Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Science is in: Organic Food Not More Healthy

In what had to be a a major blow to the natural-is-good crowd, "a systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years...found there was no significant difference" between organically grown food and food created by other means. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said:

"A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority."

I had always wondered about organic foods, and what exactly the supposed benefits were. The most common response is that they are "natural", but so are cyanide and botulism, so I found that argument entirely unconvincing. Now we find the science is lacking for alternative nutrition (at least this piece of it) just like it is lacking for alternative medicine.

This once again shows that conservatives don't have a monopoly on pushing pseudoscience. Leftwingers like The Huffington Post do their share of misinforming, and politicians like Tom Harkin waste millions in taxpayer money on pseudoscientific nonsense. Conservative nuts are just more numerous, and more mainstream.


Troublesome Frog said...

I had no idea that the draw of organic farming had anything to do with health. I always assumed that it was about pesticides and the environment and the like. Weird.

ScienceAvenger said...

I've grown to expect my view of things to differ from the masses, so it doesn't seem weird any more.

alex said...

TF: Did you think that pesticides did not have to do with health?

Troublesome Frog said...


The word I meant to use instead of "health" was "nutrition." My mistake.

I can certainly see the argument that small residues of pesticides could be a problem. I have a very hard time with the idea that organic vegetables are somehow more nutrient rich. Farmers are very good at knowing what molecules are used to build produce and making sure that those molecules are available to growing plants.

I will say that I support farmers growing produce that optimizes for variables other than shelf life and safe shipping. I have eaten enough "tomatoes" that are like baseballs that have been spray painted red to appreciate the farmers who are willing to deliver softer old-school tomatoes at a higher price point.

foodandotherrequirements said...

"...Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority."

I'm not aware of any claims that organically produced food is nutritionally superior to conventionally produced food; I know of no one who buys organic produce because they think it has a higher vitamin or fiber content. The superiority of organic produce is in the production values--fewer or nochemicals, sustainable growing practices, and an infinitely smaller carbon footprint.

ScienceAvenger said...

I've heard claims in casual conversation on numerous occasions, though I didn't pursue the matter at the time enough to learn the ultimate source. Lot's of people use the word "natural" as a synonym for good in a nutritional sense. I spent some time in the alternative medicine scene, and the practice there is ubiquitous. Of course, those same people think a wide range of fool things.

parakeet said...

Has the definition of "organic" changed once the gov't got involved? Maybe according to the /original/ definition, if there was one, there would indeed be a health benefit to organic farming.

Troublesome Frog said...

I find that when the government (or some trademark holder) doesn't pin down the definition of a marketing-friendly word, it's generally meaningless. It gets stamped on anything and everything, regardless of what people may think it means.

GravityIsJustATheory said...

Hi. I've been reading this blog for a few weeks now, but this is the first time I've posted to it.

I'm not sure where I stand on this.

Firstly, when I was originally introduced to the concept of "organic" food, the main arguments made in its favour were environmental (not killing wildlife or polluting rivers with pesticides and herbicides), followed by the potential health risks from pesticide residue on food.

The idea that "organic" was more nutritious, or better testing etc was not something I heard until much later (and came as a surprise when it did), but now seems to be a common justification used by its proponents and consumers.

In general I'm sympathetic towards the idea of cutting down on the use of polluting or otherwise potentially harmful agricultural practices, but am a bit dubious about a number of the specific claims and practices of the organic movement, especially since I learned how arbitrary the official distinctions between "organic" and "non-organic" fertilizers and pesticides. (And that's not counting the general "natural = good, chemicals = bad" woo).

That said, this particular bit of research seems a bit dubious, as it only looked at nutrition and not other health risks or effects from pesticides. (I've only read the media reports, though, not the original report).

memphisto said...

GravityIsJustATheory said...

This story is also discussed here as well:

(And when I say "discussed" I mean "used as an excuse to make unsupported and irrelevant criticisms of science and scientists, among other things").

j said...

I have never heard anyone claim that organic food has higher nutrient content.
I'm a biologist that grew up on a farm- so to me the comment sounds particularly foolish.
Why would organic food have more vitamins? Let's discuss the definition; food grown with no synthetic pesticides or herbicides. What part of "no pesticides" translates into "more vitamins"? This must come from the same people that think that genetically modified foods will give their babies three heads. That's unlikely, but pesticides can be really bad for you. Not so much from the fruit you eat which has probably been washed, but the water supply;

ScienceAvenger said...

j, you sound like a chemist I once heard go off on the natural=better subject. His version was "nitrogen is nitrogen, it doesn't make any difference where it comes from".

I think you have correctly identified the crowd in question. They are the anti-science left that tacitly attributes magical qualities to that-which-is-not-man-made. They are absurd to a creationist level, but lack the population and political respect to warrant much attention.

HyunChard said...

It's so obvious, food that is organic delivered to every houses are safer than the non-organic. It pays to check the label, they
say. So no wonder they are in demand.