by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Oct 14 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Organics, alas

I am a great believer in the value of organic production methods, which avoid the most toxic pesticides and herbicides, are demonstrably better for soil, and produce fewer greenhouse gases.

But I wish the organic industry would try to find a less conflicted, more objective way of conducting studies on organic foods.

The study: Production-related contaminants, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in organic and conventionally produced milk samples sold in the USA.  JA Welsh, et al.  Public Health Nutrition.  Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1017/S136898001900106X

Conclusions:  “Current-use antibiotics and pesticides were undetectable in organic but prevalent in conventionally produced milk samples, with multiple samples exceeding federal limits. Higher bGH and IGF-1 levels in conventional milk suggest the presence of synthetic growth hormone. Further research is needed to understand the impact of these differences, if any, on consumers.”

Funding: Financial support: Data collection was supported by the Organic Center…. The Organic Center had no role in the design, analysis of samples, or writing of this article.

Conflict of interest: J.A.W.’s investment portfolio includes equity in one of the companies whose milk products were randomly selected for use in this study. All other authors have no perceived or potential conflicts of interest to report.

Comment: Organic standards are about production values.  Antibiotics, toxic pesticides and herbicides, and genetic modification are not allowed in organic production and would not be expected to be detectable in organic milk.  The result reassures that the system is working properly (why wouldn’t it?).  But I wish it had been funded and conducted by investigators with no vested interest in its outcome.  I am aware of the argument that independent funding is not available for studies like this.  That’s a problem that the organic industry needs to solve.

Thanks to Stephanie Laverone for telling me about this study.

Jan 29 2019

My latest honor: “Crankster!”

I don’t usually pay attention to what the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH) says or does, mainly because it is a long-standing front group for the food and chemical industries, and it predictably supports the interests of those industries over public health (see US Right to Know’s analysis).

But then I read this from the Center on Media and Democracy: Corporate Front Group, American Council on Science and Health, Smears List of Its Enemies as “Deniers for Hire.”

Smeared by the site are scientists Tyrone Hayes, Stephanie Seneff, and Gilles-Éric Séralini; New York Times reporter Danny Hakim and columnist Mark Bittman; well-known food and science writer Michael Pollan; nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle; public interest groups like U.S. Right to Know, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, and Union of Concerned Scientists; past and present CMD staff, and many other individuals ACSH does not like.

Clearly, I’m in good company.  But what, exactly, have I—a “Crankster,” apparently—done to deserve this honor?  It seems that I:

What can I say?  Read my work and decide for yourself if such concerns are justified.

Dec 11 2018

Eat organics, reduce cancer risk?

I rarely post anything about agricultural chemicals, mainly because it’s so hard to find people who are not exposed to them, most people are exposed only to small amounts, and the industry that makes them is so fierce about casting doubt on the quality of any research demonstrating harm.

But here is a French study comparing the risk of getting cancer among people who consume conventional diets with those who mainly consume organic foods.  Organics are relatively free of the most potentially harmful pesticides and herbicides.

The key points of this study:

Question  What is the association between an organic food–based diet (ie, a diet less likely to contain pesticide residues) and cancer risk?

Findings  In a population-based cohort study of 68 946 French adults, a significant reduction in the risk of cancer was observed among high consumers of organic food.

Meaning  A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer; if the findings are confirmed, research investigating the underlying factors involved with this association is needed to implement adapted and targeted public health measures for cancer prevention.

The authors’ offer this as the most likely explanation:

…the prohibition of synthetic pesticides in organic farming leads to a lower frequency or an absence of contamination in organic foods compared with conventional foods46,47 and results in significant reductions in pesticide levels in urine.48

They also note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer finds certain agricultural chemicals (most notably glyphosate / Roundup) to be probable or possible carcinogens.

As for opposition, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), an industry-sponsored group that can always be counted on to defend chemicals in the food supply, offers this detailed critique of the study.

Yes, of course we need more research on this question, and the sooner the better.

In the meantime, this study provides another good reason for choosing organic foods whenever you can.

References

46. Barański  M, Srednicka-Tober  D, Volakakis  N,  et al.  Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811. doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366

47. Smith-Spangler  C, Brandeau  ML, Olkin  I, Bravata  DM.  Are organic foods safer or healthier?  Ann Intern Med. 2013;158(4):297-300. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-158-4-201302190-00019

48. Science and Technology Options Assessment. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU%282016%29581922_EN.pdf. Accessed May 28, 2017.

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Oct 31 2018

Organic foods might reduce cancer risk, says new study

I never cease to be amazed by how angry some people get about organic foods.

  • They complain about its higher prices (organics cost more to produce).
  • They complain about its implicit—no, explicit—critique of conventional farming methods (organics use fewer toxic pesticides, are kinder to soil, and are more sustainable).
  • They complain that organics exclude GMOs (this is bad for the GMO business).
  • They complain about research showing the benefits of organics.

This last complaint brings me to the study on organic food and cancer just published in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

This is an observational study of nearly 70,000 people who were asked to report their level of consumption of organic foods and were then monitored for cancer for 7 years.

The results: those who reported consuming the highest levels of organic foods had the lowest risk of developing cancer during that period.

For non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancer most associated with exposure to herbicides and pesticides used in conventional agriculture and GMO production, the observed reduction in risk was a whopping 86%.

An accompanying editorial lists the limitations of the study; the dietary intake data were self-reported, the questionnaire wasn’t validated, blood levels of pesticides and herbicides were not measured.

So yes, more research—perhaps much more research—is needed to confirm these observations before anything can be said about whether organics are really protective against cancer.

But in the meantime, there’s no harm in eating organic foods and these foods have demonstrable environmental benefits.

Choosing them means voting for food production systems that are better for the environment—and might be better for health as well.

This makes organics a good bet and worth the premium price if you can afford it.

Here’s what the New York Times says about this study.

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Sep 28 2018

Weekend reading: Elliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower

Elliot Coleman.  The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.  30th Anniversary Edition.  Chelsea Green, 2018.

The first edition of this book came out in 1989 and it has been an essential tool for organic farmers and home gardeneres ever since.  Coleman’s goal is to make everyone want to farm organically.

“Small farms,” he begins, “are where agricultural advances are nurtured.”  And, he says, “I write only about those things I know.”

Fortunately, he knows a lot.  He knows about soil fertility, pests, weeds, crop rotations, agricultural craftsmanship, land, labor, marketing, and the economics of all of this.

His philosophy?  A pleasure to read.

Humans cannot imagine a world where they are not in charge.  As a biological farmer, I work in partnership with Nature, and I’m a very junior partner.  Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as “competent ignorance,” and I find that a very apt description.  But my level of trust in the design of the natural world and willingness to be guided by it is discomforting to those who think we should exercise total power over Nature…The reality of today’s world is that the practical success of the many farms managed on biological lines coexists with the striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why these farms succeed.  The foundation upon which our Maine farm operates—a sense that the systems of the natural world offer elegantly designed patterns worth following—appears to be an indecipherable foreign language to most of agricultural science.

 

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May 16 2018

Should organic eggs be labeled “healthy?” Their producers think so.

You have to have some sympathy for egg producers.  Egg consumption has been declining for years.

Egg producers blame the decline on cholesterol concerns; eggs are by far the largest dietary source of cholesterol.

Now Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is petitioning the FDA to forget about cholesterol and update its definition of “healthy” so the company can advertise its eggs as “healthy.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech last month that the FDA would be updating the definition.

I, of course, think “healthy” is a slippery slope best avoided, and that Congress never should have allowed health claims on foods in the first place.,

But too late for that.

I don’t envy the FDA’s challenge here.  The petition is based on the dietary guidelines, but what the guidelines say about dietary cholesterol, and therefore eggs, is extremely confusing.

As I explained in a previous post, the guidelines no longer recommend a cap on dietary cholesterol of 300 mg/day (the equivalent of 1.5 eggs), but do say that people should eat as little cholesterol as possible.

Good luck on this one.

Mar 9 2018

Weekend reading: Organic Profit / Prophet

Andrew N. Case.  The Organic Profit: Rodale and the Making of Marketplace Environmentalism.  University of Washington Press, 2018.

Image result for The Organic Profit: Rodale and the Making

I did a blurb for this one:

Organic Profit is a great read for anyone interested in knowing how the Rodales and Prevention Magazine helped bring organic foods from cult to mainstream and from pesticide-free produce to environmentally conscious lifestyles.  This is biography, social history, and contemporary politics, all viewed through the lens of the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food system.

Here are a few brief excerpts from the last couple of chapters:

  • The surge of public interest and engagement with environmental issues in the 1980s provided the Rodale Press with an opportunity to make a renewed case for reforming the food system.  As a privately held firm that did not need to meet the quarterly demands of shareholders, the company enjoyed the freedom to pursue projects that did not create immediate returns.  To address the farm crisis, the company relied on the tools of the marketplace…to generate public support for reforming how food was grown, distributed, and consumed in the 1980s.
  • Yet the impact of these efforts was limited at best….Rodale’s story does not resolve the tension between prophecy and profits, but it does illustrate the complexities of green consumerism and the many unresolved questions about the choices we face in an era of unprecedented environmental change….
  • The crowded marketplaces of consumer societies have succeeded in providing an array of choices at the exact same time that consumer societies have failed to tackle global climate change and many other issues of health, equity, and sustainability.
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Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.