Sunday, September 23, 2012

Are Organic Foods Healthier?

In American society, packaging trumps contents. Look at both the Democratic and the Republican presidential nominating conventions we all just endured. In the old days, these conventions had a purpose – to select nominees. Now, they are scripted, grandiose infomercials that insult our intelligence more than they inform us. They are coronations. I heard great oratory, decent rhetoric and pabulum. The spectacles wasted tons of money that could have been devoted to charity or some other worthy cause. As marketing and political folks understand well, packaging sells products. Think of this the next time you are choosing a bottle of shampoo off the shelf. Are you really buying the sleek bottle? Are you voting for the sleeker and more likable candidate?

Except for Mitt Romney, it seemed that every other speaker was raised in a log cabin. Lincoln would have no advantage if he were running today.

There’s plenty of packaging and fluff in the medical universe also. Complementary and alternative medicine, in my view, lures us with a seductive ‘package’ that often overpromises on what it can deliver. Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not dissing C & A medicine categorically or suggesting that it is not worthy of study. I maintain that any medical treatment that we contemplate for our patients should be based on science and not faith. Admittedly, in many clinical circumstances, we physicians must make a judgment before science has ruled on the issue. Yes, there is artistry in medicine.

I dine out often with close friends who believe that organic foods are more healthful. I’m skeptical of this and many other health claims made with regard to stuff that we eat. Is irradiated milk really dangerous even though this label sounds like we should be hearing scary music when we open the carton? Remember the phrase ‘farm fresh eggs’ which are no better than competing chicken eggs even though the label conjures up feelings of health and wellness? And probiotics? This requires its own blog post to sort out what we know from what we believe.

I’ll admit that the organic food label suggests a higher quality product, but this is not evidence. Just because we think, or other folks want us to think, that something is better for us, doesn’t make it so. Hebrew National hotdogs had a brilliant ad campaign years ago when they told viewers that their company ‘answered to a higher authority’ suggesting that their kosher product had a divine imprimatur. I’m not certain, however, that these porkless franks were truly food for the gods.

The respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study concluding that organic foods were not more healthful than ‘inorganic’ alternatives. There were some differences found with regard to antibiotic-resistant germs and pesticide exposure, but this does not mean that these products are safer for consumers.

Organic food is big business and it’s getting bigger. Tens of billions of dollars are spent on them each year by Americans who believe that these foods are higher quality. There is one indisputable difference that distinguished organic stuff from the rest of the stale and moldy stuff that I eat regularly. It sure costs more. Maybe the higher cost is part of the packaging to convince us that it’s really better. Remember the hair color product that used the phrase ‘it costs a little more, but it’s worth it’ to convince us that a higher price implied higher quality?

So, whom should I vote for this November? I’ll likely be voting against the president, although neither candidate inspires me. However, when it comes to packaging, the president is far ahead. Barack Obama is presented as the organic candidate. Romney is white bread.



6 comments:

George Reskakis DDS said...

The manner in which organic foods are farmed is less invasive to the environment as well as the farm workers. In my opinion, for that reason alone, one must consider them!

Heaalthcare Information System said...

The use of pesticide in raw materials is really embarrassing. It affects the human digestive system and it can extends up to decreasing life span of the human being.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

With regard to the above comment, there is no conclusive evidence that pesticides increase human mortality. Appreciate your comment.

Anonymous said...

While you might argue that no one has proven organic is better, why add potential hazards to our food supply? Prove the additives benign, don' t assume.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

Fair point. I agree that food additives should be determined to be safe. I still maintain that organic foods, which has an elastic definition, shouldn't be assumed to be more healthful.

David Brown said...

Perhaps more important than organic is mineral and omega-3 content of plant and animal foods. Michael Pollan says, "You are what what you eat eats." And in the Introduction to "Food for Nought: the decline in nutrition" Ross Hume Hall, PhD said this:

"Nourishment of the American populace has undergone a startling transformation since World War II. A highly individual system of growing and marketing food has been transformed into a gigantic, highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated products. This phenomenon is not peculiar to the American scene and occurs in every industrialized country. The United States, however, has progressed furthest in the transformation. Man can never be more than what he eats, and one would expect that a phenomenon with such profound effects on health and wellbeing as a radically changed system of supplying nourishment would be thoroughly documented and assessed by the scientific community. Such is not the case. The transformation has gone unmarked by government agencies and learned bodies. Government agencies, recipients of the public trust, charged with protecting and improving the public's food, operate as if the technology of food fabrication rested in pre-World War II days. Scientific bodies, supported by public funds and charged with assessing and improving the public's health, ignore completely the results of contemporary methods of marketing food...Failure to monitor and to appreciate the results of rapidly moving technology produces a brutal effect that forms the central theme of this book. Technology founded on mechanistic laws clashes head on with the processes of a natural world which adheres to very different laws. Modern industry, ignoring these biologic laws, molds and manipulates natural processes to suit and to promote its own mechanistic and economic goals."

Note the observation that "Man can never be more than what he eats..." Today's industrialized food supply offers an abundance of food artefacts dilute in micronutrients and heavily laced with omega-6 industrial seed oils. In comparison, the organic advantage may be too small to measure in the context of foods that rather quickly induce disease. I conclude with this quote from the The Modern Nutritional Diseases by Fred and Alice Ottoboni:

"The current relentless pressure to convert the entire population to a low-fat, high carbohydrate dietary regime seems to be driven by a curious set of circumstances. It began with an idea aimed at inducing the public to buy and eat foods that are profitable to the agricultural and food industries as opposed to foods that man was designed to eat. With judicious use of public relations, advertising, pseudo science, and political prowess, this idea has grown into a sophisticated and powerful movement that is changing eating habits throughout the world. Concurrently, the national priority aimed at the treatment of the modern nutritional diseases, rather than their prevention, has focused medical research on patentable new drugs rather than on preventive methods...The consequences are sobering. Older adults suffer premature disabilities and shortened life spans; younger adults, and even children, are increasingly affected by early signs of atherosclerosis, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. Enormous prescription drug and medical care costs have nearly reached the point of overwhelming the national budget. And tragically, a growing body of evidence suggests that the bizarre and increasingly common behavioral problems among young children and teen-agers are related to the combined effects of high sugar intakes and the virtual absence of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the American diet."

Junk food is junk food. IN the end, it matters little whether the ingredients are organic or non.

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