Organic vs. non-organic: A flawed Stanford study produces dangerous sound bites

by Terry B on September 5, 2012

A study just released by Stanford University scientists has found that organic foods—produce, meat and dairy—are no more nutritious than non-organic or conventional foods. The study also reports that they are no less likely to be contaminated. They’re probably right. They examined more than 40 years’ worth of research on the topic; the study used no outside funding to avoid any “perception of bias;” and, well, they’re scientists.

The problem with their research, as I see it, is that they asked the wrong question. No one has really seriously claimed that organic foods are more nutritious. And earlier studies on this very subject have already stated what the Stanford researchers were “surprised” to discover. To me, they missed the point. Their central question was kind of like asking if LED light bulbs are any quieter than conventional ones, or if fuel-efficient vehicles are any shinier than gas guzzlers.

Because while organic foods may not be more nutritional than conventional foods, they are definitely healthier. First, there are the pesticides applied to conventional produce. The study recognized this, but said that pesticide levels were all within safety guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, an impressive number of studies question whether the EPA’s levels are strict enough. Organic foods are healthier for the people who grow them too. Exposure to pesticides is a constant threat to the well-being of farm workers. Animals raised organically for food generally lead healthier, happier lives too. And finally, there’s the planet itself. Chemical run-off, waste production and depletion of the soil from the monoculture approach of industrial farming all place a huge burden on the environment.

Here’s why this matters so much. In an age in which more and more of our information comes from sound bites, easy-to-digest nuggets like “organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods” have more weight than they deserve. I first saw this story in the elevator at my office this morning, telling me nothing more than the above with “Stanford scientists report…” attached to it. Armed with one authoritative-sounding little slice of a bigger story, it’s easy to pass up the usually more expensive organic option at the grocery store, figuring it makes no difference. It’s also easy to skip the farmers market, to fail to support legislation aimed at helping local farmers or protecting farm workers.

Even the New York Times story on the study, a reasonably balanced piece that also quoted a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, did so under the overreaching headline “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.”

All this said, we don’t buy strictly local or organic either. Our decisions are driven by convenience and cost just like everyone else’s. But we’re buying more organic these days, from local sources when possible. It all starts with asking the right questions.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

P.K. Newby September 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Thanks for a great piece. I was just talking about this yesterday myself, as it was so aggravating that not even the NYT brought these critical issues into their otherwise well-balanced article. Amazing to me that nutrition folks often don’t consider agriculture and the environment–and vice versa. This is beginning to change, thankfully, but it’s long past due and a major reason why my teaching and writing efforts are designed to help people make connections on why what you eat matters, farm to fork. Nutrition scientists need to use ecologic models that incorporate concepts of economy, environment, society, and health rather than traditional paradigms focused only on the individual. As I often say: it’s not just about you.

Terry B September 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful insights, P.K. You’re right—it’s not just about you. That way of thinking has screwed up far more than our approaches to the environment and nutrition over the years. I’m delighted to discover your blog, by the way. I’m looking forward to exploring it, starting with the cucumber basil gimlets you’re currently featuring!

kitchenriffs September 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm

“The problem with their research, as I see it, is that they asked the wrong question.” Bingo! It’s amazing how superficial so much research is when you look at it. Science seems to have particularly difficulties with food as it relates to nutrition and health (and they tend to forget about flavor entirely, which of course is what most people are most interested in). A good example is the whole egg/cholesterol question – at one time eggs were good; then they were the work of the devil; now they’re back to being mostly good. Heck, science hasn’t really established whether cholesterol is bad in itself; a direct symptom of something bad that is going on in the body (heart disease); or a marker for something else entirely that is unrelated to cholesterol, but for which cholesterol is the canary in the mine. (I’m overstating the case here a bit, but not by a whole lot.) Anyway our concerns when we buy organic are whether it’s more flavorful and healthier. Second are the ecological and sustainability concerns. Nutrition? Of course, but most of us are in danger of getting too much nutrition (in the form of overeating) than too little. As you said, wrong question.

William September 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm

You raise some good points, but beware – it’s neither the question nor the answer, but it’s the fact that the media sieze on wording that makes for (what they consider to be) good “sound bites”, as well as headline writers trying (but not necessarily succeeding) to encapsulate a meta-analysis into several words. They fail, not only because they have set out on a near impossible task, but also because when they choose their words, they use words that are subject to a wide number of connotations. For example, “doubt” – it doesn’t categorically mean “no” or “negative”, as in the oft-used phrase, “I doubt it” (which often translates to, “I disagree”, or “I think you’re wrong”) – it means, “I’m not sure if that’s entirely true… and want to find out more before I give it my full support or not.” As long as the media persist in seizing on preliminary studies, or attempting to encapsulate exhaustive analyses into a few words in order to draw customers, we will have people jumping to hose down fires that don’t necessarily need it.

randi September 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I only ever looked at organic as being pesticide/chemical free. I’m more concerned about buying local if possible and giving everything a good wash before I use it, organic or not. Like you I’m more driven by cost and convenience and being rural local is very convenient.

Terry B September 5, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Thanks, Kitchenriffs. And I’m right there with you on the eggs thing. Ditto the cholesterol thing. For instance, there are even studies now suggesting that having overly low cholesterol could be a marker for cancer risk.

William, you’re exactly right about a huge part of the problem being what the media does with studies and other information. Regarding the New York Times headline, my issue wasn’t with “casts doubt.” I get that. It was with “advantages of organic meat and produce” without restricting it to the nutrition value question the study focused on. The headline as it stands makes it sound like the study questions whether organic foods have any advantages.

Randi, your buying local approach is a smart one. Many small, local farmers can’t necessarily jump through all the hoops to be certified organic, but use organic methods on their farms anyway. Or else a modified version in which they limit the use of pesticides as much as possible. One farmer I spoke to used organic methods on his farm, but had to wait a number of years for his methods to repair the damage done by the previous farmer before his farm could be certified organic. The bottom line is when you buy local, you support the local economy and are probably getting better food with a smaller carbon footprint, all good things.

jeri September 6, 2012 at 3:31 am

Sadly, all this is moot, at least where I live. Everything organic in NYC is easily 2-3 times the cost of non. And the farmer’s market prices for locally grown products are nearly as bad. I would love to be a better steward of the planet, but I just can’t afford it.

Peg Champion September 6, 2012 at 5:11 am

Exactly, Terry. It’s the “wrong question!”
What they are missing here is the big picture: that is, how industrially-produced foods negatively impact the health of our environment and, subsequently, our own health. For example, organophosphates in our water table, chemical fertilizers that cause dead zones in our bays and oceans, antibiotic-resistant “super bugs,” etc.
Thanks for the great analysis!

Kate September 6, 2012 at 6:54 am

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’ve always stayed away from organic because I’d been told that organic foods are more likely to be contaminated by the manure used to fertilize. And these days it seems like convention food is contaminated even more often with things that shouldn’t be on veggies anyway. Your article made me rethink what I “know” and I’ll be less afraid to go organic when budget allows!

And P.S. Your flank steak recipe looks amazing and will be served soon in this house!

Eeka September 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Thanks for bringing this up.
We need to be more conscious news consumers. When we see headlines and stories like these, we should be asking questions, rather than just passively accepting the soundbites, headlines, news nuggets, etc. Was nutritional content an issue? What do they mean by ‘no less likely to be contaminated’? Contaminated with what? Number of contamination incidents,or degree of contamination? Was this the main focus of the study, or a side issue? Etc, etc, etc.

And… Kate, washing one’s produce (and hands) before cooking is always recommended.

Terry B September 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Jeri, I totally get that. Fortunately, as this study says, conventionally grown foods are as nutritious as organic. The point is to eat healthy foods, whatever the source.

Well put, Peg. It’s easy to get into our little silos of experience and knowledge and fail to look at the big picture. Healthy has meanings far beyond simple nutrition.

Kate, as too many outbreaks have illustrated in recent years, E. coli and other bacteria are equal opportunity contaminants. It’s often big factory farmed foods that cause problems. Just wash everything and you’ll be fine (as Eeka says above).

“More conscious news consumers.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Eeka, Thanks!

Summer September 7, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Dear Terry,

I see many of the comments here reflect the exact sentiments I had when I first heard this story break the news. Few of us who buy organic do so because we believe it’s more nutritious or equate higher prices with better quality.

We do so out of a desire to know where our food comes from, if it’s been genetically modified, and if it has been subjected to growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides.

I am disappointed in the Stanford study and the media hype that repeats the mantra of organic not being measurably different, just more expensive. I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but this media campaign smacks of industrial farming’s backlash response to the public’s well-founded fears about the safety of our food.

We all know how vulnerable our food chain is to dangerous disease and contamination outbreaks. Industrial farming is slow and often callous in its response to food borne heath threats, and even deaths.

It is fear of ingesting carcinogenic chemicals, steroids, etc. that motivates most of us to buy organic. The Europeans were accused of reacting hysterically to terminator seeds, genetically modified foods, and the extensive use of chemicals in food, and now we know they were right all along.

What none of the media have said about this “study” is how it was conducted and the abstract used to design the “study.” Had the two medical doctors conducting the research bothered to study the positive health benefits of not consuming pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics used in animal feed, and genetically modified foods, they would have had a different story to tell.

Nowhere was it reported that the study’s leaders actually conducted research using live human subjects. In reality, the study studied other people’s studies, as explained on Stanford’s website http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html states, “For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.

This is not good science and seems custom designed to promote a particular marketing or commercial agenda, rather than investigate a real medical or scientific theory or problem. What their research found, but they did not highlight, was that “… researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables…Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets, though the significance of these findings on child health is unclear. Additionally, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the clinical significance of this is also unclear.”

This kind of spin from two medical doctors is alarming, diminishes the study’s worth, and downplays the dangers inherent in carcinogenic chemicals. What is more disturbing, however, is the lack of interest, by two doctors, in the long-term health impacts of consuming foods containing antibiotics, pesticides, etc.

Once again, the media has jumped in with both feet and run with the headlines that grab attention, rather than question the study’s aims, results, and the motivation of the researchers’ in how the research was designed.

Thankfully, there are other voices being heard, as evidenced here http://www.thepacker.com/opinion/fresh-talk-blog/Organic-fans-push-back-against-Stanford-study-168749466.html?ref=466.

As Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, said in a column quoted on The Packer:

“Although there is conflicting science on whether or not organic food is truly nutritionally superior, there is no doubt that in terms of many parameters, organic food is demonstrably safer.

I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that’s produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I’m getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice for family farmers.”

Ditto.

Emily September 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Great article-Thank you for sharing! I also try to buy organic and local whenever possible, but like you said, convenience and cost are two driving factors when it comes to grocery shopping. The rule I heard about buying organic versus inorganic foods is if the skin on the produce is thick (i.e, banana, avocado, pineapple, etc) and if the skin gets peeled off anyways, don’t bother buying organic. Any thoughts?

Paul Carroll September 8, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Hello, Señor Terry (i’m from Texas, kindly forgive the colloquial).

Certainly an interesting and informative discussion thread you have going; thanks for that.

My two cents: I would like to add emphasis to your point about the contamination downstream from runoff, drift, etc. I’ve worked in the Gulf of Mexico for years. The red bloom is a serious concern with multiple sources. Folks around the US (and the World, for that matter) are not insulated from the effects by distance. I understand the average distance for commercial market foodstuffs to travel is over a 1,000 miles (hearsay, but I think reliable). Supporting the organic paradigm (oh, I did not just say that :) whenever possible is an imperative.

(vacates soapbox)

Terry B September 9, 2012 at 4:28 am

Summer, thanks for the thoughtful, comprehensive comment. Response to this study has certainly sparked a lot of conversation across all media. A friend said that one of the doctors was simply trying to answer a patient’s question about whether organic food was healthier for her. Again, the problem is that the study focused purely on nutrition—vitamins and minerals—ignoring the broader issues of health and food.

Emily, there are a lot of different views on the question of the value of washing and peeling produce in removing pesticides. Some agree with your view; others say that while washing removes E. coli and other bacteria, it doesn’t eliminate pesticides. But even the Environmental Working Group, which releases annual lists of the “Dirty Dozen” most contaminated fruits and vegetables and “Clean 15″ least contaminated, urges us to “Eat your fruits and vegetables!”

Paul, the expanding Gulf of Mexico dead zone is a grim reminder of our need to reduce dependence on pesticides for growing our food. And you made good use of the soapbox. Thanks for stopping by!

Aqiyl Aniys | Natural Life Energy April 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I totally agree with and love your perspective. I do believe organic food is more nutritious, a which is one issue. The issue revolves around whether the nutrient density is the same as with non-organic foods. The other important issue is does organic food contain less harmful substances than non-organic food. The answer is yes. Less pesticides, and I agree EPA’s levels are not strict enough. I wrote an article about Whole foods that they were selling non-organic food grown in sewer sludge and this was approved. WF is supposed to stop selling food grown in sewer sludge this year. It was seen as being safe at first because the though was the plants wouldn’t absorb the chemical waste dumped into sewer by hospitals and chemical manufacturers.

William April 1, 2014 at 9:16 pm

I read the comment above and note that the author has his own website and business pertaining to healthy living. Thus, I read the comment with a great deal of doubt, knowing there could be an ulterior motive to several unfounded remarks. Despite your “belief” that organic is more nutritious, there is overwhelming, peer-reviewed, replicable hard evidence that organic food is equal to other food in nutritional value, and in some cases it is less nutritious: although all of this depends on working definitions of what “nutritious” is. Please save your proselytizing for your business website: this forum is not the place for it. I would like to see citations of the evidence supporting the claims of foods’ being grown in sewer sludge: this is a pretty serious accusation and needs to be supported by more than just passing mention of an article, whose whereabouts was not disclosed.

Terry B April 1, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Aqiyl, the point of this post is that organic foods are not more nutritious, but that, because of how they are grown, they’re ultimately healthier for us as well as healthier for the people who grow them, the land where they’re grown and the planet.

William, you make some good points about how information (and sometimes misinformation) is shaping and occasionally distracting important dialogue. That said, Whole Foods did in fact just agree, under pressure, to stop selling produce grown in sewage sludge.

William April 2, 2014 at 6:29 am

Terry, thanks for the link to this article. I always question unattributed information, but equally always welcome the ability to see it for myself.

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