Are organic foods healthier than conventional foods?
Researchers at Stanford University Medical School conducted the most comprehensive independent study to date “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternativesIn 2012. For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of articles and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. They found nothing to support the idea that organic foods, on the whole, are safer or richer in nutrients or vitamins. Researchers found that organic foods had a 30% lower risk of pesticide residues, but residue levels on conventional foods were well within safe limits.
“Some people think that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised not to have found this ”, said Crystal Smith-Spangler, a Stanford Medicine instructor and one of the authors of the article.
The only nutrient found to be significantly higher in organic foods was phosphorus, but this was seen as a harmless benefit as not many people are deficient in phosphorus.
Stanford’s findings echoed a review of 137 studies drawn from more than 50,000 articles spanning 50 years of research by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009. The study was commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency. The group’s blunt conclusion: “There is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically produced and conventionally produced foods. “
In December 2016, the European Parliament’s research service published a comprehensive report review existing scientific evidence on various aspects of organic food and farming. The report noted that often people who eat organic foods are the same people who eat healthier foods to begin with, making it difficult to assess the impact of organic foods on individual health. The report widely acknowledged that there are no proven benefits of organic foods:
In conclusion, there is a lack of data from well-designed studies (prospective, long-term, precise data especially for food factors and sources, that is to say conventional or organic) involving a sufficiently large population.
However, the report also supported the idea that organic products offer an advantage over conventional foods in terms of exposure to pesticides:
Although scientific evidence is incomplete, substantial data indicates that the developing brain is extremely vulnerable to exposure to pesticides … As a result of reduced exposure to pesticides, organic foods therefore help to avoid health effects. and the associated costs to society, as well as others and the external costs associated with the use of pesticides, as recently discussed and suggested to be grossly underestimated.
There have been studies claiming that organic foods provide health benefits. A 2018 study of 70,000 French adults published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) surveyed consumers between 2009 and 2016, concluding: “A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.
The cohort study was widely publicized by proponents of organic farming as “proof” of the benefits of organic foods, but its findings have been challenged by independent scientists. 78 percent of the participants were women, limiting the importance of the results since no children and few men were included. The data also showed an unusual abnormality: only those participants who ate the most organic foods reduced their risk of cancer and only two cancers, postmenopausal breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
This risk reduction only applied to people who consumed a “low to medium quality diet,” such as Yale University neurologist Steven Novella. underline:
…. At first glance, it seems that if you have a good diet, going organic doesn’t add anything. If you have a low to medium quality diet, then only then are you eating organic foods that are associated with lower cancer risk.
An analysis of the study suggests the benefits are extremely minimal, reducing the overall cancer risk by 0.5%, as Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, chronic disease epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, Noted. “[S]turning most of your food into organic, at a huge cost, for the rest of your life, to potentially lower your cancer risk by less than 1% is a pretty tough question.
The results were also at odds with a much larger 2014 survey of over 600,000 UK women who found “… little or no decrease in cancer incidence associated with consumption of organic foods, except perhaps for non-Hodgkin lymphoma”.
There have been disputed claims that organic foods provide nutritional benefits. For example, two meta-studies, on organic Meat and Milk, published in the British Journal of Nutrition in February 2016, claimed that organic milk and meat contain more omega-3 fatty acids, a questionable benefit; organic meat had lower concentrations of acids linked to cardiovascular disease; and some other minor differences of questionable benefit. Higher levels of useful iodine were found in conventional foods and organic milk yields were 23% lower.
Carlo Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, supervised the meta-studies. Leifert claims the studies were “further evidence of the health benefits of organic foods” and should prompt people to reconsider their food choices.
Leifert’s key consultant in this research project was Charles Benbrook, a controversial consultant to the organic industry. Much of the academic research and the overwhelming majority of citations in the media can be attributed to Benbrook. Benbrook is an economist, not a scientist, although press articles frequently misrepresent his credentials.
Leifert and Benbrook wrote a controversial review on the alleged superior safety profile of biologics. In a 2014 British Journal of Nutrition paper, the pair reviewed 340 studies found that organic crops had higher antioxidants, lower cadmium concentrations, and a lower incidence of pesticide residues. The meta-study was widely criticized by scientists, who claimed researchers selectively use the data and make disputed health benefit claims as if they were part of a scientific consensus.
Many researchers cited in the Leifert-Benbrook study have links with the organic industry. Leifert himself owns an organic farm in Greece and is a strong public advocate for the claim that organic food offers substantial health benefits over conventional produce.
Benbrook is a longtime paid advocate and advisor to the organic industry. From 2004 to 2012, he was “Chief Scientist” in the research arm of the Organic Trade Association, The Organic Center, although he was not a scientist but an economist. OTA is the organic industry’s most important trade and lobbying group. Its often cited White Paper 2008 prepared as a promotional analysis for The Organic Center, reviewed 97 published studies, final that “foods made from organically grown plants are on average 25% more nutrient dense and therefore provide more essential nutrients per serving or calorie consumed. Benbrook subsequently received the organization’s first prize. Excellence Award to “support the science behind the benefits of organic food and farming”.
Benbrook joined Washington State University in 2012 as an adjunct professor in a post funded by the organic industry. Most of the research cited in the British Journal of Nutrition meta-review was funded by organic companies and lobbyists. According to the New York Times, “The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, and the Sheepdrove Trust, a UK charity that supports organic farming research, paid for the analysis, which cost around $ 600,000. “
The university severed its relationship with Benbrook in 2015 after its funding sources became known. Benbrook had not disclosed this information to the university, the journal or the public, an ethics violation that played a key role in his ouster.
Benbrook is now a consultant, more recently for the Environmental working group, a critic of conventional agriculture and crop biotechnology, and is now on “The Organic Center”scientific Council” plank.
Numerous reports have also been published by advocacy groups suggesting that consuming organic foods reduces exposure to harmful pesticides. Friends of the Earth (FOE) published a such study in 2019, which followed 16 people from four families for two weeks as they consumed an all-organic diet. Without exception, scientists claim that an extremely small sample size and lack of study controls make this data unnecessary. However, “research” has been promoted by many ideologically sympathetic media, including as Civil Eats, who wrote that he “innovates”.
Not all the distortions about pesticide exposure come from biotech skeptics and biological promoters. Some critics of organic farming, including biotech enthusiasts, have argues that organic farmers use larger amounts of toxic pesticides than conventional farmers.
This statement is simplistic. While organic farmers are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides that might be safer than some natural chemicals, conventional and organic crops are often treated with the same pesticides. In addition, organic farmers tend to use less crop protection products. The most important point, however, is that almost all pesticides in use today are considered “essentially non-toxic” by the EPA, as illustrated in this table provided by plant scientist Steve Savage:
Responding to widely held misconceptions, in April 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a brochure analyzing claims associated with the organic industry. He concluded that organic food is a certification and marketing standard and not a health or environmental standard.
Organic food is often seen by consumers as healthy, tasty and environmentally friendly, but organic food certification does not necessarily mean safe food. Organic refers to a product that has been manufactured in accordance with certain standards throughout the stages of production, handling, processing and marketing; it does not refer to the characteristics and properties of the finished product.