If we talk about how to do a nutritional scientific research there is a noticeable disappointment, not only in the method but also in the way the media reports are presented. Today I will do a typical example – and my subject will be organic food.
Politics and “research” not only they’ve succeeded to disrupt a food pyramid that was never supposed to contain bread and pasta. They managed to mess up something that is supposed to represent the hope for the preservation of traditional ways of food production. Since it was published in September 2012, the Stanford study on organic foods caused controversy, discussions and debates.
The conclusion of the study was: “There is no strong evidence that organic food has a higher nutritional value than conventional food. Consumption of organic food may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and bacteria susceptible to antibiotics.”
Stanford study: yes, no, maybe?
Limited resources, time and staff sometimes can help in the analysis of everything that exists, and sometimes – as in the Stanford case – from several thousand of existing studies on organic food they will only select just a little speck. Specifically, from several thousand studies they chose only 237.
This separation is because Stanford study wasn’t a research, but only a summary of the various, existing data from other studies. Stanford study is an office work, and this is selected by their team:
223 studies have addressed the amounts of bacteria, fungi and pesticides in fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, eggs and poultry – from organic and conventional production.
17 studies have been done on humans of which 6 were experiments. The shortest took only 2 days of research and the longest lasted 2 years. I have no information what the longer studies were about, how many subjects were involved and how they were made.
Of those 17 people, 2 studies have been done on children (through urine they were measuring pesticide residues, along with organic and conventional food, and discovered that the children had less if they eat organic food) – Other studies were performed with healthy adult subjects.
Only three studies have addressed the health effects of organic food on the human body and of these three, two were about children allergies.
Critics of the Stanford study say that if we want to measure health effects on the human organism, it is necessary to conduct an experiment that would last at least 4 years. There is no such studies.
Vitamins and minerals
The study didn’t found out that organic food has a higher nutritional value – more minerals and vitamins. But it has concluded that there are fewer pesticide residues and fewer bacteria resistant to antibiotics. From these two they then concluded that organic food is not nutritionally more valuable. Critics ask whether “nutritional value” makes sense only if we talk about the level of vitamins and minerals, and if we then should ignore all pesticides and types of bacteria because it is “not significant” for the assessment of nutritional value. Also, if they have not been able to find, it is not proof that “something” doesn’t exist.
The plants themselves create their vitamins, minerals content depends on the soil. Comparing two studies of plants that have been grown on different soils is mixing apples and oranges. For these measurements, in order to be relevant, it is very important from where the samples were taken, precisely for proper comparisons that would include all the factors: soil type, climate, type of seeds, and even the way of picking and storage / storage after harvest.
An additional blow to the Stanford study, after 2 years of its publication, there is a new meta-analysis, which included 343 studies and concluded that organic food has more nutrients, especially more antioxidants. Conducted by Professor Carlo Leifert who has already dealt with antioxidants in organic food. The story is common and they now argue about this study.
Pesticides in organic food
Dena Bravata, one of the main authors of the Stanford study, in subsequent statements to the media confirmed that they found less pesticides, more antioxidants and less microbes resistant to antibiotics. But repeating that “there is no significant difference between organic and conventional products” made critics wonder what Bravata and her team have “significant” to say at all and what they have defined as the “significance” before starting the work? Read more:
The conclusions said that the organic food has 30% less chance of pesticide residues. One of the main critics, Chuck Benbrook, says that the pesticide residues are found in 7% of organic and 38% of conventional food, so how these two figures could receive only 30% of the difference?
Criticisms were given at the expense of how the research was conducted “contains pesticide / no pesticides”. They have not dealt with it in detail. Looks like they were not interested in the (poor) quality of pesticides.
Next criticism refers to whether they really know how pesticides affect humans? Here is a good point from Betsy Wattenberg, a toxicologist at the University of Minnesota: “In order to really conclude anything about the risks associated with food and a potential cause of disease, such as cancer or effects on reproduction, it is necessary to conduct a study for a period of 4 to 10 years. Such studies are impossible and currently do not exist.”
Some were witty: “If there is no evidence that pesticides are harmful, why then nobody can prove that they are useful for us?” Or “How the current knowledge on the level of pesticides can protect the fetus in the mother’s stomach?”
All samples showed that pesticide residues were within acceptable limits. The question set by the critics was “if limit is good” and whether it should be taken seriously “if it is safe and well placed”. We have had cases that DDT was permitted and prohibited. We have a story about a bunch of drugs (such as those for weight loss) that were allowed and so suddenly withdrawn. We do not know what will be revealed tomorrow, not on this topic. They wonder whether we will become guinea pigs with such reasoning.
Stanford study caused a big media mess, but also opened the great questions that have yet to be answered. Meanwhile, 55% of people choose to buy organically grown products in an effort to eat healthier, 53% in order to avoid chemicals, 44% to help save the environment. Even if the first group may be wrong, others still have a point. There is less pesticides! Such production is a better treatment of the environment (with which otherwise we have less and less contact).
Even Bravata says: “There always remain other reasons for buying organic food: the environment, humane treatment of animals and the like.” This is not an insignificant reason, and for the nutrients we’ll see 🙂
It is also an interesting and important study that was conducted by John Reganold, which concluded that organic foods have less pesticide than conventional, and it’s usually only one pesticide, otherwise permitted in this production. It is interesting because he has processed 94,000 samples (20 different crops) and worked on it for years.
Whose money is it, anyway?
It says that the Stanford study is independent and not financed by big industry. OK, the study was not funded! But Stanford University is! Without any paranoia and global conspiracy theories, the existence of problem of the financing also raises doubts about the avalanche results. One of the major sponsors of Stanford for 25 years, with approximately $ 5 million in donation per year, is agro-giant Cargill on whose website is a clear link to the university.
With this in mind, we have a different perspective about the statement that Bravata has given later. This statement seems even more interesting if we bold these four words:
“There is no difference between organic and conventional foods, if you are an adult who chooses just for his own health.”
I was a little thoughtful over this statement and the more I look at it seem more and more absurd. Does this mean that the authors which motivate vulnerable groups to choose a more natural / organic foods are right? Do pregnant women, children and people with weakened immune systems benefit from eating organic food? There are a bunch of authors who believe that this group of people should be taken into account, but it has not been proven. Remember that it takes 4-10 years to prove the effects on health, and that it has not been done EVER?
Personal opinion: Organic food and ME
I once wrote that I would choose organic if it meets three conditions: Suppliers, time and money. If I had money I would consume only organic, but otherwise I’m not bothered about it. I buy what I can, and when it looks good and fresh. I do not belong to vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, nursing mothers, small child or a person with health problems. I think that now my body is able to cope with all sorts of undesirable “surpluses”. In the absence of scientific evidence of whether I am right or wrong – I have just created my own opinion with my own sense and logic. Plus, I have the patience not to go crazy over new “discoveries” about organic food.
My personal attitude about this whole story is that organic food is something that should be supported – even if you never find out if it contains more minerals and vitamins.
The story of someone’s taste is certainly subjective. The taste of organic and grass-fed beef is very much different. The first time I ate burgers from this meat I did not know how to stop, it was delicious. Perhaps for that “Grass fed” story organic moment was crucial, but I claim there is a huge difference.
As for the fruits and vegetables I have different experiences. I have not eaten more tasteless squash than those organic ones, and on other occasion I found that vegetables and fruit can have a divine taste. In most cases it tasted the same.
My family had grown Cherry tomatoes, in our village, on soil untouched for years. It was unsprayed, the whole room would smell wonderful, and the taste was heaven on earth – just as its name says. This tomato hadn’t got organic certification, but it was memorable. I really believe that it is important that some products be grown on countryside, only because occasionally someone can enjoy pure heavenly food.
So, what is the moral of the story?
Scientists will argue for some time, and journalists will make the memorable titles like: “Scientists have proven, organic products are useless!” In other words – nothing has changed and nothing significant has happened apart from a little noise with no particularly good reason. You will have to make a decision by yourself on whether the organic food is important to you – based on personal judgment, convictions, and beliefs. Don’t forget the budget.
Let’s not forget that when buying food we can choose between:
Organic Food – organic certification confirms the existence of the quality that we want
Non-sprayed food or food that has been sprayed with a minimum of pesticides
“I swear it is organic” in the market full of unfamiliar faces – which is, you have to admit, not that smart.
Supermarkets and markets – no questions asked.
Why the number 4?
Because ANY cabbage and apple are still better than life with NO cabbage and apple at all.
Cooking food at home, with plenty of fruit and vegetables is certainly a priority. It’s nice when the food is locally produced – even if it is organic or not.