Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Truth About Organic Food

Every day, organic food is becoming more and more popular. Most people, understandably, claim that they want to eat healthy food, and that organic is a good way to go about it. People also tend to claim it tastes better than regular food. But is this all true? Is it really healthier? Does it really taste better? Is it worth all that extra money? In this blog post, I am going to present what the scientific evidence says.

First, what is organic food? Essentially, it is just food that is grown without genetic modification and which contains no artificial additives or synthetic pesticides.

Lets talk about pesticides. Organic or not, all food has some sort of pesticides used on it. The benefit of synthetic pesticides is that they have been extensively tested, and found to have no effect on people. Does this mean that organic pesticides will make you sick? No. While high amounts of organic pesticides are toxic to fish, cause Parkinson’s disease in rats, and have found to be toxic to other mammals, the levels that humans are exposed to in food are harmless. Just like with synthetic pesticides. Studies have also been done on levels of biotoxins between organic and conventional foods, and no difference has been found.

Measuring toxins and pesticide levels is all well and good, but is organic healthier? Well, as it turns out, a five year study done by Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) found that indeed, organic food had higher levels of good things, and lower levels of bad things. Great! However, no question in science is answered by just one study. There needs to be multiple studies before you can start to reach a conclusion. The QLIF realized this, and concluded that “further and more detailed studies are required to provide proof for positive health impacts of organic diets on human and animal health.”

In contrast, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), in the UK, issued a statement regarding organic food, saying “Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.” That is, despite the study by the QLIF, basically all the other studies point in the other direction.

For example, a the FSA spent twelve months reviewing all of the literature on organic food, and found that "there is no good evidence that the consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content." Other studies have concluded the same thing.

So what about taste? Every organic food fan I have known uses this as the trump card. However, I have always been skeptical of such a claim, since you can trick yourself into believing just about anything when it comes to taste. Your subjective opinion of something is just not a reliable way to answer a question when you are heavily biased from the get go. Conveniently, studies have been done on this too, and as it turns out, one study found that people preferred organic apples to conventional ones. They described the apples as sweeter and firmer.

However, a number of other studies have found just the opposite. In those studies, people were unable to distinguish any difference in taste between organic and conventional foods.

But the most troubling aspect of all this comes from a very recent study which found that influential organic food organizations were guilty of promoting false information. The study stated that these organization's claims were “unreliable” and “harm the consumer.” This really comes as no surprise. When people invest themselves in a certain position, and evidence starts to pile against them, many choose to turn a blind eye, or flat out lie, rather than admit error. They simply have too much invested in their position to give it up. Not good, since that is the territory of science deniers-- the home of creationists, anti-vaxers and others.

In conclusion, it seems that while there are a few studies showing benefits of organic food, the overwhelming majority of studies have shown that the only difference is about a 10-40% increase in price. Ultimately, I would suggest visiting organic food stores, but only to check out the babes in their yoga pants. Buy your food somewhere else.