More Choice, and More Confusion, in Quest for Healthy Eating

ATLANTA — Lisa Todd’s grocery cart reflects the ambivalence of many American shoppers.

Ms. Todd, 31, prowled the aisles of a busy Kroger store here last week. Her cart was a tumble of contradictions: organic cabbage and jar of Skippy peanut butter. A bag of kale and a four-pack of inexpensive white wine. Pineapples for juicing and processed deli meat.

The chicken, perhaps, summed it up best. A package of fryer parts from Tyson, the world’s largest poultry producer, sat next to a foam tray of organic chicken legs.

The conventional food was for her boyfriend, the more natural ingredients for her.

“We’re not 100 percent organic, obviously, but I try to be,” she said. “He doesn’t care, so I’m trying to maintain happiness in the relationship.”

Like many people who are seeking better-tasting, healthier food, Ms. Todd had heard about a recent study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy.

Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food.

But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer.

For Ms. Todd and countless other shoppers, the study just added to the stress of figuring out what to eat. And it underscored the deep divisions at the nation’s dinner table, along with concerns among even food purists about the importance of federal organic standards.

“There’s complete confusion,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior food analyst for Mintel, a global marketing firm. “Most people have a randomly arranged set of diet principles. They buy organics sometimes. They buy based on price sometimes. Very few people are completely committed to any one cause.”

For some, the report gave credence to what many already believe: that organic food is not worth the price. Only 26 percent of Americans regularly buy organic food, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll. Price is usually why they do not. But it is a difficult choice for people who are trying to eat better.


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