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How You Lose When Good Food Meets Bad Science

General Health

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Medicine

October 24, 2012

  • The organic controversy that isn't
  • The danger of simplifying the answers to complicated questions
  • Red flags down all over organic fields

If you've been looking for an excuse to stop paying more for organic food, Stanford University just handed it to you on a silver platter.

Researchers reviewed over 200 studies to determine whether there was a significant nutritional difference between "organic" and "conventional" foods. You might have noticed the headlines, practically sounding the death knell for organic foods.

But should you take the bait?

Absolutely not. And in this issue, I'll spell out exactly why you should stick with buying organic whenever possible.

Not only am I disappointed in Stanford University – they have a big, powerful name, people trust them – and this study betrayed that trust. But the media did one of the finest spin jobs on reporting the "findings" of this study that I've ever seen.

And now, I fear, millions of people might turn their backs on buying organic foods – to their own detriment.

I want to make sure you know the truth, and don't get dizzy under the spell of all that spin…

Let's start with the "study" itself.

It is more like a review of a number of previous studies. Each one was designed to measure something different, which means there is no consistency in the data. In this type of meta-analysis, there is no way to account for differences in farming practices, geography or testing methods.

Researchers also cherry-pick which studies to include and which to leave out. And while they did look at a large number – over 200 studies – only a small number of them included human subjects (7), and an even smaller number (3) examined clinical outcomes.

The researchers even included a limitation clause where they acknowledged that the studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and that a publication bias might be present.

Not that the media reported any of those wrinkles.

So let's move on to the conclusions…

Surprise, surprise… organic foods had 30% fewer pesticides. Though the researchers were quick to point out that the pesticide levels found in the conventionally-grown foods were within "safe" limits. But you and I already know that the government's idea of safe may not feel safe enough for you and your family.

They also found that foods that were not organic – especially meat and dairy – had higher counts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

So your risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria is between 21% - 45% higher with conventional foods. Again, no big surprise.

And a compelling reason to eat organic foods.

And what was omitted from the study completely is just as notable as what was included. Namely, there was no discussion of GMO foods whatsoever. The study didn't mention the fact that organic foods, by definition, can't contain GMO's, nor did the analysis contain any studies that examined the impact of GMO's on health.

So, how is it even possible for the claim to be made that organic foods are not necessarily healthier for you than conventionally grown and raised foods?

In the words of their conclusion, "the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."

Even without all the design flaws of the study, I don't find this a particularly compelling or damning study, when you consider all the findings.

And the words "strong" and "significant" are certainly left to interpretation. The results on pesticides and antibiotic resistance alone sway me on the side of organics. And the murky inconsistencies make an apples-to-apples comparison of vitamins and minerals among the two categories practically impossible.

The real problem here, as far as I'm concerned, isn't so much the study as it is the way the media waters down or overstates findings. Even the Huffington Post, which often champions natural health, put out the headline, "Organic Food Is Not Healthier Than Conventional Produce."

I'm sorry, but that is not at all what this study concluded.

So please, read the mainstream press coverage with skepticism. And back up what you read with multiple opinions by diverse sources.

And whenever possible – especially for big news like this that might have a huge impact on your health if it leads you to change your eating habits – go to the source. Read it for yourself. Draw your own conclusions.

One last thing you might not realize about organic foods…

Make no mistake, organic food has become big business. Many of us have this romantic notion that we are feeding the family farmers of America with our organic purchases. But the truth is, the big companies follow the money.

Sales of organic food have grown exponentially in recent years. In 1997, organic foods accounted for $3.6 billion, and last year, that figure jumped to $31.4 billion.

With the organic slice of the food pie growing at that rate, you can bet everyone is in the game. Horizon Organic is owned by Dean Foods. Kashi is owned by Kellogg Company. Cascadian Farms is owned by General Mills.

With Proposition 37 looming on the horizon in California – and the biggest players in the food industry on pins and needles about the future of labeling GMO foods – the timing and slant of this entire study is suspect.

These companies may be profiting from the popularity of organic foods, but they surely stand to lose more of their bottom line if their conventional product lines are threated by new labeling laws.

The fox is in the henhouse, folks. Which means that common sense might have to prevail, until science becomes a little more reliable – and free from the influence of big business.

Until then, stick with organic. Avoid GMO food as much as you can.

And for more information on safe – and unsafe – levels of pesticides in your foods, visit the Environmental Working Group's site. In their guide, they include their research methodologies and other updates on pesticides and farming practices that are good to know.

Additional Articles of Interest
Detoxing the Body
Meat You Can Eat
Don't Eat Your Way Into The Poor House

Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, Ann Intern Med. 4 September 2012;157(5):348-366

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