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FSA organics study: read it closely

Mark Anslow

29th July, 2009

The press are just waiting to stick the knife into organics... but read this new study carefully and you'll realise that this is an infant science

So, should we stop eating organic? That’s the question that many devotees of Soil Association-stamped food may be asking following the release of a study today by the Food Standards Agency on the nutrient and health benefits of organic versus conventionally produced food.

If you’re expecting me to bash the FSA, I’m going to have to disappoint you. This study was carried out by researchers at the well-respected London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), it's thorough and rigorous, and was sorely needed – it is thought to be the first time that all the literature on the differences between organic and conventional food has been gathered into one place.

But let’s be quite clear about what this study does and doesn’t say.

First, the researchers did find statistically significant differences between the nutritional content of organic and conventional food in the literature they examined. Organic food contained higher levels of phenolic compounds, magnesium, zinc, flavonoids, sugars, dry matter, and phosphorus.

Some of these differences are neither here nor there: levels of sugar and dry matter are unlikely to affect your health, although they may affect taste. And, similarly, most of us in the West are unlikely to suffer deficiencies of zinc or magnesium. But higher levels of some phenolic compounds (notably polyphenols), and flavonoids have been linked with health benefits. Not conclusively, but there is a distinct possibility.

So why did the FSA study eventually conclude that there were no significant differences between organic and conventional food? Quite simply, because the studies that showed the significant differences described above were, well, a bit shoddy.

How so? Well, according to the LSHTM scientists, 20 per cent of the studies comparing crop-based food products failed to mention what cultivar they were examining. This is rather like one gardener boasting to another that his apple tree is bigger than his friend’s, whilst overlooking the fact that his friend had grown a dwarf variety.

In addition, less than half the studies mentioned which organic certifiers had rubber-stamped the produce they had tested. Without this information, it is difficult to tell what sort of growing regime had been applied. Organic is not a seven letter word.

The same, unfortunately, was true of the second stage of the FSA report, which looked at the health impacts of organically produced food. Four of the six human studies used involved 20 or fewer participants – far too small a number for the study to have any real statistical power. And another four of the six studies failed to take account of what their participants’ diets were on a day-to-day basis – almost akin to feeding a doughnut-eating couch potato and a vegan cyclist organic apples for a week and then comparing the differences in their health.

The LSHTM researchers conclude, quite rightly:
‘It should be noted that these conclusions relate to the evidence base currently available, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies… Examination of this scattered evidence indicates a need for further high-quality research in this field.’

Unfortunately, somewhere between the academic’s pen and the enthusiastic keyboard of the FSA press office, this important, guarded and measured conclusion got lost.

Instead, we are likely to see the headline ‘Organic No Better For You’ plastered across the world’s newsstands tomorrow, when in fact this study says no such thing.

What those newsstands should read is: ‘Buck Your Ideas Up, Food Scientists – There’s Work To Be Done…’

 

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