Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer?

A new study fails to find scientific support for claims organic food is healthier or safer than conventional alternatives and everyone acts as if this is a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Scientific research has fairly consistently failed to validate the claimed superiority of organic food, as I’ve noted in prior posts over the past ten years (see, e.g., herehere, and here). Organic foods do not consistently show higher nutrient levels than conventional foods, nor are there even clear environmental advantages. Organic farming uses less energy and fewer chemicals, but it also tends to be more expensive and requires more land — meaning that a widescale shift to organic production would increase food costs and require putting more acres under plow, with consequent negative effects on species habitat.

For this latest study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Stanford researchers conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies looking at the differences between organic and conventional foods, and concluded “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Organic foods tended to have lower pesticide residues and were less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the researchers concluded the differences were not significant enough to have any meaningful health impact. If organic food truly is healthier — and it may be — the existing scientific literature cannot (yet?) support such claims, particularly as applied to organic foods across the board. There may be specific foods, however, for which organic production may make a difference (or for which organic production methods tend to correlate with other practices that produce positive results).

The bottom line is eat organic foods if you like. Just don’t believe there’s any scientific basis for claiming you will be healthier as a result. As the paper’s senior author, Dena Bravata, explains: “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

For more on the study, here are reports from the NYTAP, and NPR.

Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy.


Safe Food At Any Cost

Paul Schwennesen recently appeared on Fox Business to discuss food safety. Paul offers more comments on the issue below.

We all want safe food.  Question is, how do we get it?  “There oughta be a law,” seems to be the generally conceived approach, as evidenced by recent passage of the now-famous food safety bill.  A tidy and altogether comforting solution:  simply slay the beast of dangerous food with the bludgeon of enlightened bureaucracy. But for the food advocates who support this kind of top-down solution, beware.  The kind of government meddling that created cheap-at-any-cost is now about to do the same for “safe” food.

But isn’t food safety a pressing concern, a public health problem we can’t afford to fool around with?  The problem is, the problem isn’t.  Emotional rants that “thousands die every year!” do not help us grapple with the scope or magnitude of this alleged threat.  Let’s try some perspective:  according to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated number of deaths caused by food borne illness numbers around five thousand a year.  Sounds pretty bad, eh?  Time to call in the Salmonella SWAT team?  Before you do, consider that the same number of people die by intentionally strangling themselves each year.  Or that the same number of people die from Alzheimer’s in California alone each year.  Or that four times that number die each year accidentally falling off of things.  Moreover, 70% of food borne illnesses result from poor food handling procedures during preparation.  Unless you’re also on a crusade to flatten everything or cure Alzheimer’s, I’d think twice about ceding greater authority of our food system to centralized management.

True to form, Congress has blithely offered its professional problem-solving services to rid us of the menace of deadly food.  And, true to form, it’s about to embark on another unarmed expedition into the tortuous territory of unintended consequences.  [Read more…]