A recent study in the latest volume of Annals of Internal Medicine has received a lot of media attention across North America over the past few days. The University of Stanford Study reviewed a total of 240 studies involving organic food, of which 223 studies were focus on nutrient and contaminant levels and just 17 involved humans, while 3 of that 17 examined clinical outcomes.

Despite the research suggesting that eating organic is not necessarily healthier, the overall outcomes do point to organic foods having lower pesticide residues, higher levels of phosphorous, and reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, suggesting that organic foods having clear health benefits.

The risk of pesticide residue was found to be 30% lower on average among organic produce compared to conventional produce,  and the concentrations when found on organic produce were significantly lower than on conventional foods. The dangers of pesticide exposure have been highlighted in a recent report by the Ontario College of Family Physicians which analyzed 142 scientific studies which explored the health effects of human exposure to pesticides. It was found that reproductive health, child neurodevelopment/behavioural health and respiratory health were shown to be negatively affected by pesticide exposure.

In summary, if organic food has been scientifically shown to have less pesticide contamination, eating organic food is definite way to reduce pesticide exposure.

As stated, the research found that phosphorous levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce and that the risk for antibiotic-resistant bacteria was higher in conventional than in organic pork or chicken. The study claims differences in phosphorous are not clinically significant, yet phosphorous plays a synergistic role in calcium absorption and adequate phosphorous levels for post-menopausal women in particular are important.  So for some in the population, too much phosphorous is an issue while for others, not enough is the culprit.

The Stanford study may seem to be all-encompassing with a review of 240 studies, however, each study is still limited in the number of nutrients that each study looked at; for example, phytonutrients.

A growing body of research exists on the health benefits and nutrient profiles of organic food and research has shown that organic foods have higher levels of phytonutrients, such as antioxidants, which have been discovered to have astounding health benefits. More and more research is linking these nutrients to health protecting benefits, from protecting against arteriosclerosis to cancer fighting properties.

Moreover, reviews of the study to date have not mentioned that human health is a hard thing to measure. Thus, a study investigating the health benefits over a short, say one or two year, period is almost impossible to draw conclusions from. The short term approach usually undertaken by conventional science cannot be used to determine whether or not organic food is better for human health. Longer term studies are needed to seriously address this question.

Of course health is just one reason people choose to grow and purchase organic food. The environmental, and thus overall social, benefits of organic food should not be overlooked when questioning the value of organic food and farming.

Organic farmers challenge the notion of chemical dependence in farming and in doing so grow healthy food with minimal impact on the environment. The question of whether organic food is healthier is not a black and white answer, which most people seem to await.

Although research such as this points to the fact that, yes, organic food is in fact better for human health, longer term assessments are truly needed to find out just how exactly conventional and chemical agriculture is potentially suppressing the food that we grow and the further health benefits of organically grown food.

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