Experts debate health benefits of organics

Do you get a health benefit from eating organic?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Organic food products are experiencing a surge in demand but are they healthier for you?

A nutrition sciences researcher at the University at Buffalo told News 4 he thinks calling organic food healthy is going too far. “We’ve related ‘organic’ to ‘healthy’. But that’s really, I think much, much too strong,” Peter Horvath said.

Horvath says there are two sides to the ongoing debate about organically produced food.

“One has to do with all the nutrients and the other has to do with the worry about pesticide residues,” said Horvath. “Then there’s of course the issues of the farming culture and where organics are grown. But now organics are grown by large corporations too. That’s not as big of an issue.”

Generally, organic products are more expensive than their non-organic counterparts and that can be an issue, according to some local shoppers interviewed by News 4 Investigates.

“It’s super expensive. Way more expensive than regular produce,” Charen Epstein said.

One study, co-authored by Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook, found that organically grown plant-based foods contain significantly higher levels of antioxidants.

“We estimated that most consumers can expect organic food to have 20 to 40 percent higher levels of these antioxidants, said Benbrook.” This is equivalent to consuming one or two extra servings of fruit and vegetables without any calories involved, and also without the cost.”

Mark O’Brian, a University at Buffalo professor of biochemistry, looked at the study for News 4.

“But even those researchers stopped short, and they say we can’t from this know whether they’re actually healthier for you or not. So, I think it’s really an open question,” concluded O’Brian. “I think if there are differences there are not going to be big differences.”

UB’s Horvath believes nutrient levels in organic foods have more to do with the way they’re delivered.

“Organic foods might have 10 percent higher folate levels, an important nutrient. But the amount of folate you get in the spinach that came across the United States refrigerated a week later, if it’s organic the level might be reduced by 90 percent,” said Horvath.

The price of organic food is becoming much less of a barrier, according to a June tracking study by the Organic Trade Association.

Fifthy-one percent of parents surveyed said the cost of organic products was one of the key factors in limiting purchases, the study found. But that’s more than a 10 percent drop from the previous year in which 62 percent said organic items were sometimes too expensive.

Niagara County Produce at Millersport Highway and Transit Road in Clarence has a limited organic selection. Owner Richard Dorr says he just doesn’t sell a lot of it compared to conventional produce.

“I’m not an organic person. If they look at our produce they’re very, very happy with it. And the organic produce, because it’s expensive, it does not sell,” said Dorr. “To me it’s phony. They can buy the regular produce that looks better and holds up better and is fresh picked every day because it’s local farmers.”

On the other hand Wegmans has about 3,000 organic products at its McKinley Parkway store in Hamburg.

Jo Natale, Director of Media Relations for Wegmans says their stores have seen strong growth in organic food in the last ten years.

“The customer drives all of this for us,” said Natale. “The price gap has definitely narrowed over the last 20 years and over the last 10 years. But a lot depends on production and availability.”

News 4 conducted an online price check of products in October at Wegmans in Hamburg.

Wegmans brand whole milk was selling for $2.99 a gallon. The organic version was priced at $5.99 a gallon. Wegmans brand regular eggs were priced at $1.79 a dozen, while organic eggs sold for $3.79 a dozen.

“We have conventional and organic. Both are, they’re equally nutritious,” said Natale. “We believe they are both safe and wholesome, and we know that these choices are important to our customers.”

Deb Nykyforchyn, a shopper News 4 interviewed at Wegmans, says she buys a limited amount of organic products. “I buy the organic carrots because they’re just as cheap as anything else. But otherwise I don’t,” said Nykyforchyn. “It’s more expensive. It’s all about price for me.”

Jeff Culhane, Vice President of Perishable Sales and Merchandising for Tops Markets, said customers are willing to pay more for a good organic lifestyle.

“Price plays with every consumer whether consumers are looking for conventional or organic,” said Culhane. “There is a limit to what consumers will pay. We try to keep the price competitive as with any product. Yes, there is a ceiling for which a customer will pay.”

The Organic Center, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit focused on organic science and research, pointed to the United Kingdom study co-authored by Charles Benbrook.

“This is a ground-breaking study,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, director of Science Programs for The Organic Center in a July news release. “This important research should help dispel consumer confusion about the benefits of organic.”

Marvin Pritts, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University, believes those who buy it are getting something for the extra cost.

“I think what they’re getting is the assurance that the organic farmer is following a philosophy of producing food that has a long-term interest of the soil at the core of their values,” said Pritts. “You can’t always be guaranteed that with a conventional farmer.”

Brendan O’Gorman, one of the partners in Eden Valley Organics in South Dayton, agrees that the debate between organic and conventional farming comes down to customers choosing how their food is produced.

“A lot of it is the consumer making a production choice,” said O’Gorman. “How they want to see the cattle raised and the product produced is the biggest part of the difference between organic and conventional.”

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