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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Organics No Better?

A study released by the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency (FSA) this week had the media headlines screaming "Organic Food No Healthier", attempting to erode consumer preferences for organically-grown, pesticide-free produce and meats. The study and its touted findings are creating a stir here in the US as well. So, let's take a closer look.

Putting aside consumer preferences for organics due to the environmental impact of factory farming, overuse of pesticides and chemicals, and deterioration of farmland by agribusiness (none of which were part of the FSA study), the researchers focused on the nutritional value of organic foods versus conventionally grown and raised products. What might be surprising to consumers who read the headlines are the findings of the actual study itself as well as the methods used to derive this conclusion.

First, let's start with what the study is. It is not a clinical testing of actual produce to analyze nutritional content. Rather, the study is a review of published literature aiming to investigate findings of other researchers and compare the results to develop a larger-view perspective on the issue. This yields some questions from the start. The authors cite 52,471 citations located, 292 articles found and 281 deemed to be relevant (studies determined to be "unsatisfactory" were not included). In the end 162 actual studies were included in the review. This narrowing will inherently drop out certain research findings and may necessarily produce a different conclusion.

Interestingly, the 2007 University of California Davis study demontrating higher concentrations of minerals and vitmain C in organic foods was included in the review, although potentially diminished by other studies when viewed collectively as not statistically significant. Other studies, such as that by The Organic Center, report findings of higher nutritional content among organic foods than conventional.

The second part of their review examined the health impact of eating organics versus conventional foods. Again, of 91,989 reports only 11 (yes, eleven) studies were deemed relevant for their review based on research critera, methodology, etc. "It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies," state the authors. "Most of the included papers did not study direct human health outcomes" but did look at biomarkers, such as antioxidant status which was reported to have significantly different outcomes between organic and conventional foods. Even with the biomarkers displaying results, the authors were looking for a more measurable health outcome to report on. "Additionally, it is possible that peer-reviewed journals were less likely to publish papers reporting non-significant differences," the authors note, demonstrating that a primary bias may exist in their review.

Even with these data sources, there are some facts the researchers discovered that did not grab the media's attention. For example,

Organically produced crops were found to have significantly higher levels of sugars, magnesium, zinc, dry matter, phenolic compounds and flavonoids than conventionally produced crops. The authors explain these imbalances with regard to magnesium, zinc, phosophorus, and dry mattter (related to mineral content) to be insignificant from a public health/large scale viewpoint as dietary deficiencies in the population are not a publich health concern. However, with regard to the higher phenolic compounds and flavonoids found in organic foods, the authors note:

"Numerous health benefits have been ascribed to the actions of phytochemicals such as phenolic compounds and flavonoids, many of which related to their antioxidant activity. The recent World Cancer Research Fund report suggests that quercetin (a flavonol) may prevent lung cancer (although the strength of evidence for this relationship was graded as “Limited - suggestive”4) (17). There is also some evidence from cohort studies (although not from randomised controlled trials), that high flavonoid intake is associated with lower rates of coronary heart disease mortality (18). "

Polyunsaturated fatty acids were statistically higher in organic meats than conventionally raised products, according to the report. Research shows polyunsatured fats may help to reduce coronary artery disease, along with reducing saturated fat consumption.

On the review of flavonoids and phytochemicals alone, media reporting could easily have announced "New Study Shows Organics Higher in Antioxidants" - a significant finding for the health-conscious. Low levels of magnesium and calcium in conventional foods are also important as magnesium insufficiency is linked to osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and migraines, among others. Low levels of zinc are related to birth defects, depression, and insomnia as well.

Rather than a media explosion, what we should have seen was a more tempered response noting the study's parameters and limitations, as well as noting some of the more balanced results. For holistic moms, organic is better on many fronts: sustainability, reducing toxins, and for good health!

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