Are You Wondering If Organic Food Is Worth the Cost?
Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in metabolism and sport nutrition. She is a friend of the AllergyKids Foundation, and we recently invited her to share her thoughts on the Stanford Study, the value of organic foods and other topics.
In an analysis of 237 studies of organic produce, meats and dairy foods, Stanford scientists determined that organic foods are no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. The recent study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine has the food world spinning. The scientists looked at vitamin C in produce and omega three fatty acids in animal products among other nutrients and concluded that there just wasn’t enough difference to impact human health.
Human nutrition is a young science. The first “vitamin” was discovered early in the 20th century, the Recommended Dietary Allowances were first released in 1941 and the first dietary guidelines were established in 1980.
Since the beginning, nutrition science has been preoccupied with identifying essential nutrients. This early orientation has led too many nutrition scientists down a path of reductionist thinking, as if food were merely a delivery vehicle for essential nutrients in our diet. Today the rest of the food world is pushing back. Farmers, chefs, journalists, environmentalists, foodies, as well as many more integrative nutritionists, dietitians and other health care providers are crying foul.
The push back to the Stanford study has been enormous. Many Americans have become far too sophisticated in the post Omnivore’s Dilemma era to take the narrow findings of this study at face value. Every post I have read over the past two days immediately points to the real differences between organic and conventional food. To many consumers, the value of organic food production was never only about the nutrients.
The Problem with Reductionist Science
The traditional approach to studying nutrition is fragmented. Nutrition science often focuses on the smallest components of the diet, the essential nutrients. Most funding for nutrition research is appropriated for studies regarding specific nutrients.
It is easier to study a single nutrient compared to the overall diet. This is why you get to read front page stories telling you to avoid fat, or more specifically to eat more unsaturated fat, and even more specifically to consume more omega 3 fatty acids.
There is very limited research looking at overall dietary patterns, and even less linking the production of food to anything. Too often the only concern is what happens to man. Nutrition science tends to ignore the rest of our ecological home. Today, there is a need for nutrition science to connect more of the dots.
WHAT ABOUT THE VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Most critics of the Stanford study focus on the findings of the researchers. People want to think organic food must be far superior compared to conventionally raised foods. But research looking at nutrient content of organic versus conventionally grown food is mixed.
Sometimes conventional foods show higher nutrient content. (Although research shown below shows that organically grown produce has higher content more often) Still, this kind of data doesn’t often inspire the average Joe or Jane to pull out their hard earned cash to pay a premium for an organic product.
OMEGA THREE CONTENT IS DIFFERENT
The omega three fatty acid data is more compelling. Greater amounts of omega three fatty acids are thought to be health promoting. A lower ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is linked to less inflammation. Less inflammation is associated with reduced risk of everything from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease to allergies, asthma, and more.
Grass fed beef is markedly different than beef from conventionally raised cattle. Grass fed beef contains more omega 3 fatty acids. Grass fed beef has a 2:1 ratio of omega six to omega three fatty acids; conventional beef has a ratio of 9:1. The greater amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in grass fed beef is bonus.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE HEALTH, NUTRITION AND DISEASE?
The Stanford’s study glaring omissions are exactly what has so many people energized about eating closer to the earth and preferentially choosing organic foods.
- People know that water is important. Runoff from conventional farms using conventional NPK fertilizer pollutes the waterways and creates dead zones in the oceans.
- Today’s educated consumers don’t want to consume added hormones in their food supply. The use of recombinant bovine growth hormone in dairy cows is far less common than it once was. Many consumers won’t buy milk containing rBGH.
- The educated food consumer knows that 80% of all antibiotics are used with animals, often in animal feed as a growth enhancer. They worry about the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Today’s consumers are concerned about exposure to pesticides, insecticides and other chemical agents used in conventional farming. They are aware these substances pose risk to human health. They bio-accumulate in fat stores.
These agents are known endocrine disruptors. 95% of “persistent organic pollutants” enter our body via the food supply. These chemical agents impact all life forms, especially compromising biodiversity of insects and microbes in the soil.
- Consumers have every reason to be wary of genetically engineered and GMO foods. Studies regarding the safety of genetic engineering are inadequate.
Proponents of genetic engineering would like consumers to accept that GMO foods are “substantially equivalent” to traditionally cultivated foods. Currently, substantial equivalence is determined using 90 day studies with lab rats. No wonder the current initiative to label GMO foods in California garners huge public support.
WE CAN NOT AFFORD TO EAT ACCORDING TO REDUCTIONIST SCIENCE
When making food choices we can no longer afford to only consider the nutrient content of food. The way food is grown and harvested matters. They way in which food is processed matters. The methods and packaging used to transport our food matters.
Today nutrition scientists need to broaden their scope and consider their findings in much broader context. The range of issues impacting human health encompasses the health of our precious resources: the vitality of livestock, crop diversity, soil ecology, the health of our oceans, our supply of fresh water and clean air. Everyone connected to the food supply needs to understand and respect this truth. Good nutrition has never been just about the nutrients.
Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in energy metabolism and sport nutrition. Bonnie works extensively with individuals and families addressing nutrition concerns throughout the lifecycle, with a special focus on maternal, infant and child nutrition. She is a speaker and author, writing her blog at www.muchmorethanfood.com