The blogosphere exploded with this report. I remember when my own brother emailed the article to me. And then my co-worker mentioned it. And then a client. And then more family members, and more friends.
The amazing thing about the internet is the speed at which we can share information. The other amazing thing is the speed at which we can share bad headlines–misleading headlines.
After watching a documentary about the Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News empire, and the control of media and information (the documentary is called “Out-Foxed” and can be found not Netflix), I started to wonder about this recent news release. I’d only read the article once–skimmed it, really, because I knew the headline was vapid and misleading. What I noted was that the “scientists” were from Stanford.
Ok, fine. Stanford. We’ve heard of that. Academia is usually pretty reliable. Government-sponsored studies, on the other hand, are not.
I wanted to know who was the first to report on the matter, and who owned/operated the source. No dice (at least at first). So then I browsed the dozen or so parrot articles from various blogs and news sites. They all said nearly the same thing: that “Scientists claim that organic isn’t healthier.”
The original headline from the Stanford Health Policy site states “Stanford study shows little evidence of health benefits from organic foods.” The original paper, found in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is called “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review.
This is quite a different statement than other headlines which read “Stanford: Organic food not healthier than conventional products.” or “Organic food is no healthier than conventional food.“
Needless to say, the public ran wild with this headline, and I want to set the record straight.
“Healthy” is an ambiguous term. The paper determined, according to the studies referenced, that organic produce was not significantly more “nutritious” than conventional.
Here’s the abstract:
Data Synthesis: 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods met inclusion criteria. Only 3 of the human studies examined clinical outcomes, finding no significant differences between populations by food type for allergic outcomes (eczema, wheeze, atopic sensitization) or symptomatic Campylobacter infection. Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences. All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous except for the estimate for phosphorus; phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant. The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30% [CI, −37% to −23%]), but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small. Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce. Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork (risk difference, 33% [CI, 21% to 45%]).
Limitation: Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.
Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The senior author of the paper, Dena Bravata, stated, “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”
Interesting conclusion, considering that “there were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years,” according to original press release.
So why on earth would the senior author, our revered scientist, make such a blanket statement?
Unclear. Bad presentation, frankly.
Health isn’t something that can be determined over the course of a couple of years. Health is the reflection of a lifetime of behavior, and what you eat certainly will impact your chances of developing cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders. The published paper states that indeed pesticide residues are higher in conventional produce, and pesticides do kill people. Sure, only in high enough concentrations, states our “trustworthy” FDA, which is responsible for determining allowable pesticide levels and other chemical levels for our food, which I would posit were set after intense lobbying efforts from chemical companies.
The unfortunate reality of our food system is simply a reflection of our environment in the past 100 years. ”Better living through chemistry” is a manta that might be causing more harm than good. In The 100 Year Lie: How Food And Medicine Are Destroying Your Health, Randall Fitzgerald describes a horrifying and bleak picture of our world: one 100-year inadvertent experiment on human health. Never have we subjected ourselves to such high levels of synthetic chemicals.
“…according to the FDA, we each use nine personal-care products daily, containing about 126 chemical ingredients.” –Randall Fitzgerald.
If you combine all the chemicals from your carpets, your car, your plastic-wrapped, GMO, pedticide/fungicide sprayed food, your body products, your tap water, your swimming pools, your industrial waste, and the like…
…well, that’s a lot of toxic hits your body has to take.
There is no scientific study in the world–and there never will be–that can possibly calculate the possible deleterious synergies of these chemicals. The only thing we can do is wait and see if it withstands the test of time–of multiple generations. Heck, infertility is on the rise! We’ll see if it can.
But I’m not going to be the guinea pig.
If I can control the amount of toxicity that ends up in my body, even a little bit, I’m going to try. And the foremost thing to consider is what you put directly into your mouth: your food, because it ends up as you. So even if organic produce is only 30% less likely to contain any pesticide residues, that’s good enough reason for me to eat it.
The rationale that conventional isn’t “that much worse” than organic is fine if you are starving and have to eat something. But we spend far too little on our food as it is, and far too much on our ailing health. It’s akin to the feeling of, “I’m already fat, so one extra pound gained won’t really show that much.” A pound of fat is a pound of fat (fat stores toxicity, by the way). Pesticides do not belong in your body, even if they’re a vessel for nutrition.
Getting back on topic… that there are no longitudinal studies in the published literature. It is a terrible mistake to think that we can make a long-term bet on short-term bases. Again, I am waiting for the test of time. And that’s a heck of a long time to wait.
Health is affected by a myriad of environmental (and mental/emotional) conditions. We know unequivocally that organic food production stems from better environmental stewardship. The negative externalities of conventional food production are so numerous that I cannot begin to elaborate on them here. The externalities have, arguably, a far greater effect on our health in the long term than on the actual mastication of the foods themselves!
I’d love to be able to download the studies referenced–download them straight to my brain and look at the how the foods were sourced and analyzed. Because if there’s one thing that most commentators will fail to understand about organic food is this: organic, while certified, is not always created equal.
There’s Big Organic, and there’s little organic, and they are not the same. Big Organic, in an effort to grab up market share, has done everything in its power to systematize production, just like conventional. The more systematization, the more homogeneity in samples. My prediction for Big Organic is that market pressure will continue to errode standards so that the product is, indeed, only marginally better than conventional. That’s what profit margin is all about.
Little organic, on the other hand, has a tough battle ahead. Organic vs. conventional is an unfair fight. It’s a battle of biology vs. chemistry. Chemistry is easier to control. Science loves control.
The organic community isn’t the least bit shaken by this announcement. Science has its limitations. Again, the limits here are the amount of published data on the subject.
Anyone who eats, grows, and lives organic food knows the intrinsic value of organic that cannot be in any measure eclipsed by the verbal misrepresentation of limited scientific data.