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An investigation into why the results of the recent Stanford University study comparing the nutritional value of organic food to conventionally grown food are nonsense.
“You’re the dumbest smart person I ever met.”
~ I Robot by Issac Asimov
In 2000, Craig Venter of Celera Genomics, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Public Genome Project announced that they had mapped the human genome. Their initial findings showed that human beings had approximately 32 million genes. What was surprising, however, was that it appeared that only about 2 percent of those genes actually did anything they could identify as useful. The remaining 98 percent appeared to have no known biological function so everything except the 2 percent was referred to as "junk DNA." This became accepted “scientific fact” for a decade.
On Sept. 5 of this year, Tim Hubbard of Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Roderic Guigo of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute announced that they had discovered that contrary to being “junk” these remaining genes were absolutely essential to regulating infinitely elegant levels of body, organ, cellular and molecular health and functioning, including the balances of critical proteins.
The implications were mind-boggling because they affected every imaginable level of dysfunction, every known disease, and everything from immune system health to neuropsychiatric disorders. And the discoveries are just beginning. So I guess the old saying that “God don’t make no junk” turned out to be true.
It’s a commonly accepted scientific fact that nature is ruthlessly efficient in its management of resources. Yet it’s a testament to the hubris of human beings that in the face of something that overwhelmingly challenged how we think about the world, scientists first chose to believe that nature suddenly abandoned that principle and had uniquely created humans as the most inefficient life form on earth.
This story sums up everything that’s wrong with the Stanford Organic Food Study. The media, of course, has had a field day with the “scoop” that the only difference between mass produced, agri-business food and our locally grown organic varieties is price and pesticide residues. And organic food supporters followed suit, arguing the other side of how the media had framed the “controversy.” Even stalwart supporters like Mother Jones Magazine and Michael Polan got mired down in this “logic” trap.
But did anyone actually read the study?
Garbage In / Garbage Out
The Stanford School of Medicine Report noted that in choosing what studies to include in their “meta analysis” (a study of the results of other studies) that “…the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) 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.”
Then there’s this footnote: "There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years."
Two days?! Two years?! Does any credible scientist or doctor actually believe that a study of human health and nutrition that is no longer than two years has any statistical relevance or value whatsoever? Does anyone actually believe that the major diseases that are killing us, like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, are the result of something that happened to us within the last two years… or two days?
But it gets worse. Arguments about the detrimental effects of pesticides are really a 1970's environmental issue and the negative impacts are well documented. But what’s more absurd about the Stanford Study is that with regard to meats, dairy and poultry it doesn’t even look at the impacts of antibiotics, artificial growth hormones and endocrine disrupters in conventionally grown / raised food, that all recent scientific inquiry has shown has effects on our bodies and the planet that are many times more serious than pesticide residues.
But even with that aside, the conclusions of the Stanford Study are fundamentally troubling.
Defining Nutritional Value
A reasonable question to ask when evaluating statistical “facts” is what were the assumptions of the researchers doing the studies? What definition did most of the studies use to determine what was or wasn’t of nutritional value and worthwhile to human health? The answer is that the vast majority of studies that exist only look at macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, etc.) and major micronutrients (generic vitamins and minerals) that are recognized as having nutritional value by the Food and Drug Administration as published by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Based on those metrics no one would expect any significant differences between organic and conventional foods.
However, the FDA’s nutritional guidelines are based on methods and thinking that’s over 50 years old and their definition of what does or doesn’t have nutritional value is so archaic that it’s pretty much irrelevant. Heck, they’re still trying to get people to even eat vegetables and whole grains, much less trying to understand what’s actually in them that’s good for you. In other words, the FDA is focused on about “2 percent” of what’s in our food. The other “98 percent,” to use the human genome analogy, much of which is impacted by how it’s grown, where it’s grown, seed quality, the soil conditions, the natural sunlight, the quality of water, etc., are not counted as having any nutritional value by the FDA.
Furthermore, as Stanford itself points out, there have not been any long term clinical studies of even the stuff the FDA does recognize as having value. And even if there were, to understand just how long it takes before anything is “proven” by long term clinical studies (and how meaningless that is to our everyday lives), it might surprise a lot of people to know that arthroscopic surgery, all spinal surgeries (including fusion, laminectomy, and discectomy), most chemotherapy and advanced radiation cancer treatments, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, massage, and almost all types of physical therapy also all lack any long term clinical evidence that they have any health benefits whatsoever.
I’m not a scientist but isn’t it reasonable to ask just what that other 98 percent of things in food are and what their potential benefits might be rather than jump to neat and tidy conclusions based on no real evidence and a pile of statistically questionable studies?
The Five Senses
Either you believe that your five senses; sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing, have evolved for some purpose and health benefit or you don’t. You either believe that there are almost infinite levels of perception and intelligence and biochemical feedback loops in your body and brain that go into choosing what you eat (or anything else you do for that matter) based on how it looks, smells, feels, tastes and maybe even sounds (some people tap on melons to hear if they’re ripe), or you don’t.
If you don’t believe your senses have a purpose other than their entertainment value then please just stop reading now because I can’t convince you.
But anyone who has their five senses working and has compared organically grown food to the mass produced food you find in stores like Safeway knows that the difference is striking. Or if that doesn’t convince you, just grow some tomatoes in your backyard and you’ll find the store bought ones taste like sawdust in comparison. This is not exactly new news. People have been growing and raising and catching their own food forever because they “sense” that fresh, naturally grown, wild caught food is better in every way.
The reasons for differences are many but they include things like sun and vine ripening is better than temperature manipulation and chemical preservatives and “ripening” treatments while in transit; growing in biologically rich soils is better than artificially fertilized and organically depleted soils; quick-to-market when ripe color and texture is superior to food dyes, applied “waxes,” artificial color additives and “finish” enhancers used by large corporate growers, and many more.
So there’s little argument that how food is grown has an impact on its color, smell, taste and consistency. But why is it that we are evolved to sense the differences? Perhaps it’s because they reflect the presence of the 98 percent of nutrients the FDA and almost all “clinical” studies to date ignore?
The 98 Percent
Consider this: Some of the things the FDA does not recognize as having any nutritional value include most of the items that fill the shelves of your local health food “vitamin” shop. It includes hundreds of thousands (millions?) of anti-oxidants, varieties of dietary fiber, trace elements, amino acids, probiotics, micro-nutrients, co-enzymes and bio-flavonoids that naturally occur in food. That includes substances like Q10, phosphadityl choline and vitamin D3 (versus just “vitamin D”), just a few of the things that have recently been identified as possibly the most important substances we can take to improve a wide variety of health conditions. And it also includes “phytochemicals.”
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants and are responsible for their color and “organoleptic” properties (pertaining to our senses), such as the purple of blueberries or the smell of garlic: micronutrients that many scientists now estimate to number as many as 10,000 that have the potential to affect diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. And these are scientists and doctors at places like Mayo Clinic and Sloan Kettering, not your local alternative medicine practitioner.
In fact the vast majority of cancer treatments today include regiments of a wide variety of anti-oxidants, trace elements, micronutrients and phytochemicals that the FDA says have no health benefit or nutritional value or “biological significance that has been established.”
Yet phytochemicals have been used as drugs forever, like aspirin that comes from willow tree bark and has anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies have concluded that cancer is in part caused by chronic inflammation and taking aspirin can reduce certain kinds of cancer occurrences by almost 30 percent. Taxol, a phytochemical extracted from the Pacific yew tree, is used to fight breast cancer. Punica granatum, an extract from pomegranates, has been shown to combat prostate cancer. Abundant in many fruits and vegetables, selenium is involved with major metabolic pathways, including thyroid hormone metabolism and immune function. The list is long and growing rapidly.
How food is grown and when it is harvested and what our senses tell us about it probably matters much more than we realize. Fresh taste and smell and bright natural colors are evidence of the presence of abundant phytochemicals, and our bodies don’t need a Ph.D. to know this. We’ve evolved and survived over millennia learning this.
In the sage words of Obi-Wan Kenobe: “Trust your feelings, Luke.” Go with organic.
~ Bob Silvestri is founder and chairman of Environmental Media Fund and over the past decade has worked on a variety of projects involving scientific research about organic food, agriculture, nutrition and human health. Recent projects include fiscal sponsorship of “Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World” in association with Balcony Films and the Prince of Wales Foundation.
Stanford School of Medicine; Health Benefits from Organic Foods; Sept. 3, 2012; by Michelle Brandt Sept. 3, 2012.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; Guidance for Industry: Evidence-Based Review System for the Scientific Evaluation of Health Claims; January 2009.
Wall Street Journal; 'Junk DNA' Debunked - Studies Find Human Genomic Makeup Is Vastly Messier; New Disease Links Seen; By Gautam Naik and Robert Lee Holz; Sept. 5, 2012.
Wikipedia Foundation online.