Posted by Linda Bonvie
September 11, 2012
As happens every so often, a supposedly “scientific” analysis has once again attempted to debunk the value of organic food. And, as usual, the news media have dutifully jumped on board with breathless reporting that a group of expert researchers has determined that organic products simply aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, so we probably shouldn’t waste our money on them.
In this case, a team of doctors from Stanford University, having “combed through thousands of studies to analyze the 237 that most rigorously compared organic and conventional foods,” has concluded that the nutritional differences between them are insignificant, and that generally speaking, “there isn’t much difference” in their effects on individual health.
While acknowledging that consumers may have various reasons for buying organic food, the study’s senior author, Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health policy, reportedly declared that if the main reason for doing so was the expectation that organic foods would provide more nutrients, “I would say there is not robust evidence to choose one or the other.”
Not in our book. And I mean that quite literally, having co-authored the 2008 book Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel, which describes a multitude of studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and non-organic foods, which, all-told, comprise a rather impressive body of “robust evidence” to the contrary.
The name of the chapter devoted to this particular aspect of organic food, “Reclaiming the Food Value That We’ve Lost,” says it all. The extensive research it describes includes:
- a European Union-funded analysis of a comparative four-year study conducted on a 725-acre farm in Britain and other locations, which found that the organic crops contained up to 40 percent more antioxidants, as well as higher levels of iron and zinc, milk produced by organically raised cows had up to 90 percent higher levels of antioxidants than milk from a conventionally raised herd in a nearby pasture, and that organic tomatoes contained substantially higher levels of antioxidants, including flavonoids, which are credited with reducing the risk of heart disease;
- another comparative study of organic and conventionally grown melons reported on by a group of University of Colorado researchers at a 2007 meeting of the American Society for Horticultural Science, which indicated that the organic varieties offered greater amounts of vitamin C and polyphenols, antioxidants believed to help prevent both heart disease and cancer;
- a study done by Italy’s National Institute of Food and Nutrition Research showing organic pears, peaches and oranges also provided higher antioxidant levels than chemically cultivated kinds;
- comparative studies conducted by University of California at Davis researchers that found organic corn, marionberries and strawberries to be richer in antioxidant content by 58.5 percent, approximately 50 percent, and 19 percent respectively than nonorganic varieties of the same commodities, and
- studies conducted at Missouri’s Truman State University concluding that organic oranges contained 30 percent more vitamin C than larger, conventionally grown ones.
Collective analysis of studies? We’ve got those, too
But what about the type of analysis of large groups of studies, such as the one purportedly performed by those Stanford researchers and given so much media hype over the past week?
It just so happens that we talked about a couple of those as well, such as the 2001 review of 41 studies performed by Virginia Worthington at Johns Hopkins University for a doctoral dissertation, which included an analysis of farm- and market-basket surveys, field trial and greenhouse pot experiments. When taken together, these studies revealed that the organic produce contained 29.3 percent more magnesium, 27 percent more vitamin C, 21 percent more iron and 13.6 percent more phosphorus, as well as having 15.1 percent fewer nitrates, which are far less desirable.
Then there’s the 2008 review of 97 published studies that showed “organic fruits, vegetables and grains contain higher levels of eight of 11 nutrients, including significantly greater concentrations of polyphenols and antioxidants,” and that “organically grown, plant-based foods are on average 25 percent more nutrient dense than their conventionally grown counterparts.”
As it happens, Dr. Chuck Benbrook, chief scientists for the Colorado-based Organic Center, who was a member of the team that reviewed those studies, has weighed in with his own evaluation of the Stanford research. “The basic statistical indicators used by the Stanford team to compare the nutritional quality and safety of organic versus conventional food consistently understate the magnitude of the differences reported in high-quality, contemporary peer-reviewed studies,” Benbrook said.
Benbrook also noted that carefully designed studies comparing organic and conventional raw foods, including apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, milk, carrots, grains, have found the organic varieties contained 10 to 30 percent higher levels of several nutrients, including vitamin C, antioxidants and phenolic acids, about 60 to 80 percent of the time.
According to Benbrook, the Stanford researchers also failed to consider “extensive, high quality data from the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on pesticide residue levels, toxicity and dietary risk, as well as a persuasive body of literature on the role of agricultural antibiotic use in triggering the creation of new antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, and the genes conferring resistance.” That material, in his estimation, shows the most significant, proven benefits of organic food and farming to include reduction in gradual, chemical-induced changes during fetal and childhood development.
As Stanford’s Dr. Bravata acknowledged, there are various reasons why an increasing number of consumers opt for organic foods, chief among which is the desire to reduce as much as possible their dietary exposure to toxic pesticides (which was found to be on average 30 percent lower in organic foods by the Stanford researchers, although Benbrook, using the same data, calculated “an overall 81 percent lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples”). And that’s not even to mention the fact that organic is the best way to keep a whole slew of undesirable additives out of your family’s diet.
But the fact that they’re also nutritionally superior, by virtue of being grown in soil that contains far more nutrients than soil used to grow ordinary crops, had already been well established – over and over again — when the Stanford team decided to conduct this latest study said to be aimed at allowing people to “make informed choices.”
So here at FIT, we thought it only fitting that we inform you that nutritional value is one more very important reason to buy organic whenever possible.
Be sure to take a moment to sign the new Citizens for Health petition asking the FDA to take action against food and beverage manufacturers using HFCS with fructose amounts above 55 percent (the highest amount the FDA allows), and also, in the interim, to provide accurate label information so consumers know just what they’re buying (you can read the petition here ). This “truth-in-labeling” petition asks that the FDA require a manufacturer that uses HFCS to state the fructose percentage in that HFCS formulation and have the label reflect that information, such as HFCS-55, or HFCS-90.