Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times  Organic apples on display in a market in Glen Cove, New York.

   By KENNETH CHANG
Maybe — or maybe not
Stanford University scientists have weighed in on the “maybe not” side of the debate after an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods.

They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.

“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of the paper, which appears in Tuesday’s issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. “I think we were definitely surprised.”

The conclusions will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying. The production of organic food is governed by a raft of regulations that generally prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones and additives.

The organic produce market in the United States has grown quickly, up 12 percent last year, to $12.4 billion, compared with 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic meat has a smaller share of the American market, at $538 million last year, the trade group said.

The findings seem unlikely to sway many fans of organic food. Advocates for organic farming said the Stanford researchers failed to appreciate the differences they did find between the two types of food — differences that validated the reasons people usually cite for buying organic. Organic produce, as expected, was much less likely to retain traces of pesticides.

Organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“Those are the big motivators for the organic consumer,” said Christine Bushway, the executive director of the trade association.

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