Posts Tagged ‘Food Standards Agency’

Organic food has no nutritional or health benefits – my personal response to the Review Authors and the FSA

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

A couple of weeks back now in July 2009, the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) issued a press release together with the publication of a scientific review of the published science on investigations into the comparison of the nutritional composition and health benefits of organic and non-organically farmed food by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 

It concluded “that there are no important differences in the nutrition content of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food” to quote Tim Smith, Chief Executive of the FSA from his open letter defending the research.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: “Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”

Quite understandably the report, or more precisely the press releases from the FSA, was picked up by the UK press and reported on in the printed and broadcast media with people on all sides chipping in their two-penny’s worth.  Most of it was off-the-cuff and partial.  The headlines were understandably eye-catching: “Organic food is no better” and “Organic nosh is not healthier”.

So I felt, I should read the scientific review and come to my own conclusions.  And I have to say I am rather underwhelmed by the report considering the assertions made and believe that the FSA (and perhaps all parties) have been disingenuous and unfocused in their reponses.  I would question whether any of them, including the senior people at the FSA, have actually read the report or put ant sensible thought about how it should be publicised.  In fact, I believe everyone has been irresponsible and has damaged their own reputations, as well as the reputations of their bodies.

The report itself is neither a good piece of science nor a bad piece of science and its conclusions neither have merit nor dismerit.  Overall, the report really has very little to say and there is very little useful information to glean from it.  By itself and if it was in a less contentious sphere, I suspect it would have sunk without trace as a piece of useful academic procedure rather than actually having contributed much to the debate in its subject area – organic food.  It’s a 2.2 degree rather than a 1st, a C for effort rather than an A for excellence.

Having read the report, there is really only one rational conclusion from the review undertaken for the FSA and it is as that from the review of the research undertaken to date there is insufficient data available to make any definitive conclusions about organic or non-organic food.  Therefore, neither the FSA nor the organic industry can look to the review as having strengthened their hand. 

Furthermore, it was very disappointing that the review authors did not recommend that further research should be done to address the questions being asked.  They should have used this opportunity to outline the essential characteristics that such a research project and report should have to enable it to meet the stringent filtering process that they went through in whittling down 52,471 reports to 55.

The research paper

The research identified 52,471 citations and reduced these down to 292 that were potentially relevant.  Of these, a further 182 were excluded as they did not meet additional criteria while a further 26 were added after hand searching of reference lists and direct contact with authors.  In the end, 162 publications met the quality criteria set by the research team.  This was whittled down further to 55, or 34% of the 162, as meeting a set of “satisfactory quality” criteria.  The methodology seemed in general satisfactory, although I was not convinced by the exclusion of publications that excluded an English abstract as this suggests an overall lack of rigour and effort by the team.

Nutrient content comparisons were then extracted from the 162 studies yeilding 3,558 sets of comparison that “compared nutrient content in organically with conventionally produced foodstuffs”.

The research team then analysed the results for different nutrient categories detailing the number of comparisons and studies together with the result as to which mode of agriculture demonstrated statistically higher levels.

The comparative table yields the following results (Table 2 & 3: Comparison of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock” on pages 19-20 of the report):

  • In the all 162 studies comparisons, conventional won in the nitrogen category, organic in 9 categories with a draw in 23 categories;
  • In  satisfactory 55 studies, conventional won in 1 category (nitrogen) and organic in 3 categories, 27 draws and 2 no statistical conclusion possible.

Further analysis of the comparison table yields the following results (Table 2 & 3: Comparison of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock” on pages 19-20 of the report):

  • In the all studies section, there was an average of 65 comparisons per category ranging from 164 to 9 for ash.  This was from an average of 18 studies per category with a top level of 42 and a low of 5;
  • In the satisfactory quality section, there was an average of 25 comparisons per category ranging from a high of 80 for phenolic compounds down to 0 for trans-fatty acids.  These comparisons came from an average of 7 studies per category ranging from 17 studies down to 0.

The conclusion of the first part of the review was that “no evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content”.  The review authors then continued a little further on to state that “there is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”

The second part of the review sought to look at the “Comparison of putative health effects of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review”.  In this analysis, only 11 relevant publications were found and only 3 were deemed to meet the pre-defined satisfactory quality criteria.  The results were that “in conclusion, because of the limited and highly variable data available, and concerns over the reliability of some reported findings, there is currently no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs.”

My conclusions

I have my own views on organic and I could probably drum up conflicting evidence to the review done for the FSA.  Similarly, I could complain that the report did not cover “address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues…or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices”, but that would be going off brief.

There is really only one rational conclusion from the review undertaken for the FSA and it is as that from the review of the research undertaken to date there is insufficient data available to make any definitive conclusions about organic or non-organic food.  Therefore, neither the FSA nor the organic industry can look to the review as having strengthened their hand.  

Furthermore, it was very disappointing that the review authors did not recommend that further research should be done to address the questions being asked.  They should have used this opportunity to outline the essential characteristics that such a research project and report should have to enable it to meet the stringent filtering process that they went through in whittling down 52,471 reports to 55.

On the contrary, the review authors and the FSA have shown their bias by spinning the conclusions in the review document to make it appear that they have uncovered strong evidence to dissuade consumers from purchasing organic.  They are guilty of being disingenuous through their PR, not least of which is the release of this in the summer holidays when the FSA is guaranteed maximum headlines.  For example when Gill Fine says “that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food”, this implies and was spun by The Sun that the evidence shows that there are no health benefits, but what she means is that evidence was lacking and that the reviewers could only find 3 reports out of 52,471 reports that addressed health benefits and so were unable to draw any conclusions.

The review report can be seen as a waste of time and effort.  I do not think this is so.  Both sides, the FSA, the non-organic farming industry and the organic agricultural industry can draw a line in the sand and say that no-one has done valid research before 2008.  And were the Government interested in undertaking proper research, we can now sit down and determine: (a) the definition of organic; (b) the nutrients that need to be considered; (c) the health benefits that should be looked into; (d) the required characteristics of the research and the report for it to meet any quality thresholds.  The research can then begin in a number of studies across Europe and the World. 

Personally, I do not believe that the UK or US Government would welcome such research and that it will fall either to the EC or rich individuals to finance such research – so step up to the plate Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, the Goldsmiths or Rothschilds.