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NYT: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce"

From the NYT article:


They [the Stanford scientists] concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.


Read it all here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/sci...

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  1. The thing to me with this is, I rarely if ever hear of organic food being touted as nutritionally superior, and I never personally think of it that way. It's more about environmental impact and the part about less-poisoned is nice too. Maybe I'm not reading the right magazines.

    2 Replies
    1. re: ennuisans

      I'm with you...I'm not sure anybody still really believes in their heart of hearts that organic is nutritionally superior.

      We all have to figure the balance in our own minds...

      1. re: ennuisans

        Eaxctly--it's the strawman argument, and the article cherry picked what it wanted for its title. At the same time, the study did find the following, which are the reasons many people eat organics:

        "Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue"

        "Organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

        "The study also found that organic milk contained more omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered beneficial for the heart."

        "The organic produce also contained more compounds known as phenols, believed to help prevent cancer, than conventional produce. "

        "Over all, the Stanford researchers concluded that 38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. (Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from a neighboring field or during processing and transport.) They also noted a couple of studies that showed that children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine."

        Finally, the conclusion:

        "Dr. Bravata agreed that people bought organic food for a variety of reasons — concerns about the effects of pesticides on young children, the environmental impact of large-scale conventional farming and the potential public health threat if antibiotic-resistant bacterial genes jumped to human pathogens. “Those are perfectly valid,” she said."

      2. In other news, disposable plastic bags work just as well as my reusable bag. Yet I stubbornly continue to carry the reusable bag.

        People make choices based on factors other than utility, don't you think? And the article offers plenty of reasons why organic food might be preferable - more omega-3 in the milk, etc. Plus, there's this:

        "Organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

        I see that as a health advantage, and not just for the person consuming the organic meat. I don't buy all that much organic, myself (I get most of my produce from the non-organic vendors at the green market), but there seem to be plenty of good reasons to do so for those who choose to.

        6 Replies
        1. re: small h

          "Organic milk" is not a uniform product and to make sweeping statements like 'more omega-3 in organic milk" overlooks the fact that it's based on either the feed used or something added to the end product. There's nothing inherent in "organic" milk that spontaneously creates high levels of omega-3.

          1. re: ferret

            Perhaps an enormous quantity of milk was evaluated, and organic milk was found, on balance, to be higher in omega-3. I really don't know, but the article mentions this, so I did, too.

            1. re: small h

              Again, it's feed-based so it may well be that some organic producers use feeds that are higher in omega-3 but it's not a function of "organic."

              1. re: ferret

                Be that as it may, if some organic producers use those feeds, and no non-organic producers use those feeds, then organic milk will be higher in omega-3. The cause is irrelevant; the result is the same.

                1. re: small h

                  Horizon brand organic milk has a specific category marked "Omega-3" on the shelf, so either they add the stuff afterwards or they segregate milk from cows eating specific feed, or ? In which case, a mention of Omega-3 in this piece might not even result from study results but from someone reading the words on a package.

                  1. re: ennuisans

                    The Horizon milk is DHA-fortified, added to the product after the fact, like Vitamin D.

        2. I heard a discussion about this article this morning on NPS's Morning Edition.

          My reasoning for buying organic is that it usually just tastes better. If I buy organic Granny Smith Apples and organic Bananas, they taste 10000x better than conventional. Conventional are bland tasting.

          Same with organic chicken. Until I made a pot of chicken soup with an organic chicken, I couldn't have told you the difference. The broth it makes is beautifully clean and clear and lean. The taste is also so much better.

          I am lucky that Wegmans prices their organic produce similar and sometimes even lower than conventional. Organic meat is another matter. But Wegmans carries their Food You Feel Good About Line which is organic without the certification, which makes it more cost friendly.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Manassas64

            Absolutely agree! Some organic things - chicken, carrots, cabbage - just taste SO much better to me. And I'd just as soon not eat a bunch of chemicals if I don't have to. But as a committed omnivore, I'm aware that many things I eat have been exposed to one kind of badness or another. Life is exciting and hazardous!

            1. re: elenacampana

              Yes, life IS exciting and hazardous! I like that. LOL

          2. The Stanford study – and especially the majority of the media coverage of it - suffers from a # of short-comings, not least that people are missing the point that the organic farming offers a host of environmental benefits and lowers the serious health risks otherwise experienced by millions of farmers and farm workers around the world, due to the high toxicity of the 5 BILLION pounds of pesticides that are applied annually to the world’s cropland.

            On Equal Exchange’s blog I’ve described some of these benefits, & provide further information resources:

            See http://smallfarmersbigchange.coop/201...

            Additionally – yesterday Tom Philpott wrote a very good piece that helped illuminate some of the critical methodological shortcomings in the Stanford study, and how they seemed to have misrepresented (or poorly described) the actual findings. The gist is that even this study actually _confirms_ that eating organic is healthier in many important ways.

            See “5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short” http://tinyurl.com/8vq9vhv

            (& just for fun, here is a photo I took of a thriving, jungle-like organic coffee farm in southern Peru. Excellent bird habitat as well as a successful little farm.)

            1. When I was 29, I developed a rash over 50% of my body, and several dermatologists gave me advice and ointments that did no good at all. Finally, when I was 39 (yes, I had that rash for 10 years) I had acupuncture + Chinese medicine that cured most of it overnight. My husband said that if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes he wouldn't have believed it. My acupuncturist told me that she had cleansed me of toxins, and to eat only organic food to prevent another buildup of toxins, So organic it has been, and will continue to be, for our whole family!

              1 Reply
              1. re: Claudette

                I'd be careful reaching the conclusion that Chinese acupuncturists can clean toxins for anyone.

                Yes, it's proven/accepted that acupunture can be used as a form of anesthesia for certain types of surgeries (e.g. C-sections, well publicized). But the claim of cleansing is highly suspect. Furthermore, the ointments might contain powerful "western" anti-inflammatory components which work to reduce symptoms. Recently a person who smeared gel all over his body in an attempt to treat his stuburn generalized pruritic macular rash died in Taiwan (reported by World Journal earlier this year) and authoraties found that his Chinese "doctor" gave him fortified gel.

                Not trying to scare anybody. But I put my money on FDA-approved stuff. Only.

              2. I'm tired of this whole organic v. inorganic discussion. I think that we need to focus on locally grown v. imported. People need to think of pesticide use and environmental impact as a local issue and not just global. I think that people who don't think/care about the pesticides now would think/care more if it's their water source being polluted. Or care about their air smelling because of the chicken/pork/etc. factories. There are people so focused on their food being organic that they might not consider the costs of transporting their food. I am a member of an organic CSA not because it's organic, but because I want to support a local (1.5 hr away) farm. But I'm sure that the non organic local produce is just as good.

                4 Replies
                  1. re: viperlush

                    Too late to edi but I meant to write non-organic not inorganic.

                    1. re: viperlush

                      How "local" is the labor on that farm?

                      1. re: fame da lupo

                        where do they pay their rent?
                        where do they shop for food?
                        where do their kids go to school (because a lot of them DO go to school, even if they're migrants)

                    2. In other news, fuel-efficient cars don't make your teeth any whiter.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        But fuel efficient cars correlate to whiter teeth. :)

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          I always thought it was that white teeth helped to power your car more efficiently with their brightness.

                          1. re: chowser

                            <to power your car more efficiently with their brightness.>

                            I think that is only true if your fuel efficient car is solar powered.

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              I keep seeing that stupid gum commercial...

                              1. re: sunshine842

                                Which one are you thinking?

                                I do remember there was an episode on Friends that Ross over-whitened his teeth.


                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  I had to look it up -- Orbit -- but it had a perky little blond British chick talking about dirty mouth? Clean it up! . Cue big toothy grin (the wall of teeth type) with the photoshopped sparkle.

                        2. I make labels on my printer that say "ORGANIC". I put them on all the food in my fridge and pantry. The difference is amazing.

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: BDMTHRFKR

                            So while you're at it, print something for the workers that grow pesticide covered food and work in the factory farms with antibiotic resistant diseased animals.

                            And print something for people who (used to be able to) make their living fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. That's where the Dead Zone is growing all the time, where the mississippi river dumps out, full of the agricultural runoff of 40% of the continental U.S., and the boats have to go out further and further all the time to find anything alive, hurting their already tough business.

                            Why not print something for our grand kids to tell them why we couldn't figure out how to make our food in a way that didn't strip their land and pollute their only planet.

                            To me, it's about what animals have always known... "Dont s$%t where you eat."

                            1. re: chowaholic

                              Will do, chowaholic! Is Comic Sans font ok?

                              1. re: BDMTHRFKR

                                Well, if that's all you've got. I'd go with a quality log or ice cube font myself.

                              2. re: chowaholic

                                '... it's about what animals have always known... "Dont s$%t where you eat" ...'

                                The coprophages (e.g. rabbits) have a rather different slogan: "DO eat where you s$%t"

                                1. re: chowaholic

                                  >>>To me, it's about what animals have always known... "Don't s$%t where you eat."<<<

                                  You've just given the best reason to *not* buy organics, because animals do exactly that. Ever walked through a pasture? Just look at the scorecard of people who've gotten e.coli from improperly processed cow manure fertilizer dumped all over their organic spinach & sprouts and other greens vs. those who eat conventional produce. It's not even close.

                                  There's a reason the heads of the CDC and vitually every other scientific agency have gone on record to say they'd never give their kids raw organic veg.

                                  I find it really funny how pro-organic folks swear up and down how much better for you and tastier organics are, until some real evidence comes out that they are neither, and then these folks say they never made these claims.

                                  And what would you suggest we print for the farmworkers? "Gainfully employed"? "Feeding America & Most of the Rest of the World Too"? Those would be good. How about the fishers? If you think synthesized fertilizers are any more damaging than massive amounts of manure flowing into our waterways, then you don't understand math or science. Excessive amounts of nitrogen, whether from a factory or from a cow's intestines, are equally bad.

                                  1. re: acgold7

                                    "I find it really funny how pro-organic folks swear up and down how much better for you and tastier organics are, until some real evidence comes out that they are neither, and then these folks say they never made these claims."

                                    Maybe pro-organic folks don't all think the same so some might claim organic food is better for you and some don't? Broad brushing a big group of people will always turn up hypocrisy because they don't all have the same mind set.

                                    1. re: acgold7

                                      fyi organic producers must use fully composted (heat or age--240 day-- sterilized) animal manure... or else lose their certification.

                                      however conventional growers can, and frequently do, use animal wastes piped directly out of the refuse lagoons outside of cafos onto crops.

                                      the idea that organic growers use animal manure and conventional farmers do not is an error. the main difference is that for organic growers, the use of manure is heavily regulated... while for conventional farms, it is not.

                                      eta-- see higher levels of food-borne pathogens in conventional crops, cited in the study

                                      1. re: acgold7

                                        Obviously, it was a figure of speech. Not "s&*&^ng where you ea"t means not screwing up the land that you depend on. When wild animals crap in a field, it's not screwing up their ecosystem. When we dump pesticides and practice monoculture farming in a way that strips the soil and pollutes the water, we are crapping the planet.

                                        As for your arguments, they just don't hold up.

                                        About manure and e coli outbreaks: both conventional agriculture and organic use manure. But organic use of it is far more regulated - has to be composted. Conventional farmers can use raw waste and sewage sludge. YUM! Walk through that pasture!

                                        And most e coli outbreaks happen because of problems in the handling process later in the distribution chain, which is a problem with the massive scale of factory farming in both big conventional ag and big organic (which I'm not a fan of).

                                        As for the dead zone, it's true that badly managed compost pollutes waterways as well, but organic doesn't have to use as much added nitrogen as conventional, because of soil fertility coming from nitrogen-fixing legumes in crop rotation and cover crops.

                                        "And what would you suggest we print for the farmworkers? "Gainfully employed"? "Feeding America & Most of the Rest of the World Too"?"

                                        How about "higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcoma, lip, stomach and prostate cancer"?

                                        Organic farming provides jobs too. Studies show it creates MORE jobs, up to 30% more.
                                        And there's plenty of recent science showing true organic farming is capable of high yields that can feed the planet. In fact, it can perform better in periods of drought because the richer soil retains water.

                                        In non-industrialized countries where labor is cheaper than pesticides and fertilizers, organic has been shown to INCREASE YIELDS 20-90%. Chemical companies have a lot of reason to not want people to know that, and to have us think pesticides/fertilizers are the only way to feed the world.

                                  2. There has been no reference here yet to the synopsis published by Stanford School of Medicine itself. Perhaps it might be useful to read it and consider the wording and nuances of the statements there. Several posts here have seized on some "statements" (in the NYT article, for example) as absolutely true statements while disregarding the nuances expressed by the authors of the paper.


                                    "...evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids" does *not* equal "The study also found that organic milk contained more omega-3 fatty acids...".

                                    Just as a statement like "There is some indication that product XYZ contains higher levels of compound ABC which has been observed to be higher in the blood of people from area XXX where the incidence of throat cancer is higher than normal..." does *not* equal "Product XYZ causes cancer!!!".

                                    By all means continue to buy organic milk if one wishes, where there might be a chance that it might contain more omega-3 fatty acids depending on what you bought and where it came from, *maybe*; but to do so "because ALL organic milk WILL have higher content of these fatty acids" in every case would be a false decision.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: huiray

                                      Review of this study from the 'Science based medicine' blog


                                      one of the comments there points to a meta study from Oxford on whether the environmental impact of organics is less (the conclusion: - not necessarily)


                                      and a Pollan interview on this Stanford study

                                    2. A follow-up article from the NYT:

                                      Key quote:

                                      Like many people who are seeking better-tasting, healthier food, Ms. Todd had heard about a recent study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy.

                                      Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food.

                                      But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer.

                                      For Ms. Todd and countless other shoppers, the study just added to the stress of figuring out what to eat. And it underscored the deep divisions at the nation’s dinner table, along with concerns among even food purists about the importance of federal organic standards.

                                      Read it in full here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/us/...

                                      1. This is a review of existing published research, some of it 40 years old. No new research has been done. The complete article isn't available, but the abstract says:

                                        "17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods met inclusion criteria. Only 3 of the human studies examined clinical outcomes, finding no significant differences between populations by food type for allergic outcomes (eczema, wheeze, atopic sensitization) or symptomatic Campylobacter infection. Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences. All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous except for the estimate for phosphorus; phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant. The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30% [CI, −37% to −23%]), but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small. Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce. Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork (risk difference, 33% [CI, 21% to 45%])."


                                        Frankly, I'm not impressed with the scope of the study or of existing research, though it might be different if I could read the whole article. And while I'm no True Believer in organic, I don't think this abstract gives me substantial reasons to disbelieve.

                                        1. Has anyone researched the funding for this 'study'?
                                          The funding source for the center that conducted this study (correlational vs causal) made the outcome a forgone conclusion.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: ElsieB

                                            What's the funding source(s)? Why the assumption that the conclusion is forgone (which conclusion do you have in mind??

                                            1. re: ElsieB

                                              According to the credits in the Annals of Internal Medicine, "Ms. Pearson was supported by a Stanford Undergraduate Research Grant." No other source of funding is named. "Potential Conflicts of Interest: None disclosed." What's the story?

                                              1. re: ElsieB

                                                Did you take a look at the Stanford School of Medicine release/synopsis/interview I linked to in my post?

                                                You don't even need access to Ann Intern Med to see the declaration regarding "no external funding". Even the NYT article (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/sci...) the OP links to in the original post right at the top states in the body of the article that the group received no external funding. It might be an idea to read the articles.

                                                1. re: huiray

                                                  According to comments on other discussions, some 'naturalistic' source tried to cast doubts on the study by linking one of the profs to 'big tobacco', " Ingram Olkin, PhD, professor emeritus of statistics and of education". Dr Olkin probably just gave advise on how conduct some of the statistical analysis.

                                              2. Probably just more proof to my point. For every study saying one thing you can find a study saying to complete opposite.

                                                Decide for yourself. Let others decide for themselves.