The largest study to date comparing organic to non-organic food concluded that, nutritionally, it matters not which one you choose. The study was commissioned by the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is the British equivalent of the FDA, and conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A report on the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes, "Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority."
To reach these conclusions, the researchers selected 55 studies completed between 1958 and 2008 out of a group of 160 studies. The studies selected from the larger group met certain criteria set forth by the FSA. They contained analyses of the nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown foods including crops, meat, and dairy products, focusing only on "the most commonly reported nutrients." According to the study report, "[There were] a small number of differences in nutrient content between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance."
Based on the results, the report, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that there's no reason to spend good money on organic food, from a health perspective. Articles in the press have highlighted this conclusion, pointing to the $48 billion netted by the organic food industry in 2007 as consumer foolishness. But some experts take issue with the methodology enlisted by the study as well as the conclusions reached, voicing suspicions that the research was skewed in order to align with views held by the FSA.
According to critics, the 55 studies selected tell only part of the story represented by the body of research. When all 162 of the studies are considered rather than only the selected 55, organic produce won the nutrient contest. For instance, "beta carotenes were 53 per cent higher and flavanoids 38 per cent higher in organic food than non-organic food," according to an article in the Independent. Also, another phase of the study has so far found that organic wheat, tomatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce contain up to 20 percent higher vitamin content. The FSA report doesn't contain these provisional results. Not to mention the fact that the FDA report didn't trace mineral content, and essential component of good health.
"The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences. This was because these studies did not meet particular criteria fixed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine," says Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association.
So what exactly does this mean? Effectively, the report "defined out of consideration" all of the studies that indicated organic produce had higher nutritional value and then based its conclusions on the negative studies remaining. As a point of comparison, it would be like deciding not to count Roger Federer's record setting 15 Grand Slam tennis titles when comparing him to other tennis players, and then declaring him not very good.
At least some experts believe the study reeks of special interest. "My feeling - and quite a lot of people think this - is that this is probably the study that delivers what the FSA wanted as an outcome," says Dr. Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, a leader in the nutritional field who last year completed a study finding that organic milk contains around 60 per cent more antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids than normal milk. He adds, "If you look at the differences they found -- a 50 per cent increase in beta carotenes and a 30 per cent increase in flavanoids -- they are quite significant differences, and they come to the conclusion that there's no systematic nutritional differences. That's just not very convincing."
There are other possible weaknesses in the study. It's not clear, for instance, whether most of the "organic food" analyzed came from large industrial farms still using chemical fertilizers although they don't spray, versus from local farms using natural soil enhancement techniques. Also, plenty of other major studies have found that organic food offers significant nutritional benefits over conventional -- but that's only part of the story. The reports in the press have been remarkably oblivious to the key point: organic food beats the pants off of conventional because it isn't coated with pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide residues or permeated with antibiotics and growth hormones. If it adds more nutritionally, that's a bonus, but most people opt for organic in the first place because of what it doesn't contain -- a heaping helping of unhealthy toxins in every mouthful.
In fact, the study's authors state that they haven't considered "[the health impacts of eating toxins] or the possible environmental consequences of organic and conventional agricultural practices because this was beyond the scope of our review." Their statement makes it sound as if such considerations are irrelevant.
In addition, studies have found that conventionally grown foods contain 300 percent higher concentrations of pesticide residues than organic foods. According to the website, What's on My Food, the average child gets over five servings of pesticides with meals a day. The website also notes that traces of eight types of pesticides were found on a single strawberry, and almost all conventionally grown strawberries in over 700 samples contained these residues. Studies have found that farm workers, who have increased exposure to pesticides, have far higher rates of cancer. According to the USDA's own website, pesticides can cause "birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time." Those other effects create a very long list containing virtually every imaginable health issue, from skin and eye irritation to endocrine disruption, autism, and death. All in all, it provides another good reason for regular detoxing. The website also notes that the food we eat typically may contain:
- insecticides to control insects
- rodenticides to control rodents
- herbicides to control weeds
- fungicides to control mold and fungus
- antimicrobials to control bacteria
The vast majority of these pesticides have not been adequately tested for their ability to cause cancer, genetic mutations, or birth defects. Of those that have been tested, at least 45 are approved for food use even though they have been proven to cause cancer in animals. A good rule of thumb would be if it's meant to kill living creatures smaller than yourself, it's likely to kill you if consumed daily, even at very low levels. All of which leads to the conclusion that the FSA study offers about as much relevance as a recommendation to vacation on the island of Nihoa, which though tropical and part of Hawaii, contains no lodgings, no roads, and no access for casual visitors.