Open any magazine or popular web site and you’ll find an article touting the health benefits of organic food. All sorts of claims are made and they can often seem like common sense. Organic food is said to be more nutritious, better for fertility, better for the immune system, helps protect against breast cancer, better for kids, etc. Some of the claims seem excessive. According to today’s Mailonline (2 October 2012), drinking organic wine will reduce the likelihood of getting a hangover. Here I was thinking that not drinking too much wine was the key on that one.
This common wisdom has been repeated so often in the press that it has become a mantra among those in the slow food movement and also among many rank-and-file foodies, who have in common that they swallow these myths without asking the necessary questions. Thinking that organic food is good for you just appeals to their sense of how the world works and how things ought to be.
Well, as it turns out, it is not entirely clear that this is true. A couple of years ago, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (12 May 2010) published an article saying that very few studies had been done—they found only 12—that focused on the nutritional aspects of organic food, and that most of these were designed poorly and flawed in one way or another.
Doctors at Stanford University followed up on this question and reviewed 223 studies, including 17 studies of humans, (3 of which examined clinical outcomes). They published the results of their research last month in an article called “Are Organic Foods Safer Or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” (4 September 2012).
Personally I was a bit taken aback by the title of the study alone. It reminds us that somewhere along the line we slipped past the point where growing food without using pesticides or genetically-modified seeds was the conventional approach. When did that happen?
Anyway, the conclusion of the Stanford study is quite striking It reads: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
Then what are these people on about? Many organic advocates have already come out criticising the study, which is as it should be, this is how science works and clearly more studies need to be done. But science is also supposed to be as far as possible objective, so the statements made by the advocacy groups need to be carefully considered as well, lest this becomes another global warming type issue, where dissenters have all but been silenced by the absolute certainty of the true believers. Back when I was in college the scientific community was equally certain that the planet was suffering from global cooling. Check out the cover of Time magazine, 3 December 1973 and you will see my point.
The Stanford study goes on to say that the “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” It did not however find that has proven to be good for you. Maybe our “conventional” bodies have gotten used to these things over the past forty or fifty years.
As surprising as it is to discover that the health benefits of organic food are far from certain, there is still good reason to go green. It’s good for the environment. Organic farming pollutes less and greatly increases bio-diversity. I think it’s good for society too. Generally speaking, organic farming stands as a counter weight to the large, corporate-owned industrial farming systems that have all but eliminated competition and have come to dominate our food supply. Here too diversity is a good thing. Smaller, independently-owned organic farms provide a greater variety of meat and vegetables which, in my opinion, taste better as well.
Finally, on the subject of meat, organically raised cows and chickens by and large are more humanely treated. So if you’re an animal lover there’s another good reason to go green. The science is still out concerning the nutritional aspects of organic food, but there are all sorts of ways in which it’s the preferable alternative. Let’s make it conventional once again.