Should you pay more for organic foods?

I love Stanford. When I practiced in Palo Alto, CA, in the days before the Internet, I would go to the Lane Medical Library most evenings after work to do extensive nutritional research. So I have much respect for their medical library, but NOT for the conclusions of their recent meta-analysis of organic vs. conventionally-raised/processed foods.

Consumer, beware of headlines that may guide you to make unhealthy decisions for you and your loved ones!

The Stanford research group under Smith-Spangler ran a review of numerous studies, called “data drudging,” to create a meta-analysis (looking at a whole bunch of studies to see what the overall take-home is). They were looking for data about nutrient and contaminant (pesticides) differences between organic versus conventionally-raised or processed foods and meats.

The researchers drudged 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrients and contaminants in food. The authors summarized that organic foods don’t have any better nutrient content than conventionally-raised foods, suggesting that they are not worth the extra expenditure. (Annals of Internal Medicine 2012)

This is not true.

Their conclusion does not agree with a wide number of other studies run by prestigious institutions. Remember, don’t let just one headline make you stop buying organic until you hear, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

Here are just a few examples of studies that show that, in fact, organic foods are statistically (greater than chance) higher in nutrients!

  • In 2011 Dr. Kirsten Brandt from the Human Nutrition Research Center of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom analyzed much of the same research but drew different conclusions. Dr. Brandt’s group summed up the data as saying that organic crops had approximately 12 to 16 percent more nutrients than conventional crops.
  • In March 2012, the Department of Organic Food Quality and Food Culture at the University of Kassel in Germany looked at organic milk (dairy) products versus conventional, and they, too, ran a meta-analysis. The current research showed that organic dairy products contained higher protein, more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids with healthier ratios to the omega-6, and more of the brain-healthy eicosapentanoic and docosapentanoic acids compared to conventional dairy products. This was statistically significant (beyond chance). These researchers said the nutritional differences are real, and most likely come from what the cows eat. (We all are what we eat, even cows) By the way, this study was sponsored, of all things, by the Society of Chemical Industry and was published in the Journal of Science, Food and Agriculture 2012.
  • In Australia, the Discipline of Nutrition and Metabolism at the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney evaluated 33 studies that described 1,440 micronutrient comparisons. They found that organic foods more often had higher total micronutrient content, especially in veggies and legumes (beans), compared to conventional veggies and legumes. Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition 2011
  • The Plant Science Institute at the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated differences of organic versus conventionally-raised foods, and also looked at farming and harvesting practices. They found that organic crops had higher vitamin C and phenolics. Phenolic compounds are where a lot the health benefits from veggies come from. Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry 2011
  • The Department of Crop and Soil Sciences studied fruit and soil quality in 13 pairs of commercially organic vs. conventional strawberries from California. They found that organic farms had strawberries with longer shelf life, higher antioxidant activity, more vitamin C, and more phenolic compounds (remember, these are really healthy substances). Organic strawberries also tasted better (taste is, of course, enjoyable but also helps stimulate healthy digestive enzyme release). Organic soil had more total carbon and nitrogen, better microbial biomass, and more micronutrients. The organic soil also contained genes that protected against pesticides. PLoS One 2010

But food isn’t just about getting good stuff into us. It’s also important to avoid the bad stuff we don’t want to be exposed to, such as pesticides and nasty bacteria. This is an equally or even more important issue than nutrient density. And here again, the way the Stanford researchers summed up the data was misleading.

In their conclusions, the Stanford research group said that organic foods MAY reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While inside their research, it wasn’t a “may”; the results were much more robust. Their analyses revealed that eating organic foods and meats DECREASED:

  • Pesticide exposure by 30%
  • Reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria exposure by 33%.

These Stanford authors still made it sound like it wasn’t worth the money to buy organic to get less exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is very unfortunate and actually scary. We want to avoid pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria whenever and wherever we can.

  • In Hormone Deception, a breakthrough environmental book about environmental toxins, extensive data was included about the hormone-like effects of pesticides. These are potentially harmful to vulnerable individuals, especially the unborn child, pregnant women, young children, and the elderly. It also discussed that organophosphates (pesticides) created hormonal issues in some young female athletes and that pilot studies had shown that many of these pesticides gain entry into the amniotic fluid of healthy, pregnant American women. Exhaustive, detailed studies are presented about the effects of pesticide exposure and the adverse effects on childhood physical and mental health, especially with learning and attention.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the more a child is exposed to organophosphates (pesticides), the greater the incidence of ADHD.
  • I wrote extensively about pesticide contamination of mother’s milk and of the effect on children’s cognition and even brain size in Hormone Deception. Milk content reflects diet, a mirror-image.
  • Through the work of Dr. Campbell-McBride, we understand how exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases the risk of many attentional issues in children, from autism to ADHD and more. Dr. Campbell-McBride is an MD neurologist who gave birth to an autistic son. When medicine could offer no help, she turned to nutrition and the gut and started the GAPs diet (gastrointestinal and psychology diet). Dr. Campbell-McBride turned her son’s autism around and now has a clinic that specializes in attentional issues. She emphasizes the importance of avoiding pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • The Stanford study even discussed two studies that showed that children who consumed organic foods had less pesticide in their urine, showing that they were exposed less in their organic diet compared to conventional diets (this is a good thing).

We need to avoid antibiotic-resistant bacteria exposure! The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria can put us at danger if and when we need certain antibiotics for diverse infections. This has been known for decades. Dr. Finland published an article about this in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1955, discussing the link of antibiotic-resistant organisms with hard-to-treat bacterial infections.

The World Health Organization has issued warnings about misuse of antibiotics due to the increase of what is called community-acquired, drug-resistant bacteria, which can make treatment ineffective for infections when needed. But so can consuming inorganic poultry or meat!

It is a sad state of affairs that the media screamed scary and misinforming headlines. The New York Times — “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” Fox News —”Organic food may not be worth the money.” They are missing the point. In fact, these headlines are wrong.

We learned this from the Women’s Health Initiative, which made headline news, understandably frightening many women and even physicians. As a sad consequence, now many women and men are denied hormone replacement that might protect them against disease and promote better health. Leon Spearoff MD, one of the icons of gynecologic medicine, warned, “Don’t let one study change practice. Look at all the sides.”

This one study has made many of you hesitant to pay the extra money to purchase organic. If money constraints tug at you, choose organic animal products first (milk, poultry, and meats) as these have fat where pesticides hang out, and also can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But if you have the money, try to purchase even veggies and fruits, for example, spinach and berries, which are sprayed extra-heavily (read Hormone Deception for the top contaminated foods). But it would be a shame to deny your family protection based on misinformation. Don’t let that happen to you.