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is there a change afoot in how organics are marketed?

The debate on the nutritional merits of organic food has been reignited, this time by the U.K.'s Food Standard Agency (FSA) which stated organic food is no more nutritionally dense than conventional food, based on an independent study.

As one might expect, the blogs were abuzz with organic supporters criticizing the study as well as the British media response to it. But is this fight about superior nutritional quality, or how the organic industry markets its products?

The study, conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviewed a half-century of all published works related to comparisons for nutrient content of conventional and organic food. In a statement on the agency's website, Gill Fine, the director of consumer choice and dietary health said, "This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date."

In summary, the study found "little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food," and "no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food."

And health benefits are fundamental to what drives the market for organic foods, say those in the industry. According to a recent survey by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and Kiwi Magazine, the number one reason why consumers choose organics is because products are "healthier for me and my family."

But it seems likely that the hubbub around the FSA's report may not have much of an impact on actual consumption of organic foods. Survey respondents indicated that concerns about health are more often related to consumption of pesticides and hormones, or processed preserved food, rather than nutrient-packed food.

In fact, organic cereal and waffle-maker Nature's Path cited data from the 2009 US Families' Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Study, noting "Nutrient density is cited less than 10 percent of the time as a primary motivator to the purchase of organic products."

As many experts in the organic industry said, there are more reasons to purchase organic than the percieved health benefits. But the U.K. study only compared nutritional content and did not analyze affects on soil conditions or benefits to farm workers from reduced pesticide use -- environmental and social benefits that are derived from production methods.

Author Marion Nestle, an expert on nutrition and public health, provided insight about the flop in a post on her blog,

"There is no reason to think that organic foods would have fewer nutrients than industrially produced foods, and there are many reasons to think that organics have greater benefits for the environment, for pesticide reduction, and for taste, all of which affect human health at least as much -- or more -- than minor differences in nutritional content....I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably. I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics and this study does not even begin to address them."

As the British agency's website notes, it is not suggesting people shouldn't eat organics. Fine stated on the site, "The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence."

And Nature's Path founder and chief executive officer, Arran Stephens doubts that it will harm sales of his products or other organic products. Instead, it will provide an opportunity to educate shoppers about the benefits of organic foods, he said in a telephone interview.

"People will believe what they want to believe, at the end of the day," he said. "But the average organic consumer is a very educated consumer. They don't make decisions simply based on a marketing campaign," noting there are many benefits -- from reduced pesticide use in the environment and to the health of organic farmers -- to choosing food not produced with chemical pesticides.

Are organics superior in nutritional content when compared to conventional food? Not according to this study. Are they superior in overall health benefits, including reduced contamination to soil and water supplies? Perhaps.

And maybe this report is a sign that the organic industry should stick to promoting its indisputable claims -- the environmental and social benefits from a chemical-free, biologically diverse food production system.

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