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Is organic food a waste of money?

Ami Banerjee
Last edited 12th August 2009

“Organic” is just one of the many labels thrust on the socially conscious, along with “carbon-neutral”, “eco-friendly”, “green”, “fair-trade” and “ethical”. Such labels are powerful marketing tools for the relevant industries, and people are even prepared to pay more if they feel they are doing good, particularly for their health. But are the claimed benefits backed up by evidence and should we be sceptical?

The organic food industry continues to grow in the UK, where it is now worth more than £2 billion, and the same is true globally. Organic food is produced according to industry standards, but is it better for you? Small studies have made various claims about its superior nutrient content and its health benefit, but so far a good-quality review of available evidence has been lacking. Well, I saw the news tonight; that review has now been done, and it is bad news for the organic foodies. A team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency to search through over 52 000 articles from the last 50 years. They found 160 relevant studies, 55 of which were of sufficient quality to be included. They found “no evidence of a difference in 8 of the 11 nutrient categories (vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and total soluble solids)” between organic and non-organic food. Phosphorus was higher in organic food but nitrogen content was higher in non-organic food, and these differences are likely to be due to the fertilizers used during production. The report concludes that there is unlikely to be a health benefit based on the similar nutrient content of organic and non-organic food. The Soil Association, unsurprisingly, want more longitudinal research.

It is quite fitting that this week’s BMJ included a piece about how citing evidence in scientific articles can actually have a negative impact on the scientific truth due to biases among authors, research institutions and journals. The same must be true for messages in the media. If we hear that organic food is good for our health often enough, we start to believe it.

That is nice. Thanks for your

That is nice. Thanks for your explanation

While there may not be

While there may not be serious health benefits gained from eating organic food but for a minute you might just compare two things to understand which amongst organic and inorganic food is a healthier option.

Organic food is food that is produced without the use of chemicals and other things to grow it while inorganic food is food that has been treated with all of the modern methods of growing food many of which carry harmful or not suitable for the body chemicals etc.

So if you would choose to eat organic food that is a much better option. When you consider the cost of organic food versus inorganic food, well it would certainly cost you more but I guess that is the price we all have to pay for the choices we have made in the past. A growing population needs more food and to grow more food faster some unethical ways have been implemented to get results.

If you would like to eat organic food and have the luxury of a kitchen garden at your place you can always grow basic crops like tomatoes in your home garden for self consumption.

Jane

What about additives?

Even taking your article at face value and accepting the possibility that there is little or no evidence to support a higher nutritional value in organic foods, you complete ignore the more pressing question which is- do the chemical additives in non-organics foods have a detrimental impact on health. No point in attempting to lose weight to avoid diabetes, if the chemicals in the sugar-free foods give us cancer.

sounds like another Monsanto

sounds like another Monsanto attempt to riun organic farming...Nature knows best because its the only way

Organic treats a real problem

One big issue with conventional farms is loss of biodiversity; a monoculture of crops is grown across a wide area and the means of maintaining that crop severely constrain the wild flora and fauna that can cohabit with it. Essentially, we end up punching great big holes in our ecosystem without fully knowing what the long term results will be, while betting the future of our daily bread on quite narrow gene pools - which we would consider a dangerous evolutionary strategy.

Organic farming is an attempt to redress this. It has its own issues, of course - with lower yields, you need much more farmland, which also has unfavourable impacts. However, it's become a highly profitable endeavour, and all this big-picture Tragedy-of-the-Commons stuff doesn't seem to be enough any more. It needs reinforced with simpler messages, appeals to selfishness rather than morality; hence the claims that organic is more nutritious, tastes better, etc. Many of these claims rest on very shaky ground. Showing them up as wishful thinking, however, could result in a general discrediting of the usefulness of organic farming, which doesn't really rest on these things at all.

We don't really want to see attempts to fix the problems with conventional farming stymied - and the success of these attempts must depend in some measure on persuading the public to move away from destructive cheap methods. We don't really want to see bad "science" pumped out from those with interests in organic farming muddying the waters and making it very hard to get an undistorted view of its benefits. With these two difficulties, it shapes up to be a complex problem.

Odd how blinkered people are,

Odd how blinkered people are, banging on about the Organic Industry being a multi-billion pound one which has a vested interest rubbishing the health claims - and yet ignore the fact that the vastly bigger vested interest that the non-Organic industry has in rubbishing any Organic claims..............

One down, a few more myths to go?

Soon there'll be a study proving that organic farming has a higher carbon footprint, then the $oil A$$ociation will be clutching at straws!

Entirely with the Soil

Entirely with the Soil Assocation on this one, I'm afraid The report is a spectacular demonstration of how a systematic revview can totally miss the point when you focus too narrowly and look for benefits (again defined narrowly) in one area, then allow the press reports to damn by association any other possible benefit of orgnaic produce like taste, animal welfare, saving the planet.. as well as the nutritional differences ignored or unknown at present..

author becomes victim of hate campaign

Obviously a very emotive issue

'The scientist who concluded that organic food is no healthier than conventional produce has been bombarded with abusive messages from zealous environmentalists.'

see: http://bit.ly/12zf01

Missed the point

Thanks for the post. Firstly, I am not making fun of anybody, least of all people who eat organic food, as I have eaten enough of the stuff myself. However, I am concerned that a major marketing ploy of the organic food industry (which at the end of the day is a multi-billion pound business) and the Soil Association has been to proclaim the health benefits of organic food. This high-quality review puts that claim firmly to bed.

Secondly, my piece and the review itself were only concerned with the health effects of organic food and so did not consider the other effects. If you know of definitive evidence of the other beneficial effects of organic food then please educate me.

Thirdly, I totally agree that one-dimensional analysis of 3-D problems is unhelpful. However, the problem is often not in the methodology or ideology ("evidence-based medicine", "environmental consciousness" or "social marketing"). The problem is at the implementation stage and if the food industry is making wrongful claims about health effects of its product, I do not see why it should not be subject to the same scrutiny as the drug industry.

agreed

agree with the unfounded hyping by Tesco/Soil Association about health benefits, and there are some weird right wing politics about land, soil, purity and health

Organics

Hey Ami

Why the crowing? The reason people buy or grow organic are multi-faceted, and often motivated by social concerns. So the LSHTM research review is pretty futile unless you think the politico-bureaucratic machinations of the food standards agency are important.

Looking at this a bit more broadly, the problem faced by evidence based medicine, for all its technical pyrotechnics, is that it offers one dimensional analysis of 3 dimensional problems.

I'm sorry that you choose to make fun of people who want to make the world a slightly better place.

organic food results hotly debated on twitter

Posted on twitter by bad science twitter.com/bengoldacre
The Soil Association now claim it was never about health benefits: voila, they're treating you like idiots. http://tr.im/vjoB

Interesting, though I would

Interesting, though I would say the report shows merely that non-organic food contains as many vitamins and nutrients as organic food. It appears no longitudinal survey was carried out of the risk factors of eating non-organic vs. organic food (i.e. health effects of long term ingestion of pesticide/fertilizer particulates). Somewhat sceptical ... Read moremyself of the organic craze (I've lived on canned sardines and couscous for the last year...though not entirely out of choice it has to be said), but as I am of any entity that claims greater things than it has actually certified, including 'scientific' surveys.

Not just nutrition

Whilst I can appreciate that there may be no fundamental health benefits to eating organic food in comparison to inorganic?!? food I would think the health benefits are more far reaching than just from a nutritional point of view.

The very nature of organic methods mean a reduced risk of diseases stemming from, for example, densely packed ... Read morelivestock and also a limit to harmful 'stuff' used on crops seeping into the water supply and generally arseing up the ecosystem.

Totally agree-that is why I

Totally agree-that is why I don't follow all the advice and take my chances with an unhealthy lifestyle! However in this case, the study was a full review of all articles over the last 50 years (the best possible form of evidence) so it is highly likely to be true.

It gets tiresome

It gets tiresome trying to keep up with whats 'good' and whats 'bad' for you!! I mean one minute coffee is bad, but then they claim we should drink 6+ cups a day to stave off dementia.. One minute chillis are bad for u, next they are known for their anti carcinogenic (excuse my spelling!) properties.. AAAARGH!!

My point being that its better to take the latest bit of research with a pinch of salt .. correct me if I'm wrong with my facts after all you are the pro in this field..

Soil Association

Annoyingly, the Soil Association peppered its objections to the FSA commissioned reports by quoting differences in nutrition content that were not statistically relevant.

Even where the differences were statistically relevant (and it's interesting to note that they failed to quote the numbers that indicated there are more sugars in organic than conventionally-grown crops), it does seem as if they are relevant to the diet because most people readily obtain their RDA or RDI for those nutrients without needing to purchase organic foods at a premium.

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