Large Multi-Study Research Shows Health Benefits Of Organic Food Lacking
September 4, 2012

Large Multi-Study Research Shows Health Benefits Of Organic Food Lacking

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Organic foods have been around since the 1940s and have been heavily marketed as a better choice for your health over the past 20 to 30 years. However, new research has found that food labeled as organically grown or produced has no better nutritional value than conventional foods.

Consumers typically pay a lot more for organic foods with the general notion that the higher price tag on such foods means they are bettering their health. However, a four-year study, which began when two doctors wondered what advice they could offer patients on the benefits of organic products, probed whether there were or were not any significant differences between organically produced and traditionally grown foods.

The organic market has become a $28.6 billion per year industry, and experts are concerned that the reason behind why so many people buy organic may not be borne out by the science at all.

Crystal Smith-Spangler, a primary care physician at Stanford University and lead author of the study, which included researchers from Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care, said the study became much larger than expected. She and her colleagues reviewed some 240 studies that compared either the health of people who ate organic or conventional foods or, more commonly, nutrient and contaminant levels in the foods themselves.

Foods included in the large study analysis were organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, poultry, eggs and milk. Twelve researchers pored over the studies, which were originally conducted between 1966 and 2011. And when all was said and done, the researchers found that organic produce and meat is generally no better for you than conventional food when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content. The only benefit researchers found in the consumption of organic food, was that people were getting a reduction in the exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, albeit not by much.

A small portion (7 percent) of the organic food produced in the studies had detectable levels of pesticide residue. While this could be a shocking discovery in a food that is, by law, supposed to be produced with no pesticides whatsoever, the team point out that the pesticide residue could be from long-lasting exposure in the soils or may have drifted from other fields.

Smith-Spangler told Genevra Pittman of Reuters Health that it was uncommon for either organic or conventional foods to exceed the allowable limits for pesticides, so it was not clear whether a difference in residues would have an effect on health. She said her research team also found no discernible levels of bacterial contamination in either types of foods tested. Results of the study appear in the Sept 4th issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Dena Bravata, MD, MS, of Stanford´s Center for Health Policy, and lead coauthor on the paper, said: “There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

“People choose to buy organic foods for many different reasons. One of them is perceived health benefits,” added Smith-Spangler.

However, Bravata, Smith-Spangler, and colleagues found no conclusive evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.

Still, the data does not fit with consumers´ motivations for buying organic. A 2010 Nielsen study found that 76 percent of consumers bought organic believing it was a healthier option; 53 percent did so because it allowed them to avoid pesticides and toxins; 51 percent said they bought organic because it was more nutritious; and 49 percent because organic farming is better for the environment.

Urvashi Rangan, a Consumers Union scientist pointed out that organic farming originally was designed to be a better option for the environment and for farmers. “The health benefits really ended up being almost inadvertent, a nice fringe benefit” of farming in a sustainable way that benefit´s the planet, she told USA Today´s Elizabeth Weise.

That counter-culture trend is now mainstream, and organic foods make up 12 percent of all US fruit and vegetable sales, according to Christine Bushway, CEO of the Organic Trade Association. Organic products in general account for nearly 6 percent of the total US market for dairy products, she noted.

The organics industry has exploded in recent years. Sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion a year in 1997 to $24.4 billion a year in 2011, and many consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, which are often twice as expensive as the traditional products they replace.

Although there is a common perception--perhaps due to price alone--that organic foods are better for us than non-organic choices, it remains an open debate as to the health benefits involved. Bravata said her patients continue to ask her about the benefits of organic products. She tells them she does not yet have all the answers and does not know how best to advise them.

While the findings of the study are profound, critics of the work say it is inconclusive and call for more studies.

Among the critics was the Soil Association, which called the study flawed.

“Studies that treat crop trials as if they were clinical trials of medicines, like this one, exaggerate the variation between studies, and drown out the real differences,” according to a statement by the group. “A UK review paper, using the correct statistical analysis, has found that most of the differences in nutrient levels between organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables seen in this US study are actually highly significant.”

“Evidence has not yet emerged that there are nutritional benefits from eating organically produced foods compared to conventionally produced foods. We will continue to review research on this subject,” said a spokeswoman for the US Department of Health.

Bravata and Smith-Spangler said there were limitations of the work. They noted the heterogeneity of the studies they reviewed due to differences in testing methods; physical factors affecting the food, such as weather and soil type; and great variation among organic farming methods. With regard to the latter, there may be specific organic practices (for example, the way that manure fertilizer, a risk for bacterial contamination, is used and handled) that could yield a safer product of higher nutritional quality.

Smith-Spangler concluded: “What I learned is there's a lot of variation between farming practices. It appears there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms.”