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Organic vegetables

There are many reasons why shoppers buy organic — fewer pesticides, reduced environmental impact, superior taste. But if nutrition is one of your reasons, you may want to think again. This week, scientists from Stanford University released a study in which they concluded that organic fruits and vegetables are not significantly more nutritious then their conventional counterparts. Predictably, the Internet erupted.

But the Stanford study wasn’t the only food news worth paying attention to in the last few days. McDonald’s decision to go vegetarian in India and the New York City school system’s confession that it’s been underfeeding its students in terms of calories slipped quietly under the radar thanks to ongoing debates over vitamin C levels in strawberries.

We take a look at this week’s top three stories below:

The Stanford Study
The premise of the Stanford Study was simple: Does organic food have more health benefits than conventional food? The conclusion: There’s no strong evidence to suggest that organic food is significantly superior. However (and this is a pretty big however), the study also concluded, “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Which as Dr. Marion Nestle points out in a post on her website, are exactly the reasons why people should be drawn to organics in the first place. She argues, “The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.” By which she means that it’s easier to sell consumers on organics’ high price tag by saying they’re more nutritious instead of pitching the agriculture production benefits of organic foods.

The marketability of nutrition aside, many pro-organic organizations, like Washington State University’s Organic Center and the Environmental Working Group, have taken issue with the study’s approach, questioning the validity of its statistical indicators and challenging the study’s definition of “significantly more nutritious.”

The study has prompted so much media hype that The New York Times devoted a late afternoon blog post to organic FAQs the same day it published its article about the study.

Questioning the perception of organic food as necessarily healthy is not new, even amongst “good food” advocates. Long before the media was grappling with this controversial study, Mark Bittman wrote in a 2009 article on organics, “Meanwhile, they [Americans] should remember that the word [organic] itself is not synonymous with ‘safe,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘fair’ or even necessarily ‘good.'”

McDonald’s Embraces Vegetarianism
Imagine McDonald’s without the Big Mac. This seemingly impossible scenario is about to become a reality in India. This week, McDonald’s announced it will open its first vegetarian outpost near a Sikh pilgrimage site in Northern India in 2013. The move is a smart one in a country where an estimated 20 to 42 percent of the country forgoes meat. And for Indian consumers, the association between McDonald’s and vegetables isn’t as far-fetched as it is here in the U.S. According to Yahoo, McDonald’s menu in India is already half vegetarian. Nonetheless, we can’t help but wonder what sort of Chick-Fil-A–esque frenzy would break out here if the chain tried to open a Big Mac–less restaurant.

NYC City Schools Underfeed Students
The New York School lunch debacle brings us back to the question of nutrition. In an attempt to prepare healthier meals for its students (think turkey bacon instead of pork), the school system wound up serving fewer calories than the USDA’s mandate of 785 calories per student.

Under newly revised USDA guidelines, however, the schools might not have been as far off. Now students through fifth grade must eat a minimum of 550 calories; middle school students must consume 600; and high schoolers must get 750. Students can receive up to 100 more calories than the minimum under the federal rules. If the New York City schools don’t follow the USDA calorie regulations, they won’t receive much-needed federal school lunch funding for its 860,000 lunches served daily.

While some nutrition experts thought the focus on calories was overkill, others, like the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, told The Times the move was “reckless.”