Have “health claims for organic food” been debunked?
You might think so, based on headlines written to accompany stories carried by many newspapers, public radio, and web sites. They were interpreting the publication of a meta-review of already-published papers in the September 4, 2012 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, by senior author Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy, and her team. They looked at conclusions from four decades of research comparing nutrient levels in organic and conventional foods.
Here's the Stanford story about the study, whose headline reads “Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods.” The studies they reviewed, “included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.”
Here's my first question: while levels of nutrient and contaminating bacteria, fungi, and pesticides are important to health, they might not be the only things to look at. Put more positively, if that is all you look at, then the authors conclude that there are no health benefits from organic food.
Some of the people who've chosen to differ with that are Marion Nestlé, Michael Pollan, Robyn O'Brien, and Malcolm Woods of Outpost Co-op. There are reactions to the study, and more reactions to the study, and evidence that members of the organic industry are not seeing things in a whole new light. Many chose to highlight ecological superiorities of organic production methods, and the Stanford study's finding that there's a “30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables.”
Few readers will be surprised that my personal reaction is that there's not much here that changes my interest in – and willingness to pay for – organic food. Frankly, I thought that this was the most accurate headline about the study: “Something for everyone in Stanford study comparing nutrition, safety of organic and conventional foods.'