The headlines and TV news shows are buzzing with the results of a just published study on organic foods that appeared in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN). The researchers concluded that organic food, whether produce or livestock, offers no nutritional benefit beyond that obtained from conventionally-raised food. As is the case with news on any subject, it’s important to read beyond the headlines to get nearer to the truth, so let’s take a close look at how the study was conducted.
The authors performed a scientific review of 162 previously published scientific papers. They state not enough data were available to compare single foods raised either by organic or conventional methods, so the focus was placed instead on specific nutrient categories. The number of nutrients examined was necessarily limited, and unfortunately did not include a wide range of phytonutrients known to offer potential health benefits. Many different research methods were employed to reach conclusions in the 162 studies reviewed (this is termed heterogeneity), but the authors of the AJCN paper treated the studies as if they were equal, combining findings from the various trials to draw a singular conclusion. Further muddying the waters is knowledge that the definition of organic can differ between the various organic certifying bodies in existence, thus mandating different production standards, and that individual laboratory methods of detecting nutrient levels can have significantly different sensitivities.
As relates specifically to livestock, only a very small number of studies were identified by the researchers from which to draw a conclusion, far too little to have confidence in their findings, and comments could only be made on unspecified types of fat and ash.
Additionally, and very importantly, the authors note: “We did not address differences in contaminant contents (eg, herbicide, pesticide, or fungicide residues) or the possible environmental consequences of organic and conventional agricultural practices because this was beyond the scope of our review.”
The authors themselves make the following statement: “our review again highlighted the heterogeneity and generally poor quality of research in this area” and “a disappointingly low number of studies was graded as being of satisfactory quality.”
Folks, it’s easy to poke holes at research articles, and it’s much harder to perform studies and get them published. The authors should be applauded for their work, because their paper shows how desperately we need answers to these questions about the health benefits of organic vs. conventional farming methods and the foods we eat; the paper does not, however, provide the answers, and the debate continues. Where there is no debate, however, is in the area of potential contaminant exposure.
Organic foods are produced under strict regulations that control the use of chemicals on crops and in animal production, and that emphasize a minimal impact on the health of the planet, helping to build up the soil rather than deplete it.
Scientists are increasingly concerned that recurrent exposure to pesticides and other chemicals can cause health problems, especially in children whose bodies are still growing and developing. Does that mean you should be afraid of conventionally grown food? No – eating a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, together with a moderate intake of animal protein (preferably cold water fish), can help to ensure the greatest exposure to important health-promoting nutrients; we are frequently presented with food choices where leaning organic makes sense, however, because of the significant levels of chemicals used in raising specific foodstuffs.
Keep in mind, too, that unlike the findings in this paper, previously published studies have showed organic produce contains higher levels of antioxidants and other health-promoting phytonutrients than matched samples of conventional produce.
There’s another aspect of organic food that isn’t frequently addressed. We spend so much time talking about the science of food and eating healthfully, we need to acknowledge that taste plays a big role in the enjoyment of food. For my part, organic foods simply taste better than their conventionally-raised counterparts. Add to that the fact that my family and I will be exposed to fewer contaminants by choosing organic foods, and I’ve got more than enough reason to do my homework to help decide which foods I buy should be organic, and which conventionally raised foods will be both tasty and healthy for us.
In summary, the media is doing a disservice with their reporting on this research paper. The importance of the paper is in showing us we still don’t know the comparative nutrient values of organic vs. conventionally-raised foods; but we already know enough to help us make sensible food choices.
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