The Difference Between Organic and Conventional Food: What the Stanford Study Missed

Last month’s report out of Stanford that organic foods may not be much healthier or more nutritious than their conventional counterparts has caused quite a stir.

A deeper investigation into the study reveals a few things that were not highlighted in the coverage.

While the scientists analyzed vitamins and minerals, suggesting little variation between foods produced organically and those produced conventionally using a chemically-intensive agricultural system, food isn’t simply a delivery device for vitamins and minerals alone.

We are quickly learning in this industrialized food era that our food can be full of a lot of other things.  It has become a delivery device for artificial colors, additives, preservatives, added growth hormomes, antibiotics, pesticides, insecticides and so much more.

The term “organic” actually refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed and legally details the permitted use (or not) of certain ingredients in these foods.

The details are that the U.S. Congress adopted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 as part of the 1990 Farm Bill which was then followed with the National Organic Program final rule published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The standards include a national list of approved synthetic and prohibited non-synthetic substances for organic production which means that organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of:

  • antibiotics
  • artificial growth hormones
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • artificial dyes (made from coal tar and petrochemicals)
  • artificial sweeteners
  • synthetically created chemical pesticide and fertilizers
  • genetically engineered proteins and ingredients
  • sewage sludge
  • irradiation

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, these added ingredients are actually what differentiate organic foods from their conventional counterparts.  Yet in the coverage of the Stanford study, comparing organic food to conventional, little attention or analysis was given to these additives or their collective impacts on human health.  There is little discussion of the insecticidal toxins produced by a genetically engineered corn plant, or measure of the added growth hormones used in conventional dairy, or measure of the fact that 80% of the antibiotics used today are used on the chicken, pork, beef and animals that we eat.  There is also little discussion of what the cumulative impacts of these ingredients, not allowed in organic food production, are having on the health of our families, our children and our country.

Food is not just a delivery device for vitamins and minerals, as measured in the study, but it is also used as a delivery device for these substances that drive profitability for the food industry.  To fail to measure these added ingredients or to disclose the harm they might cause, while suggesting that there is essentially no difference, is incomplete at best.  Some might even go so far as to suggest that it is irresponsible in light of the fact that we are seeing such a dramatic increase in diet-related disease.

Additionally, anyone who knowingly sells or mislabels as organic a product that was not produced and handled in accordance with the regulations can be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.  In other words, if an organic producer were to add any one of the ingredients listed above, they would be fined.

WHY ORGANICS COST MORE

Admittedly, the high price of organic food can irritate anyone.  But the scrutiny that these foods undergo is enormous and expensive, driving prices at the cash register and for those producing them on the farm.  Why the costs?  Because the cost structure on our food supply offers taxpayer-funded resources called subsidies to the farmers using genetically engineered seeds and saturating crops in insecticides and weed killers, while charging the organic farmers fees to prove that their crops are safe.

That’s like getting fined to wear your seat belt.

So while conventional food production allows for the addition of cheap, synthetic and often controversial ingredients that have been disallowed, banned or never permitted for use in developed countries around the world, organic food carries the burden of having to prove that its products are safe – products produced without the use of added non-food ingredients that other countries have found controversial or removed from their food supply.

In other words, it’s an un-level playing field right now.  And if we were all sitting down as a national family at our national dinner table, I don’t think that any of us would want to be using our resources this way.  Wouldn’t we rather have the organic food be the one that we fund, making it cheaper, more affordable and more accessible to all Americans?

Or if given the choice, would we rather eat food hopped up on growth hormones, antibiotics and chemical pesticides?  You can answer that.

And while correlation is not causation, in light of the growing rates of cancer, diabetes and other conditions affecting our families, the answer would appear to be “eat less chemicals.”

But right now, the majority of the population does not have that choice.  Food, clean from antibiotics, added growth hormones and excessive pesticide residue, should be a basic human right, afforded to all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status.

WHERE TO START?

But since the high price of organic produce and a flawed food system that continues to charge organic farmers more to prove that their products, produced without ingredients that mounting scientific evidence has shown to cause harm, is still an insurmountable hurdle to the majority of the population, especially the growing number of unemployed, where can an American who wants to avoid these ingredients start?

Start with baby steps.  None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.  And thankfully, foods without these controversial additives and ingredients are increasingly sold in grocery stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger and Safeway which represent the largest single distribution channel, accounting for 38 percent of organic food sales in 2006. Look for milk labeled “RbGH-free” or look for products without high fructose corn syrup or artificial colors. A growing number of companies from Kraft to Nestle are producing them, because their employees have kids battling conditions like asthma, allergies, diabetes and cancer, too.

So maybe you rolled your eyes at this whole thing a few years ago, dismissing it as an expensive food fad.  The Stanford study goes a long way towards reinforcing that.  But read between the lines.  You are smarter than you realize and braver than you think.  And the love that you have for your family and your country can propel you to do things you could never imagine.  So navigate the grocery store a bit differently, get involved with a food kitchen, a community garden, a child’s school.  And reach out to your legislators.  They have families, too.

Because as the science continues to mount, from the Presidents Cancer Panel to the American Academy of Pediatrics, we are learning just how much the food we eat- and the artificial ingredients being added to it – can affect the health of our loved ones.

Additional Resources:

A former financial and food industry analyst, Robyn O'Brien triggered an allergic reaction in the food industry when she asked: "Are we allergic to food or what's been done to it?"She has been called "food's Erin Brockovich" by Bloomberg and the New York Times. From a conservative Texas family, Robyn earned an MBA on a full scholarship from Rice University, graduating as the top woman in her class before going to work as a financial analyst that covered the food industry. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Washington and Lee, where she was also Phi Beta Kappa.On Mother's Day 2009, Random House published her acclaimed book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It and today, Robyn is regarded as a food and health expert and sought after speaker who lectures and writes extensively, addressing the economic burden that disease is placing on our families, our companies and our country.She served on the Board of Directors of Healthy Child Healthy World and other non-profit organizations. She also serves on advisory boards for start ups and has been hired to speak at Target, Compass Food Group, Bloomberg and to both organic and multinational food companies. She is constructive and solution-oriented, recognizing that solutions must address shareholders and stakeholders concerns if they are to be true solutions. Named after a farmer, she also is focused on supply chain issue and the financial structure of the farming system.