The "organic" label has faced a bit of a roller-coaster ride in recent years. Debates around taste and health, as well as class snobbery, have helped to make the subject a fairly hot potato. And a recent report from Stanford University has added fuel to the fire; the findings show that organic food has no discernable health benefits when compared to non-organic food. But dig a little deeper and you can see that the media’s understanding of the evidence doesn’t always reflect the reality. We lift the lid on the situation, showing that all is not as it might seem.
The Stanford study – key findings
A recent study from Stanford university (20121) attempted to answer the question: are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? After a long stint in the library, their findings included:
- Eating organic foods would be expected to reduce exposure to pesticide residues.
- The risk of bacterial contamination of food did not differ significantly between conventional and organic produce, but consumption of organic foods would be expected to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
- Compared with conventional produce, organic chicken and milk contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids* and organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of phenols** and phosphorus***.
- A meta-analysis (study of others’ studies) found no statistically significant difference in the levels of various other micronutrients, protein or fibre between conventional and organic products, although many of the individual studies found statistically significant differences.
The study found little evidence to demonstrate differences in clinical outcomes (e.g. incidence of disease) for people consuming organic versus conventional food. This isn’t surprising because very few studies have looked at this and it’s very difficult to continue this sort of study for long enough and control other factors sufficiently to be able to show any differences. But when you look at the nutrient content and levels of contamination with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the study clearly shows that there are a number of genuine differences between organic and conventional foods. In short, going organic could provide health benefits.
The media interpretation of the Stanford study
Unfortunately, these benefits weren’t given much airtime by the media. In summary, the headlines appeared to suggest that there are no, or virtually no, health or safety advantages to organic food. Here are a selection:
The raw truth about organic food
When compared to our interpretation of the Stanford report, there are some clear discrepancies with the media view. We believe that the media presented an unfair reflection of the findings, since there were significant differences in the risk of contamination with pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and also some significant differences in nutritional content that are likely to be relevant to human health. Omega-3 fatty acids and phenolic compounds in foods are thought to have a number of important health benefits, for example in cancer prevention2. The Stanford Report findings on omega-3 levels in organic animal products also corroborate those of a recent Compassion in World Farming nutrition report (covered here), which found that:
- Organic = higher levels of omega-3 (for example, the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids is 25–50% higher for organic chicken, 50–65% higher for organic milk and 290% higher for organic pig meat, compared with conventional products)
- Organic = lower fat content (for example, organic chicken meat can contain 35–50% less intramuscular fat – the fat within the lean meat – than conventional chicken meat)
- Organic = higher levels of key nutrients (for example, organic chicken meat can contain 20–25% more iron)
While the media faces clear pressures to sell their content, snappy headlines should not come at the expense of scientific fact. It’s important that we take the heat out of the organic debate by spreading facts rather than fiction. Ultimately, these findings reinforce the fact that factory farming is bad news for people, planet and animals.
- Smith-Spangler et al. (2012), Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review
- Wahle et al. (2010), Plant Phenolics in the Prevention and Treatment of Cancer
* Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for good health, aiding brain development and heart health.
** Phenolic compounds are believed to have antioxidant properties.
*** Phosphorus helps us in several ways, including the formation of bones and teeth, and cell and tissue repair.