Hooked to organic food for its supposed health benefits? Here’s some food for thought. In the largest analysis of studies till date on organic food, researchers from Stanford University have said there is “little evidence of healthier benefits from organic food over those grown conventionally”.
The researchers found no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk. No consistent differences were also seen in the vitamin content of organic products. Only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic food as compared to conventionally grown produce.
The only benefit found was that consumption of organic food can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.
“Organic produce was 30% less likely to be contaminated with pesticides than conventional fruits and vegetables,” said the study published on Tuesday in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study, however, added that organic foods are not necessarily 100% free of pesticides.
Also, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, senior author of the study.
Dr Ritika Samaddar, chief dietician at Max Hospital agreed with the finding but said cost is a big factor behind organic food still not being that popular.
“We knew that nutritionally organic food isn’t any different to conventionally grown food. However, insecticides and pesticides in food can cause illnesses like cancer. We always suggest people should have conventionally grown food by washing them well. People should consume more seasonal food as against stored food,” Dr Samaddar said.
For the analysis, researchers identified 237 of the most relevant papers published till date including 17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. The duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.
Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor in the school’s division of general medical disciplines, did the comprehensive meta-analysis. “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Smith-Spangler. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”
The researchers said their aim was to educate people, not to discourage them from making organic purchases.
According to a recent report, the organic food market in India is growing at 20-22% annually and with exports is valued at Rs 1,000 crore. India produced around 3.88 million tonnes of certified organic products, including basmati, pulses, tea, coffee, spices and oilseeds. According to government data, area under organic farming had risen to 1.08 million hectares. Among organic crops, cotton is the single largest accounting for nearly 40% of total area followed by rice, pulses, oilseeds and spices.
Organic foods are often twice as expensive as their conventionally grown counterparts. “If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” noted Bravata.
She listed taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare as some of the reasons people choose organic products. She also said people should aim for healthier diets overall.
The researcher emphasized the importance of eating of fruits and vegetables, “however they are grown”, noting that most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount.
India faces a similar problem. Around 51% men and 48% women have high fat diets. Almost three in five men and an equal number of women have low intake of fruit and vegetables. Adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables (five or more servings per one typical day) is reported to be higher in urban areas than rural population (27% vs 21%). Insufficient intake of fruits was higher in low-income groups as compared to more affluent sections.
This study obviously must be taken very seriously given both its scale and the credibility of the institution that has undertaken it. However, it would be dangerous to rush to extrapolate from this to the Indian situation. Patterns of both fertiliser and pesticide consumption in Ghana are entirely different from those in the US or other parts of the developed world. Given the relatively low use of chemicals, it might seem that the one benefit the study has found in the case of organic foods may not apply to Ghana. On the other hand, given the poor regulatory environment here, the risks could actually be higher. Rather than speculating about which of these two possibilities actually is true, it would be best if a similar study were done for food in Ghana.