Reality behind the organic headlines

I can’t believe the giant disservice Stanford University did when they released the food news story “heard round the world.” According to their press release and mainstream news headlines everywhere, organic fruits and vegetables are not healthier after all.


It all happened over Labor Day weekend. And the natural-food industry and journalists everywhere are still debating it today…

The Stanford scientists conducted 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, of course, tend to be far less expensive). Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli. The researchers also reported 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 (EPA) sets the limits at levels that it says don’t harm humans. But when was the last time you believed anything the EPA tells you (or any other governmental agency for that matter). They don’t have our best interests at heart.

A review study is the least rigorous study that can be conducted and one should never draw any conclusions based on them. All I can say is that the study missed the point completely.

We don’t advocate organic foods because we feel that they have more nutritional value.  We buy it for other reasons: environmental, animal welfare, reduced exposure to pesticides, or that they just taste better.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) for example notes that the perceived health benefits associated with lower pesticide residues are among the top reasons consumers cite for choosing to buy organic products. The Stanford research did also find lower pesticide levels.

The truth is…so long as organic produce (or conventional, for that matter) is not nutritionally deficient then that becomes irrelevant to the conversation, as it always was.

This study changes nothing!

If you put all else aside, the fact that organic production prohibits the use of antibiotics in raising animals has enormous public health benefits. That fact is cited by the study but is not captured in the headlines or the author’s reactions. You must ask yourself why?

Even the reports were biased in the direction of the status quo and to make people who may have been leaning on the fence towards going organic to potentially abandon that choice.

It’s irresponsible journalism at its worst. And is detrimental to the average consumer. Here’s why:

  • 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.
  • Organic milk contained more omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered beneficial for the heart.
  • The organic produce also contained more compounds known as phenols, believed to help prevent cancer, than conventional produce.
  • 38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. (Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from a neighboring field or during processing and transport.)
  • Children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine.
  • Organic meat contained considerably lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised animals did.

All of this was mentioned in this study but conveniently left out of the conversation.

The production of organic food is governed by a raft of regulations that generally prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones, and additives. Which countless studies have shown to be detrimental to our health in many ways.

They also failed to mention a 2010 study by scientists at Washington State University who found that organic strawberries contained more vitamin C than conventional ones.

While the media is usually our friend, it was not so in this case. Not only has the source of the funding behind the Stanford research group been questioned… Let’s also consider the sponsors of all these big network news shows…if conventional companies pulled all their advertising, the media would be in trouble for digging any further than the press-release headlines.

What a tangled web…

Ann Intern Med. 4 September 2012;157(5):348-366