Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Organic: To Buy or Not to Buy?

As a stats buff (I was a teaching assistant/tutor for graduate level statistics for 4 years), I immediately wondered, "What was the sample/population?  How did they measure and then quantify 'beneficial' or 'nutritious'?  And over what timeline were these results examined?"  With the rise in focus on organic foods, particularly in the last two decades, and coming from Stanford, surely this study would be subjected to rigorous testing to claim 'significance' - that organic food either is or is not more beneficial.

And what I found was both interesting and thought-provoking.  And if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share my thoughts with you.  [In case you can't already hear it, there's a nerd alert going off.]

Organic mangoes will never replace phones, no matter how big they get.

The conclusions of the study were based on a meta-analysis, wherein results from studies worldwide comparing the health benefits of organic versus conventional food were pooled to see if significant patterns or trends could be deciphered. A 'data reduction,' if you will.  They sifted through "thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze...  17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or bacterial, fungal, or pesticide contamination of various products grown organically and conventionally."  None of the studies considered were longitudinal/long-term, with durations of all studies in the sample ranging from two days to two years.

And while the study did not yield results that would allow Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler, the head researchers, to conclude a significant difference between the health benefits of organic versus conventional foods, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Both researchers cite that the body of existing research has a great deal of variation, from the array of measurement tools employed, variables (e.g. weather, geography, soil condition) that may account for differences beyond whether or not food is organic or conventional, and the fact that there is such a wide variety of organic farming practices, some of which may result in a more nutritious outcome, and some that may not.  My favorite statistics professor likened variation to "static" or "noise" that interferes with one's ability to detect a signal clearly.  So if excessive "noise" prevents you from hearing a signal definitively, then while the conclusion that a signal exists can be made, conclusions as to the specificity of what that signal is communicating can only be made loosely at best.

And in my eyes, that is what this is.

A general assertion that given the existing body of evidence, the tested differences in health benefits of organic versus conventional foods cannot be clearly stated to be significantly better.  The study is simply stating "what is" according to the studies the researchers chose to evaluate.  And from there, make of it what you will.

But as I've gathered from numerous conversations, both on social networks and in-person, the issue is that many people don't make it "there."  Bravata and Smith-Spangler will get plenty of credit for the conclusion of their study, but they won't get nearly as much credit for the limitations of their research, which they clearly acknowledge.  Many will see the headline that there "little evidence of health benefits from organic foods," they'll see that it's from Stanford, and depending on their current perspective and/or eating habits, they may find themselves in one of two camps: either feeling defensive or validated.  Taken in isolation, "little evidence" means exactly that - not enough evidence.  But when tagged on with sensational headlines, it can become skewed and 'insufficient evidence in support of' can be quickly turned into 'more than sufficient evidence against.'

From my own personal experience, I found a greater level of wellbeing from adopting an organic focus to my diet and lifestyle.  The process of letting my gut heal after removing gluten and dairy was further encouraged by what I feel is a more compassionate and mindful way of eating.  And compassionate not only towards me, but towards the environment as well.  Less impact in terms of contaminating/polluting the air, soil and water, and greater encouragement of biodiversity and creating a more hospitable environment for multiple organisms, plant, bird, animal, and insect, to thrive, thus promoting a stronger, more resilient ecosystem over time.  And sourcing so much of my food from the farmers' market and from local organic and sustainable farms, there are now multiple faces and names that I can attach to the people who are growing what I eat.  And knowing that I am promoting a better quality of life for people as well, I don't think twice about spending a little extra to help them continue what they're doing.  They're putting food on my table - why shouldn't I help them do the same?

Melon display from Johnson's Backyard, a local, organic farm.

My favorite place to shop is Wheatsville Co-op.  Ironic, isn't it?

Many of my meals look like this nowadays: raw, local, organic.

And speaking for myself, that peace of mind and feeling of connection, that a change in me and the decisions I make on a daily basis can affect change in the world now and the world yet to be, is definitely significant. 

So while there may not be sufficient empirical evidence that health or nutritive benefits are better with organic food, I think it's important to remember that many aspects of health cannot easily be quantified.  How does eating make you feel?  Do you feel more energy or motivation?  Does happiness come more easily?  Do you feel more in charge of your own wellbeing?  Of course, we could take a poll and then average the results, but it would then be easy to say, "It's all in their heads -  good ol' placebo effect."  

But so what if it is?  

The mind is so powerful, more than we can possibly comprehend, and if positive changes are manifesting because we believe we're doing a service to our bodies and the world around us, should that necessarily be questioned?  Whether it's organic, conventional, or a combination of the two, if choices one makes are elevating their quality of existence, then at the end of the day, that is what truly matters.


By the by, September is National Organic Harvest Month.  If organic is new to you, or perhaps something you thought you knew about but aren't so sure anymore, take it as an opportunity to learn more about it and see what you think.  Talk to your local grocer, check a book out from the library, or better yet, go to a farmers' market and speak to organic farmers in person.

For more info via the web, here are some links you might find useful:
And, finally, a link to the original study itself: "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives: A systematic review"

Knowledge, after all, is power, and with it comes the potential to make powerful decisions.  Regardless of the results of a particular study or the agenda that may be behind it, remember that you have control over what you eat and control over what you believe.  


  1. You're in my head again. My best friend turned on NPR in the car last week Monday on our way to the L.A. County Fair while an interview about this study was in progress. It took all I had not to scream. :D While stats and methodology were not my favorite classes in college, it did give me a better understanding of what I was reading when I was looking at psych studies...or rather what I was not reading.

    Can't go wrong with organic. :D

    1. I should just pack and up move in, shouldn't I? I was super happy to dust the cobwebs off my stats-speak and write this post. Hope my nerdiness helps someone out there to understand that study a little better. :) Thanks, Debi!

  2. I think there is always going to be a disparity between what is written in papers as to what actually happens in real life. I know for myself that I try to seek out Organic whenever possible and I do not settle for the 'standard' unless I'm really stranded. Second to Organic is Local and for both of these I want to support them because they take the time to care and nurture. I was harvesting some Organic flax that I've been growing over the past few months and when I cracked open one of the dried buds and took out the golden seeds I smiled. It is so fulfilling to know that the fruits of your labor were well worth it. I really don't care if people call me granola or a even 'hipster'for demanding a healthier standard of food. Organic was the only thing around before the industrial revolution. Society has gone kookoo, rampant with greed and the pursuit for quantity over quality (I believe I may be restating some previous things I've posted in one of my Mondern Day Nonsense posts). Anyway, a decision to choose Organic or Local makes a huge impact. It's like sending an affirmation to the universe; that declares that we do care and want a sustainable future. You can play around with numbers all day, but in the end it's got to do with what we put into our bodies. Are we going to choose something that we know could potentially harm us or are we going to choose something that we know will help us. Food is our medicine; so buyer beware! =)

    1. I think your comment really speaks to the mind-body-universe connection that many people with an organic focus feel, Jess. There's a passion and fulfillment that can sometimes be missing from those who take their food for granted. Everything we do really does matter. :)

  3. Oh, that study... So many missed issues surrounding organic food. The health of the farmers who grow the food regarding exposure to pesticides, etc. wasn't considered, to name one. And, I love your statement that "many aspects of health cannot easily be quantified." So true!

  4. I hear you, Lisa. A long list of highly relevant things that were not taken into account - all things which play greatly into many people's decision to buy/support organic food. It really is a way of living, and not just about preserving one's budget, because just as there are aspects of health that cannot be quantified, there are also many things that one cannot put a price on. And helping to preserve a livable environment for generations to come: that is indeed priceless.


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