Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is Organic Better? Fact Checking: Beyond Politics

As the country gears up for an intense political campaign season, we see more and more calls for "fact checking" on the claims made by our presidential candidates and their running mates. The candidates are out to sell themselves for your vote and the information that they are trying to convey to you, the voter, is couched in whatever light they feel will best make them glow. Skeptical voters are wary, though, and take their claims with a grain of salt.

It should be no different when you see the screaming headlines about natural health. When claims of "organic food is no better" or "breastfeeding increases allergies" jump out at you, step back and start to fact check. The sound bites, the headlines, and TV teasers are there to get your attention, not to provide you with in-depth, thoughtful consideration of the real issues and facts.

The hot topic this week has certainly been the much-talked-about study from Stanford University claiming that organic food is no more nutritious than its conventional counterpart. The media pounced on the opportunity to warn people against spending their precious paychecks on organic brands and acted as though the wool had been pulled over consumers' eyes by organic food advocates. But step back and do some fact checking before you run with the claims. For starters, the study did not conduct any new laboratory tests on current produce. In fact, it was a meta-anaylsis, meaning that the research conducted was a compilation of already-existing data from prior studies, with study conclusions drawn from this overview. In other words, there was no scientific comparison of the nutrient density of an organic apple versus a conventional apple. That being said, the meta-analysis did find that organic produce contained more phosphorus and phenols than conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables. Researchers discounted this discovery saying that the findings were either statistically insignificant or that Americans already had adequate levels of these compounds in their diets and that such increased levels would not confer any additional health benefits. But let's look a bit closer.

According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, "Phosphorus is an essential mineral that is required by every cell in the body for normal function". Adequate levels of phosphorus are essential for bone healthy and density, and the absorption and balance of phosphorus and calcium are necessary for well-being. Poor gut health, celiac disease, common conditions such as yeast infections, as well as the use of steroids and some pharmaceuticals may also inhibit phosphorus absorption in the body. Unfortunately, Americans may take in excessive amounts of phosphorus, in the form of phosphoric acid, which can negatively affect bone density and contribute to conditions such as osteoporosis. According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson, "phosphoric acid is another harmful type of phosphorus compound that is very acidic and can erode the teeth, damage the stomach and intestines, helps destroy the bones, and should always be avoided," quite unlike the necessary mineral phosphorus. Media reports on the Stanford study are unclear about the level of detail at which this difference of phosphorus levels in organic foods were addressed, but it is certainly worth noting.

The New York Times also reported that the study found that "organic produce . . . contained more compounds known as phenols, believed to help prevent cancer, than conventional produce" and found the difference to be "statistically significant". Natural phenol antioxidants, such as those found in cranberries and red wine, have shown to have considerable positive impacts on health, although our understanding of how they work is limited. The study researchers insisted the result should be "interpreted with caution", but the finding is no less relevant.

Even more interesting, the actual study did point out that organic produce was much less likely to contain pesticide residues (by more than 30%) and that organic meats and poultry were "less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria," according to the New York Times. As many critics of the study have pointed out, consumers often choose organic not simply because of perceived nutrient density, but because of what organic foods do NOT contain: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, artificial flavorings, and high fructose corn syrup, among others. Organic food sales are also driven by a commitment to environmental sustainability.

As parents we need to embrace the skepticism that we approach politics and government and apply it to the many sources of information that abound. Media snippets never tell the whole story. They, like political ads, are designed to catch you attention and create an emotional response. Pull the curtain back and investigate before you make informed decisions, whether in politics or with regard to health and wellness.

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