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Is Organic Food More Healthful?

In 1952 Martin Gardner, who just passed away this week at the age of 95, wrote about organic farming in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. He characterized it as a food fad without scientific justification. Now, 58 years later, the science has not changed much at all.

A recent review of the literature of the last 50 years shows that there is no evidence for health benefits from eating an organic diet. The only exception to this was evidence for a lower risk of eczema in children eating organic dairy products. But with so many potential correlations to look for, this can just be noise in the data.

Another important conclusion of this systematic review is the paucity of good research into organic food – they identified only 12 relevant trials. So while there is a lack of evidence for health benefits from eating an organic diet, we do not have enough high-quality studies to say this question has been definitively answered. It is surprising, given the fact that organic food was controversial in the 1950s, that so little good research has been done over the last half-century.

It should be noted that we only recently had any rules in the US regarding the label “organic”. According to the USDA:

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), enacted under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, served to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as “organic.”

The definition of organic entirely relates to the method of production, not the final product. It involves three principles. One is sustainable farming that is optimal for the environment. That question is beyond the scope of this medical blog. Many people do advocate organic farming for this reason alone, and many of the principles of sustainable farming are being incorporated more generally into agriculture and animal husbandry.

The second principle is the establishment of an ecosystem, using cover crops, crop rotation, and other methods. Again – I want to set aside the environmental questions and focus on the nutritional claims: Does organic farming result in produce that is more nutritious? There are different ways we can approach this question. One is addressed by the systematic review above: Can we measure a health advantage to eating an organic diet? The answer to that question at the present time is “no.” This could be due to the fact that there is no health benefit, or that any benefit is smaller than the studies currently available could detect. Long term modest health benefits are very difficult to detect with clinical trials, and it is therefore difficult to rule out such benefits, but at present there is no evidence of health benefits from an organic diet.

The second way to approach this question is to evaluate the food products themselves: Are they more nutritious? The most recent systematic review of the evidence concluded:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

There is also a recent study concluding that birds prefer seed that is conventionally produced over seed that is organically produced – likely because conventional production methods result in a 10% higher protein content.

The third issue with organic food is what is not in, or on them – pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Here, again, we can take the same two approaches as with nutrition: Is there any evidence of a difference between organic and conventional produce, and is there evidence for a health benefit? There seems to be a consensus on the first question. There are lower levels of synthetic pesticides in organic produce and lower levels of hormones and antibiotics in organic meat than in conventionally grown equivalents.  But is this safer for health? The review cited above is also relevant to this question, and essentially there is no evidence for greater safety of organic food over conventional food.

With regard to pesticides, it must also be noted that organic farming, while using methods to minimize pests and the need for pesticides, still uses organic, rather than synthetic, pesticides. For example a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture is commonly used. Such pesticides are not as well studied as synthetic pesticides, often require more applications, and may persist longer in the soil. In fact the use of “natural” pesticides is nothing more than an appeal to the naturalistic fallacy – there really is no evidence for superior safety, and they have not been adequately studied.

There is a recent study which has garnered a great deal of press linking organophosphates – a type of synthetic pesticide – to higher prevalence of ADHD. However, this is a preliminary observational study. While interesting, it really can only be used to justify further research, not any conclusions regarding the effects of organophosphates. (I discuss this article in more detail here.)

It does seem reasonable to minimize human exposure to pesticides. This can be accomplished, at least in part, however, by simply washing all produce thoroughly. I could not find any direct comparisons of organic produce to thoroughly washed conventional produce, but what evidence we do have suggests that residue levels are below safety limits and can be lowered further by washing. This is an area that does require continued monitoring and research, however.

Conclusion

Overall there does not appear to be any advantage for health to organic farming (sustainability and environmental effects being a separate issue). However, despite the fact that organic farming has been around for over 50 years, there is a surprisingly small amount of quality research available. The organic farming industry and popularity of organic products is growing. Organic products are more expensive, and questions remain about whether or not such methods would be adequate to supply our food needs. There may also be hidden health risks or unintended consequences to relying upon organic farming. There may also be benefits that have not been adequately documented. Therefore, this is one area where I think it is reasonable to conclude more research is genuinely needed.

Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health

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82 thoughts on “Is Organic Food More Healthful?

  1. Mr. Kurtz says:

    Organic agriculture had more than 20,000 years to prove itself. It delivered famine, sickness, and consequent war. Just as in medicine, many modern tools can be misused, or are toxic in certain settings; but few of us would be Christian Scientists.
    “Organic” is a fine marketing tool, an can help some growers make a better margin if they have wealthy customers. But understanding of plant pathology, integrated pest management, and soil conservation are not the exclusive province of organic growers. Most of their cannon is absolute quackery and magic.

  2. Scott says:

    I could not find any direct comparisons of organic produce to thoroughly washed conventional produce,

    A more proper comparison would be thoroughly washed organic vs. thoroughly washed conventional, would it not?

  3. Thanks for the article Dr. Novella. I appreciate the care you took to set aside the environmental and sustainability issues.

    One issue that seems to sit on the fence between environment and direct health concerns, that is the use of antibiotics as prophylaxis and to speed growth in conventional farming. I have read and heard numerous new reports that say that practice may encourage the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria such as MRSA.

    I do not know if the possible risk may directly effect individuals. For example, does the individual eating more meat and diary that have been treated with antibiotics may consume be at higher risk of an antibiotic resistant infection? I heard an interview with the Author of Super Bug who suggested that some meats have been found contaminated with MRSA.

    Or if the risk would be the more over arching risk of over use of antibiotics to the general public.

    I think I’ve posted comments on this topic a couple of time. Sorry to be the MRSA paranoia poster, but I’ve had two family member hospitalized with MRSA (not from injures or sugery), so it is an area of interest to me.

  4. “Healthful” has many levels. It will always be difficult to measure any practical health benefits to healthy organically-produced food vs healthy “conventionally”-produced food. (I always find it odd when “conventional” is applied to a new practice, especially when so much effort is dedicated to convincing people — in this case, farmers — to adopt “conventional” practices.) From the eater’s perspective, the marginal benefit (if any) of an organic carrot will always be smaller than the benefit of a carrot vs no carrot.

    Reduced pesticide use in production offers health benefits to producers.

    Antibiotic use in agricultural production leads to antibiotic resistance generally, which is a health issue.

    Foregoing the use of antibiotics to raise livestock means that animals must be raised in conditions that reduce the disease burden on the animals — that is, humane conditions. Without going into the whole certified milk debacle, my cousin had her cow’s milk tested and discovered 80 bacteria per mL. The certified milk standard had the upper limit of safety being 10,000 bacteria per mL. Raising animals in conditions where they have low disease burdens without antibiotics is more healthful for the animals.

  5. “A more proper comparison would be thoroughly washed organic vs. thoroughly washed conventional, would it not?”

    While everyone should thoroughly wash their produce, realistically they don’t AND how would the laboratory version of thoroughly wash compare to that of the common consumer.

    For myself, I’d want to see the test for before and after washing (typical consumer style) on both kinds of produce. Given that some kinds of chemical are more/less water resistant.

  6. passionlessDrone says:

    Hello friends –

    Is there anyone out there like me, who believes that I can absolutely tell the difference between a bunch of organic bananas and ‘conventionally’ grown bananas by smell? Similarly, I am absolutely convinced I could discern organic Fuji apples by smell alone.

    Though not technically in the organic realm, the grass fed beef in Buenos Aires was light years better than anything I had here when I was eating a lot of steak. In this instance I suppose you have multiple variables in that you not only have a different diet, but the antibiotics that must come alongside a corn based diet for American steer.

    Thank you for this write up.

    - pD

  7. Till F says:

    Thanks for at least mentioning other concerns than health.
    Sustainability, fair working conditions and pay and so forth are more than valid reasons, in my opinion, to choose “Bio” foods, as they are called in Europe.
    And since the organic foods are not (at least it looks like it) less healthy, I mostly opt for them.

  8. Mr. Kurtz,

    Yes. Everything you say.

    Any organism will grow to the upper bound its ecological niche will hold, at which point war/predation, famine and pestilence will keep the population more or less steady. We are not different.

    That is, we are only different in that we have some ability to define our own ecological niche and its upper bound. Food production styles in rough order of the population densities it can support:
    • Hunting and gathering
    • Slash-and-burn agriculture
    • Pastoralism
    • Traditional settled agriculture (including organic)
    • Fossil-fuel based agriculture.

    We are about to reach the upper bound of the population that fossil-fuel based agriculture can support. Fossil fuels will become more expensive and the population is continuing to expand. Our old friends war, famine and pestilence, always with us, will come to dominate our existence in exactly the same way they have dominated the existence of any other culture or organism at the upper bound of its ecological niche. Our temporary shielding from the reality of the upper bound is due not to the inherent superiority of our methods, but to the fact that our methods have allowed continually expanding food production, meaning that many of us have been able to live at a comfortable mid-point, far from the upper bound. When food production stops expanding — which it inevitably will — pesticides and antibiotics will not save us.

    In the meantime, while fossil fuels are still cheap, it is absolutely true that the marginal benefits of organic produce vs “conventional” produce to the eater are a cute academic exercise. At some future point — not yet — the discussion will be moot. People will be composting their own waste to fertilize their little vegetable plots, and the arguments will be about the dangers of humanure vs the dangers of malnutrition.

    But that’s not what we’re talking about here. For discussion of agricuture in the apocalypse, see Sharon Astyk, Prophetess of Doom, on ScienceBlogs.
    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/

  9. kongstad says:

    In Denmark, the government has a defined standard for organic foods.
    while its true that there does not seem to be any direct health benefits from organic foods, at least in Denmark the standard includes the strictest constraints on the welfare of animals.
    Free range chickens have less space than organic chickens for instance.
    For me, this is the major reason for using organic food.

  10. Zoe237 says:

    The question of antibiotic resistance and the influence of agriculture is an excellent one.

  11. Todd W. says:

    @pD

    A way you could test your assumptions is to set up a small-scale, double-blind test. Someone else would buy the foods (e.g., 5 organic Fuji apples and 5 conventional Fuji apples) and code them. A second person, not knowing which apples are which, conducts the test wherein you attempt to identify the apples by smell alone. You write down your guesses. Then, the blinding is broken and reveal how your guesses correspond to the reality. I’m not a statistician, so I’m not sure how many out of 10 you would need to identify to score higher than chance.

    Of course, to increase the power of the test, it should be repeated several times.

  12. LovleAnjel says:

    @pD

    I wouldn’t be all that surprised if you could tell the difference. The differences in the pesticides, fertilizers & waxes used on organic v. conventional foods probably do change aspects of their odor. Now, if the foods were 100% cleaned of outer contaminants, would you be able to tell them apart? I do have doubts about that.

  13. wannabeer says:

    Fair enough, though I keep eating organic produce because, damn it, it just tastes better. As do organic eggs and meats (though frankly i can’t tell the difference in grains, except that the organic ones often taste more like cardboard). I can’t help finding Michael Pollan’s ideas reasonable, if not entirely proven –when nature delivers 300 varieties of carrots, and conventional production only 1, you wonder what’s missing. Also, I wonder what nutrients are being measured. As I gather, food is pretty complex, and Pollan asserts that even the selection of particular nutrients as the things to measure isn’t free from some controversy. (Not to anoint him the food pope or anything — I haven’t researched his research, obviously).

  14. Organic foods is one of my sacred cows. I try to justify it against all conflicting evidence. I like organic bananas and dairy better–but probably because I’m subconsciously trying to justify the extra expense.

    We eat very little meat and pay more for the humanely-raised variety. (Or we eat meat from hunting friends–but that brings the risk of chronic wasting disease.) Unfortunately trying to be a responsible carnivore might not be very helpful. How do the labels “cage-fee” and “free-range” translate in real life?

    I had finally settled on the “organic is more eco-responsible” meme, until a Brian Dunning podcast shot that down. Evidently organic farmers have to apply non-synthetic fertilizers/pesticides, etc far more often, so you have to consider the extra fuel, pollution, and added impact to the topsoil.

  15. “Nature” has not provided us with any varieties of carrot. Carrots are all cultivated – produced by human ingenuity over hundreds and thousands of years from wild varieties that most people today would not find appetizing (small, bitter, not very nutritious).

    The story of the carrot in particular is very interesting. Many varieties and colors were cultivated. http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history.html

    The fact that one variety won out in the marketplace is not surprising.

  16. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Organic evaporated cane juice. That stuff is rampant in organic factory foods. Can your dentist tell the difference?

  17. Harriet Hall says:

    Passionlessdrone,

    Yes there are people like you out there who believe they can identify organic by smell or taste, but their beliefs are mostly wrong.

    Penn and Teller did some blind taste tests on their show. People who were absolutely convinced that organic tasted better and that they could tell the difference found that they were mistaken. They repeatedly picked the non-organic as tasting better. In one case, they cut a banana in half and told their subject that one half was organic and the other wasn’t. The person tested swore that one half tasted better and was organic and the other half wasn’t.

    On their bottled water show, people who said they hated the taste of tap water actually preferred it to their favorite bottled water when they were blinded. I remember seeing this confirmed in a scientific study, but I don’t have the reference.

    A recent study showed that the same wine was rated as tasting better when it was labelled with a high price than when it was labeled with a low price.

    Kids preferred food in McDonald’s wrappers whether it was the real thing or not.

    Beliefs like yours are meaningless until they are properly tested.

  18. Scott says:

    Interestingly, all the flavor-type comparisons I’ve ever seen have been expensive organic vs. cheap conventional. Comparing higher-quality conventional at an equivalent price point would be much more meaningful, but never seems to be done…

  19. James Fox says:

    Any parent who serves organic lettuce to a young child is, in my estimation, taking an unreasonable risk with regard to potential e-coli infection. This has been an ongoing problem with organic salad greens for many years due to the regular use of inadequately composted dung fertilizer by organic farmers.

  20. “Carrots are all cultivated – produced by human ingenuity over hundreds and thousands of years from wild varieties that most people today would not find appetizing (small, bitter, not very nutritious).”

    Which is why a modern diet is in some ways more restricted than, say, a medieval diet. These days we eat only easy, yummy things. Spinach, not burdock, chickweed and portulaca. Potatoes and carrots, not jerusalem artichokes, salsify and waterlilies. Given a choice, why would anyone choose something seasonal, bitter and difficult to prepare when they can buy something delicious and simple year-round?

    On the scale of things, having enough water comes first; then calories; then sufficient protein; then variety. Our modern carrots, corn and apples provide us with the the basics, which is great. But variety is still good.

  21. Alison – the flip side is that we get fresh greens year round. Our diet is actually much more diverse than in previous centuries, when staples were heavily relied on and produce was available for short spurts during season.

    There is plenty of nutrient variety in the fruits and vegetables we do eat regularly, and we can get them year round.

  22. Mr. Kurtz says:

    Thanks, Alison. I’ll check it out. I am a little more optimistic in that I think that *fresh* water aquaculture and GMO crops have tremendous potential to feed our population sustainably. I certainly agree that using antibiotics for anything but the treatment of bacterial illness is idiotic. However, if a beast cuts herself on barbed wire and develops an abscess, I am certainly going to treat her.
    I have no problem with organic agriculture, I just dislike the air of moral superiority some boosters project, and I *really* object to the general unicorn and Zodiac nonsense about soils, as well as the knee jerk opposition to GMOs. You might find the writings of Vaclav Smil interesting if you enjoy pondering the Big Questions of food, water and energy.

  23. Then there’s the status that organic purchases bring. I’ve often seen parents reuse organic yogurt containers to package snacks, or reuse organic bread bags as lunch bags. Reuse is great, but it’s interesting that I never, ever see the conventional or store-brand containers reused in this way. (Perhaps I’m the only one who buys the store brands.) I do very consciously use the organic containers for repackaging to avoid the social stigma…

    These types of practices demonstrate (or, perhaps, embellish) financial status, status as a “green” parent, and status as parenting really, really hard.

  24. Steven — Yes, which is why I said “in some ways.”

    “There is plenty of nutrient variety in the fruits and vegetables we do eat regularly.”

    For most nutrients this is true. However it is not true for essential fatty acids. We have enough variety to consume the minimum recommended quantities for health but lack of variety shows up in the skewed ratios.

    This cite from Wikipedia on actual variety in fatty acid intake vs healthy recommendations is hardly authoritative, but it’s exactly what was in our textbooks in the 80s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega-3_fatty_acid#The_n.E2.88.926_to_n.E2.88.923_ratio

    “Both n−3 and n−6 fatty acids are essential, i.e. humans must consume them in the diet. n−3 and n−6 compete for the same metabolic enzymes, thus the n−6:n−3 ratio will significantly influence the ratio of the ensuing eicosanoids (hormones), (e.g. prostaglandins, leukotrienes, thromboxanes etc.), and will alter the body’s metabolic function. Generally, grass-fed animals accumulate more n−3 than do grain-fed animals which accumulate relatively more n−6. Metabolites of n−6 are significantly more inflammatory (esp. arachidonic acid) than those of n−3. This necessitates that n−3 and n−6 be consumed in a balanced proportion; healthy ratios of n−6:n−3 range from 1:1 to 4:1. Studies suggest that the evolutionary human diet, rich in game animals, seafood and other sources of n−3, may have provided such a ratio.

    Typical Western diets provide ratios of between 10:1 and 30:1 – i.e., dramatically skewed toward n−6.

    (Emphasis — or bad HTML, however it turns out — mine.) If someone has better information, please supply.

    There are also phytochemicals that are not nutrients but which may be helpful for long-term health. Anthocyanins in brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables are one example. Pastoral people in East Africa whose diet consists largely of blood and whole milk from their cattle have a very fatty, high-cholesterol diet and a low rate of cardiovascular disease. This is attributable partly to all the extremely bitter plants they eat which they will tell you with a straight face are delicious. The nutritional principle of “variety” is there to cover all the bases. We don’t know everything that’s out there, we just know that when we look, we find. So rather than worrying about whether we’re eating the “right” thing, we should just eat a bit of everything.

    If it were so easy to “eat a bit of everything” today, our fatty acid intake wouldn’t be so off-kilter.

  25. lexicakes says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue. I just came across this abstract: http://precedings.nature.com/documents/3352/version/3

    Apparently, rotenone caused Parkinson’s symptoms in mice? Is this something that consumers of organic produce should worry about?

  26. Zoe237 says:

    Penn and Teller also had a show on the lack of harm of second hand smoking. I did love their bottled water show, but I wouldn’t use them as evidence on a rationalist forum.

    My organic tomatoes from the garden most definitely taste better than conventional produce from South America, but I think that’s because they are fresh, not organic. I also don’t understand the point of an organic or non banana- do pesticides really penetrate the thick skins?

    I definitely reuse store brand containers, but that’s mostly because it’s cheap and I’m not one to buy tupperware. I also don’t buy buy organic much, but I definitely buy local when I can, again for environmental, not health reasons. That status symbol of the whole foods/trader’s joe types annoy me.

    I find the technology as religion people as fascinating as the nature as religion people. Invariably there is some appeal to nature, either as “everything was horrible in the olden days!!!” or “I miss the good old days.” The truth is probably somewhere in between. There have undoubtedly been failures in our technological history and it prudent to be cautious, particularly with pesticides and possible carcinogens.

  27. trrll says:

    While I’m not at all convinced that pesticide residues pose a meaningful hazard, some of them are fairly hydrophobic. I’d be surprised if even a fairly vigorous rinse in tap water is very effective in removing them.

  28. trrll says:

    “Pastoral people in East Africa whose diet consists largely of blood and whole milk from their cattle have a very fatty, high-cholesterol diet and a low rate of cardiovascular disease. This is attributable partly to all the extremely bitter plants they eat which they will tell you with a straight face are delicious.”

    Causal assertions like this one always ring alarm bells for me, because it is difficult to envision a feasible study that would justify such an assertion. Was there really a study in which people from East Africa were fed their usual diet with or without bitter greens for a few decades, and monitored for the incidence of cardiovascular disease?

    Or is this just another one of those nutritional “just so stories” that seem to be so common?

    When you have a population that has been eating a particular diet for many generations during which there has been restricted gene flow, genes that result in adverse effects from that diet are likely to have been selected out. So the default assumption would be that the low incidence of cardiovascular disease on that particular diet is genetic.

  29. passionlessdrone – I have a friend who raves about the chicken in africa, says the pieces are smaller, with less meat, but the flavor is far superior. I think that a lot of farming, food processing in the U.S. favors food quantity and size over flavor. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for health.

    I have a thought that robust flavor signals our body that we’ve eaten and we become satiated with less food. But that’s just an idea I’ve been toying with.

  30. OrganicTrade says:

    Mounting evidence proves there are health benefits for consuming organic foods. In fact, studies linking non-organic practices to increased health risks are beginning to prove more conclusively the many benefits that organic agriculture has to offer farmers, the land, our water supplies, air, and ultimately, the health of the planet and those living on it. The U.S. President’s Cancer Panel report released in May exhorts consumers to choose food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones to help decrease their exposure to environmental chemicals that can increase their risk of contracting cancer. Also, a study published May 17 in Pediatrics concluded that exposure to organophosphate pesticides—prohibited in organic production—at levels common among U.S. children may contribute to the prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in these children. This latest study authored by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health researchers looks at the paucity of data now available concerning the nutrition-related health effects of organic foods, and points out the need for better designed studies to answer this question in the future.

  31. # Todd W.on 26 May 2010 at 10:45 am

    @pD

    A way you could test your assumptions is to set up a small-scale, double-blind test. Someone else would buy the foods (e.g., 5 organic Fuji apples and 5 conventional Fuji apples) and code them. A second person, not knowing which apples are which, conducts the test wherein you attempt to identify the apples by smell alone.

    I think you can show that the average person does or doesn’t notice the difference, but it’s not so easy to show that no one notices the difference. A while back, I read about people called “super tasters” that have very acute sense of smell and taste. When tested, they can reliable differentiate tastes and smells that others can’t. Some of them work with their “gift” in the wine, food and perfume industry, but others may be unidentified, hidden among the regular population. :)

  32. trrl,

    A completely appropriate concern. This is the paper I was thinking of:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10432201
    “Abstract
    Reports of plants added to milk and meat-based soups by the Maasai and Batemi in East Africa support a role for phenolic antioxidants and hypocholesterolemic agents in the diet, and provide explanation of the low incidence of cardiovascular disease of populations that traditionally consume high levels of dietary fat and cholesterol. Plant food additives used by the Batemi of Ngorongoro District, Tanzania, were tabulated, based on interviews with 22 informants, while 17 specimens were collected in the field and analyzed for saponin and phenolic content. A total of 81% of the Batemi additives and 82% of those known to be used by the Maasai contain potentially hypocholesterolemic saponins and/or phenolics.”

    There’s also this:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10768888

    Your criticism is completely right. There was no prospective study.

    The hypothesis was that diet might play a complementary role to genetics and physical activity; the hypothesis was tested by looking for potentially hyperlipidemic substances in the food supply; such substances were, in fact found. And that was about it.

    However, in the absence of prospective studies, if we know that they’ve been consuming a diet high in fat, cholesterol and hyperlipidemic substances for a very long time, it’s no less reasonable to think that the hyperlipidemic substances identified in the diet have something to do with their good cardiovascular health than to think that human evolution has something to do with it. There’s no special reason that one (evolution) has to be the default and not the other (action of substances identified in the diet).

    My phrasing was “partly attributable.” We don’t have enough information to put a value on the “partly” — it could be 5% — but would it be reasonable to assume it’s 0%?

    But ok. Let’s say that in the absence of prospective studies, we can’t assert that it’s either evolution, diet, both or neither. Fair enough.

    We’re still getting a recommendation to eat brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, and not for the vitamins A and C. Variety is important even when you’re getting your vitamins.

  33. sjd0218 says:

    # Anthropologist Underground
    I can’t say I have noticed the reuse of organic containers vs non-organic, but in my family we have always re-used yogurt, cottage cheese and condiment jars. There is no point in spending money on tupperware except in situations where you can’t make do with every increasing incoming plastic containers.

    My grandmother was the most ecologically sound person I know and she never once did it for any other motivation than just plain common sense and the desire to squeeze every nickel til it screamed. She used to bargain with farmers for a bushel of wheat, then take it to the mill herself and bargain for the milling. She had a compost heap, always grew her own vegetables, and then canned. She made bread, butter, cheese and yogurt. She made her own soap, she made her own clothes, she made quilts out of clothes other people were throwing away, because it was just a waste to not make the most of every thing. Not one piece of furniture in her beautiful home was new, almost entirely curbside pick ups that she refinished and reupholstered.
    She had a below poverty level income and traveled to every continent in the world. (that would not be ecological – I know) But the point is, that we could sell ecological a whole lot easier if we started just talking about practical and economical benefit of re-use.

  34. Dr Hall “A recent study showed that the same wine was rated as tasting better when it was labelled with a high price than when it was labeled with a low price.”

    I just want to point out, yes people can be deceived by their expectations, but I’m feeling pretty confident, if you put Boone’s Farm in the high price bottle and say a good mid-range California Pinot Noir in the low price, wine drinkers are going to say “that expensive one is trash, but that cheap one is a bargain” Of course grand-ma’s (maybe it’s great grandma’s, now) everywhere are going to say “That’s a great wine’s, but it’s way too expensive!”

    Meaning, with the variety of personal preferences, individual taste abilities and flavor difference in wine, I’m not really sure how much such a test tells us about how well people differentiate in flavor.

    And I agree with Zoe on Penn and Teller. I feel like they start with a contrarian position and look for evidence to support it. Funny, but I can’t buy them as a reliable source.

    On tap water. I generally dislike all water equally, but I have noticed that the tap water some days tastes more clorinie. Perhaps the non-tap water crowd just tasted theirs on a bad day and then dismissed all tap water on that basis. Or perhaps our tap water always tastes clorinie but on a good day I can’t taste it due to allergies. And of course it makes sense that tap water taste varies depending upon process methods and original source. Who knows.

  35. Oh yeah, and aprpro of nothing but regarding the wine test. Artist at art fairs love getting an award or ribbon, because suddenly purchases go up. Also there’s a common joke of artists at art fairs, if nothing’s selling you should raise your prices and people will assume your art is better. :)

  36. CW says:

    The reason why I drink bottle water has to do with the fact that the city I live in often have water main breaks that discolor the water for several hours. Also, back in the 80s and 90s, dioxane was used to spray lawns and yards, which seeped into the groundwater. With all this being said, I will drink tap water upon convenience. But I guess I’m checking my skeptical hat at the door – when it comes to bottle water, due to my aforementioned concerns.

  37. Molly, NYC says:

    Yes there are people like you out there who believe they can identify organic by smell or taste, but their beliefs are mostly wrong.

    Harriet Hall,

    With all due respect, you’re off here.

    I’m perfectly content to stipulate that there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

    However, as a matter of flavor, there’s no contest. Organic produce makes its conventional counterparts taste like eh.

    If you don’t believe me, get an organically grown carrot, and a conventionally grown one and do a taste test.

    Again, I appreciate that organic food isn’t proved to be intrinsically more nutritious. That said, any vege you’re happy to eat is more nutritious than one you leave on your plate.

  38. trepto says:

    (Alison Cummins) “Foregoing the use of antibiotics to raise livestock means that animals must be raised in conditions that reduce the disease burden on the animals — that is, humane conditions.”

    Sadly, this isn’t actually the case. While it is true that close-farming methods led to the use of prophylactic antibiotics, modern livestock strains are bred and/or engineered to be resistant to disease and to complicating factors such as stress. With continued vaccination (completely acceptable under the organic guidelines) and with strict sanitation measures, including minimal contact with humans and wild or non-herd animals, it’s entirely possible to raise antibiotic-free animals without improving their quality of life to any great degree. “Antibiotic free” isn’t quite as much of a branding fakeout as “free range” is here in the USA, but as science progresses it could come close.

    (also Alison Cummins. I’m not picking on you, you just made some good points!) “We are about to reach the upper bound of the population that fossil-fuel based agriculture can support.”

    Isn’t that why it’s so important to develop disease-resistant, higher yield strains now, while we still have the extra resources available to do so?

    Disclaimer: I’m fully vaccinated and enjoy meat almost daily. I refuse to pay double or triple the price for “brand name” anything, including meat.

  39. Calli Arcale says:

    Molly — I’ve eaten both organic and “conventional” produce and all else being equal, I’ve never been able to detect a flavor difference. However, all else is seldom equal.

    I had organic tea with my dinner last Sunday, because that’s what the restaurant was selling. It was much better than the tea I got at Perkins, which was not organic at all and was just your typical Lipton. I don’t attribute the difference to the organic growing methods but rather to this:

    * the organic tea was full leaf tea; the Lipton’s was tea dust, like most bagged tea

    * the organic tea was higher quality; the Lipton’s was pretty average

    * the organic tea was in a silk bag; the Lipton’s was in filterpaper, which affected the steeping

    If I compare the organic Earl Gray I had on Sunday to my favorite loose-leaf Earl Gray (which happens to not be organic), there is very little difference. Basically, there was a difference in quality between the stuff I had on Sunday and Lipton’s that vastly eclipses any difference due to organic growing methods.

    I also find that organic growers are more willing to:
    * use heirloom cultivars (esp of tomatoes)
    * hand-harvest the produce (which permits harvesting at a tastier time, and permits use of more fragile but more flavorful cultivars)
    * allow vine-ripening, which usually produces more complex flavors
    * use polyculture

    None of these things are limited to organic growing, so they are *confounders* in any study trying to see whether organic produce is tastier. Quite often, I find that organic produce is simply processed more expensively, which has little to do with organic growing methods; you can do the same thing while using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and come out with a very high quality product.

  40. Scott says:

    Or put more simply, high-quality organic produce vs. low-quality conventional produce often produces a noticeable difference, but not one which can reasonably be attributed to organic vs. conventional. You have to compare high-quality to high-quality or low-quality to low-quality in order to shed any light at all on organic vs. conventional.

  41. Todd W. says:

    @michelleinmichigan

    I think you can show that the average person does or doesn’t notice the difference, but it’s not so easy to show that no one notices the difference. A while back, I read about people called “super tasters” that have very acute sense of smell and taste. When tested, they can reliable differentiate tastes and smells that others can’t. Some of them work with their “gift” in the wine, food and perfume industry, but others may be unidentified, hidden among the regular population.

    Agreed. The test I proposed would only work on an individual level, I think. Show that that particular individual could notice a difference. Depending on the power of the test, that would probably be enough to say that “Yes, there actually is a difference and it can be detected.” Perhaps a larger scale study could determine how much of a difference there is and what proportion of the general populace could detect it.

    My supposition is that, if there actually is a difference in flavor, and that such a difference can be detected by humans, that that ability would be more prevalent in women than in men. (IIRC, women have been shown to have a better sense of smell than men. That would factor into taste, as well.)

  42. Harriet Hall says:

    Molly,

    You think that organic tastes better and that I could verify that by tasting a couple of carrots. You offer a testimonial rather than evidence, and a test that would not be a valid test. Locally grown fresh produce may taste better than transported organic produce. In order to find out if organic food really tastes better, you need to do carefully designed blinded trials. My point in mentioning the Penn and Teller demonstrations was not to cite evidence but to point out that people can be mistaken and that controlled testing is needed to find out.

  43. passionlessDrone says:

    Hello friends –

    The problem with having controlled trials for taste rapidly becomes difficult to implement in my opinion, and rather misses the point. I tried something like this in my office; I raved and raved and went crazy about how great my organic honey was. [It is!] So I brought in a jar and let my coworkers have some. Some thought it was good, some just OK, but the consensus was generally more that I was a honey aficionado.

    As mentioned by some other folks, organic can mean a lot of different things, including different processing of the foods up and above the type of pest control or seed used. At what point do we make all other things equal in order to get to a point where we can perform a double blind taste test?

    I might take Sam Adams at happy hour, and my coworkers might take Natural Light. We both claim they taste great. We are probably both right. If we were to perform a controlled trial to see which beer tasted better, would we really learn anything?

    To my nose and tounge, organic is better.

    @Molly: Have you ever tried organic honey? [The YS Bee Farms honey is simply amazing!] Try it, I guarantee you will not be disappointed! [Disclaimer: I do not have any financial stake in YS Bee Farms, but do have a jar in my desk.]

    - pD

  44. “My point in mentioning the Penn and Teller demonstrations was not to cite evidence but to point out that people can be mistaken and that controlled testing is needed to find out.”

    Fair enough, but how does one define “better” to test it. If you have a large group aren’t you only finding that people have a broad range of preferences? For instance what cake is better than another? I am often in a situation where people rave about a cake which I think is far too sweet…

    Also how do you standardize the product, when the flavor and texture can vary widely. Perhaps a organic carrot of a particular species from Chili is more broadly preferred than the same species carrot grown conventionally in Mexico, But the next year they are the opposite due to weather. It seems like a difficult test, when generally one could just goe to the grocery or market of their choice and selects the best smelling, looking product available, then try to get it again when it’s good. I don’t see alot of reason for not trusting your senses just because it’s possible that your interpretation of them may be bias.

  45. Maz says:

    OrganicTrade,

    You’ve posted a set of bold statements concerning organic food and I’m going to have to take issue with them.

    You claim that evidence PROVES that organic foods are good for you and “conventional” foods are associated with health risks. That’s a major claim — you’re going to need some back-up.

    Next, you reference the president’s Cancer Panel. This report’s theme was environmental risk factors for cancer, so of course they focused on potential carcinogens in food. Furthermore, this report is a review of current research and is no substitute for coming to your own conclusions. While I have little doubt that avoiding the consumption of pesticides is a good idea, the verdict is far from in.

    Your next point concerns the recent study linking organophosphates to ADHD. Luckily, Dr. Novella addressed this study in this very article! It generated some interesting preliminary data worthy of further study. It DID NOT prove that organophosphate pesticides cause ADHD.

    The only point on which we can agree is your last one. You’re correct — there ISN’T enough data to make any sort of conclusions.

  46. lkregula says:

    I’m perfectly fine admitting my experience is totally anecdotal and a skewed sample, but I really don’t know that many people that buy organic because it’s “better for you” whether that’s less carcinogens, more nutrition, whatever. Most of the people I know buy organic (or organically produced, non-certified local- know your farmer and ask them approach) because of the environmental, humanitarian/humane, and aesthetic reasons. Environmental reasons include practices that may be used in either conventional or organic production methods- but much more likely in organic, and limits GMO stuff (again, not because of health, but because of Round-up Ready invasive species that are popping up and trying to limit that situation). Humanitarian because limiting synthetic pesticides and encouraging integrated pest management is safer for the workers, and humane because, in general, “organic” animals are raised more humanely. Aesthetic being just the plain old it-tastes-better argument. And I’m totally fine lumping non-certified, locally produced in with organic in most cases because I have yet to find a farmer at our farmers’ market that was not perfectly fine telling me exactly what seeds s/he grew and how s/he did it (i.e. with what chemicals/practices).

  47. eSutras says:

    “more healthful’ – does not = ‘healthy’.. Science or no science – organic or non organic, some chemicals WILL harm you, especially if they are in your food – wealthy or poor, regulated or not, business power or lack of it.. – it does not matter!

    Imagine – that the EPA (a highly lobbied segment of the govt) actually decides to ‘act’ against a ‘pesticide’ even though it is made by the biggest chemical companies and used mostly on the richest cash crops (agri sectors, that has huge lobbying powers) because of the risk of residue to people ..

    Do you think the chances of the EPA having to ‘act’ on the issue of harmful pesticide residue would be more with conventional agriculture or organic ? At the same time the EPA may have to ‘act’ to reduce a ‘salmonella’ outbreak with more frequency with an organic facility than a non organic one.

    I think issue of health is not something trifled with or discussed on the basis of underlying pathos of ‘superior – inferior’ , wealthy – poor’ – knee jerk or blah…..

    Our health is our biggest and most enduring wealth -and the first defense against disease.

    EPA Acts To Reduce Toxic Pesticide — Carbofuran — Residue In Food — Due to considerable risks associated with the pesticide carbofuran in food and drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is revoking the regulations that allow carbofuran residues in … > read more here …http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080725080827.htm

  48. rosemary says:

    http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2010/04/30/People-think-organic-fewer-calories/UPI-17491272674805/

    Above is the link to a report on a study by Brian Wansink of Cornell which found that people believe that “organic = fewer calories” when that is not the case. Wansink is quoted as stating, “An organic label gives a food a ‘health halo’,…”

    As stated on another thread, that is most certainly my experience and that is certainly the way that organic food is marketed. It is a constant in the ads and promotional material. But what, IMO, is far worse is that the core promoters reject science and objective evidence, share chemical phobias and worship Mother Nature as the Goddess of Goodness and Health which also results in their promoting and practicing unscientific medicine on people and animals and trying to frighten everyone else away from scientific medicine. This core group opposes vaccinations, “chemicals” and approved drugs. They insist that “synthetics” and manmade things are bad and dangerous. They embrace and promote all things “natural” – natural medicine, natural food – although most, but not all, do drive cars. fly on planes and use computers and few if any seem to realize that things like cancer and the AIDS virus are 100% natural.

    As I’ve also stated before, many “organic” farmers give their animals supplements and homeo remedies which can be injurious to the animals and to consumers. And not all are kind to their animals. (I haven’t eaten meat for over 30 years because I love animals, not because I think it has health benefits, but I don’t touch raw “organic”on principle and also because I know that given the health practices of many organic farmers their products can and have been harmful, even lethal.

    I know of one large organic farm that not only treats animals with homeopathic remedies but also uses dowsing to determine the dose! I assure you that people like that will not get my business. I also assure you that not all products labeled “homeopathic” lack active ingredients.

    While there are people coming into organic farming because they think it is more profitable for small farmers than conventional, as far as I can tell in my area, they are still in the minority.

  49. Charon says:

    lkregula, I know quite a few people who buy organic for health reasons. On the other hand, they also are into naturopathy and homeopathy. It’s the most irritating thing about my local co-op grocery – great on local and organic, but they also sell sugar at $750/lb. in the form of homeopathic pills. And they absolutely don’t want to listen to anyone criticize that (I addressed a board meeting at one point… it was like talking to a brick wall).

    I buy organic almost exclusively, for environmental reasons. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which does a lot of its own research and is hardly given to flights of pseudoscience, strongly recommends organics for this reason. It’s also often better for the farmers, because they might be able to actual make a living wage. (US consumers today spend a ridiculously small percentage of their income on food, resulting in terrible economic conditions for farmers.) This latter reason is part of why organics might taste better – economies of scale required by conventional agriculture ensure monocropping and long-distance shipping, while organics are still often supplied by small, nearby farms. One may argue that we need to compare “equal” conventional and organic food for taste tests, but it’s almost impossible to find equal quality due to these reasons.

    But as Dr. Novella said, these are different issues from the personal health one. (As pointed out above, the antibiotic use is the only aspect of conventional farming I can think of offhand that certainly directly impacts the health of consumers.)

  50. Hello.

    We’re organic farmers.

    Is organic food more nutritious? Likely no.

    Does it taste better?

    Yes. At least the food we grow does.

    If the food tastes better, will you eat more of it?

    Likely, yes.

    Is increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet good for you?

    Yes.

    Ipso facto….

    Also, we have free range chickens. They range freely over 5 acres. They eat nearly as well as we do.

    Every time a new customer eats our eggs, we have a new customer for life. They cannot go back to the store bought eggs. They refuse to. Our supply never keeps up with our demand. People get angry.
    No riots yet…

    I just picked up 18 cases of greenhouse grown tomatoes from a farming friend. It’s their first year growing organically. “What difference do you see?” I asked of the farmer who’d spent 40 years growing conventionally.
    “It’s like I added another greenhouse and a half,” he said.

    We spray no organic pesticides. We add beneficial insects if needed (rarely). We have plenty of beneficial insects already. Did you know that if you allow some of your Brassicas to flower they will attract wasps that feed on cabbage worms? There’s a lot of stuff like that…

  51. lkregula says:

    I’m not trying to say that people don’t buy organic for unsupported health claims, only that that’s not the sole reason, so to lump organic and CAM completely and immediately (as some commenters here tend to do) is wrong.

  52. Janel says:

    James Fox:
    “Any parent who serves organic lettuce to a young child is, in my estimation, taking an unreasonable risk with regard to potential e-coli infection. This has been an ongoing problem with organic salad greens for many years due to the regular use of inadequately composted dung fertilizer by organic farmers.”

    Intrigued, I found this from the University of Minnesota discussing the 2006-2007 outbreak and an analysis of a study testing for bacteria on conventional/organic farms. Apparently of the sample, farmers following the National Organic Program rules for handling manure (particularly certified organic farmers) had zero ecoli prevalence. Sounds like know your farmer is the way to go.
    http://www.misa.umn.edu/Organic_Spinach.html

  53. Mort says:

    For the record organic production does not simply replacing a synthetic pesticide with a natural pesticide and call it “organic.”

    Using a “natural” pesticide in the same way conventional growers would use their pesticides is actively discouraged.

    Organic production relies on efficient monitoring of crop and farm biodiversity and the implementation of a range of cultural practices to combat problems. Habitat manipulation, mechanical solutions, physical barriers, repellents, introduction of predators, selection of resistant varieties, timing of activities, season reduction or extension, manipulation of the farm biodiversity, and so on. The use of pesticides is considered an action of last resort. They are fully aware that a natural pesticide is a toxic substance and should be use with care and rarity.

    I’m fully aware there are a lot of idiotic Woomeisters out there. Biodynamic people shit me to tears. But having worked as a farm advisor and scientific researcher for the past 25 years for conventional, organic and chemical companies. I know organic can be done very well.

    While I eat both conventional and organic produce – if given the choice I’ll choose produce from the farmer I know has better production practices. It could be either, but mostly more care and attention to the quality will come from the organic farm. Nutritionally as pointed out above, the produce has had a longer time to mature, ripen and develop flavour. The fruit & vegetable varieties are better as they are picked for sensory appeal and natural growth characteristics rather than there ability to resist being bounced around in the back of a truck for 2000 miles.

    As for the dearth of scientific studies on organic production this site collates thousands of studies each year.

    http://orgprints.org/

    Just saying dumping all of “organic” in the way too whacky bin is a precarious scientific position.

  54. rosemary says:

    Ikregular, “to lump organic and CAM completely and immediately (as some commenters here tend to do) is wrong.”

    Guilty as charged. And I will continue to do it and believe that I am right in doing it for as long as I continue to see the major part of the organic food industry’s ads and promotional material implying that their products are safe while conventional ones are dangerous because organics do not use “chemicals” and the conventional fellows do. As of now I don’t remember seeing any ad or promotional material, even from supposedly educational sites, which do not do that. In fact the latest issue of a local newspaper includes an ad for the farmer’s market that mentions “chemical-free local veggies”! Now could a scientist have fun with that! A non-chemical vegetable! I wonder what they are made of if not chemicals. But of course the people who wrote the ad believe, and expect readers to believe, that “chemical” = “poison”.

    Knowing your farmer may help. I certainly know farmers who grow their own food and respect animals and the environment, but they are the ones who call their products “food” not “organic food”. And to really know your farmer and evaluate his knowledge you have to also know quite a bit about agriculture yourself. Then there is the question of integrity. Like all people, most, but not all, farmers will be honest so that if I believed in the principles of organic farming I would certainly want to buy from someone who was certified and inspected by an independent party.

  55. Mort says:

    In response to animal health and welfare.

    Don’t know about the US but in Australia, in our organic standards, vaccination of animals as a preventive health measure is allowed. Many organic producers need to in certain production areas. But again, it is not allowed to be in place of proper management through grazing, no overcrowding, selection of resistant stock, proper nutrition, reducing stress on the livestock, etc etc

    Also, every livestock enterprise is required to have a quarantine area. If any animal gets sick or is performing poorly it needs to be removed and attended to individually. If the farmer cannot improve its health it MUST be attended to with veterinary care including treatments with antibiotics and or conventional anti parasitic treatments. The animal obviously loses is organic status, but once recovered, it can be sold into the conventional market. It must not rejoin the rest of the herd.

    Animal health and welfare is paramount. Any organic farmer that is found allowing animals to suffer ill health or poor condition can lose their organic accreditation immediately.

    To say organic certification lets animals suffer as long as people just throw fairy sparkles over them is wrong. Conventional or Organic anyone that treats their livestock like that is just the run of the mill idiot.

  56. cicadawing says:

    As an employee of an organic produce hub and farm, I eat organic produce almost exclusively. I might not if I didn’t get the food at cost.

    Initially, my urge to “go organic” were borne out of knowing from exactly where my food came. I imagined that it was more intimate to grow my own produce and to be self-sufficient where I was able. I still grow food and plan to grow more.

    My views have changed over the years with new knowledge and acceptance of realities of hunger in the world.

    My place now is one of practicality.

    You could say I’m a techno-laden, pro-science realist with lots of well intentioned hippie friends.

    All that matters is reality and sustainability for progress.

    It’s easy to lump those who talk of sustainability in with the purveyors and advocates of pseudo-science and alternative medicine (not that anyone IS lumping them together). Not all are given to such things.

  57. miles says:

    I like how you took the primary argument of people who champion organic produce and tried to turn it on it’s head.

    They say there just has not been enough testing or research done on the effects of pesticide use, gm, antibiotics (ie. bio-chemical engineering farming practice) on long term health of people / animals / plants / ecosystems.

    You say well, there hasn’t been enough testing or research on the positive effects of organic (ie. conventional) farming.

    Do I even need to point out the hollow absurdity of your ‘double-negative’ argument?

    Sure you point out the paucity of research on either side, but somehow still manage to draw a fairly concrete conclusion. You rely on the very same lack of evidence you are illuminating to suppose their ‘may’ be unknown risks associated with organic farming. You bring up the possibility of costs being an issue without any evidence for or against. You try to separate the environmental and health effects (when any good biologist or any good farmer understands that the health of any population is directly connected to the health of its environment).

    At best, not very scientific.
    At worst, deliberately misleading.

  58. Mr. Kurtz says:

    Excellent points Mort. I have practiced Integrated Pest Management for decades. This protocol, which might be styled “organic lite” relies on many observations and practices developed by organic growers. But it does include strategic use of chemical tools. As an analogy, we should live a healthy lifestyle to control cholesterol before relying on statins; but we take the statins if we need to.
    I did not mean to imply that organic animal growers are cruel. Generally, if an animal is injured or diseased, and has to be treated with a drug, any sane owner will do so. The meat can no longer be sold as “organic” however, which seems ludicrous. Of course a few owners probably forget to remember come slaughter time…

  59. # Steven Novella

    “Nature” has not provided us with any varieties of carrot. Carrots are all cultivated – produced by human ingenuity over hundreds and thousands of years from wild varieties that most people today would not find appetizing (small, bitter, not very nutritious).”

    Dr Novella, If you haven’t already read them, I’d like to recommend a couple of books. Botany of Desire by Micheal Pollan in which he asks the question “who’s cultivating who?” Also “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, who talks about how the availability of plant and animal species that were more easily domesticated shaped different cultures. Maybe it will (or won’t) give a different perspective on what is given by nature.

  60. icarus4me says:

    This provides more evidence for my theory of cyclic AMP levels as the cause of, and solution to, all human disease. Organic foods are known to boost cAMP levels over the whole body, and my research has shown that this consistently leads to health benefits. Birds are known to prefer food low in cAMP, which ties in with the fact that they prefer conventional food. Spraying crops with solutions of cyclic AMP would very likely reduce levels of bowel cancer, neuralgia and Morgellon’s disease over a five year period of adjustment.

  61. Zoe237 says:

    “My point in mentioning the Penn and Teller demonstrations was not to cite evidence but to point out that people can be mistaken and that controlled testing is needed to find out.”

    Fair enough, but how does one define “better” to test it. If you have a large group aren’t you only finding that people have a broad range of preferences? For instance what cake is better than another? I am often in a situation where people rave about a cake which I think is far too sweet…”

    Yes, P&T is nothing but a series of anecdotes. Not really a controlled experiment. Personally, I can’t tell the difference between organic and non, but don’t discount that other people may. CalliArcale bring up some plausible reasons there may be a difference- fresh, heirlooms, etc.

    MichelleinMichigan, I will have to pick up that Pollan book. Haven’t read that one. Love Guns, Germs, and Steel and the history of agriculture in it is fascinating.

    Pollan, in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules recommends avoiding foods that make health claims, even organic, or ones that you can’t pronounce the ingredients. Two, he points out that environmentally, it may be better to buy conventional produce from a small local farmer rather than a huge organic grocer who imported the tomatoes or carrots from California. The fossil fuels used in the latter scenario more than cancel out any benefit. Pollan also advises eating food close to nature (rather than processed list of chemicals), something I’m sure the anti- naturalists would hate. ;-) His advice boils down to 1)Eat food. 2) Not too much 3) Mostly plants. Dr. Hall did an excellent blog about it awhile back.

  62. “Pollan, in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules recommends avoiding foods that make health claims, even organic, or ones that you can’t pronounce the ingredients.”

    Oh dear, I’m a terrible phonetic reader*…maybe that’s the key to my next diet. :) Whenever I order something with “arugula”, people look at me funny and then there’s “Mesclun”.

    But I get the idea. I started the Omnivore’s Dilemma, but couldn’t get past the corn/ corn syrup introduction. I think I was afraid that he was going to tell me to avoid corn syrup (which I can pronouce) which I think would be very time consuming and maybe expensive.

    *for a real laugh, follow me around a natural history museum as I try to read the names of the dinosaurs to my kids. Archaeopteryx? give me a break.

  63. micheleinmichigan,

    If you can learn to read greek and latin, it’s easy. “Archaeopteryx” is pronounced “Old Bird.”

  64. … which may even be on the menu at the museum cafeteria.

  65. Umm, I’ll have the Archaeopteryx in the The Rancho La Brea* Sauce.

    *Brea – tar, in Spanish…wrong time period, but it sounds good.

    I’ll put learn Greek or Latin on my “stuff to do” list. But, sadly it’s probably behind learn to cast or forge metal into stick like shapes or learn the latest web development tools in the want to know, should know department. Also Taiko drumming… I have to spend less time on SBM.

  66. JayHawkDoc says:

    Great Article Dr. Novella, and great comments everyone.

    This is a topic I’m very interested in, mostly because I’m in the umm Midwest seat of Hippydom (Lawrence, KS – At least it bills itself as such). I’ve consistently argued that eating organic because it’s “healthier” is a fool’s game that will just end up costing you more money. Every argument I’ve heard regarding it is destroyed by asking “…Does that even make sense?”.

    I DO fully support eating local for reasons other than health, and eating vegetarian for health reasons however. Maybe a little of the crunchiness here has infiltrated.

  67. JayHawkDoc – Hey, I thought Ann Arbor, MI was the Midwest seat of Hippydom.

  68. trrll says:

    In practice, “organic” food tends to be grown and harvested with more care, is often fresher (because a lot of people who like to “buy organic” also like to “buy local”), varieties selected for taste rather than the ability to withstand shipping. It is, after all a premium product.

    To really do a proper “organic vs conventional” taste test, you would need to take the same crop varieties, grow them on randomized plots using either organic or conventional methods, harvest and sort them blind, and then do a blind test.

  69. JayHawkDoc says:

    Michael- I bet it’s like “Meth Capital of the World”, every state has a city they swear is the meth capital of the world/US, but clearly that’s impossible. Regardless, I’ll soon one-up you: I’m moving to the Home of Bastyr University, Seattle, WA. Wahoo!

  70. squirrelelite says:

    @JayHawkDoc & Michelle,

    A lot of places are self-billed as capital of this or that.

    I remember staying in Alabama many years ago and being told it was the center of the “Bible Belt”. I had thought that was Kansas!

    On a slightly more related subject, I offer this quote from Wikipedia:

    “At least six localities (all in the Midwestern United States) claim to be the “Popcorn Capital of the World”: Valparaiso, Indiana; Van Buren, Indiana; Marion, Ohio; Ridgway, Illinois; Schaller, Iowa; and North Loup, Nebraska. According to the USDA, most of the maize used for popcorn production is specifically planted for this purpose; most is grown in Nebraska and Indiana, with increasing area in Texas.[5]

    As the result of an elementary school project, popcorn became the official state snack food of Illinois.[6]”

    I was aware of Ridgway, IL since my mother has relatives there and we used to visit during summer vacations. I had read of Schaller, IA a year or two ago, but hadn’t heard of or had forgotten about the other six.

    @michelle and zoe,

    Wikipedia is a bit like Penn and Teller. I wouldn’t cite either as a scientific reference, especially not if I thought I needed to appeal to scientific authority, but they can offer useful illustrative material from time to time.

    The blinded taste test is a good example of how our preconceptions can affect our perceptions, even if like Penn and Teller it is not carried out and documented sufficiently to give it scientific validity.

    I remember doing a blinded test of several cola brands with our kids several years ago. As I recall Pepsi was the winner. I think it was because of what we decided was a sweeter taste. And yet, when I have a choice not limited by availability or a major price difference I still choose Coke. I think it is because its slightly tarter taste holds up better over repeated drinking. Actually, when offered Pepsi products I tend to choose Mountain Dew, probably because I drank so much of it when I was in East Lansing and later in Ann Arbor.

    There are some new “test” versions of it in the stores now. I tried the one that had lime juice added. The tang of the lime juice tastes good at first, but grows irritating after a while.

    I did a little shopping tonight at a local farmers market. I thought about buying organic and conventional carrots for a taste test. I decided not to, mostly because I doubt if we’ll have enough subjects this weekend for a statistically interesting test.

    We bought some blackberries, white corn, grapefruit and watermelon (non-organic) because they were on sale at a very good price.

    I thought it was funny that they sold organic English peas grown in Mexico!

    I also did a little poking around in the supplements aisles. Most of the bottles included the quack Miranda warning but the house brand products generally did not.

    They offered Willow Bark extract and several detox products and the perennial favorite, colloidal silver. (At least, it does have a medically significant effect, blue skin.) The detox products seemed to be a combination of organic and ethically wild harvested items. I sometimes wonder how many people the Earth could support on a diet of only ethically wild harvested produce. A few million perhaps?

    Enough rambling for tonight.

    Hasta manana!

  71. Molly, NYC says:

    Harriet Hall,

    Calli Arcale (@ 26 May 2010 at 3:53 pm) is arguably right that organic farming per se might not be responsible for the superior taste of organic produce (1) so much as it might be a marker for farmers who’ll do what it takes to bring the best-tasting fruits and vegetables to market. That said, they succeed; their stuff does taste better.

    In order to find out if organic food really tastes better, you need to do carefully designed blinded trials.

    Just try the carrots, Harriet Hall. What’s the harm? (Blindfold yourself if you like.) I have complete faith in your palate and the carrots (else, I wouldn’t suggest it). I realize any convincing that comes from such activities would be more anecdote than data, but who cares? If I’m wrong, tell me and I will hang my head in mortification; if you’re wrong, you will be eating a surprisingly delicious carrot.
    _______
    (1) As opposed to those grown with petrochemicals and hydrocarbons. I believe there’s an ironic name for that branch of chemistry.

  72. Dacks says:

    Dr. Novella,
    Glad you blogged about this topic. I am an organic grower (on a miniscule scale) and I was surprised that you actually fooled someone on the SGU podcast with the birdseed fact (was it Bob?) If you think about it, it’s obvious that conventional farming is going to produce higher protein foods, because it depends on using enormous amounts of nitrogen, which boosts protein production. Unfortunately, it reminded me that you and your panel know very little about agriculture.

    For instance, it is difficult to concur with your opening statement, “… 58 years later, the science has not changed much at all,” after reading your article. In order for that to be true, you have to set aside

    - Trials of crop rotation, IPM, and other organic farming methods that have been extensively studied. Where appropriate, many of these techniques are incorporated into conventional farming.

    - Studies of the effects of pesticides and herbicides, hormones and antibiotics – (surely that has changed in 58 years!) I also challenge the statement that “organic” pesticides have not been adequately studied – they are produced by the same companies that make “synthetic” pesticides, and are, I presume, subject to the same regulations.

    - The documented risks of conventional mono-crop production. These must be weighed against the benefits of conventional growing, as well as against the risks and benefits of organic. Not to mention the dubious animal husbandry practices in our factory farms.

    The post almost reads like a strawman article: organic food is not found to be more nutritious, therefore the entire philosophical underpinnings of the enterprise are suspect.

    As manager of my local farmers’ market, I am in touch with many of the small growers in my area, most of whom employ organic techniques much of the time. The farmers I know are not left-wing hippy dippy types, nor are they able to use the branding power of the organic label because they are not certified organic. They use these techniques because they are low cost and effective.

  73. Scott says:

    The post almost reads like a strawman article: organic food is not found to be more nutritious, therefore the entire philosophical underpinnings of the enterprise are suspect.

    How is it a strawman to say “there are several reasons for organic farming, but I’m only going to look at one”, find that the evidence for that reason is lacking, and then expressly decline to draw broad conclusions because the other reasons were not considered? “The entire philosophical underpinnings of the enterprise are suspect” might be garnered from the comments, but I don’t think you can find ANYTHING in the post that even suggests it.

    Plus, most of what you’ve cited are more properly considered drawbacks of conventional methods, NOT support for organic methods (i.e. false dichotomy).

  74. Regarding Organic Honey and flavor. I have a couple of friends who are beekeepers and after some thought the concept of organic honey started to seem curious to me. Quick google search found this.

    “Where things really get sticky is the selling of “organic” honey — sold in some form by every major chain.

    Government, academic and industry experts insist that U.S. organic honey is a myth. With rare exceptions, this country is too developed and uses too many agricultural and industrial chemicals to allow for the production of organic honey.

    “Like other foods from free-roaming, wild creatures, it is difficult — and in some places impossible — to assure that honey bees have not come in contact with prohibited substances, like pesticides,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a national advocacy group for the research and promotion of organic food.

    Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture research, he said, shows that the average hive contains traces of five or more pesticide residues.”

    http://www.seattlepi.com/local/394198_honey31.asp

    The article does also say that honey in general is very poorly regulated. That packagers cut the honey with non-honey sweeteners, syrups and low quality honey, etc. They say

    “Unless shoppers buy honey from a farmers market, where they can talk with the person who raised the bees and bottled the honey, they’re relying on what’s printed on the label.”

    and there is no enforcement on labeling content. so it does make sense that a bottle of honey bought from a reputable beekeeper at the farmer’s market would taste better than the average grocery store brand.

    My favorite part is where this “Jerry Hayes, chief of the apiary section for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said there are no organic standards for honey in the United States because honeybees forage in a 2 to 2 1/2-mile radius of their colonies.

    “They’re flying dust mops and will pick up unbelievable amounts of environmental contaminants,” Hayes said.

    Flying dust mops” has to be the best description of bees I’ve read.

  75. the bug guy says:

    Bananas are not a bad subject to use for comparisons because virtually all sold in the US are the same variety, Cavendish, that is exclusively propagated vegetatively. Therefore, you will be able to compare the effects of growing method and not have variety differences as confounder. One thing to keep in mind is that organic bananas are grown at higher altitudes to prevent a fungal pathogen that otherwise can only be treated with synthetic fungicides.

    I get frustrated at the conventional vs organic argument because it delays us from moving toward truly sustainable agriculture. Both styles have good methods and both have non-sustainable attributes. We need to combine the best management practices of both realms to meet the world’s future food needs in a sustainable manner.

  76. Basiorana says:

    I will eat organic eggs, milk, and meat– I can tell the difference, probably because of the changes in the diet of the animals and the different environments they live in, and that they are bred for flavor over size.

    Organic fruits and vegetables only taste better because you buy them fresher, though. I’ve come up with a personal hierarchy based on blinded study: Conventional fresh/local > Organic fresh/local > Conventional shipped & stored > Organic shipped & stored. Of course, organic foods can’t always be as easily shipped and stored.

    I will pay extra for heirloom apple varieties in fall, because some of the local farmers have amazingly good strands. They aren’t as sweet or mealy as the standard breeds. But I don’t buy any shipped organic produce. Even purported ecological benefits are outweighed by shipping.

  77. Dacks says:

    Scott,
    You have a point – Dr. Novella did focus only on one aspect of organic production. But I think he poisoned the well in his first paragraph.
    “He characterized it as a food fad without scientific justification. Now, 58 years later, the science has not changed much at all.”

    If he had said, the claims for superior nutrition for organic food have not been found to be true, I would not have had the same reaction. By opening with such a broad brushstroke, I think he made it harder to examine the pros and cons of different forms of agriculture.

    Re false dichotomy: my point is that it IS a dichotomy, or at least a choice. We have various techniques among which to choose, and the only way we can formulate best practices is to compare them to each other. For example, which has more harmful effect on groundwater – manure spreading or synthetic fertilizer application? Which fields are more drought proof – tilled organic fields, or no-till GMO fields? These are the questions that I find meaningful.

  78. Dr Novella “In 1952 Martin Gardner, who just passed away this week at the age of 95, wrote about organic farming in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. He characterized it as a food fad without scientific justification. Now, 58 years later, the science has not changed much at all.”

    Oh – you know, when I originally read this I read it to mean that Martin Gardner did not have scientific justification to claim it as a food fad. But now I see that Dr. Novella surely meant that organic farming as a health benefit did not have scientific justification, although he does say that there has not been as much research as he might expect.

    But re-reading, I still feel that he is very clear that he believes there is not a lot of new science to the health claims. I do not read it to mean there is no new agricultural science. I think he was clearly trying to set aside the agricultural considerations as outside of his expertise as your remarks on SBM’s general agricultural expertise observed.

  79. “In 1952 Martin Gardner … wrote about organic farming in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. He characterized it as a food fad … .”

    Organic farming is not a food fad. It’s an agricultural practice. There’s a very interesting wikipedia article here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_organic_farming that makes copious mention of tilling techniques and improved methods of agriculture in India and Korea, but little mention of human food before the end when it says “In recent years, explosive organic market growth has encouraged the participation of agribusiness interests. As the volume and variety of “organic” products increases, the viability of the small-scale organic farm is at risk, and the meaning of organic farming as an agricultural method is ever more easily confused with the related but separate areas of organic food and organic certification.”

    Organic produce may be a food fad. But farming is a practice, not a food, and the organic farming movement was created and driven by producers, not consumers.

  80. Scott says:

    my point is that it IS a dichotomy, or at least a choice. We have various techniques among which to choose, and the only way we can formulate best practices is to compare them to each other. For example, which has more harmful effect on groundwater – manure spreading or synthetic fertilizer application? Which fields are more drought proof – tilled organic fields, or no-till GMO fields? These are the questions that I find meaningful.

    There’s a certain truth to this, but my point is that each such question should properly be considered independently and dispassionately. If manure spreading is less harmful to groundwater than synthetic fertilizers, that’s a reason to reduce or improve synthetic fertilizers. It is NOT the same as “organic farming is better.” The position I see a lot, and (perhaps mistakenly) understood you to be asserting as well, is that it must be whole-hog one or the other. That if any organic practice is “better” by some standard, all should be universally adopted.

    I guess you could say that what I really object to is the (essentially Luddite) ideological aspect often attached to organic farming. The cause of determining which practices produce the most efficient and sustainable agriculture is not served by an adversarial separation into “organic” vs. “conventional,” and especially not by a deep presumption that anything new/synthetic is necessarily bad.

    In fact, I’d wager that the overall best approach will ultimately turn out to be improved versions of “conventional” methods, where the improvements are in significant part informed by the ways in which current “conventional” methods fall short of current “organic” methods.

  81. Calli Arcale says:

    Molly, NYC:

    Yeah, pretty much — organic is a premium product, so of course it will taste better. It doesn’t neccesarily mean it’s the “best” way to grow food, just that it’s a high-end product. Sort of like comparing an Audi sedan to a Kia sedan and concluding that German cars are better; the Audi is a high-end product and the Kia is a low-end product. It doesn’t mean the Germans are superior.

    There are things I put before organic. I’d much rather by fair trade coffee than organic coffee, for instance.

    On “Organic”:

    (1) As opposed to those grown with petrochemicals and hydrocarbons. I believe there’s an ironic name for that branch of chemistry.

    Organic chemistry — I was a chemistry major at one time, before falling in love with computers and switching majors. Organic chemistry is not an ironic name at all, and it predates the organic food movement by a good century or so. It derives from a long-discredited idea that life was neccesary for the creation of certain chemicals, an idea that particularly appealed to the sensibilities of the day, which believed that there was some sort of vital force that was as yet undetectable. Life itself. The whole movement was calleD “vitalism” and was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Took a long time to die; elements of it still persist today, on the fringes.) The biggest evidence for this was that there seemed to be a whole class of chemicals whose very existence depended on life. These chemicals were dubbed “organic chemicals” for that reason. Petroleum is an organic compound: it was produced by organisms that lived millions of years ago, but still organisms that *lived* rather than via some inorganic process.

    The whole idea was shaken to the core when, 1828, Friedrich Wohler accidentally synthesized urea, an organic chemical. An inorganic process *could* produce an organic chemical. There wasn’t really anything special about organic chemicals after all. Still, the “organic” versus “inorganic” distinction persists, even though the etymology is now meaningless, and the words themselves somewhat fluid. Nowdays, of course, we know that there are natural, inorganic processes that can produce organic chemicals. Methane, for instance, was once believed a sure sign of life. But we know now several means by which it can be synthesized in nature, so the recent discovery of methane in Mars’ atmosphere is not cause for opening the champagne bottles and celebrating the discovery of extraterrestrial life; it’s probably naturally synthesized in the Martian atmosphere.

    So is the term “organic chemistry” ironic? Not really. Not any more so than “organic farming”, which is frankly a bit of a redundancy, as “organic” means “of or pertaining to life”.

    Dacks:

    - Trials of crop rotation, IPM, and other organic farming methods that have been extensively studied. Where appropriate, many of these techniques are incorporated into conventional farming.

    Come now, crop rotation is hardly a technique peculiar to organic farming. Around here (Minnesota), it has been commonplace for generations to rotate crops (the traditional cycle being corn, sorghum, soy), and it has also been traditional to use synthetic fertilizers. (Normon Borlaug is a local hero.) Calling it an organic farming method is similar to calling vitamin supplementation an alternative medical technique; you’re giving organic farming credit for something that predates it and is commonly practiced outside of it. Integrated pest management isn’t peculiar to organic farming either — it predates it, and can include chemical pesticides that would cost a farmer his organic certification. So conventional farming isn’t adopting organic best practices; these actually went the other way. They were known before organic farming took off, and have long been used in “conventional” farming.

    Scott:

    The cause of determining which practices produce the most efficient and sustainable agriculture is not served by an adversarial separation into “organic” vs. “conventional,” and especially not by a deep presumption that anything new/synthetic is necessarily bad.

    And that nails right on the head exactly why I dislike the term “organic” so much. Like alternative medicine, it’s a distinction really only useful as marketing. The world would be better off if we didn’t argue pointlessly about which side of an arbitrary line is better and instead just tried to keep improving our products and our production of them (from efficiency, quality, and environmental standpoints).

    BTW, regarding eggs, I don’t find that “organic” makes anywhere near as much difference as “free range” does, though be wary: “free range” may not mean what you think it means. The best eggs (in my opinion) come from chickens that get to mingle outdoors, eating bugs and things that are unlucky enough to cross paths with them. It’s good for their diet. You can tell just looking at the yolks; they’re much darker, and richer in flavor as well. Otherwise, I’ve never been able to tell the difference between an organic free range egg and a non-organic free range egg. It’s the free range part that’s important, in my opinion.

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