The Organic Food Lie

The media reporting of a new Stanford study purporting to show that organic food has no substantial benefit over conventionally grown food is a wonderful example of how to reduce a complex issue into a moronic sound bite. Google the study and you’ll find at least a dozen entries beginning with “Organic Food No Better for You”.

The study—or rather, the media reporting on it—has generated quite a bit of buzz.

On the one hand, I’m hearing from people upset with what they’re hearing and clearly hoping there’s something wrong with the study.

On the other hand, I’m getting e mails essentially saying, “I told you so”.

So what’s the truth? Is there something wrong with the study? Or is all that extra money we’ve been paying for organic produce, meat and dairy just a big unnecessary expense?

The truth is the study was fine. Stanford researchers basically analyzed a huge number of studies on organic foods (237 to be exact) and concluded that they are no more nutritious—as measured by their content of select vitamins and minerals– than their conventional brethren.

The problem isn’t with the study. The problem is with the bottom line conclusion the media (and Big Food) would like you to draw from it.

Which is: Save your money. There’s no difference between organic and non-organic food.

And though that’s clearly the conclusion that Big Food would love for you to make, it’s hardly the conclusion that’s warranted from the study.

Let me give you an example. You probably know about the incredible benefits of omega-3’s. (Brief executive summary: they support the brain and the heart, they lower blood pressure, they improve mood and they lower inflammation.)

But here’s what omega-3’s do not do:

  1. they don’t affect the unemployment rate
  2. they don’t save your marriage
  3. they don’t improve your golf game
  4. they don’t prevent divorce

We include omega-3’s in our diet for all the reasons mentioned earlier, i.e. their effects on the heart and brain. But no sane person expects them to prevent tooth decay or grow hair on a bald head.

Now if I have a vested interest in demonstrating that omega-3’s are worthless—i.e. if I’m a pharmaceutical company wanting to cast doubt on the value of natural remedies not produced by the drug industry—it’s in my interest to point out all the things omega-3’s don’t do.

So perhaps I commission a study to test whether omega-3 takers score higher on tests of mathematical ability. Or whether omega-3’s improve archery scores.

And guess what? They don’t.

So now I have a great headline, ready-made for the moron media: “Omega-3’s no better than placebo” (with the text explaining that those taking omega-3’s score no better on archery tests than those taking a placebo).

Sound silly? It’s not.

We don’t take omega-3’s because we expect them to improve our aim in archery. We take them because they make our brain and heart function better.

And—wait for it—we don’t eat organic food because we expect it to have more nutrients than conventionally grown food. We eat organic food because of what it does not have: namely, pesticides, pollutants, chemicals, carcinogens, and hormones, antibiotics and steroids (in the case of milk and meat).

In my book, that’s a pretty big difference.

The Stanford study—like all the rest of the studies Big Food loves to point to- only shows that organic food doesn’t have substantially more vitamin C than non-organic food. Great. I personally never thought that it did (though others disagree). But the study also showed a few other things, to wit:

  1. Organic produce contained more compounds known as phenols, which are believed to have cancer-fighting properties.
  2. Only 7% of the organic produce contained detectable residues of pesticides compared with 38% of conventional produce
  3. Organic meat contained considerably less levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  4. Organic milk was higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk

Even the conclusion that organic and non-organic food are the same in terms of nutritional value is a bit suspect. The researchers tested the big guns of vitamin and minerals (vitamin C, etc), but what about the 4,000 members of the flavonoid family? There are thousands of plant chemicals in food, broadly classified as flavanols, catechins, polyphenols, isoflavones, you name it. These compounds are undoubtedly part of what gives any food its nutritional pedigree. Do we really know that organic foods don’t have any more of these compounds than food grown with chemicals? We don’t. They might not—but then again they might. (Many studies suggest that they do.) All we know from the Stanford study is that organic and non-organic food scored equally on the nutrients that were tested.

It’s also worth knowing that several other studies have gotten different results. In 2010, researchers at Washington State University found that there’s more vitamin C in organic strawberries than non-organic. But my point is, who cares? Strawberries are among the most polluted crops in the world, consistently on the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “dirty dozen”. I don’t spend the money on organic strawberries because they have a milligram or two more vitamin C. I spend the money on organic strawberries because they haven’t been sprayed with potentially cancer-giving chemicals!

The Stanford researchers aren’t bad guys, and they don’t seem to have had any bias. But the same can’t be said of the lazy lamestream media who appeared positively giddy with moronic headlines like “no difference between organic and conventional”, totally missing the big reason for buying organic in the first place.

The “conclusion” that organic foods and non-organic foods are no different because both have the same amount of vitamin C is  like saying omega-3’s and sugar are no different because both are worthless when it comes to growing hair.

Grass-fed meat and organic, raw milk may not have any more vitamin B12 than their non-organic, commercial, factory farmed counterparts.

But what they don’t have is antibiotics, steroids and hormones—and that’s the reason I buy them.