Organic food review: a lot of fuss but very little help

September 7, 2009 at 10:23 am | Posted in Analysis | Leave a comment
Posh chocolate causing trouble again

Posh chocolate causing trouble again. Image by Zsuzsanna Kilián

At the beginning of August there was another flare-up around organic food, once again pitting the proponents of the organic industry against their conventional counterparts.

The argument was reignited by a systematic review of the evidence for nutritional benefits of organic vs conventionally farmed food, published by the UK Food Standards Agency.

What was interesting about the media coverage, and of concern to anyone seeking objectivity in coverage of controversial environmental health issues, was the widespread misrepresentation of the conclusions of the FSA review.

To get the facts straight, the review consisted of two papers. One reviewed the relative nutritional content of organic foodstuffs. The other looked at the putative health benefits which could be derived from eating organic food.

The reviewers concluded that in the matter of nutritional content: “No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.”

In the matter of health: “there is no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally-grown foodstuffs”.

For the latter, this was hardly surprising: only three studies passed muster, which would have made it very difficult for the reviewers to conclude anything. The former claim was based on a much larger base of 55 studies.

However, a large proportion of commentators and reporters conflated the two, presenting the FSA review as concluding that organic food is no healthier than conventional produce. In no particular order:

Daily Mail: Organic food “no healthier” than conventional produce, reveals watchdog… “Organic food is no more healthy or nutritious than other food, watchdogs declared yesterday.”

BBC News: Organic “has no health benefits”… “no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce”

Times: Organic food ‘no better for health than factory-farmed food’ says report… “Organic food is no healthier than other produce, according to the Government’s food watchdog.” and Organic food is just a tax on the gullible “…the organic business – ordinary food at extraordinary prices – is nothing more than a tax on gullibility.” [Interestingly, the phrase “factory-farmed” doesn’t even seem to appear in the report, so what exactly the Times is quoting is unclear.]

Euractiv: No health benefits from organic food, claims study… “There are no important advantages in terms of health and nutritional benefits gained from eating organic food when compared to food produced using conventional techniques, says the UK’s Food Standards Authority (FSA), with the recent publication of a scientific study.”

Notable exceptions to poor coverage came from Science Daily and the Lancet, both of whom published accurate accounts of the study. The Daily Mail piece is also interesting because, even though it misreported the headline findings, it did discuss in detail the limitations of the study with regard to its excluding pesticides and other contaminants.

Most pieces, however, failed to distinguish between the claim that there is no evidence of health benefits derived from the nutritional value of organic food, and the claim that there are no health benefits to eating organic.

In fact, the study could draw no general conclusions about health at all – and never tried to – for the simple reason it was entirely outside its remit to do so. In the authors’ own words:

“This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”

Studies can be long and boring, so perhaps this statement was easily missed. But then again, it is in the first paragraph of the executive summaries of both papers in the FSA review. Anyone who read them ought to have known what the conclusions actually were.

Of course, the conclusion is actually rather unimpressive, telling us very little about the relative merits of organic because the majority of the putative benefits actually fall outside the review’s scope.

And maybe that’s the rub: “Organic Food Not Nutritionally Better Than Conventionally-produced Food, Review Of Literature Shows” (ScienceDaily’s line on the story) is hardly a headline which is going to sell papers.

So what to do?

When faced with studies which are supposed to be revealing about the health implications of organic food but are of little practical help because they are restricted to looking at the nutrient content of foodstuffs, what does one actually do?

In fact, there is a lot of evidence connecting pesticides to various illnesses. So on the question of whether or not one should eat organic, and whether doing so is likely to keep you healthier (not because of nutritional content, but contaminants) it might be helpful to refer to this paper which looked at organophosphate (OP) exposure in children.

It found that “dietary intake of organophosphate pesticides represents the major source of exposure in young children. By substituting organic fresh fruits and vegetables for corresponding conventional food items, the median urinary metabolite concentrations were reduced to non-detected or close to non-detected levels for malathion and chlorpyrifos at the end of the 5-day organic diet intervention period in both summer and fall seasons”.

It went onto conclude that “The findings from this study support the conclusion stated in the [US] National Research Council’s 1993 report that dietary intake of pesticides represents the major source of exposure in infants and young children.”

It goes onto say that ‘further research efforts should be devoted to seek the links between OP pesticide exposures and the adverse health outcomes in children’.

Rather than an argument about nutritional content, what we have here is a look at how conventionally-farmed food contributes to OP exposure and a demand for more research into the potential health effects.

Before those results come out, would it be prudent in the meanwhile for children and adults to eat organically whenever possible? Nutritional content regardless, the answer seems to be “yes”, which is why both the FSA report, and the resulting media coverage, has from our perspective been so unhelpful.

Links to the FSA reviews

Nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs (pdf)

Putative health effects of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs (pdf)

Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: