The Controversy Over Organic Food

Organic food is no more nutritious than conventional food, according to a new study that has sparked fiery debate and outrage among organic food advocates. More than 5000 people signed a petition demanding that the study, published this month in Annals of Internal Medicine, be retracted.

What did the study show?

Researchers from Stanford and other centers analyzed data from 17 studies in humans and more than 200 studies of the levels of nutrients and contaminants in foods.

The scientists concluded that organic food and conventional food had no significant differences in nutritional value, allergic reactions or incidents of Campylobacter infection, a common cause of bacterial foodborne illness.

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Were organic foods in the study shown to have any benefits?

Organic foods had lower amounts of detectable pesticide residues. Conventional produce had a 38 percent risk of contamination, compared to only 7 percent for organic produce.

Two of the studies analyzed showed that pesticide levels in children’s urine were significantly lower if they ate organic diets.

Another difference was that conventional chicken and pork was 33 percent more likely to contain bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than organic poultry or pork.

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What are the objections to the study?

The petition calling for a retraction to the study states that one of the researchers, Ingram Olkin, PhD, has ties to tobacco companies. The petition further contends that Stanford University itself has financial ties to Cargill, which they allege is as “a powerful proponent of genetically engineered foods.” The way that Olkin and colleagues used statistics was also called into question.

Although Olkin was one of 12 researchers listed, the study states that Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler is the “corresponding author and guarantor of the manuscript” and “takes full responsibility for the work as a whole, including the study design, access to data and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.”

And while it’s true that Olkin did a study for tobacco companies back in the 1970s, this is “not that remarkable, because almost every famous statistician did a study for the tobacco companies in the 1970s,” UCLA statistics professor Jan de Leeuw told the L.A. Times, adding that, “[Olkin] is a famous, well-known, well-respected, honorable man.

The researchers received no funding from any outside company, and the Stanford Center for Health Policy, where the study was conducted, received no funding from Cargill, Stanford University told the L.A. Times.

What do other studies say about organic foods?

Pregnant women exposed to higher amounts of organophosphate pesticides ended up having children with lower I.Q.s on average than those of their peers, according to three studies published in 2011.

A study conducted by University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health reported that for every ten-fold rise in measurements of these pesticides detected during a mother’s pregnancy, there was a drop of about 5 points in her child’s IQ score at age seven, as compared to kids with the least exposure.

“That difference could mean, on average, more kids being shifted into the lower end of the spectrum of learning, and more kids needing special services in school,” said lead researcher Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health.

Furthermore, at least one study not included in the Stanford review showed that specific organic foods are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. For example, organic strawberries were shown to have higher antioxidants, including vitamin C, than conventional strawberries. A recent study showed that organic tomatoes also had higher antioxidants.

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When are studies retracted?

The Annals of Internal Medicine published 144 corrections from over 6,000 pages of articles between the years of 1980 and 1985, according to a review of retraction studies in medical journals published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association in 2004. A third of the corrections were due to errors in fact, and 28 percent omitted information that didn’t change the overall results published. The remaining 39 percent of retractions were due to typos or incorrect names or titles. To date, no studies were retracted due to petitions. 

Is buying organic worth it?

That depends on what you’re buying and what your reasons are.

Organic food costs more and despite research on specific foods such as strawberries and tomatoes, there’s not enough evidence to tell if the overall nutritional value is higher than that of conventional food.

While organic food contains less pesticide residue, most conventional produce also has levels of residue below the threshold deemed unsafe.  Washing and scrubbing fruits and vegetables, or peeling them, can reduce some pesticide residue—but peeling may get rid of some nutrients as well.

Advantages of organic meat include reduced exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Pregnant women, in particular, may benefit from reducing their overall exposure to pesticides in food, either by eating an organic diet or limiting consumption of certain conventional foods discussed below.

Which foods have the most pesticides?

If you’re concerned about the cost of eating an all-organic diet, you may want to take a closer look at the level of pesticides likely to be found in various foods, to decide which organic produce is the best buy.

The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding conventional foods highest in pesticides: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries, potatoes, green beans, kale and greens.

Foods with the least pesticide residue include onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, domestic cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and mushrooms.

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