Why you should ignore the Stanford organics study conclusion about nutritional values

I still have one more bone to pick with that organic food study I told you about yesterday. And it concerns the primary reason we eat food in the first place: nutrients.

Stanford researchers found little difference in nutritional values between organics and conventionally grown foods.

First of all, this doesn’t size up with other studies we’ve seen over the years. There’s a lot of evidence that organic foods do have more nutrients.

And secondly, organic consumers are primarily looking for less exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms. So when nutrients are boosted — even a modest amount — that’s an added bonus.

But since Stanford treats the nutrient issue as if it’s a deal breaker, then I’m fired up to rise to the challenge.

Dial it back

The Stanford team examined 223 field studies that tested nutrient and contaminant levels.

That’s a lot of studies. And it sounds impressive. But that large number is exactly why it’s not impressive.

Think about it… Different farmers use different seeds. Their farms have different soils. Weather conditions vary. Irrigation varies. Maturity of plants at harvest time varies.

Also, for an organic farm, proximity to a non-organic farm often affects crop quality. And environmental issues can throw curveballs. In one season, insects or weeds may be plentiful. In another season, not so much.

So consider all these variables. And consider that the 223 field studies involved a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

And finally, consider the researchers. Every research team designs its own methods to analyze data. One team’s methods can vary widely from those of another team. And those variations might produce much different results.

You get the idea. The study is ambitious. But it’s too much. The weight of all these variables is ungainly. It’s comparing apples to oranges to broccoli.

So let’s keep it simple. Here’s a study I told you about several years ago…

Researchers at the University of California-Davis grew kiwifruits with either organic or conventional methods.

All the kiwis grew at the same time on the same farm. Both crops grew in the same type of soil, under the same environmental conditions. And researchers harvested them at the same stage of maturity.

The UCD team reported that the organic crop had higher levels of minerals, ascorbic acid, and phenol content. The result: “A higher antioxidant activity.”

There you go. Simple. It’s not the last word in organics vs. conventional. But I’ll take this result over a mashup of 223 results.

“Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 157, No. 5, 9/4/12, annals.org

“A Comparative Study of Composition and Postharvest Performance of Organically and Conventionally Grown Kiwifruits” Journal of the Science of Food Agriculture, Published online ahead of print 3/27/07, interscience.wiley.com

“Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds” Michelle Brandt, Stanford University press release, 9/3/12, med.stanford.edu

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