Organic food found to be better for us – and why this finding is unlikely to lead to an official endorsement of organic food

When I’m lecturing, one of the most common questions that comes up is whether organic food is better than food produced non-organically. There is actually some evidence that organic food tends to offer more in the way of what the body needs (e.g. nutrients). And of course, it offers less of what the body most certainly doesn’t need (e.g. pesticide residues). It is these two factors which underlie my belief that, generally speaking, organic produce is better for us than non-organically produced fare.

This week, the results of a large UK-based study looking into the difference between organic and non-organic food were announced. This four-year �£12 million piece of research involved the growing of fruit and veg and the rearing of cattle on organic and non-organic sites across Europe. The results of the study have not been published in a journal, so all we’ve got to go on is selected findings that have been fed to the press.

Among these titbits, there appears to be real evidence that organic food is indeed more nutritious than conventionally farmed food. For example, it is being reported that the researcher found levels of ‘antioxidant’ nutrients 50-80 per cent higher in milk from organic animals compared to normal milk. Also, organic varieties of wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce were found to contain 20-40 per cent more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts. Taken at face value, these results look like they provide good evidence that organic food is healthier for us.

I have noticed that in the reporting of this research, mention is often made of the UK’s Food Standards Agency traditionally dismissive stance on organic food. Apparently, the FSA is set to review this latest evidence, though I am not particularly hopeful that it will lead to anything looking like an endorsement of organic food.

My belief is based on the simple fact that there are considerable conflicts of interest that exist within the FSA. In previous blogs I have, for instance, drawn attention to the fact that the FSA is advised on policy by a committee called the Advisory Committee on Research, and that many members of this committee benefit financially directly from the food industry. One member of the ACR is a full time employee of Unilever (!).

The last time I wrote about the FSA was on 10th September when I was highlighting this organisations rather toothless reaction to research linking food additives with hyperactivity in children. I notice that this issue was also highlighted in an article in the Guardian (a UK broadsheet) on 19th September by food writer Felicity Lawrence.

In her piece, Ms Lawrence draws our attention to the fact that on the additive issue, the FSA sought advice from a body known as the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food (CoT). She goes on to point out that: The committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food (CoT) is chaired by Professor Ieuan Hughes, a distinguished paediatrician who declares among his interests research funds from drug companies and Novo Nordisk, the leading maker of industrial enzymes for the food industry. Other members include Dr Philip Carthew, whose salary is paid by Unilever; Professor Ian Rowland, consultant to Unilever and recipient of research funds from other food manufacturers; Dr Lesley Stanley, who declares contracts with Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and research collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline and Novo Nordisk.�

Ms Lawrence adds: And so it goes on. Half the scientists on the committee have links to agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry. None of this is to impugn their individual integrity, for that’s the way science is these days: in the absence of public funding, researchers must bring in the money where they can. So it is industry that often frames the questions science asks, and there is a danger that industry influences the mindset with which results are approached.�

I’ve got a feeling in my water that even the full findings of the recent research on organic food and farming are blisteringly positive, the FSA will be lukewarm at best about the results. On the plus side, I also suspect that less and less people give a toss about what the FSA says anyway as more and more is revealed about its close relationship with industry.

9 Responses to Organic food found to be better for us – and why this finding is unlikely to lead to an official endorsement of organic food

  1. New Zealand Honey Shop 2 November 2007 at 12:25 pm #

    It would be interesting to know if this new study has taken into account at all the quality of the sites used to grow the food, particularly the nutrient qualities of the soil. Would organic food grown in poor soil end up better than non-organic from great soil? It would be nice to know if organic methods are helping to improve soil qualities of farms.

    Everytime there is a new report in the press about ‘blueberries are good for you’ (insert whatever fruit / veg etc) – there is always the issue that naturally, quality of food can vary greatly. Blueberries grown in great conditions in good soil for that plant are going to be much better than ones grown in bad climate and poor soil (and how many farms are right next to industrial sites?). Yet both get presented to the consumer in the same manner. Maybe organic producers could work towards minimum nutrient standards or something, but this is a very difficult thing to do at a practical level, especially with the fragmented nature of the organic industry.

    About the scientists influence on the FSA, some credit should be given that at least their interests and sources of funding are declared. And the same criticisms can often be made about pro organic research. The mainstream media could do a much better job of presenting greater details of new research – from both sides – and who is behind each piece of research, rather than the focus of a good headline.

  2. Robin Davies 2 November 2007 at 2:00 pm #

    “I also suspect that less and less people give a toss about what the FSA says anyway as more and more is revealed about its close relationship with industry.”

    Delicately put – and spot on.

  3. Sue 5 November 2007 at 5:25 am #
    Vegetarian diets are almost always based on ‘organically’ grown produce. This is a system which does not allow the use of special chemical fertilisers and pesticides to increase crop yields, thus, we are told, protecting the environment and the ecological balance. In essence, farming methods are similar to those in use in the nineteenth century and, consequently, crop yields are significantly diminished. In the United States, the demand for organic or ‘natural’ foods has been growing for many years and farmers here are finding it economic to produce organically-grown produce to meet the demand. This may be another profit-making scheme, since less needs to be spent on chemical treatment while the poorer-quality food produced is sold at a higher price.

    The word organic is a nonsense in this context. It is inorganic chemicals that are the food of plants. Plants take inorganic minerals such as nitrates, phosphates, potash and trace elements from the soil. Where organic materials such as manure or composted vegetable matter are used, they must first be broken down into the inorganic form before the plants can utilise them. And there is no evidence whatsoever that food grown ‘organically’ is superior to that grown inorganically.

    Today, there are widespread concerns about the use of pesticides and artificial additives in food. This has made ‘natural’ seem a desirable attribute. We tend to believe that if anything is as nature made it, it is necessarily better and healthier for us. But scientists are concerned and are calling for more research into plants’ natural toxins. The belief that ‘natural’ means ‘healthy’ is not backed by research, it is fuelled merely by sophisticated advertising campaigns. Tests on animals have shown that natural toxins may be just as good at causing cancers as man-made ones. If we applied the same standards to the testing of naturally-occurring compounds as we do to artificial ones, many would be banned as dangerous to health.

    Most people know that it is unsafe to eat certain naturally-occurring foods ” the green parts of potatoes and rhubarb leaves, for example ” and so they don’t eat them. It may also be said of other plants that as we have been eating them for centuries with, apparently, no ill effects, there cannot be a problem. Two recent developments, however, have changed that.

    Firstly, because more people are demanding that vegetables and fruit are produced without the use of artificial pesticides, plant breeders are genetically modifying and developing strains that contain higher levels of the plants’ natural toxins. And these toxins are as dangerous for us as they are to the plants’ other predators. Indeed, it seems that the toxins produced and contained within the plants may be more harmful than those that are merely sprayed onto them. Those that are sprayed on can be washed off; the plants’ own toxins are locked in.
    The second development is that, as more people turn to vegetarianism, they are eating larger quantities of the very foods ” vegetables and cereals ” that contain the higher levels of toxins.
    So does ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ mean ‘safe’? Nobody really knows, but there is certainly no evidence that they do.

  4. Hilda 11 November 2007 at 12:34 am #

    Sue. It is very easy to say that ‘there is no evidence’ for this, that or the other and all sorts of people say this all the time. I usually ask them whe was the last time that they visited the British Library where score of research papers sit slowly getting covered in dust. The fact is that there IS evidence . If you say there is not then its just that you haven’t read it.

    No-one says that some natural foods don’t contain toxins but we have learned over the centuries not to eat them. Because they contain toxins is not a reason for adding to the toxins in our diet by eating even more.

    Lastly the fact that money is made from food whether it be organic or nor is irrelevant. Money is made from all sorts of things , good and bad and does not really affect the argument as to whether organic food is better or worse (Neither in fact is the name!)

  5. David 27 February 2008 at 4:34 pm #

    The thing is, organic standards can mean different things. A friend of mine who’s a farmer reared animals for meat that lived freely outdoors and as natural as an animal would otherwise but just because he fed them some antidote to stop them catching a cold, he’s not allowed to sell them as organic.

  6. Graham 14 March 2008 at 12:14 pm #

    David – I actually live reasonable near to Tor to Tor (the place you mentioned) and they do great organic food. Although in regards to organic food I would look for locally produced organic food as opposed to buying it in the supermarket, and that goes for all food really. But there’s some good advise on organic out there but be weary!

  7. Esther 8 November 2008 at 6:20 pm #

    All good points guys…

    David, it’s a real shame that your farmer friend’s produce would be regarded the same as some of the rubbish out there produced with complete disregard for animal welfare and health. The problem is that the prepacked bits of meat on a shelf in the supermarket are so detached from their source, people don’t think about where it comes from. Kids don’t even seem to realise it was once a living animal! It’s us, the consumers, who need to stop and think! Large supermarkets are putting more and more smaller businesses, well… out of business. I don’t eat meat myself but if I did, I would go to an organic butchers – if I couldn’t find one, I’d get it from a local producer, so I could see for myself how the animals are treated and what they are fed. We are all responsible, and we need to go back to basics – if we all change the way we buy (money permitting of course), we can change things on a larger scale.

  8. Truth About Organic Food 26 August 2009 at 2:10 am #

    Sometimes its hard for consumers to sift through the politics of ‘big food.’ Its my opinion that it’s not what is ‘in’ organic food but what is ‘not’ in it (i.e. pesticides) that matters.

    Recent UK report about organic food vs. non-organic food was misleading to the public due to the nature that I mentioned above. Link above is a great unbiased interview on the truth behind the difference between organic and non-organic foods.

    Dr. Ron


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