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Are organic foods healthier? Are they worth the extra money at the supermarket? In the wake of a media frenzy revolving a September 2012 “study” by Stanford University claiming to answer these questions, many people were left wondering.
The Stanford paper made headlines across the media-sphere. Many read something along the lines of, “Are Organic Foods Worth the Extra Cost?” — which frustrated many proponents of organics.
It’s important to note that the paper wasn’t a new study with fresh data on organic foods. Rather, it was a “meta-study” in which no original research was conducted. Researchers compiled data from multiple past studies on organic food. The benefits of organic produce were investigated by the research team — with an emphasis on health — and compiled in the paper published in the September 4, 2012, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine
While the findings did point out that organic food can lower the risk of exposure to pesticides by 30 percent, many media outlets focused on the part of the study concluding that there’s no significant health benefit from eating organic foods. Several story lines suggested that organics are really no better than conventional foods, and Stanford’s own website said researchers “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.” (This important point about pesticide exposure was often covered as an afterthought in reports about the study.)
Shortly after the first round of media attention hit, a second round — this time made up of impassioned responses to the Stanford study and the undeserved attention the study received — showed up. For instance, Why the Stanford University Organic Food Study Missed the Mark by Kimberly Lord Stewart argues that the study “marginalized the health status of organic food and took an extremely narrow view” and that the Stanford research “fails to mention two significant studies that do indeed show that organic foods are higher in vitamin C, antioxidants, polyphenols by 60 to 80 percent of the time, and vitamin A and protein is higher in organic foods 50 percent of the time when compared to conventional foods.”
Plus, fewer chemicals in food should automatically be seen of as a much healthier alternative to conventional produce. According to the Cornucopia Institute, “Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered (i.e., approved) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system (CNS), breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma.”
The Cornucopia Institute also compiled a report concerning how Stanford and its ties to Big Ag might have played a part in these research findings. For more on this angle, see Stanford University’s ‘Spin’ on Organic Food Study Allegedly Tainted by Biotechnology Funding.
Although the media spin might lead you to believe otherwise, the authors of the Stanford University study stated that their intention was not to deter individuals from buying and eating organically. According to one of the study’s co-authors, Crystal Smith-Spangler, “this is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”
Another angle in this conversation is simply about how we define “health.” Is health just about vitamin levels, or is it also about healthy communities, a healthy environment, healthy farmers, healthy animals, chemical-free living, and more? Keeping business local and buying directly from sustainable farmers is a safe way to know where your food comes from and in what condition. Animals that are properly cared for and vegetables that are grown in clean soil will produce higher-quality, better-tasting food — points made in Mark A. Kastel’s editorial Thinking Outside the Processed Foods Box — Health and Safety Advantages of Organic Food.
Finally, the last point in this ongoing debate comes from well-known food advocate Michael Pollan: “I would just encourage people to educate themselves and not take headlines at face value.” For his response to the Stanford food study, see Michael Pollan Responds to Study Finding ‘No Significant Health Benefit’ to Organic Food.
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