In 2012, Big Food spent lots of money fighting mandatory organic labeling in California and Big Media played along. One of the most cited studies in the debate about why to eat organic food was the meta-study, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review. Guess which part of its conclusion made headlines?
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
That’s right, it’s the first sentence. The Stanford press release quotes lead author Dena Bravata, MD, MS, as saying:
There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.
Hmm, if you’re an adult. That’s because two studies found “lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets.” Call me crazy, but I think many adults would care about the following, using quotes from the same press release:
- Organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetable
- Evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids
- Phosphorus levels were significantly higher [in organic produce] than in conventional produce
- [Eating] organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria
The press release doesn’t highlight it, but the abstract says the risk difference for exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria is 33%, with a range of 21% to 45%.
The study writes off the higher levels of phosphorus as “clinically significant” because few people don’t get enough, but according to the National Institutes of Health,
The main food sources are the protein food groups of meat and milk. A meal plan that provides adequate amounts of calcium and protein also provides an adequate amount of phosphorus.
For the increasing numbers of people who are moving to a plant-based diet, phosphorus intake could be important. Evidently we can’t absorb the phosphorus in whole-grains because it is stored as phytin. Only the “small amounts” in fruits and grains are available, so we have to make the most of it. Phosphorus makes up 1% of our body weight and is essential for strong bones and teeth. It helps your heart beat, your muscles contract, and your nerves send signals.
Clearly we need more in-depth, long-term studies on the affects of eating the Standard American Diet, complete with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and one based on real, organic ingredients cooked from scratch. SAD vs. WAO, in other words.
Let’s address what Bravata’s study cites its own limitation:
Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.
I believe the findings will be significant, particularly when long-term health outcomes are considered. (Speaking of findings, it is a real shame that the Annals of Internal Medicine is charging $19 for 24 hours of access to the full text of the study. It’s not available through the excellent Wake County Library, either. I’ll be going to a university library to read the full report. I’d be happy to pay to read it, but not more than my whole book costs … and just for one day!)
But even if studies show that there is no short-term, personal benefit to buying food that has hasn’t been treated with toxins or bred to have toxins in every cell, buying organic is the ethical approach. It helps prevent harm from coming to the people who grow your food. It protects society against drought and famine.
Most importantly, buying organic protects the web of life from the unknowable effects of combining toxins, genetic modification, and evolution.
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