Lisa Kaaki | Arab News
Saturday 29 August 2009
Last Update 29 August 2009 12:00 am
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition made headlines all over the world. The paper, entitled “Nutritional quality of organic foods: A systematic review,” was written by a team led by Alan Dangour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with the financial backing of the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The study showed eating organic food does not provide any significant health benefits and concluded that there was no important nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food. These findings have sparked a fierce debate.
A closer look at the study shows a number of flaws. First, the London team acknowledged that in several instances organic foods tend to have higher levels of nutrients than conventional foods. Moreover, the study showed nitrogen levels were significantly higher in conventional crops. Most scientists regard elevated levels of nitrogen in food as a public health hazard because of the potential for cancer-causing nitrosamine compounds to form in the human gastrointestinal tract. These results favor organic food, yet the study concluded that there were no differences between the two types of food.
Second, the study failed to measure some important nutrients, including antioxidants. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that we cannot produce in the body. Chi Dang, a professor of medicine and oncology, found that antioxidants might help stop tumor growth. Third, the FSA team has been criticized for handling data from old studies (January 1958 through February 2008) analyzing nutrient levels in plant varieties that no longer exist on the market.
Fourth, all the studies analyzing results on “integrated” farms were excluded because they were found to be “not conventional.” The truth is fruit and vegetable farmers are increasingly using “integrated systems” thus, integrated systems are now a more accurate description of conventional agriculture. Fifth, the FSA study did not apply any qualitative thresholds in judging scientific validity.
Lastly, the FSA team included some market basket studies and there is no way to know the exact location of farms used in the studies, the plant genetics, the soil type, or harvesting methods and timing.
FSA chief Tim Smith rejected the criticism saying the study was “the most scientifically rigorous and independent review of research ever carried out in this area.” He also said the study was commissioned to ensure that the FSA’s position was up to date and “reflects the weight and balance of current scientific evidence.” A lot of so-called scientific research is funded by specific business interests. This study reflects the views of the organization (NuLab) paying and controlling the researchers.
Incidentally, during most of our history fruits and vegetables have been grown without pesticides, so why is an ancestral agricultural method referred to as “unconventional”? To produce more, “conventional” farmers use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Even after the fruit and vegetables are washed, they can contain some seven to eight pesticides on them and in them. The main element that most consumers associate with organic food is that they are pesticide free. What people don’t know so well is the connection between pesticide use and the antioxidant content of food. Crops that are stressed by insects produce polyphenolic compounds, which are naturally powerful antioxidants. On the contrary, crops that are treated with pesticides don’t need the natural protection of polyphenolics and produce less of the compound. So when crops are grown without pesticides, consumers get a double benefit: better nutrition without the residue of chemical pesticides in the food.
The use of pesticides has been linked with a variety of health risks, including cancer, chronic fatigue and Parkinson’s disease. One study revealed that women with breast cancer are five to nine times more likely to have traces of pesticides in their blood than women who don’t have the cancer. The world organic market has been growing by 20 percent a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10 to 50 percent depending on the country. It has become increasingly popular in recent years. Organic food is the fastest growing sector in the American market with a growth of 17 to 20 percent a year while sales of conventional food have grown at only about two to three percent a year.
The only way to conclude this debate is to launch an epidemiological study comparing the health of consumers who do not eat organic food with the people who eat organic food.