Past generations would have marveled that Americans were prepared to pay top dollar for familiar food marketed today 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, not if fertilizer or bug spray could cause a health problem.
Although science could not always prove such fears, it seemed intuitive to many that the use of pesticides and other chemicals, even in amounts deemed safe, wasn't worth the risk. The organic food movement was founded on the idea that natural was best.
But what if it isn't? That shocking counterintuitive notion was delivered this week in a paper by researchers at Stanford University and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In a comprehensive analysis of existing studies, as reported on the Stanford School of Medicine website, researchers did not find that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional foods, although organics 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, consumers of organic foods aren't suddenly going to want to be exposed to more pesticides.
Besides, even if the health benefits are not obvious, other reasons exist for favoring organic -- a point made by Dr. Dena Bravata, senior author of the paper and a senior affiliate with Stanford's Center for Health Policy. She 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 one study. It's more food for thought in a nation that doesn't think enough about the need for a healthy diet.