July 15, 2014
Is organic food better for you?

The past week’s headlines in The Guardian, Huffington Post and other left-of-centre news sites were triumphant: “Clear differences between organic and non-organic food.” “Organic food has more antioxidants.” “Significant difference between organic and conventional food.” “Organic food better for your health.” And so on. It was the study that the organic crowd was just waiting for–particularly given that most previous studies, including one funded by the UK government and another by Stanford University, had found no significant difference between organic food and conventional food other than price and no health benefits at all. Finally, a study that proves them right!

Except that it doesn’t.

Mini pepper from Monsanto vegetable seedsThe study — actually a scientific review of previously published research on organic food — was funded by the European Union and the Sheepdrove Trust, which The New York Times describes as “a British charity that supports organic farming research.” The authors did no new clinical research. Even Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England who led the research, was quoted as saying “We are not making health claims based on this study, because we can’t.” The study, he said, is insufficient “to say organic food is definitely healthier for you, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how much of a health impact switching to organic food could have.”

The Science Media Centre was also quick to respond, noting that the study “does not prove that organic crops and crop-based foods are higher in a number of antioxidants” and suffers from “a strong possibility that the evidence is tainted by publication bias and, as such, should be treated with additional caution.”

Some other points to consider:

  1. Of the up to 100 nutrients examined this study finds differences in only a small number of compounds present in small quantities, confirming that overall there are no differences in nutritional quality.
  2. Although there are “links” to disease from these compounds, there are no studies demonstrating that supplementing antioxidants improves clinical health.
  3. There is no basis from the data in this study to conclude that either organic or conventional foods are unsafe.
  4. Many of the studies in these two meta-analyses are using data sets that do not have an ability to eliminate confounding due to environment, which is known to have a large impact on crop composition.  Since a meta-analysis is just a statistical summary of the individual studies included, it cannot correct this deficiency.
  5. This study examines certain chemical pesticide residues, which are not unexpected.  It does not examine endogenous chemicals produced by these foods, many of which are untested or carcinogenic.

In summary, then, the much-trumpeted “organic-is-better” study doesn’t actually say so at all, despite what the multi-billion-euro organic food lobby and sympathetic media would like to have people believe.

Moreover, the differences identified between levels of certain antioxidants in organic and conventional foods were so small that, as Alan D. Dangour, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, puts it, “if you just eat a little bit more fruits and vegetables, you’re going to get more nutrients.” It was Mr. Dangour who led a review published in 2009 that found no meaningful nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods.

That finding provoked a lot of soul-searching by organic and consumer groups at the time, considering that organic food is about 30% more expensive, on average, than non-organic food.

The fact remains that despite a blatant European political and media bias in favor of organic food, fewer than 5% of the European population, on average, buys organic food, meaning 95% of European consumers aren’t fooled by dubious claims and media hype. That’s a good thing.

For further information, here are some relevant articles on the website of Which?, the UK consumer organization:



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