Organic Food’s Nutrition Not Controversial

Despite Stanford’s study suggesting otherwise, all signs point to the superiority of organic vegetables.

Despite Stanford’s study suggesting otherwise, all signs point to the superiority of organic vegetables. Photo by Wikicommons/Zabdiel

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” —Hippocrates

Last month, a Stanford “megastudy” that supposedly found organic produce was no more nutritious than “conventionally” farmed crops (read: chemicals) made a few quiet corrections to demonstrably alter that conclusion.

The New York Times reported that, while the Stanford study sparked a firestorm of controversy, an equally valid study the year before found the opposite conclusion but drew little attention. (“Parsing of Data Led to Mixed Messages on Organic Food’s Value,” Oct. 15: jfp.ms/stanfordorganics)

Published in April 2011, scientists at Newcastle University in England found organically grown food more nutritious, with more vitamin C, on average, and many more of the plant-defense molecules that help shield against cancer and heart disease in people.

The reason, according to the Times, was first due to a different methodology used in quantifying (counting) separate instances of crops, while also allowing for differences in climate and soil conditions. Secondly, the Stanford study didn’t differentiate the types of chemicals—flavonoids—that can affect health.

The Stanford study apparently confused or didn’t differentiate between “flavonoids,” “flavonols” or “flavanols.”

As the Times reported, “flavanols are a class of compounds that plants produce for self-defense. Flavanols are found, for example, in cocoa and green tea, and are thought to help prevent against cancer, heart disease and other ills in humans. Flavonoids are a larger class that includes flavanols.”

Organically grown crops have more flavanols because they must produce them to fight against pests that chemically grown crops otherwise eradicated; the flavanols provide a richer flavor to organically grown crops and also have human health benefits.

The Stanford study created such a firestorm is because it runs against common sense—food grown with care, in healthy soil should be good for you, and better for you than food that is grown without much care, in depleted soils bolstered by manmade chemicals and bathed in deadly toxins.

The reason megastudies such as Stanford’s and Newcastle’s reach widely divergent conclusions is because farms vary, too. Not every conventional farm is a worn-out toxic dump run by chemical hoseheads; nor is every organic farm a garden of Eden tended by angels. As industrial farming has overtaken organics, with farms of thousands of acres grown the same as their conventional counterparts but without synthetic chemicals, the lines have blurred.

Frankly, it’s hard to tell what foods are truly healthful and good for you. As Hippocrates noted, food should heal, not harm. Organically grown crops, tended with care, are healthful—regardless of the methodologies of studies and their controversies.

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