Recent research from Stanford University and the subsequent headlines from Reuters, NBC News, the New York Times and other mass media outlets have it all wrong: Choosing to grow and eat organic foods has little to do with nutritional content. Humanity must increasingly turn to organic foods. If we don’t, we will damage our future food supply along with our health and the environment.
The mass media-focused meta-analysis of a numerous studies attempted to calculate consistencies among studies that compared nutrient content of organic versus conventional foods. The assumption of the researchers – and the mass media – is that nutrient content is the primary reason for consumers to purchase organic foods and a central reason to grow organic foods. They are mistaken.
Simply put, we can easily boost our vitamin A or C or protein levels with inexpensive supplements. Spending more for organic foods – as evidenced by a market that has exploded in the U.S. from $1 billion in sales to over $30 billion in just over two decades – relates to an entirely different set of principles. The research focus and the headlines missed those principles.
Before getting to those, let’s examine how flawed the headlines are in of themselves in suggesting that organic foods are “no more nutritious” or “no better” than conventional foods.
The research being drawn from is not new research. It is simply a compilation – a meta-analysis – of other studies. This means the researchers created a process for analysis that tried to compile a large number of studies into a neat and tidy conclusion. The problem was, the broad swath of research all but allowed for a neat and tidy conclusion.
The meta-analysis was broad. It reviewed 17 human studies and 223 laboratory studies – a huge number that in itself increases the chance of error as an analysis method is configured and applied. A cohesive result from any meta-analysis requires that confounding factors be eliminated – which can skew the results and even eliminate solid research data.
While some meta-analyses can be quite easy to compile and very accurate, the Stanford four-year long review required limitations to data scope and the elimination of confounding variables in order to develop computable formulae.
Furthermore, the researchers’ conclusion was not that there was not any difference between nutrient levels of conventional and organic foods. Their conclusion was that: “All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous.”
“Heterogeneous” means the various study data were not uniform enough to make an accurate conclusion. Because a meta-analysis requires uniform results so that a composite may be calculated, heterogeneity means a true meta-analysis could not be made.
This is the traditional “apples to oranges” issue: It is hard to perform a calculation on sets of data that are dramatically different.
The researchers did not conclude that “organic foods do not contain more nutrients than conventional foods.” Rather, they concluded: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” This is a guarded statement with several caveats rather than conclusive evidence one way or the other.
“Strong evidence” means there is little or no room for error in the data. And “significantly more nutritious” in this case is a judgment call relating to enough difference in nutrients considered by conventional medicine to produce diagnosable diseases if deficient in the diet.
There were many confounding variables in the research. For example, nutrient levels often have more to do with when a food is harvested, and where it is grown. A conventional fruit picked later will almost assuredly contain more nutrients than an organic fruit picked earlier in the harvest. This means control and randomization are quite difficult.
Another problematic aspect of this meta-analysis is that a wide range of different foods and measurements used were lumped into the calculations. This can ignore the unique benefits of particular organic foods over their conventional counterparts.
For example, several studies have shown that organic strawberries maintain higher antioxidant content than their conventional counterparts, while wheat and oats maintain little difference. A meta-analysis of these data will produce equivocal results.
One study, done by Washington State University researchers two years ago, found that strawberries grown organically had significantly more vitamin C than conventionally grown strawberries. It turns out this important 2010 study was not included in the meta-analysis.
Another important study not included was a 2012 study by Spanish university researchers who determined that organic broccoli not only contains more vitamin C and other antioxidants and phytonutrients, but those phytonutrients remain intact longer in storage and heat conditions. The researchers tested organic and conventional broccoli side-by-side, and found that the organic broccoli’s phenolic and antioxidant content was maintained longer than the conventional broccoli.
Another study, this from Italy’s University of Bologna, found that organic red oranges contain significantly more anthocyanins, ascorbic acid and phenols than conventional red oranges.
The design of the meta-analysis that tries to capture the increased nutrient content of oranges, broccoli and strawberries together with foods showing less or no difference will hide the significance of this difference.
This was confirmed in another review of organic food research, this one from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2010. This review determined that while studies have varied in their type of data, outside of wheat, oats, and wine, “organic foods typically provide greater levels of a number of important antioxidant phytochemicals (anthocyanins, flavonoids, and carotenoids).” This review also concluded: “Clear health benefits from consuming organic dairy products have been demonstrated in regard to allergic dermatitis.”
Stanford review still showed significant benefits for organic
Despite these compilation issues, the meta-analysis still proved significant nutritional and content differences exist between organic and conventional foods across the board:
– Organic foods contain more levels of phosphorus. Phosphorus is an important mineral for bone health, digestion, hormone regulation, protein production and cognitive function. While phosphorus is not difficult to find among western diets, organic foods provide more of this healthy mineral across the board.
– Organic foods contain significantly less bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics. Our ‘superbug’ dilemma is partly due to the fact that conventional animals are dosed with antibiotics, which results in more outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
– The meta-analysis showed that organic foods contained significantly fewer pesticide residues. They found that while 38% of the conventional foods contained pesticide residues, only 7% of the organic foods contained pesticide residues – which can be caused by drift from neighboring fields. The critical piece here is that chemical residues can bioaccumulate in fat cells, producing more risk over time. They may also affect liver health, burden the kidneys and stimulate cancer growth. Children, the elderly and those who are immunosuppressed are significantly more sensitive to toxins such as pesticides and herbicides.
– The Stanford review also confirmed that organic produce contains more phytonutrients called phenols. Phenols have been shown in laboratory studies to inhibit the growth of tumors and cancer cells, and are vital nutrients to immunity, even though the USDA has not established a standard for their consumption.
– Organic milk was consistently found to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids – important for cardiovascular and cognitive health.
– The research also suggested, as has previous reviews, that there is a potential relationship between increased phytonutrients derived from organic foods and increased cancer inhibition.
This was illustrated by a 2006 study from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, which found that organic strawberries had higher levels of antioxidants and other phytonutrients that inhibited breast and colon cancer cells. They admitted that the cancer inhibition potential of organic strawberries “might lie in a synergistic action with other compounds.”
It is these “other compounds” that Stanford’s meta-analysis could not easily compute. While they did find repeated studies showing that organics often had greater levels of phytonutrients, the same phytonutrients were not measured repeatedly in a fashion that allowed for a compounding of the data.
In other words, because phytonutrients are often categorized and named differently according to their molecular structure, their data can be, well, heterogeneous.
The Longer View
Yet these are not even the best reasons relating to a rationale for eating organic foods. Yes, in many cases organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods. And yes, we can avoid more pesticide residue by eating organic.
But the more important issues relate to our environment and the future of our food supply. Consider these reasons to grow and eat organic foods:
Dead zones: Nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers leach into waterways and produce dead zones, which choke fish and mammal wildlife in regions where those waterways drain to. Huge dead zones have been found off the coast of Oregon, the Gulf of Mexico (nearly 7,000 square miles), off the East Coast of the U.S. in the Chesapeake Bay, around Northern Europe and other areas of the world. These have all been linked to farming using conventional, nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers that leach through the soil.
Soil erosion: Conventional farming produces more soil erosion because farmers do not amend their soils the way organic producers do. Organic producers must rotate their crops more and must add compost or other natural fertilizers to increase their soil health. This is one of the requirements of third-party organic certifiers who must inspect organic growers’ fields annually.
Farmers that grow their crops organically are providing a better future for humanity’s food production. Erosion shrinks more than 37,000 square miles of our arable land each year according to Dr. David Pimentel, an ecology professor at Cornell University. This erosion results in fewer acres able to produce food. By necessity and by organic standard requirement, organic growers must amend their soil to prevent soil erosion.
Chemical contamination of the environment: Herbicides and pesticides have been leaching into our waterways and soils at an alarming rate. Studies have indicated these are affecting aquatic life in different ways, yield hormone issues and stress among fish. A review of research by the UK’s National Poisons Information Service and Birmingham’s City Hospital has confirmed that while glyphosate herbicides (such as Roundup) are typically combined with polyoxyethyleneamine (POEA) and other chemicals that act as surfactants. POEA has been found to be more toxic than glyphosate.
Bees and other beneficial species: Conventional farming utilizes pesticides that have been shown to decimate bee populations. Heavily sprayed fields have been shown to wipe out large hives while non-lethal doses of systemic pesticides damage bees’ ability to navigate has been confirmed in French research, finding that doses of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid systemic pesticide, directly affects a bee’s health and navigation abilities. The researchers concluded that: “The ability of the honeybee to move in an open-field-like apparatus is impaired at the doses of 2.5, 5, 10, and 20 ng/bee. These effects are amplified with time and reach a maximum 60 min after application.”
While bees may be small, their relationship to feeding us is big. Their pollen-harvesting is directly related to our future ability to feed ourselves.
And newer research has found that bats and bumble bees are also affected by neonicotinoids. These are also important pollinators, and in the case of bats, critical to keeping mosquito and other insect populations down (ergo West Nile virus).
Worker safety: Organic food production is safer for agricultural workers. Repeated research has determined that handling or working around pesticides and herbicides increases the risk of cancers and cognitive issues.
Avoiding GM foods: Currently there are no labeling requirements in the U.S. that inform consumers whether the foods we are buying are grown from genetically-modified seeds. Many GMO seeds are sold to farmers with instructions that farmers can spray more pesticides and herbicides into their fields. This creates higher risk of pesticide residues and more damage to the environment. GMO seeds are typically ‘terminator seeds’ in that the plants they produce will not produce seeds. This means we are leaving the future of our food in the hands of multinational conglomerates such as Monsanto.
Organic growers must provide evidence to third-party organic certifiers that they are not using genetically modified seed. This means that the USDA organic label (for the U.S.) provides the highest level of assurance that at least the food is not grown using genetically modified seeds.
Global superbug growth: Organic food production also uses far less antibiotics. Several studies have connected the widespread use of antibiotics to further growth of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, including MRSA.
Survival of soil-based organisms: Organic food production promotes the growth of soil-based organisms including nitrogen-fixing bacteria and earthworms which maintain the health of our soils and keep plant roots healthy.
Disease and drought resistance: For these and other reasons, organically grown crops have been shown to be more disease-resistant, and more drought tolerant. This was reported in recent research on rootworm disease among pesticide-grown corn. Research on crown rust among oats by the USDA has shown that organic oats are less susceptible to crown rust. Healthier soils mean healthier plants with stronger immune systems.
These reasons provide profound reasoning for eating organic foods. Besides the fact that pesticide residues may be bioaccumulating amongst our fat cells and other tissues, and besides the fact that many organic foods contain more cancer-fighting phytonutrient content, there is a bigger picture. A longer view. The view that increases our chances of feeding our children’s children.
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