A new Stanford study concludes that organic foods are no safer or healthier than conventionally grown foods. While the study did find lower contamination from antibiotic resistant bacteria and pesticide residues in organic foods, it considered the differences insignificant. The study also found that certain nutrient levels and health benefits were identical between organic and conventional food.
Are the study conclusions really true? The answer sheds light on a key limitation of this kind of study – one shared by many other scientific studies.
Aside from the usual allegations of possible bias on the part of the researchers, there are other more fundamental and scientific limitations to how this study was conducted that significantly affect the results:
First, the study showed reduced levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria in organic pork and chicken. While the study considered reduced bacteria insignificant because most bacteria are killed during cooking anyway, there’s still good reason to avoid meats higher in bacterial contamination. For one thing, it’s easy to contaminate yourself and your kitchen with bacteria while handling the uncooked meat. A recent study showed that a significant portion of tested supermarket meats contained antibiotic resistant Staph aureus thus raising your exposure risk to these bacteria. And lastly, I’ve found the flavor of naturally raised meats tend to be much better than meats from large-scale industrial farms.
Secondly, while the study showed reduced levels of pesticides in organic produces, the differences were considered insignificant because the levels were still below “allowed safety limits”. The thing is, many so-called safety limits are short term in natural and don’t consider the long-term effects of low level exposure over many years. When it comes to synthetic pesticides, the less you put into your body the better.
Thirdly, the nutrients evaluated in the study were limited to C H O nutrients – nutrients that plants can make from the primary elements Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen found in the air and water only. But there are many vital minerals and nutrients that plants can only make by using secondary elements found in the soil, such as phosphorus and sulfur to name a few. The thing is, pesticide-treated crops have poor soil health and generally use fertilizers containing fewer secondary elements. On the other hand, higher quality organic fertilizers contain much more diversity of mineral and nutrient content to help plants make more secondary nutrients.
Lastly, the Stanford study was conducted by reviewing and compiling results from previous studies, including 223 nutrient level and 17 human health studies. However, the study made no distinction between the quality of organic food used in all these historical studies. And unfortunately, not all organic foods are created equal.
Is all organic food the same?
Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between “industrial-scale organic farming” and foods grown by smaller, more conscientious organic farms. The industrial food industry has been trying to milk as much profit as possible from the growing organic food movement by lobbying to weakening organic food standards. Large-scale industrial farms often employ the lowest standards possible that can still be labeled organic. While the letter of the organic laws may be on their side, the spirit of what “organic” was supposed to mean has been diluted and can be downright misleading in many cases.
Is organic food better?
So did the Stanford study really prove that organic food is no better than conventional? Just like any other study, this study highlights the importance of recognizing the context and limitations of a study before accepting its results and conclusions. While the results are probably true within the context of the study, how relevant is that context to your health and what’s important to you?
If eating meat that is lower in antibiotic residues, lower in antibiotic resistant bacteria and lower in synthetic pesticide residues is important to you, then organic food is a better choice. If you want food that is higher in essential trace minerals and crucial secondary nutrients, then organic is probably better.
The thing is, organic certification has its limitations and the word “organic” on your food is not the only measure of quality, purity and nutritional content. While organic foods may still be better, buying fresh, locally–grown foods produced by smaller, more sustainable and conscientious farms is just as important to ensure you get more nutritious, healthy and good tasting foods.
To your health,
Microbiologist and Natural Health Expert
Study reference: Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66.