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Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives - Benbrook Review

Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives - Benbrook Review

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Published by Alexander Berenyi
A Stanford University Medical School team surveyed the global literature for evidence of differences between the nutritional quality and safety of organic and conventional foods.

While the study reports a lack of evidence of “clinically significant” benefits, it acknowledges several benefits that fall short of the team’s undefined threshold of “significant.”

The Stanford team’s study design precluded assessment of much of the evidence supporting these benefits, and hence their findings understate the health benefits that can follow a switch to a predominantly organic diet, organic farming methods, and the animal health–promoting practices common on organically managed livestock farms.
A Stanford University Medical School team surveyed the global literature for evidence of differences between the nutritional quality and safety of organic and conventional foods.

While the study reports a lack of evidence of “clinically significant” benefits, it acknowledges several benefits that fall short of the team’s undefined threshold of “significant.”

The Stanford team’s study design precluded assessment of much of the evidence supporting these benefits, and hence their findings understate the health benefits that can follow a switch to a predominantly organic diet, organic farming methods, and the animal health–promoting practices common on organically managed livestock farms.

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Published by: Alexander Berenyi on Sep 05, 2012
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11/11/2012

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September4,20121
InitialReflectionsonthe
 AnnalsofInternalMedicine
Paper“AreOrganicFoodsSaferandHealthierThanConventional Alternatives?ASystematicReview”
By:
CharlesBenbrookCenterforSustainingAgricultureandNaturalResourcesWashingtonStateUniversity
Overview
InacomprehensivepaperpublishedintheSeptember4,2012issueofthe
 AnnalsofInternalMedicin
e(Smith-Spangleretal.,Vol.157,Number5:pages349–369),aStanfordUniversityMedicalSchoolteamsurveysthegloballiteratureforevidenceofdifferencesbetweenthenutritionalqualityandsafetyoforganicandconventionalfoods.Theteam’stwomajorconclusionsare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analysissupportingtheseconclusionsisflawedinseveralways.Thebasicindicatorsusedtocomparethenutritionalqualityandsafetyoforganicversusconventionalfoodconsistentlyunderstatethemagnitudeofthedifferencesreportedinhigh-quality,contemporarypeer-reviewedliterature.Inthecaseofpesticidesandantibiotics,theindicatorused—thepercentofsamplesoforganicfoodwithatraitminusthepercentofconventionalsamplesaffected—isnotavalidindicatorofhumanhealthrisk.Initsanalysistheteamdoesnottapextensive,highqualitydatafromtheUSDAandEnvironmentalProtectionAgency(EPA)onpesticideresiduelevels(USDAPesticideDataProgram,2012),toxicityanddietaryrisk(OfficeofInspectorGeneral,2006aand2006b;Benbrook,2011a;Benbrook,2008b),aswellasapersuasivebodyofliteratureontheroleofagriculturalantibioticuseintriggeringthecreationofnewantibioticresistantstrainsofbacteria,andthegenesconferringresistance(Looftetal.,2012).Theteam’sanswertothebasicquestion,“Isorganicfoodmorenutritiousorsafer?,”isbasedontheirjudgmentofwhetherpublishedstudiesprovideevidenceofaclinicallysignificantimpactorimprovementinhealth.Veryfewstudiesare
 
September4,20122designedorconductedinawaythatcouldisolatetheimpactorcontributionofaswitchtoorganicfoodfromthemanyotherfactorsthatinfluenceagivenindividual’shealth.Studiescapableofdoingsowouldbeveryexpensive,andtodate,nonehavebeencarriedoutintheU.S.Formostpeople,justswitchingtoorganicfruitsandvegetables,ororganicdairyproductsormeat,intheabsenceofotherchangesinfoodchoicesandoveralldietquality,wouldnotbeexpectedtotriggeraclinicallysignificantimprovementinhealth,especiallyintherelativelyshorttimeperiodsassessedinthedietary-interventionorhuman-healthstudiesreviewedbytheStanfordteam.Theoneexceptionintheliterature—studiesspanningthedurationofawoman’spregnancyandthefirstfewyearsofachild’slife—provideencouragingevidencethatorganicfoodcanreducetheoddsofsomeadversehealthimpacts,includingbirthdefects,neuro-behavioralandlearningproblems,autism,andeczema(Arbuckle,etal.,2001;Bellinger,2012;Bouchard,etal.,2011;Engel,etal.,2011;Garryetal.;2002;Rauh,etal.,2011;Schreinemachers,2003).Whenanindividualdecidestoswitchtohealthydietarychoicesfromclearlyunhealthyones,andalsoconsistentlychoosesorganicfoods,theoddsofachieving“clinicallysignificant”improvementsinhealtharesubstantiallyincreased(Benbrook,2011b).Themostsignificant,provenbenefitsoforganicfoodandfarmingare:(1)areductioninchemical-driven,epigeneticchangesduringfetalandchildhooddevelopment,especiallyfrompre-natalexposurestoendocrinedisruptingpesticides(Crewsetal.,2012;Vandenberg,etal.,2012),(2)themarkedlymorehealthybalanceofomega-6and-3fattyacidsinorganicdairyproductsandmeat,and(3)thevirtualeliminationofagriculture’ssignificantandongoingcontributiontothepoolofantibiotic-resistantbacteriacurrentlyposingincreasingthreatstothetreatmentofhumaninfectiousdisease(Aarestrup,2012;Looft,etal.,2012).TheStanfordteam’sstudydesignprecludedassessmentofmuchoftheevidencesupportingthesebenefits,andhencetheirfindingsunderstatethehealthbenefitsthatcanfollowaswitchtoapredominantlyorganicdiet,organicfarmingmethods,andtheanimalhealth-promotingpracticescommononorganicallymanagedlivestockfarms.
PuttingTheStanfordFindingsInPerspective
Thefindingsofthisstudyareripeforoverstatementandmisinterpretation.Fromthestudy’ssummaryandpressmaterials,itiseasytoseewhymanystorieswillstartwithaclearandunequivocalstatementlike—“NewStudyUnderminesHealthBenefitsofOrganicFood.”Whilethestudyreportsalackofevidenceof“clinicallysignificant”benefits,itacknowledgesseveralbenefitsthatfallshortoftheteam’sundefinedthresholdof“significant.”
 
September4,20123ThestudydesignalsopreventedtheStanfordteamfromconnectingthedotsacrossmultiplebodiesofevidencefromseveraldisciplinesthathelpshedlightonthemechanismsthroughwhichorganicfarmingandtheconsumptionoforganicfoodcanenhancehumanhealthoutcomes.Theframingofthisstudy’sfindingsalsodriveshometheacuteneedforanopendialogueamongscientists,clinicians,nutritionists,thefoodindustry,thegovernment,andconsumersaboutwhatconstitutesa“significant”benefitfrom
any 
health-promotinglife-styleintervention,howsuchbenefitsshouldbequantified,andthenweighedagainstthecostsentailedinachievingthem.Iamamongasmallgroupofpeoplewho,byvirtueofprofessionalinterestsandresponsibilitiesoverthelastdecade,havereadover200ofthe298referencescitedintheStanfordpaper.Ihaveanalyzedtheresultsofdozensofthemandcarriedoutmeta-analysesonthisbodyofliterature(Benbrook,2008b).Mygoalhasbeentointegrateintoapublic-healthcontexttheinsightsgainedfromresearchinseveraldisparatefields.Overtime,Ibelievethatunbiasedanalysiscoupledwithmodern-dayscienceislikelytoshowwithincreasingclaritythatgrowingandconsumingorganicfood,especiallyinconjunctionwithhealthydietsrichinfresh,wholefoods,isoneofthebesthealth-promotioninvestmentswecanmaketodayasindividuals,families,andasociety.Forpeoplewithunhealthydietslackinginfruitsandvegetablesandpronetoexcesscaloric,salt,sugar,andfatintakes,theswitchtoahealthierdietisthemostimportantintervention(Benbrook,2011b).Forindividualsalreadyadheringtoandbenefittingfromabalancedandhealthydietcomposedofconventionallygrownfood,includingampleservingsoffreshfruitandvegetables,thestrategicselectionoforganicfoodscanhelpthemfurthertiptheoddstowardgoodhealth(Benbrook,2011b),particularlyatcertainstagesoflifewhenhumansareparticularlyvulnerabletotheadverseimpactsofpesticidesandanimaldrugs,i.e.beforeandduringpregnancy,thruthefirstfewyearsofachild’slife,whenbattlingadegenerativedisease,andafterage60.
IsOrganicFoodMoreNutritious?
TheStanfordteamdoesnotdefineempiricallywhatitmeansbyafoodbeing“significantlymorenutritious”thananotherfood.Tome,suchafoodwouldneedtodeliveratleast50%higherlevelsofseveralimportantnutrientspercalorieorserving,whilealsonotdeliveringsubstantiallylowerconcentrationsofotheressentialnutrients.Butafooddoesnotneedtobe50%morenutrientdense(i.e.“significantly”morenutritious)todeliverimportanthealth-promotingbenefits.Achievingevena10%increaseinthelevelsofkeynutrientsincommonlyconsumedfoodswouldbringabouttangiblehealthbenefitsacrosstheU.S.population.

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