Organic Food vs. Conventional Food – the Retake

Consider this a mea culpa article, one in which I take my own advice (offered in the article (How to Read Articles About Health Care Research) and amend another article I wrote previously (Organic Food vs. Conventional Food). In that earlier article, I was trying my best to be what FOX News laughingly calls “Fair and Balanced,” and present both sides of the “Are organic foods better for you than conventionally-grown foods?” debate, and present evidence on both sides.

However, in the days since writing my first version of this article, I have followed my own advice in the first article cited above, and actually gotten my hands on the full research article published by the Center for Health Policy at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, and on material critical of it. In my previous version, I was working primarily from the researchers’ press release about their study, as were almost all of the hundreds of articles that reported on it in the general press. In theory, thought I, the press release about a scientific study should reflect the salient points of the full study’s findings. But that theory is not always correct.

The university making the claims is funded by a producer of conventional foods

In the days since the release of the study claiming no significant nutritional benefit to organic foods vs. conventionally grown foods, it has been revealed that a large donor to Stanford University is Cargill. Cargill is one of the largest producers in the world of conventionally grown foods. It is privately held, but if it were publicly traded it would rank as number 13 in the Fortune 500; that is how much money it makes from conventionally grown foods. Does Cargill have a somewhat vested interest in presenting a negative picture of organic foods, which it perceives as its direct competitors? Can you say “Duh”?

Stanford’s response to the revelation that Cargill was one of its big donors was to say that the actual study itself and the department that conducted it received no funding from Cargill, only the university. And that’s a good point, because we all know that researchers who depend on a university for their salaries are not influenced in any way by donations that keep their university prosperous, and thus able to pay salaries.

Critics were unimpressed. Representatives of two national food organizations said, “Make no mistake, the Stanford organics study is a fraud. The mainstream media has fallen for an elaborate scientific hoax that sought to destroy the credibility of organic foods by claiming they are ‘no healthier’ than conventional foods.”

The things that Stanford researchers “overlooked” in their press release

First, they somehow overlooked that in their “comprehensive” review of the studies examining differences between organic and conventional foods, they failed to review some of the most important data. For example, they failed to review extensive, high-quality data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on pesticide residue levels, toxicity, and dietary risk. Second, the Stanford researchers briefly mentioned but failed to cite findings from a 2011 study published in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences that found consistent increases of 10-30% in the levels of certain (but not all) nutrients in organic foods. Vitamin C and antioxidants are higher in organic produce about 60-80% of the time, and vitamin A and protein are higher in organic produce 50-80% of the time.

Third, and most egregious, technical reviews of the Stanford study point out that their very study design predisposed them to finding no benefit in organic foods. The study was based on determining whether there was published evidence of a clinically significant impact or improvement in health in organic foods. Almost none of the study designs of the research they reviewed had sought to prove that “clinically significant” (a statistical measure, not a nutritional one) association.

So the jury is still out on whether organic foods are better

The criticisms of the Stanford study are stinging. First, the selection bias inherent in ignoring Federal data and concentrating only on data found in published papers may have “tampered with the evidence.” Second, the study design (“the judge’s instructions to the jury”) may have been flawed to begin with. And third, the jury itself might have been “tampered with” as a result of the study being conducted at a university dependent on the donations of one of the world’s largest producers of conventional foods.

In the end, the question of whether to pay more for organically-produced foods than conventionally-produced foods is an individual decision, one that requires us to use our common sense, discrimination, and desire to choose the best possible foods for our families. There are studies that claim to “prove” that organics are more nutritious, and there are studies that claim to “prove” that they are not. Almost all studies concur that there are fewer pesticide and chemical residues in organic foods, for the simple reason that they are produced without exposure to them. But what all these studies mean is still an open issue, one that we have to decide for ourselves.

So although this article is to some extent an apologia for not digging deeper into the Stanford study in my previous article, I still stand on that article’s last line: “As with the selection of any foods, you have to weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself which ones seem to be a better choice for you and your family.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

Recommended Articles