Stanford Organic Study Ignores Variety Differences

Stanford Organic Study Ignores Variety Differences

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More nutritious because of the holes? Possibly.

Rant readers, please welcome Dr. John Reganold of Washington State University, who has done groundbreaking work demonstrating the value of organic agriculture, including studies that show a correlation between the quality of the soil and the quality of the food it produces. In the wake of the recent furor over a Stanford University review study comparing the healthfulness of organic and non-organic foods, which found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious, I asked him for his thoughts on the Stanford group’s conclusions. 

Q: What do you think of the Stanford organic study?

A: Since 2000, there have been at least 12 review studies—meta-analyses of previous studies—looking at the nutritional quality of organic versus conventionally grown foods. And nine of these studies have found some evidence that organic food is more nutritious. Just three have concluded that there is no consistent difference or that there is a lack of strong evidence. Another study led by Dr. Kirsten Brandt of Newcastle University that I think is the best study found that organic fruits and vegetables are more nutritious. It didn’t receive much press when it was published last year, by the way.

One of the differences between the two review studies was whether they included comparisons between different varieties of the same crop, which can vary greatly in terms of nutrition. In the Stanford study, 60% of the comparisons used were between the same cultivar, so presumably 40% were not. Brandt was more picky and only compared like cultivars.

Looking at the big picture, I’m glad the Stanford group did the study. They are spurring debate, and I think that is good. While they found that there is a lack of strong evidence for the nutritional superiority of organic foods, they also found that consuming organic food can reduce your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Q: The New York Times piece about the Stanford study mentioned that it neglected to include the strawberry study you led. That study found that there is a connection between the nutritional quality of strawberries–as well as their flavor–and soil quality, including the biomass and activity of soil microbes. And that on both fronts, organic wins. In the past, you also were part of a long-running apple study that connected the quality of the fruit with the greater diversity of nematode species in organic soil. Do you think we’ll ever establish once and for all the connection between healthier food and healthier, livelier soil?

A: People think that if you have healthy soil, you have healthy food, but it’s very difficult to prove. In the case of strawberries, we did show that healthier soils produce healthier food. Does that mean that healthier soils produce healthier food in general? We can’t say that.

Q: The Stanford study didn’t mention flavor. Your research is unusual in that it considers flavor–and has found that organic does taste better.

A: There haven’t been many taste tests done. My strawberry study did find better flavor in the organics. But the results of other taste tests have not been conclusive.

Q: Okay, as a gardener, I know my homegrown organic produce tastes better than supermarket food, and I have faith that it’s more nutritious, too, thanks to my beautiful soil and all the creatures in it. But I do find that Stanford study disheartening.

A: Keep on gardening! The Stanford study did find some results that suggest that organic food is better for your health. You’re also reducing the environmental costs of your food, in part because you don’t have to drive to the store to buy it. And that connection to the land that we develop when we grow our own food improves our feeling for the whole planet.

Posted by

Michele Owens
on September 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy, Science Says.

    • kermit
    • 16th October 2016

    Michelle, even if organic food doesn’t turn out to be significantly more nutritious, it’s healthier for Mother Earth and safer. Also, we invariably eat or preserve it fresher than grocery store produce. Also, too, we get more exercise and fresh air. These are significant.

    • Boneponio Gardenerd
    • 22nd October 2016

    To all of the faithful organic gardeners out there, take heart! There will probably never be conclusive agreement on either the comparable taste of organic versus “conventional” produce OR their respective nutritional value. Then again, there are those who will argue over whether global warming and evolution are real. Relative taste is far too subjective an aspect to be the sole determining factor when making your choice. And as mentioned in the article above, there are a myriad of apples being compared to oranges (excuse the pun). Consider this: when given an option which is mindful of the long established mechanisms of the planet, that considers the proven interdependencies of the natural world, it is at the least a very good bet.

    • Christopher C NC
    • 9th November 2016

    In taste test studies I would question where did the industrial produce come from for the studies. Did it come from the supermarket or more directly from the factory where it may have been allowed to ripen for the test before normal harvest and shipping?

    • Sandra Knauf
    • 11th November 2016

    This study is inconclusive, and flies in the face of common sense. Ignore it. It’s only in the news because it’s controversial. What about all the new “discoveries” they’ve made regarding food in the last couple of decades–antioxidants and other properties they didn’t know about before? Now we’re getting into biodynamic farming (the idea which has been around for almost a century). We live in a country where GMOs are not only in almost every single processed food, but they are not even labeled, for God’s sake! Food science is in its infancy (by choice) and mostly run by multinational corporations.

    • greg draiss
    • 13th November 2016

    Again is organic garlic from China as good as regular garlic from the states. All these surveys ignore the total ECOnomic/Carbon footprint. Is it really better to import organics than regular stuff grown here. Was the Chinese USDA organic garlic shipped on hybrid trucks and ships powered by the wind? DOUBTFUL.

    • Jason
    • 14th November 2016

    The fresher the food, the better the taste and quality. Being organic may or may not make a difference, I don’t know. But it does seem clear that organic gardening and farming is better for the environment.

    • Colin Seymour UK
    • 15th November 2016

    Flavour is primarily governed by the chosen variety. Whether a variety has been bred especially for good flavour or whether it has been bred for commercial growers who are more interested in visual high quality and heavy crops. Good flavour or not is further governed by the water content. If a crop is forced on with extra warmth and extra water and extra soluble feed its internal structure will not be as dense with not much dry matter and will have more water in its internal structure – therefore less flavour.

    • Michele Owens
    • 15th November 2016

    Colin, amazed that you are using artificial fertilizer. Why on earth would you need that stuff, when a little compost makes everything explode?

    • Colin Seymour UK
    • 15th November 2016


    • Colin Seymour UK
    • 15th November 2016

    Also Michele

    • Michele Owens
    • 16th November 2016

    I mean 45 minutes apart by car. So not much climatic difference. Just different soil types.

    • Michele Owens
    • 16th November 2016

    You must be kidding! My vegetables are gorgeous, with nothing but a sheet mulch of organic matter.

    • Colin Seymour UK
    • 16th November 2016

    They will grow to some degree but whether they grow as well as might do is unlikely. Wild plants grow in the wild as wild plants do, but they will not be like cultivated plants which can achieve the greatest potential when properly fed.

    • greg draiss
    • 17th November 2016

    Colin I agree with you on the need sometimes for inorganic ferts. The cost of organics is sometimes prohibitive in one needs to get so many pound per ace to be profitable. The advances in “slow coating” chemical ferts to mimic organics is a winner.

    • Colin UK
    • 18th November 2016
    • Colin S UK
    • 18th November 2016

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