You’d think Stanford would be above such sloppy research. You’d be wrong.
Stanford University researchers conducted a meta-analysis (a selection and summary) of seventeen studies in humans and 230 field studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, eggs, chicken, pork, and meat).
The study, published yesterday in The Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The media, of course, pounced on the first part of the conclusion and reported it with their usual ferocity, but in many instances completely ignored the second part. In fact, their headlines would lead you to believe there is no benefit to organic foods at all: “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubts on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce” (New York Times); “Organic Food is Not Healthier than Conventional Produce” (Huffington Post); “Study Questions How Much Better Organic Food Is” (Houston Chronicle); “Organic, Conventional Foods Similar in Nutrition, Safety, Study Finds” (Washington Post). Even Stanford’s own press release says, “Little Evidence of Health Benefits of Organic Food, Stanford Study Finds.”
What the study actually said was that they didn’t find “significant” or “robust” differences in nutritional content between organic and conventional foods, though they found that organic food had 30% less pesticide residue. Even though the pesticide levels fall within the safety guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency, it should be noted that the health effects of the pesticides are cumulative, and that what we would consider safe might not align with the EPA! For example, as we noted two weeks ago, herbicide residue on GMO crops may be causing fertility problems. Organophosphate exposure can lead to pre-term births, and both ADHD and lower IQs in children, according to several studies from leading universities.
The Stanford study also noted that the risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria was 33% higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork. Remember our piece on “superbugs”? USDA routinely justifies irradiating or sterilizing food because of such food safety concerns, as we noted last week—and this study essentially proves that organics do not need to be sterilized because they are in fact so much safer.
The meta-analysis also found that organic produce contains higher levels of phosphorus, and that organic chicken contains higher levels of vaccenic acid and more organic phenols, which have antioxidant and anti-cancer effects. A few studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3s fatty acids.
What the Stanford study didn’t mention is that by definition, organic foods cannot contain GMOs, so they are far healthier than conventional foods. Even though the biotech industry keeps saying GMO is “safe” and equal to non-GMO crops, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Organic farming is also healthier for the environment because it does not employ large-scale factory farming conditions (not to mention being more humane toward the animals being raised for meat).
Charles Benbrook, PhD, a professor of agriculture at Washington State University and former chief scientist at The Organic Center who reviewed the Stanford study and most of the underlying literature, found the study misleading. He noted that several well-designed US studies show that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins than conventional crops. For crops like apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, milk, carrots, and grains, organic produce has 10 to 30 percent higher levels of several nutrients, including vitamin C, antioxidants and phenolic acids in most studies.
As the Environmental Working Group notes, the Stanford study also contradicts the findings of what many consider the most definitive analysis in the scientific literature of the nutrient content of organic versus conventional food. In that 2011 study, a team led by Dr. Kirsten Brandt of the Human Nutrition Research Center of Newcastle University in the UK analyzed most of the same research and concluded that organic crops had approximately 12 to 16 percent more nutrients than conventional crops.
Critics were quick to point out flaws in the Stanford study’s methodology as well.
First, meta-analysis (that is, examining a large number of studies for commonalities) does not allow for the nuances and range of each of the studies—such as differences in testing methods, geography, and farming methods. There are a wide variety of different organic farming practices, and any given sample of food will reflect the soil in which it is grown. Chinese soil, for example, is notoriously deficient in selenium, and this carries through to the food. This makes it very hard to generalize based on an overview of a wide variety of studies.
Second, when researchers select studies for meta-analysis, they are free to cherry-pick whichever ones they like—and leave out any that might not support their conclusions. For example, a 2010 study by scientists at Washington State University found that organic strawberries contained more vitamin C than conventional ones. Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, a member of the Stanford team, said that this strawberry study was erroneously left out of the analysis, but that she doubted it would have changed the conclusions when combined with thirty-one other studies that also measured vitamin C!
What this comment completely omitted is that the chemicals used to treat non-organic strawberries are considered to be among the most dangerous. So arguing about the exact amount of vitamin C in the fruit ignores the main point that conventional strawberries are especially to be avoided because of contamination by a recognized poison.
Third, there was no long-term study of the health effects on humans of consuming organic foods versus conventional foods. The duration of the human studies ranged from two days to two years. Most of the health effects will take a lot longer than that to show up.
So once again we have the media trumpeting the most shocking tidbit as if it were representative of the entire study, and leaving out the most important findings—that organic foods are far safer in terms of pesticide content, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and GMOs. The media also didn’t bother doing a critical analysis of the study’s methodology and rarely even offered a fair presentation of what the study’s critics had to say.
ANH-USA will be contacting each media outlet and asking for a correction to be published. We won’t hold our breath. As our readers know, Big Food Companies, like Big Pharma companies, are Big Advertisers, and the conventional media seems to tailor its stories accordingly.