Media coverage misleading on Stanford’s organic vs. conventional food study

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

If you only read the national newspaper headlines or caught the discussion on the Today Show or its other morning peers, you probably came away with the impression that a new Stanford University study released on Tuesday concluded that there are no health benefits to eating organic food compared to eating conventional food. It’s a pretty sensational headline. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong.

The Stanford study found that there is approximately the same amount of vitamin A in a conventionally grown carrot as there is in an organically grown carrot. Now apply this to nutritional values of all food crops and meats and you have the conclusions reached by the Stanford study. Hardly groundbreaking. An accurate headline would have read something like, “Stanford study finds that organic and conventionally grown crops have approximately the same level of nutrients.” Accurate, but not likely to garner much readership, even on a slow news day. So instead of stating the facts, the vast majority of members of the national press presented reports claiming that there are no health benefits to eating organic foods.

Had the media reports been accurate, it would have been extremely convenient timing for a conventional food industry that is reeling from the market share it’s lost to the exploding organic food industry, which has grown from $1 billion in annual sales in 1990 to more than $34 billion in 2011. In addition, a study finding that there are no health benefits from organic food would also have been very helpful to a conventional food industry that is facing the prospect of having to label GMOs in its products come November if California passes its labeling ballot initiative as reported last week in BW (see “Monsanto’s point of no return,” Aug. 30 edition).

Surely it is only a coincidence that the near entirety of the national news media simultaneously and misleadingly announced on Tuesday, Sept. 4, that the Stanford study had found that organic foods are more expensive yet no healthier than conventionally raised food. A cynic might point out that the conventional food industry is one of the largest advertising segments for all national media, including print, digital and television, and that distorting the Stanford study findings could have been the result of pressure being exerted on the news media by its major advertisers. That’s what a cynic might say.

We’ll just say that here is what the Stanford study actually found.

As stated above, the nutrients found in organic and conventional crops and meats are approximately the same.

But consumers have a 30 percent greater chance of being contaminated by pesticides when eating conventional produce as compared to organic produce. As to whether this contamination is safe or not, Crystal Smith- Spangler, one of the Stanford study’s authors, told Flora Malein of the Guardian: “This study is not able to give consumers hard information about the impact of pesticide contamination on health because there are so few human studies available.”

Consumers also have a 33 percent greater chance of ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria when eating conventionally raised pork or chicken as opposed to their organic counterparts.

So does this finding of the Stanford study mean that there is no health benefit to organic meat? Apparently a lot of smart folks don’t thing so. The Consumer Health Information Corporation notes that in 1977, “[The Food and Drug Administration] proposed an end to using low levels of the antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in animal feeds to spur growth.

“In 1984, the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed an immediate stop to using low levels of penicillin and tetracyclines in food-producing animals.

“In 1997, the World Health Organization recommended a stop to using antibiotics in livestock feed if those antibiotics are the same ones or related to ones used to treat humans.

“In 1998, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommended that the FDA stop the approval of fluoroquinolones in chickens.”

In addition, Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times wrote a great piece on the connection between the exploding MRSA infection epidemic, which is killing more than 18,000 U.S. citizens a year out of the 90,000 who get exposed, and the antibiotic-crazed industrial hog farming industry. Kristoff ’s piece was titled, “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health.”

The MRSA virus

The truth of the matter is this: Few, if any, consumers decide to eat organic foods primarily because they believe that they will be getting extra nutrients in their diet. Most people eating organic foods are doing so to try to eliminate the amount of poisons that they are eating when they consume conventional foods.

The most conservative figure available for actual synthetic pesticide consumption from eating conventional foods is 31.68 mg per person in the U.S. per year. High-end estimates range up to a half-pound of pesticide consumption per person in the U.S. per year. Some studies have found that as much as 80 percent of conventionally raised meat coming from animals being fed antibiotics to increase growth contain an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be a health risk to humans if meat is undercooked.

Organic food adherents also choose to eat organic because of the detrimental impacts that conventional farming has on the environment. Conventional farming now uses five pounds of pesticides per person, per year in the U.S. That’s 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides being applied in our country. Considering the lack of studies on the impacts of this pesticide on human health, as pointed out by the Stanford researchers, it’s safe to bet that it isn’t real healthy for any of us.

In addition, organic consumers choose to bypass conventional foods because doing so helps to support local economies in many cases and at least helps to combat the monopolization of the conventional food industry that exists today. Research by rural sociologists has, for decades, shown that people in places where many small farms exist as opposed to large industrial operations are mentally and physically healthier.

So while it may be accurate to say that organic and conventional crops contain similar nutrients, it is completely incorrect to say that eating organic food is no healthier than eating conventionally raised food. It’s amazing how misleading the news media can be when its advertising dollars are on the line. Buyer beware.