Organic Food Study May Not Change Consumer Habits

A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at more 200 other studies on the health properties and benefits of organic foods — and found no clear benefit. But what do consumers think? In the wake of this news, Deena Prichep talked to shoppers about their organic produce purchasing, the reasons behind the choices they make, and how the news will change the way they spend their money.

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It's too early to tell, but anecdotally, it doesn't look like consumers have lost their taste for organic groceries. That's after a Stanford study published earlier this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no obvious health benefits from buying organic. From Portland, Oregon, Deena Prichep reports that organics are a $30 billion a year industry for reasons that go well beyond nutrition.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At New Seasons market, organic peaches are about $3 a pound and the aisles are full. This small chain stocks mostly organic produce.

JENNIFER CRUZ: I think it's worth spending an extra buck or two.

PRICHEP: Even though the Stanford study found that pesticide levels on conventional produce were well within government safety limits, shoppers like Jennifer Cruz are willing to pay a little more for the added peace of mind.

CRUZ: So I mean, if they have the same vitamins and minerals, but one is cleaner than the other, to me it's obvious that the option is to buy organic.

PRICHEP: And it's not just about the perceived effects on their own bodies. Some shoppers, like Sam Ott, are looking at what they believe is the bigger picture.

SAM OTT: The esoteric cost of it is pollution, sick animals, sick human beings, sick people who are picking the fruits and vegetables, which I think is actually one of the worst costs.

MELISSA ABBOTT: The consumer who is going to be paying attention to this study, it's not going to sway them in any way and, in fact, they're going to look at is as really not very valid to begin with.

PRICHEP: Melissa Abbott works for the Seattle-based market research company Hartman Group. She's found that choosing organics has never been about nutrition. It's about concern over growing methods, synthetic pesticides and antibiotics.

ABBOTT: It's just about the idea of safety and transparency in the food supply system.

PRICHEP: And Abbott says people also get a little tired of these studies.

ABBOTT: I can't tell you how many times I've heard consumers tell me, I was told I couldn't eat eggs. Now, I can eat eggs. So they're throwing their hands up in just complete frustration, and they've really lost trust so they feel like they need to be much more in control and proactive in terms of their food choices.

PRICHEP: At a Portland farmers' market, shoppers take that control by choosing the locally grown organic green beans, tomatoes and plums, even if the cost is a little more. Farmer Neil Robinson sees firsthand the difference organic agriculture makes in his fields, and he has the same wariness of synthetic pesticides that he hears from a lot of his customers.

NEIL ROBINSON: I grew up during the thalidomide era in England when doctors and the medical profession was saying, oh, this drug is fine. And then I have family members who got thalidomide, I have friends at school, so yeah, I'm always very skeptical.

PRICHEP: It's those memories of the past that have him concerned today. And those concerns are echoed beyond the farmers' markets and health food stores. They're even showing up at your standard grocery store. At this Fred Meyer supermarket, Jana O'Connor says that she's concerned about how pesticides build up in a body over time. She's thinking specifically of her 4-year-old son.

JANA O'CONNOR: So when I'm buying for myself, I'm not as concerned about it, you know, but if - I just want to keep him as pure as possible.

PRICHEP: For all of these reasons - concerns about the environment, soil health and long-term pesticide burden - the Stanford study doesn't really resonate with people who choose organics, and market researcher Melissa Abbott says it's also just not how consumers make decisions.

ABBOTT: I hate to say this, but they don't pay a lot of attention to studies such as this, but they are going to pay a lot more attention to their doctors, their pediatricians, folks like Dr. Oz and their friends and their social networks.

PRICHEP: And what their own feelings tell them about what's safe. And if that means paying $3 a pound for peaches, they're willing to put their money where their mouth is. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Oregon.

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