Thursday, October 22, 2020

Is Organic Better For You? - Look Back

Welcome to our Throwback Thursday series of "reposts" from prior years on our blog!  The rules are simple - it has to be from the same month, but a different year from our blog.  This one is from Oct 24, 2014 and it looks at research investigating whether organic foods are better for you or not.  

The funny thing about this post is that I learned how many people DO NOT read a post but still think it is important that they sound off.  No... I was NOT asking you if organic ag is better for you - it was the question being asked by research that I am reporting on.  Uff da!  Even worse were the people who proceeded to illustrate that they had no clue exactly what being certified organic meant - all while trying to tell others how it was (or wasn't) better for you.

No, the reactions were not entirely as comments on OUR blog or our social media accounts.  It had more to do with the content being shared elsewhere.  Seriously, we rarely merit that much attention on our posts!

Without further ado - here is the original post with a few edits for clarity, updates, and formatting.


A post by Earth We Are One (in 2014) was being shared by persons who believe organic produce is the way to go.  Before I celebrated, I thought I'd better do a couple of things.  First, I wanted to learn a little about the organization that was sharing these results.  As I viewed their website, it was clear that there would be some definite biases.  That does not mean information found there is incorrect or not worthwhile.  It simply means that there is a definite agenda.  Agendas are not inherently evil, but a person needs to be aware of them when 'facts' are being reported.  This group clearly would want to support these results being claimed by this study.  So, right or wrong, I decided I would not just simply take their word for what they were reporting.

So, the second thing I did was look for the root of the information being given.  What led them to report what they reported?  My next stop was this LA Times article.  Here is an independent media source that is reporting on this meta-study.  I'll leave you to debate all you want about media, agendas and the like.  But, the reality is that I was now able to start checking more links and the flow of information back to the source. 

The Environmental Working Group is another organization that pointed at this meta-study.  I was impressed by how easy it is to learn about this organization.  They put their financial statements and annual reports on their "about us" page I linked to for all to see.  They also display an impressive ranking by the Charity Navigator, which they proudly include on their "about us" page.  These folks weigh in with this report on their pages.

All of this led me to the original journal article that is here:

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Published in the British Journal of Nutrition
Baranski et al. - Sep 2014

What was this study?

If you are not a researcher, this might sound a bit silly to you.  But, let me tell you about it and why it is useful.

This was a "meta-study" - or a study about studies on a given topic.

The problem is this: there have been many studies of varying quality that try to show that organic foods are better OR no different from conventionally grown foods.  Persons who have an agenda that are served by showing organic foods are better are likely to seize on any study that shows organic products in a positive light.  Unfortunately, they might be attracted to studies with the most dramatic results but with the poorest study designs.  On the other hand, those who are not inclined to favor organics will either find studies that show no difference (again, potentially ignoring study quality) OR they will attack the weaker studies selected by proponents of organic foods.

The net result of this is that there is confusion and disagreement about the facts of the matter.  This leaves us subject to our own preconceived notions and we learn nothing in the process.

The other problem is the fact that it is impossible to study all aspects of food production and quality at once and in one study.  By their very nature, highly focused studies are more likely to produce clearer results, but are also less likely to give us a clear picture of the entire situation.  A meta-study attempts to connect results within certain parameters.

My best example is this.  Let's say Rob did a study on whether or not plants need potassium to grow and he found that they did.  With that study only, should we try to grow plants purely in potassium?  What about all of the other things required to have healthy plants?  Perhaps it would be a good idea to gather the results of studies about plant growth in an effort to come up with a complete picture of what it takes to grow a plant?

I realize I am over simplifying things a bit.  But, my point is that it is important to gather relevant research and try to summarize what is learned on a subject THUS FAR.

This study identified over 300 studies with pertinent results.  After reading the British Journal of Nutrition article, I feel comfortable with the approach to the meta study.

Eat your broccoli!

What did the meta study conclude?

If you are able - read the abstract that resides at the last link above.  If it only confuses you, I found both the LA Times and the EWG's summaries to be clear and concise.

I boiled it down to a few things.

1. fruits, vegetables and grains grown using organic practices has less chemical residue
2. fruits, vegetables and grains grown using organic practices have more antioxidants - which are good for you.
3. there is so much more to learn.

And, in the end, one of the best quotes I found can be found in the LA Times article.  One of the study authors, Charles Benbrook (Washington State U) stated, "The first and foremost message is people need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Buying organic is the surest way of limiting exposure if you have health issues, but by all means, people need to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables whether it's organic or conventional." 


And here we are in 2020 - still debating the question.  Or, more accurately, we are ignoring the question for the most part. As near as I can tell, if a new meta-study were to be undertaken that would consider any research since the last meta-study, we would come up with similar results.

The USDA regularly tests food for pesticide residues and that data is freely available.  Organizations such as PAN and Consumer Reports have provided tools that can give you information as to how much and what types of pesticides can be found on our foods. 

And, of course, when you consider how much better organic practices would be for our soil, for our environment and for our farmers, you would think we would be happy to support certified organic practices even IF they were not found to be "healthier" than non-organic.  Why?  Because the whole system would be healthier.  And when the whole system is healthier, so are we.

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