume 99,681 servings of carrots in one day without any effect, even if the carrots have the highest pesticide residue recorded for carrots by the USDA.

The Lempert Report supports empowering consumers with facts about the foods they purchase, and a largely publicized study such as this Stanford one has the potential to affect consumer perceptions of organics, clearing up any misconceptions about nutritional profiles. In an economic climate where in some markets, organic products are too expensive for many shoppers when compared to conventional ones, it is still important for Americans to consume fruits and vegetables and not avoid them for fear they are not safe.

But retailers must bear in mind that nutritional profiles may not be the only reason some shoppers are willing to pay more for organics. In fact, in the latest SupermarketGuru quick poll six other reasons trumped nutrition. Here are those reasons:

- 78% buy organics to avoid pesticides
- 70% buy organics for the health of themselves and their family
- 63% buy organics to avoid additives
- 57% buy organics to support farmers/growers
- 51% buy organics because they feel they are good for the environment
- 47% buy organics because they support the principles that organics stand for

Supermarkets that arm themselves with facts about organics, provide a store dietitian to guide consumers, and most importantly, get to know their shoppers and the things that are important to them when it comes to buying produce, will find themselves in a better position to support their customers' needs. According to the SupermarketGuru quick poll, 47% would not eat less organics if their budget had to shrink. So despite the state of struggling households, organics may not be an area where shoppers cut back even if a Stanford study suggests they aren't healthier.