News and Tribune

November 1, 2012

SWANZ: Organic or not organic ... is that the question?

By DR. PETER SWANZ, ND, FHANP
drswanz@drswanz.com

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Stanford University scientists published a meta-analysis article in the “Annals of Internal Medicine” casting doubt on the nutritional quality of organic foods. A meta-analysis is not an experiment; it is more appropriately described as a research project. The Stanford scientists scoured the medical databases to find studies that investigated the nutritional and toxic qualities of foods. Based on the data they collected they concluded that there was nearly no nutritional benefit in eating organic food. They did acknowledge that the contamination from pesticides and toxins was found to be significantly lower in the organic produce. I am going to elaborate on the two primary problems I have with both this analysis and the multiple news stories it created.

As my egg article from the last issue demonstrated, there is plenty of poor research that is being performed and published. And certainly this is also the case regarding organic / non-organic foods. I am not trying to say that if a study on organic food showed no nutritional health benefits that it can't be a good study, but we must consider if all studies are providing the same level of quality and testing. For example, studies on organic foods have shown more nutritional value in foods grown on older organic farms. Brand new organic farms don't have the nutrient rich soil we would expect to find on a mature farm. This seems like an obvious discovery, but consider how this might influence a small scale study in a university lab where two crops of tomatoes are being grown and compared for nutritional quality - one crop meets all organic standards and one is grown following the conventional methodology. I would not expect there to be a significant difference in the end nutritional results because the organic crop is a first generation product. The problem here is that this study would be perfectly fine to publish and be included in the meta-analysis performed by the Stanford crew. Because we know there is a naturally occurring discrepancy on the research methodology performed by scientists looking at the nutritional value in organic foods, we would expect the findings to bridge the gap between no nutritional benefit and very beneficial in the foods. This is the case and hence the results from the meta-analysis pulling a large majority of these studies together is going to leave us pretty close to smack dab in the middle regarding the findings. When the overall result is an average nutritional state, it is understandable why the researchers would propose that there is little nutritional benefit in organic foods, even though there absolutely have been individual experiments that demonstrated a nutritional advantage from organically grown produce.

The meta-analysis did find a significantly lower amount of pesticide residue on the organic foods vs. the non-organic foods. Once again this seems like an obvious discovery, yet the headlines from the study downplayed the importance of this finding. Any organic food, regardless of the maturity of the farm, the soil nutrient quality, the age of the produce when it was picked and tested, is going to have less pesticides used in the production. This finding should be enough for many to choose organic foods over the conventionally grown counterparts. Pesticide and herbicide use are two of the primary areas where we are exposed to neuro-endocrine disruptors. These various chemicals can behave like hormones in our body. Neuro-endocrine disrupting hormones are considered to be contributing factors in the health concerns we are dealing with today: thyroid issues, diabetes, cancers, heart disease and autoimmune diseases are just the tip of the iceberg. We want to avoid these chemicals whenever possible and by choosing organic foods we can do that.

What is important to me has little to do with organic vs. non-organic produce. Study after study has shown that health in an individual that consumes more fresh produce and fruits is better than that of an individual that doesn't eat produce regularly... organic or not! Research is conclusive, the more veggies and fruits we eat, the healthier we will be! It is just that simple. I stress the benefit of eating locally, and often encourage that even more than I do consuming organic foods. The reason is that local produce is allowed to ripen on the vine and has spent nearly no time sitting in a truck or on a shelf. Heat and time are the greatest threat to the nutritional quality of food. So eat locally and eat veggies and fruit because our health depends on it. If you are eating store bought non-organic produce, please be sure to wash it to lessen the exposure to toxic chemicals. And if you can afford organic produce for your family, choose it! We can pay the grocer, or we can pay the pharmacist. The choice is ours to make.