Another Flawed Study

Stanford scientists recently finished up and published an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts that tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli. This study has been generating quite a bit of buzz over the past few days and has both sides of the organic debate hitting the keyboard with fury and vigor.

The main premise of the article is that people choose organic food because they are looking for more vitamins with each mouthful. This supposition falls short of what most surveys seem to indicate. People don’t necessarily choose organic foods because they want high nutritional content with every bite. They choose organic foods because they wish to avoid pesticides and other harmful chemicals in their food choices. Organic is chosen because it’s better for our land, better for our water, better for our energy supply, and simply a better way to create a sustainable food system for our planet. These are the dominant reasons people select organic as their food choice.

I have taken exception before, and I’ll say it again, comparing the vitamin and nutrient content of organic to conventional foods, does not truly provide the best indication of which food is the healthiest choice.

In the past 20 years, I would venture to guess there has easily been at least a hundred (if not more) studies comparing the nutritional value of organically raised food (typically fruits and vegetables) to the nutritional value of the same food grown using conventional farming methods. Most of the studies that I have researched or read about tend to conclude that there is really no difference at all, and it’s simply an implied myth that organic foods are more nutritious. I’m not a scientist and am really not qualified to make a statement about the legitimacy of these findings. I basically have to assume that the findings themselves are based on accurate scientific data. Where I do take exception is with the actual methodology of the studies. The typical format is to compare the vitamin and nutrient content of each fruit or vegetable – one raised organically; the other raised conventionally. While this seems to make sense on the surface, the studies fail to consider a rather significant variable, which is that the conventional product has been subjected to pesticide use throughout its growing cycle. Not to consider this as part of the study is like comparing the nutritional value of a crab that was caught off the Gulf Coast immediately following the BP oil spill a couple of years ago. to a crab caught off the shores of Maryland. The actual nutrients and vitamins may still stack up pretty well side-by-side, but there is the ever so small point that the Gulf Coast crab had been laced with petroleum and dispersants. To ignore this as part of the nutritional value of the crabs would easily be considered by most people to be pretty irresponsible and disingenuous. It’s troubling that pesticides on fruits and vegetables are not typically viewed as part of the nutritional makeup of these foods. It would seem that these studies are incomplete at best, providing information that seems to dismiss the health benefits of eating organic fresh food.

When a study is described as comparing nutritional content, readers of these studies will tend to believe that since organic food doesn’t test any better than conventionally grown food, there is no real health benefit to eating organic; and sadly, this just plays into the mythology that organic is over-hyped and not really worth it. It seems that studies and statistics (although they seem to have science on their side) can be very subjective and easily manipulated to get the answers and results we desire. At the very least, these studies should acknowledge that even though the nutritional and vitamin content of these foods appears the same, conventional products are raised using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are known carcinogens, and detail how many other studies show them to be harmful to human health. At least then, the full scientific and overall nutritional/health picture will be accurately represented.