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Organic vs Conventional foods: Part 1 – Which is better?

Posted on October 31st, 2012 by Stephen Hardy | Print

You may have noticed the heated debate that took place in the media recently over whether organically grown food was better for you than food grown by conventional means.

One side loudly proclaimed organic food was better for you because it had higher levels of particular nutrients and wasn’t contaminated with harmful pesticides or antibiotic resistant bacteria. The other side was saying just as loudly organic food was a waste of money, no better for you than conventionally grown food and you shouldn’t have to pay the premium prices for organic food if there was no benefit. And this battle for our hearts, minds and wallets was being raged everywhere you looked. It was splashed across TV, on the radio, in magazines, the print media and on countless websites. It went on for weeks.

As someone with more than a passing interest and a fair bit of background knowledge on the subject (we’ve previously written a book about it), I took a keen interest in the debate. One of the reasons I found the whole thing amusing was each camp was so adamant in their statements, so dismissive of the other sides point of view.

But the crazy thing and something not obvious to the casual observer, was both sides were quoting the same scientific study – a report from Stanford University in the USA – to prove their point (1). Yes, you did read that right: The SAME study!

Hang on a minute? Both sides are using the SAME scientific study to promote completely opposite points of view? How can this be? Is the study wrong? Is someone being highly selective in what they say? Aren’t they telling the truth? And what is the truth? What does the Stanford study REALLY show and what does it mean for you?

Scientists can’t help asking questions, it’s in our nature and why we became scientists in the first place. So when I see media reports using the same scientific study to promote opposing points of view, I have to know why. And if the media is confused and sending mixed messages, the industry is confused and sending mixed messages and the experts are confused and sending mixed messages, what hope do you have working out who to believe? Promoting Good Health is about providing unbiased information to help consumers like you make sensible decisions. So it would have been easier to hold back the tide than stop me finding out more. And the only way to know what the Stanford study really found was to read it for myself.

On reading the Stanford study what became immediately obvious was many of the people who were using it to prove their case or criticising it because it disagreed with what they wanted to believe had never read it! The authors of the Stanford study make it quite clear what they were and were not looking at with the study. Yet the clearly defined boundaries of the study are conveniently glossed over, never mentioned, missing or misrepresented in many of the media reports – on both sides of the debate.

So what are the fundamental points being put forward through the media by the different camps about the Stanford study? There are four:

  1. Organically produced foods are no more nutritious for you than those produced using conventional agricultural methods.
  2. Organically grown produce does have higher levels of certain nutrients than conventionally grown foods.
  3. Organic produce has less pesticide contamination than conventionally grown crops.
  4. Organic foods contain less antibiotic-resistant bacteria than do conventionally grown foods.

These points fall into two broad categories:

Healthier for you
Safer for you

Over the next couple of blogs I will look at both these categories, how they relate to the Stanford study, what their wider implications are and most importantly, what they mean to you and your family.

Until then, stay happy and healthy.


(1) Smith-Spangler, C.; Brandeau, M. L.; Hunter, G. E.; Bavinger, J. C.; Pearson, M.; Eschbach, P. J.; Sundaram, V.; Liu, H.; Schirmer, P.; Stave, C.; Olkin, I. and Bravata, D. M.: Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: A systematic review. Ann. Intern. Med., 157 (5), 348-66, 2012.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875