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Organic Food and Human Health – Is There a Connection?

Opinion

A meta-analysis of the health benefits of organic foods was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine on September 4, 2012. A large team of physicians and graduate students affiliated with the prestigious Stanford Medical School carried out the work. The paper’s basic finding was that consuming organic food does not deliver “clinically significant” improvements in human health. The Stanford press office and several team members communicated the study’s findings in a way that was designed to attract the media and stimulate debate. They obviously accomplished both goals.

The global media picked up and covered the paper’s “surprising” findings, which were often accompanied by headlines or commentary asserting, without qualification, that “…organic food delivers no meaningful health benefits…,” or variations on this theme. Media coverage of the study set off the latest round of discussion and spirited debate about whether organic food delivers on its multiple human health-related promises.

A small handful of scientists have carefully read, critiqued and summarized the results of the approximately 250 valid studies comparing the nutrient content and safety of organic versus conventional foods. Sophisticated methods have been established to conduct meta-analyses in ways that control for the two dozen or more factors that can influence a given study’s outcomes, in addition to the selection of the farming system (e.g., “conventional” versus “organic”). Many published meta-analyses by experts in this field have reached strikingly different conclusions from this same body of literature.

Why? Some people might wonder whether scientists really know how to measure food’s nutritional quality and safety. Others are losing faith in science because so much of it appears to be agenda-driven fodder for PR and political campaigns, and responsive to the highest bidder. As public support for science has dwindled, public interest in science has too often been eroded, or just buried, in the sheer volume of other science “messaging.”

The Fundamental Problem with the Stanford Study

The many methodological and technical flaws in the Stanford study are laid out clearly in the “Letters to the Editor” that are now posted on the website of The Annals of Internal Medicine. The methodological flaws are serious and because of them, the Stanford study will likely be remembered more for the dust it stirred up than the new light it sheds. But perhaps the most important problem with the Stanford study has remained, for the most part, below the radar.

The Stanford team looked for evidence in published studies of a “clinically significant” improvement in human health associated with consumption of organic food. This decision virtually guaranteed the outcome and also set up a straw man that critics of organic food will take pleasure in torching over and over.

To a physician, a “clinically significant difference” occurs when a patient comes into the doctor’s office with X problem, which is diagnosed, and the physician then recommends a course of action. It might include medication, a procedure and/or lifestyle changes. The physician draws on evidence from highly refined, often long-term clinical trials that establish a reliable linkage between a defined treatment or course of action and a clinically significant improvement in the patient’s health status.

The key characteristic embedded in a “clinically significant difference” is that the doctor must believe that for this specific patient, the person will get better if they do x, y and z, as prescribed by the doctor. If the person does not, the physician knows that he or she will face various consequences, ranging from a sicker and disappointed (or angry) patient to a call from the patient’s lawyer.

In nearly all cases, the decision to buy organic food, and the health impacts stemming from that decision, will not rise to the level of delivering – with a high level of reliability – a clinically significant improvement in health outcomes for a person dealing with an acute or chronic illness. We don’t need a meta-analysis to prove this. But does this mean there are no health benefits from consumption of organic food? No, it does not, because so many factors contribute to the etiology of disease. In fact, relatively little is known about what makes one person healthy and another ill. The cause of most cancers remains a mystery, 70 percent of birth defects remain of unknown cause, and even for many common diseases like diabetes, physicians cannot answer the patient’s first and most fundamental question – why did this happen to me?

By reducing a number of known risk factors for any one of dozens of health problems, consumption of organic food tips the trajectory of population-wide health outcomes in a more health-promoting direction. By how much, no one knows. Long-term clinical trials involving consumption of organic food have never been done and would be very, very expensive.

Consuming organic food does not guarantee any one individual dealing with a health problem a clinically significant improvement in health, because too many other variables and risk factors are in play with each individual. No one knows which risk factor might come into play, worsening an existing problem or creating a new one. The Stanford team ignored this critical distinction between health promotion/disease prevention and bringing about clinically significant improvement in the health of a sick person. Whether this was an act of omission or a poorly executed effort to erode consumer confidence in organic food, everyone who cares about promoting food’s nutritional quality and safety through sound science should expect more from a great medical school and a highly respected medical journal.

Dr. Benbrook’s full analysis of the Stanford study can be found here. 

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1303543898 Marge Mullen

    Be it organic or otherwise the problem lies with our soil….it is depleted!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JJ6FBKACCM6A7OKABCDI6744KI yahoo-JJ6FBKACCM6A7OKABCDI6744KI

    The major benefit of organic foods is that, too my knowledge, they do not allow GMO products.  GMO products are most certainly poisoning the entire planet, and the charge is being led by Monsanto.  As proof you can’t trust Monsanto, just look at who they do business with.  They hired Blackwater mercenary thugs to infiltrate activist groups who try to show the truth behind Monsanto’s evil-doing.  (No longer called Blackwater, they changed their name to Xe, and then again  to Academi)  Here are a couple links:
    http://naturalsociety.com/setting-the-record-straight-did-monsanto-really-buy-blackwater-xe/
    http://digitaljournal.com/article/297701
    We are all being methodically poisoned, and it’s not even a secret.  But nobody does anything about it.  We are all truly lambs to the slaughter.  Go read about Roundup (glyphosphate) if you think I’m bending the truth…

  • Grace Gershuny

    Well put – Thanks Chuck!

  • Helem

    I thought the whole point of eating organic food was to avoid pesticides! hard to prove the effects of pesticides but common sense tells us that they have a negative cumulative effect and therefor should be avoided whenever possible.
    The sad truth I’d that most people,cannot afford an exclusively organic diet.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      That’s not true. The issue with organics is you also have to be willing to buy organic fruits and vegetables at the right time. In addition, if you cut out processed foods–especially sugary or salty treats–and cut back on eating so much meat, you do have the money to buy primarily organic. 

      I’m not a rich person, and I was able to transition to primarily organic. 

      Note that I say “primarily”. Not everything I buy is organic, because I don’t have an organic option with some items. But when I do, I buy organic. I think the point is, is to make this a choice whenever possible.

  • papaya

    In most developing countries, food consumed is organic by default free of chemical residues and unadulterated by additives and preservatives. “Organic” certification is not even necessary. Perhaps the best way to study the impact of organic food consumption on the health of  residents in US and other developed countries is to design comparative studies with developing (3rd World) countries. It is obvious, isn’t it?

  • doc raymond

    Doctor, the Stanford study did a meta-analysis of other studies that measured the food products themselves for pathogen presence along with other contaminants such as insecticides and the nutritional value of the food. As you well know, but try to confuse the reader here, it did not measure the actual impact on human health, but the potential for human health impact. If the food is basically no different, then the assumption is there will no difference, long term, in human health. This is what 95% of Americans who do not spend the extra cash on organic already believe. 

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      But that’s not what the study proved, and as Dr. Benbrock notes, the study also had flaws. 

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Dr. Benbrock, thank you for an intelligent, thoughtful look at the study. 

    Unfortunately, as you note, the media does not necessarily assist in the development of meaningful debate, which is why studies like the Stanford one, and the accompanying press release had me wincing. 

    I could wish that your response had wider play. I linked wherever I could, but links in comments all too often get lost. 

    You also indirectly bring up another point, in that studies of this nature, that once played out only within practitioners of a specialized field, now play out in a broader audience. When half the material and key, critical information is blocked behind journal pay walls, real damage is done. 

    Thankfully your response was accessible by all.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    The reason for hunger in other countries is because of economic disparity and arable land being turned over to production for food for wealthy countries. Has nothing to do with sustainable techniques.

    And illnesses because of lack of clean water aren’t aided by using GMO seeds, or artificial fertilizers. 

    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/10/want-feed-world-first-stop-land-grabs

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    I don’t have access directly to the study (hence dangers of paywalled papers), but your assertions about pesticides don’t meet what others have been saying. 

    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/five-ways-stanford-study-underestimates-organic-food

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelBulger Michael Bulger

    Actually, doc raymond is wrong. Quoted from the Stanford website: “Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets…”
    http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html

    For the record, the authors of the Stanford study wrote this conclusion: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelBulger Michael Bulger

    doc, you often come across as equating increased agricultural production with ending hunger. I suggest you read Amartya Sen. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on famine. The basic gist of his work is that people don’t starve because there is not enough food, but rather they starve because they cannot access or utilize food even if it might be abundant.

  • Yusufdvm

    I see no qualms with the outcome of the study, after all organic food Advocates are concerned more about contamination with chemicals than nutritional content. From genetic stand point, both organic and conventional foods will have similar nutritional composition. Chemical contaminants may not necessarily vary significantly among the foods as organic foods can also contain some contaminants depending on the soil type, water etc used. Many organic farmers do not even care to know how organic their soil is, water, air etc, yet they claim organic products. I wonder if organic food is a true phenomenon or a market concept.