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Science

Scientists Say Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You 497

Posted by Soulskill
from the but-they'll-make-you-feel-nice-and-smug dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "NPR reports that although organic fruits and vegetables, grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, comprise a $29 billion industry that is still growing, a new analysis of 200 peer-reviewed studies that examined differences between organic and conventional food finds scant evidence of health benefits from organic foods. 'When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,' says Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford's Center for Health Policy and co-author of the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 'I think we were definitely surprised.' Some previous studies have looked at specific organic foods and found that they contain higher levels of important nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. For example, researchers found in one study that tomatoes raised in the organic plots contained significantly higher levels of certain antioxidant compounds. But this is one study of one vegetable in one field; when the Stanford researchers looked at their broad array of studies, which included lots of different crops in different situations, they found no such broad pattern. Here's the basic reason: When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that's true whether they are organic or conventional. One carrot in the grocery store, for instance, may have two or three times more beta carotene than its neighbor. But that's due to all kinds of things: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather. Variables like ripeness have a greater influence on nutrient content, so a lush peach grown with the use of pesticides could easily contain more vitamins than an unripe organic one."
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Scientists Say Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You

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  • And? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bradmont (513167) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:24AM (#41279071)
    Is anyone actually surprised by this?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:26AM (#41279081)

    with which my ancestors did not co-evolve, not because I think they're more nutritious. Who said they were more nutritious anyway? Did I miss another memo?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:26AM (#41279085)

    I'm curious to know who funded this study? My guess is on the non-organic industry did.. Academic research is four times more likely to be favorable to who paid for for the study.

  • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:34AM (#41279119) Homepage

    You know, it's only in the US that animals are routinely pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. In the rest of the world it's discouraged if not actually illegal.

    If I lived in the US I'd be vegan. Oh, wait, the vegetables are full of chemical crap too. Well, it's a good job I'm not in the US, then.

  • Do Not Forget (Score:5, Insightful)

    by assertation (1255714) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:37AM (#41279145)

    Don't forget that organic food isn't just about increased nutritional content( and that is assuming this study is telling the truth, for example, Stanford has ties to Monsanto).

    Organic farming is also about food security. Having food at all. Conventional farming uses fertilizer made from oil. A finite resource that is running out. Making artificial fertilizer has been polluting and destroying our environment........including farm land and drinkable water.

    Organic food is also about human health in terms of pesticide use. When you buy organic food you aren't consuming the pesticide that is used on other crops. You are also aren't contributing to the manufacture and disposal of pesticides which is getting into your soil, your water and effecting your health indirectly.

  • by mellon (7048) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:39AM (#41279157) Homepage

    Yes. Organic food is not sprayed with pesticides. Hence, it contains no pesticide residue. That is why people buy organic food. That is the biochemical model. As to the nutritional content of organic food, that ought to depend on the vegetables being grown and the soil in which they are grown; the only reason a pesticide would change that would be if it were actually metabolized by the plant, which would be a really impressively bad thing. Although I guess weed killers actually are metabolized by the plant, so maybe it's not _that_ far-fetched. But I don't know of any studies that have been done on roundup-resistant veggies specifically, and I don't think the Stanford study mentions this issue.

  • by Joce640k (829181) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:40AM (#41279161) Homepage

    Don't hold your breath.

    Most health nuts don't read studies, they rely on their gut feelings plus whatever they hear that reinforces their beliefs.

  • by mellon (7048) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:41AM (#41279167) Homepage

    Actually, the study looks at both issues, and says that in fact organics do contain less pesticide residue. However, for some reason what's actually said in newspaper reports that link to the study is that "organics are no different." So don't blame Stanford for this—blame the reporters. If you ever thought the news was unbiased, this ought to give you some food for thought...

  • by onyxruby (118189) <onyxruby AT comcast DOT net> on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:47AM (#41279209)

    It's also worse for the environment because it takes a /lot/ more land for the same yield [slate.com].

    Organic yields are substantially lower than conventional yields and the only way to obtain additional farmland it to take wildlands. According to Dr. Steve Savage who did the first comprehensive study of organic farming for the USDA in 2008 simply converting the United States alone to organic standards would require substantial [usda.gov] additional cropland.

            a switch to organic agriculture would require a 43 percent increase over current U.S. cropland, according to Savage. As he puts it, "On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas

    Taking additional farmland (not necessarily explicitly for organic but the principal applies) is the leading cause of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I don't think I need to cite the significant loss in biodiversity and carbon offsets from the loss of wildlands for conversion to croplands. The trade off in pesticide use is more than offset by other ecological costs.

    The first comprehensive studies of organic farming came back saying that the health benefits are anecdotal and the loss of yield substantial. I'm inclined to say organic farming should be help in contempt and exposed as simple green washing. I think in years to come it will be looked at no differently than ethanol from corn.

  • by transporter_ii (986545) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:50AM (#41279231) Homepage

    Amazingly, I watched this video, linked from Google News, about 3 minutes before reading your question:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vq8Klio60s [youtube.com]

    Alan Watt covered this on his show and we have covered it on DeathRattleSports.com. Stanfords 'Anti-Organic' study does not address the real concerns of non-organic plants, which of course include GMO.

  • What about? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wbr1 (2538558) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:51AM (#41279245)
    The other facets of organic vs. non organic?
    Non-organic farming relies on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides in humongous quantities.
    Why, to support soil depleting and disease susceptible monocultures. Without proper rotation of crops, this leaves the soil barren of nutrients unless you pump fertilizers into it, and when farming is done, contributes to soil erosion.
    With a monoculture, one fungus or insect can destroy an entire crop, necessitating the use of pesticides and other harsh chemicals.
    Even of organic does not offer much greater health benefits, it robs Monsanto, Cargill, Dow, and Chevron of a constant revenue stream.
    It also reduced reliance on fossil fuels, reduces carbon emissions (both from the production and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides), creates (at least anecdotally) safer food, and makes for a cleaner environment.
    What is NOT desirable about that? Oh, profit for the megacorps, I forgot.
  • Re:And? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rei (128717) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:57AM (#41279271) Homepage

    Which, in my experience, is why most people eat organic foods. Why are there so many studies on nutritional content when that's not why most people eat organic?

    I don't target organics in my diet personally, but I know a straw man when I see one.

  • by fygment (444210) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @07:57AM (#41279273)

    Who ever said 'organic' had more or less nutrients. It's always been about the growth environment ie. lack of pesticides, artificial growth supplements, etc. What's more frightening is that these were scientists. The comment about the variability of nutrients between plants is common knowledge which, you would think, would have rendered the need for the study kind of doubtful.

    More useful would have been a study on:

    a) the non-nutrient compound differences ie. besides nutrients, what compounds are present and how do they differ between organic and non-organic?
    b) what of the non-nutrient compounds are good/bad for consumers and to what degree?
    c) how have the levels of non-nutrient compounds changed over the years ie. have non-organic foods seen a rise or decrease in non-nutrient compounds and how does that affect consumers?

  • by sjbe (173966) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:19AM (#41279385)

    We grow lots of our own food. We do "blind taste tests" from time the time and it is fucking easy to work out which is the home-grown stuff.

    Home grown is not the same thing and not what is being discussed. I have a garden too and our tomatoes (organically grown for what it is worth) taste better than anything I can get from the grocery store if for no other reason than I can actually pick them when they are ripe. But that's a different issue. I'm merely talking about food in the grocery store with the label organic on it. Quite simply I've never seen any persuasive evidence that organic food from the grocery store is tastier or more nutritious than non-organic food and I've never met anyone who could tell the difference just by taste or appearance.

    So, supermarket organic stuff which is "organic" in the sense of merely sticking to some list of requirements (e.g. "no pesticide") may not be tastier. You are buying for the farming method.

    Sort of. Unfortunately seeing organic on a label doesn't mean nearly as much as people think it does. It's a pretty narrowly defined term with loopholes you can drive a tanker truck through.

  • by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <wwoodhull@gmail.com> on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:34AM (#41279467) Homepage Journal

    You are measuring it wrong. So is the TFA and the damnfool study it is based on.

    Organic farming is not about tastiness. It is about using farming methods that enhance the local ecosystem rather than relying on fertilizers and pesticides that cripple big parts of the ecosystem, both at the farm and downstream from its fields. The opposite of organic farming is Monsanto, Round-Up, and burning 7 Calories of diesel fuel to get 1 Calorie of lettuce to market.

    That many who buy organic food find it tastier has to do with same factors that make a Thanksgiving Day turkey taste better than a turkey served up on a sweltering July day. Taste is an experience with a rich psychological component involving memories and future expectations. It is not simply a matter of signals from neurons on the tongue.

  • Health and fashion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sjbe (173966) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:36AM (#41279479)

    Why are there so many studies on nutritional content when that's not why most people eat organic?

    People eat organic because they perceive it is healthier or more nutritious or tastier (or all of the above) or because it is fashionable to do so. The problem is that there is limited evidence that it actually has the benefits that are typically claimed. The theory of organic farming seems to make sense - keeping the nasty industrial chemicals and pesticides out seems like it should result in a healthier product. I'll freely admit that, in theory, organic farming seems to make sense. Problem is that just because this seems to make sense doesn't mean it actually results in a product with the benefits claimed. The jury is still out but so far the evidence is very poor that organic food is measurably superior in ways that affect health or taste for most people. There's nothing wrong with eating organic food but by doing so one is accepting a theory that so far is unproven by science. A leap of faith if you will.

    I think the fashion aspect of organic food is actually the strongest reason a lot of people eat organic or specialty foods. While not exactly the same thing, go into a Whole Foods store and look a the amount of gluten free foods. Genuine gluten allergies are quite rare but people claiming to have a problem with gluten is quite fashionable lately for reasons that I don't really understand. There is far more gluten free food than would be justified by the actual number of people who have diagnosable health problems with gluten. It's a placebo effect to be sure. I think organic food is similarly fashionable. People perceive a benefit (real or not) based on what others are saying/doing and so they think it might be worth doing too. Remember that the strongest marketing message ever is "everyone else is doing it".

  • Re:And? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by frisket (149522) <peter AT silmaril DOT ie> on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:37AM (#41279491) Homepage
    No. The difference is not (and was never expected to be) that organic food contains more or better nutrients. The difference is that organic food does NOT contain the stuff that's bad for you (pesticides, growth hormones, toxic compounds, heavy metals, etc). Scanning previous studies, peer-reviewed or not, is interesting, but is in no way a substitute for new research. This kind of report just gives science a bad name.
  • by Joce640k (829181) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:41AM (#41279511) Homepage

    Huh? Copper sulphate is highly toxic [cornell.edu]. It's Chemistry 101...people even use it to commit suicide (a couple of grams is a lethal dose).

    Plue: The strip mines where they dig it out of the ground are usually ecological disasters and it easily washes into the water system. It's doubleplus ungood from an ecological point of view but widely used in "organic" farming.

  • Re:And? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gutnor (872759) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @08:54AM (#41279587)

    One of the problem is that organic food tends to be more expensive, so they made up the argument that the price difference was compensated by nutritional difference.

    I don't know personally whose people that argument was supposed to convince. In my experience, either you shop for the cheap food or you shop for good food. Organic or not, price between good food and the cheapest one is massive, especially if you live in a big city with no direct access to local producers.

  • by sjbe (173966) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @09:04AM (#41279647)

    There is a very good reason to buy organic food : sustainability. It causes less pollution and uses less synthetic additives (which are often derived from fossil resources).

    And your evidence for this is what? Nice theory but you seem to have so far merely asserted that your claim is true. Organic food actually requires more work to farm per unit of food. Even proponents will not dispute that crop yields are significantly lower. Just because you use less fertilizer or pesticides does not automatically mean that less resources or pollution were generated during its production. It still has to be planted, irrigated, harvested, transported and tended - all of which use vast amounts of energy and cause pollution. With non-organic methods you can produce more food using less space and with less of certain resources so at some level there appears to be a trade off. You might be actually right but it's not merely a simple or obvious assertion that organic is somehow more sustainable than non-organic. You need actual evidence to determine that.

  • by gchiker (1295124) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @09:57AM (#41279979)

    Yes, there are different aspects to the subject of organic food. One would be nutritional value, and another would be avoidance of toxins, like pesticides.
    I recall one article I read that headlined something like "Organic food no more nutritious". Then I read further on how the study was done, and was really surprised.
    Tomatoes were grown in two groups, one using pesticides, the other group without pesticides. Then the tomatoes were tested for a few nutrients.
    Sort of like painting your car a different color and testing for gas mileage.
    Or like testing a blue Pontiac and a yellow Ford to see which color gives the best gas mileage. Just a stupid, flawed study.
    So my question is, why was this study designed that way, and why did anyone even bother to fund such a stupid study? I'm sure it cost a lot of somebody's money. And why did it get broadcast in popular newspapers? Was this study just done for headline value?
    If they want to test for nutrient value, then test growing conditions, like using "organic" or "sustainable" growing practices, how the soil is fertilized, etc.
    If they want to test for toxin residues, then test pesticide use, hormones, GM that makes the plant produce pesticides, etc.
    So if this new study is rehashing old useless studies like I just mentioned, then my response is, "Who Cares?". It would be just another stupid headline study that would fall apart if you actually read how they did the study.

  • by Alef (605149) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @10:51AM (#41280295)

    People eat organic because they perceive it is healthier or more nutritious or tastier (or all of the above) or because it is fashionable to do so.

    Where do people do this? Maybe there are cultural differences at play, but where I live, those are rarely the reasons people eat organic food. I have never understood why some people (Americans?) keep bringing up health with regard to organic food.

    When I buy organic food, it has got nothing to do with me or my health. I, and more or less everyone else I know, do it because it usually means the food is produced in such a way as to reduce the strain on the surrounding environments, for instance using less pesticides, and when animals are involved there are stricter requirements on how they are treated (size of pens etc.). In fact, in Swedish it isn't even called "organic" (whatever that is supposed to mean), but "ecological food", for this very reason.

    Everything doesn't have to be about what gives you the most, or costs you the least amount of money.

    (And before anyone starts accusing me of trying to be fashionable now, let me just say that then you really don't know me. Besides, organic food stopped being fashionable in the 90:s around here.)

  • by fuliginous (1059354) on Sunday September 09, 2012 @12:02PM (#41280795)

    That's crap.

    In the long run intensive farming destroys the productivity of the soil and the side affects of the run off fertilisers severely harm other neighbouring eco-systems like waterways. So in the short term yes "modern" intensive farming boosts production but long term the balanced more "natural" organic approach is sustainable because it nurtures a healthy biodiversity. Go and read the UN millennium report on biodiversity and human health, perhaps the biggest pulling together of science on the affect of man and farming practises.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 09, 2012 @12:07PM (#41280831)

    The NPR article and the study that it reports upon starts with the wrong premise. Taste is not the only consideration. Here are some other issues that should be considered when purchasing food:

    Localvore:

    -Was the food grown locally, benefitting local farmers, or does the apple sauce come from China, and blueberries from Chile?
    -Does the food grown distantly consume more fuel to bring it to market?
    -Do you mind eating frozen foods that are out of season locally?
    -Does supporting local farmers create a more vibrant local economy?

    Contamination:

    -Do environmental conditions and industrial food processing allow the food to be contaminated?
      http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodContaminantsAdulteration/Metals/ucm280223.htm

    Fertilizers:

    -Does your purchase support farming that pollutes rivers, creates brown tides in estuaries, and dead zones in the ocean?
    -Is the fertilizer derived from petroleum, and does that process cause pollution of it's own?
    -Is the fertilizer biologically contaminated? (For instance, E-coli)

    Pesticides:

    -Does the method of farming reduce beneficial insects, such as bees?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder
    -Are their traces of pesticides left in or on food items?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daminozide

    Biodiversity:

    -Do you want to support a system of monoculture which eliminates varieties of plants and animals because they are not commercially profitable?
    -Does the increasing lack of diversity contribute to disease blights which wipe out crops such as potatos and bananas?
    -Does growing invasive species create a risk for local wildlife
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_carp

    Sustainability:

    -Is the farming method water neutral?
    -Does the farming method create dust bowls?
    -Can the farming method be sustained in the long term?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_%28agriculture%29

    Processing:

    -Does industrial processing, mechanical separation, and handling contribute to contaminiation? (For example, salmonella)
    -Is the jar of peanut butter filled with corn syrup (non-seperating), more healthy to eat than the one that contains only peanuts (oli seperates)?
    -Does the processing of the food kill off beneficial bacteria flora?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gut_flora

    GMO's:

    -Do the tomatos on the store shelf have fish genes spliced into their DNA?
    http://thegreendivas.com/2011/06/10/waiter-theres-a-fish-in-my-tomato-a-gmo-story/
    -Are foods that create their own pesticides safe to eat?
    -Have GMO plants and animals proven themselves to be historically safe, with minimal unforseen consequences?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africanized_bee

    Political:

    Do you want to support ADM and Monsanto who manipulate the FDA and sue farmers who choose not to use their products?
    Do you want to support banana companies, and coffee companies that mistreat and neglect workers?
    Is it rational for countries such as Ethiopia to grow crops for corporations to export while starving local populations recieve international food aid?

    The answers to these questions cause me to support local, organic, sustainable products wherever I find them.

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