If you really want to stay healthy, you buy organic foods, right? But does an organic label—like the kind found on many fruits, vegetables, meats, milk, and processed foods—mean that the food is actually more nutritious?

Not according to a new study by Stanford University researchers.

"There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," said Dena Bravata, M.D., M.S., the senior author of a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

That’s a broad statement that goes against what many consumers may have been told in the past—so let’s break it down, piece by piece.

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Organic Food and Your Body

First, it helps to understand the research. After looking at over 200 previous studies, here’s what the scientists found out about:

  • Nutritional Value: The study revealed that there’s not much difference between conventionally grown foods and natural organic foods—other than a few exceptions, like higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk.
     
  • Pesticides: Organic produce is 30 percent less likely to be contaminated by synthetic pesticides than conventionally grown produce. 
     
  • “Superbugs:” Organic meats like chicken and pork are less likely to harbor “superbugs”—that is, bacteria that are immune to several types of antibiotics, making it more difficult treat infections in both animals and people.

So what does that mean? Should you shell out for organic foods? 

For some, especially those with children, fewer pesticides and superbugs may make it worth it. Then again, it’s rare for any produce to have pesticide levels that exceed government safety limits—so it’s not clear if buying organic to limit your exposure to a small amount of pesticides has any benefits. 

And for consumers looking to boost their health through better nutrition, the fact that natural organic foods don’t appear to have more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients is pretty straightforward—and no surprise to New York University professor Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., who says organics have always been about the environment.

“Organics is about production methods free of certain chemical pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, GMOs [genetically modified organisms], and sewage sludge,” she said. “The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.”

Leave it to marketers to save the planet … but at what price? Sales of natural organic foods in the U.S. topped $26.7 billion in 2010, fueled in part by consumers in search of healthier food.

NEXT: Organic and the planet >>

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Organic Food and the Environment

But even when it comes to protecting the planet, some health professionals say the “organic” label has lost its original usefulness. Organic food standards do limit antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides, but none of this means that organic farming is healthier for you or the planet. 

First off, mega-farms—such as those that supply stores like Walmart—follow the rules about growing organic food, but may not tend to the soil with the same care as a farmer living on the land.

Plus organic standards allow for the use of organic pesticides, some of which may be just as dangerous as synthetic ones.

So a better question than organic vs. conventional, says Daphne Miller, M.D., family physician and author of the upcoming book, Farmacology: What Innovative Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, is: “If I eat fruits and vegetables that are sustainably grown, is that going to be healthier for me—and healthier for the planet?” 

For farmers who grow sustainably, it goes beyond a focus on avoiding fertilizers and pesticides—as with organic food—and looks at the long-term health of the soil. 

NEXT: Healthy tips >>

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Guidelines You Can Live By

Organic, sustainable, eco-friendly, or just plain food … still wondering what to look for when you buy lunch or pick produce at the supermarket—or even buy beer?

The experts we spoke to helped us break down this complex (and always changing, it seems) issue into a few rules, which will help you do what’s best for your body and the planet.

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. It is one of the easiest ways to improve your health, period. So if you are concerned about pesticides, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of produce with high amounts of pesticides—those are the organic varieties you might want to spend the extra money on.
     
  • Buy local whenever possible. Miller suggests that people "buy from local farmers, that they get to know their farmers and find out how they’re treating their land." Not only does this support the local economy, but it’s better for you and the environment. Local food only has to travel a few miles—rather than hundreds—which means it will be fresher, have more flavor, and have less of a carbon footprint.
     
  • Grow your own food. This is not just for off-the-grid types. Growing your own food “actually requires a lot less time than a lot of other things that we waste our time with in our life,” said Miller. “All you need is a balcony" (or a backyard). By growing your own food, you can save money, have a ready supply of fresh produce—and know exactly what’s gone into it.