Does organic mean healthy?

This is the fourth in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 4: Organic does not mean healthy.

Well, I mentioned in the previous post of the series that I prefer to avoid the “organic” label. Now you will get to find out why.

We’ve already dealt with genetically modified foods, and concluded that there’s no evidence-based reason to avoid them. Organic certification as I understand it includes anti-GMO rules, as well as specifications about herbicides and pesticides that are permitted and prohibited. (No, “organic” does not mean “no herbicides or pesticides can be used”; it just means “only those herbicides and pesticides that we deem ‘natural’ can be used”.) Organic meat products have other rules relating to what you can put in the animals.

Looking through Government of Canada websites about organic agriculture, I have encountered some interesting little nuggets.

For example, in a document titled “Organic production systems – General principles and management standards“, the government is careful to note:

Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products.

I read that in the light of this FAQ on the CBC website (many of whose links are dead now, sadly), which says near the top that

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted the Organic Products Regulations in June 2009, in large part to comply with stricter European requirements on exported produce.

Together, these two quotes suggest to me that the government’s motivation in producing organic labelling regulations was not to protect public health, but to protect Canadian agricultural trade. Both are, of course, noble goals. But if health was the issue, the organic standards would not, I think, be voluntary (as many of the pages I found were careful to note).

I put that up front just so people don’t ask whether the government’s involvement in organic certification is an implicit endorsement of the claims that organic agriculture produces food that is better for people’s health. The government explicitly refutes this claim, and they seem clearly to have had other legitimate motivations in promoting these regulations.

Okay, so much for the negative evidence: the government neither endorses nor (so far as I found) refutes the health claims of the organic industry.

Who does speak to these claims?

For fairness, I’ll offer the organic industry’s claim. This is from The Organic Center, an American non-profit research group whose goals seem to be to promote organic farming through research and advocacy. In their “Health benefits of organic” info sheet, they claim that:

  • Organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
  • Organic crops have higher cancer-fighting anti-oxidant levels.
  • Organic crops have 48% lower levels of cadmium than conventional crops.
  • Pesticides are found 4 times more frequently in conventional crops than organic crops.

That sounds pretty persuasive, doesn’t it? In the absence of context, that may seem to seal the case for organic being healthier. Here are some key questions you can ask, before you even read on:

  • Does the higher level of omega-3 in organic milk have a noticeable effect on human health?
  • Do the higher anti-oxidant levels in organic food actually reduce cancer in people who eat it, relative to those who eat conventionally-produced food?
  • Is the level of cadmium, or the levels of pesticides, found in conventional crops high enough to worry about?

But …

When I looked at sources that are neither industry-funded nor explicitly aimed at advocacy (as The Organic Center is), I found a resoundingly consistent message.

Dieticians.ca, a science-based nutrition resource run by health professionals independent of industry (organic or otherwise), offers various key nuggets of advice:

  • Scientific evidence is does not clearly suggest that there are any health benefits to eating organic foods.
  • Studies of specific nutrient content have variously shown organic foods to be:
    • higher in vitamin C, phosphorus, and phytochemicals.
    • lower in nitrogen and protein.
  • These differences, even if reliable, “have not been found to benefit nutrition or overall health.”
  • “In Canada, both organic and non-organic foods have to follow strict guidelines and are tested to make sure they are safe to eat.”
  • “While some organic products may be higher in a few nutrients and have lower amounts of some pesticide residues, what’s most important is that you eat a variety of healthy foods from Canada’s Food Guide.”

At Science-Based Medicine, medical doctor Steven Novella looks at recent (as of 2012) systematic reviews of studies. The takeaway is that

There is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce.

Novella also addresses the increased popularity of organic food.

Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

The Mayo Clinic agrees that organic food is “probably not” more nutritious.

So far, the science seems to have soundly responded to the claims by The Organic Center. Those differences they cite, if real, don’t have a meaningful effect on human health.

But there’s more.

A 2012 article in the National Post points out that the voluntary nature of Canada’s organic regulations actually means that all the “organic” label means is that a producer has claimed to produce the food in a particular way: there is little to no testing to verify they are following the rules. Even more troubling is the finding in a 2014 study described on the Genetic Literacy Project, that “organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination.” In searching for the original research article (which I didn’t find – please let me know if you get hold of it), I came across this article on the CTV news site, which gave a list of products recalled earlier this year due to possible Listeria contamination. The word “organic” shows up a lot on that list.

As outlined in this article on CFACT, there is a heavy irony in the fact that an industry built on fear of unsafe substances in our food systematically allows an inordinate amount of proven-dangerous contaminants into the products it sells to consumers.

I want to offer two final considerations, that are not empirical evidence regarding the claim, but I think are material considerations for thinking about it. First, “organic” certification prohibits certain chemicals but allows others. In fact, whether it is natural or synthetic seems to be the only test regarding whether a chemical is permitted or not under the organic label. Actual safety isn’t a consideration. This report from Colorado points out that organic-approved pesticides and herbicides may be even more toxic than non-organic alternatives. (Hint: every substance is a chemical, whether it is “natural” or “synthetic”.)

And second, organic foods are more expensive. This has various causes. But one consequence is that (because organic and conventional food products turn out to be equally nutritious) you can buy less nutrition for the same money if you go organic. Not an issue for many middle-class people here and elsewhere, but what about poorer people? If a low-income family buys into the false propaganda that “organic is better”, they risk making choices that will materially damage their well-being: they will eat less well, or have less money.

My conclusion:

Nutritionally, there is no reason to expect organic foods to be better for your health than other foods. In fact, there is some reason to be more cautious about organic foods – recall rates suggest they are far more likely to be contaminated by pathogens.

I don’t consider myself low-income, but I really don’t like the idea of paying into an industry built on false health scares and poor regulation of actual safety. And I’m certainly not going to pay a premium for the privilege of getting bilked in this way.

I will add that, though I think the organic industry has a lot to answer for, I suspect that most individual organic farmers – especially organic family farms (see previous post on family farms) – are just trying to find a way to make a decent living. My ideal resolution to this issue would be that everyone would see through the hype and falsehoods, and go back to buying good food and ignoring the essentially meaningless and misleading label of “organic”.

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