Dietitian with KOPN show offers insight on organic food study

Thursday, September 6, 2012 | 5:59 p.m. CDT; updated 8:27 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 6, 2012

COLUMBIA — The results of a study by researchers at Stanford University have caused a stir in the health and organic community.

The study concluded that, although organic foods provide less exposure to pesticides, there is not a big difference in health benefits. Registered dietitian and writer of the blog Food Sleuth, Melinda Hemmelgarn, who also has a show on community radio station KOPN/89.5 FM, talked to the Missourian this week about what consumers should know about the study.

Q: What is your reaction to the Standford study and how it was covered by the media?

A: These reports bring about headlines that are misleading. I serve on two boards, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board. I've met with a lot of organic farmers. It's not rocket science when you think about healthy soil making healthy food. When you have healthy soil, you have better water retention and a better environment, which protects us. The story is bigger than health. With all else being the same, as soil quality improves, the nutritional value of food improves.

We have to think about how our choices affect farmers. It's not all about you. Think about farmers and future generations. You have to look at the bigger picture. How you define nutrition is an important point as well. I define nutrition as beyond vitamins and minerals. Is it safe? The study is clear. Organic foods provide higher amounts of Omega-3 and less exposure to pesticides.

A problem with studies such as this is the pesticides are tested individually. When a family sits down to dinner, they are consuming more than an individual pesticide; they are consuming a pesticide cocktail that hasn't been tested before. At the end of the day, choose organic. It's better for everyone.

Q: Why are you concerned about this, and what effect do you think the results will have on shoppers?

A: I believe in the precautionary principle: We have to think of ourselves as a part of nature as opposed to above it. For people who don't want to believe or have "see, I told you" attitudes, headlines and studies like this feed their position. We seek out information that supports our philosophies. I like to tell people's stories. Many farmers have the same story of, "I just got tired of being covered in chemicals labeled with skull and crossbones." They wanted to be able to hug their children after they came in from working on the farm.

I tell the story of the once-conventional farmer who became paralyzed on one side after exposure to 2,4-D. He is now an organic farmer. For researchers to look so narrowly at food — what could be more important? We have such an intimate relationship with what we eat. Anything that protects the ecosystem protects us. These studies mislead consumers into thinking it doesn't matter whether you buy organic or not when, in fact, it does.

Q: What do you believe the advantages are to buying organic?

A: Collectively, our purchases matter. When we go to the grocery store and make our purchases, our dollars are the biggest votes. We get the agriculture that we demand. We have a great amount of power with our dollars. It is important to be active citizens and use our food votes to demand the food we want.

Q: If a family has a limited budget and can hardly afford conventional fruits and vegetables, let alone organic fruits and vegetables, is conventional better than nothing?

A: Often the choice you are given is not the choice you have to make. Can a person grow something? Can someone get involved in a community garden? Don't allow yourself to be forced into a choice. There is a third choice; I have options. Growing your own food or going to the farmers market later and making deals with farmers. Learning to cook is a big part of it. When you buy processed food, you are paying for the processing. Think about food as a basic preventative medicine. I'd give up a lot to buy good food. Food is the most important purchase you are making.

Q: What are your personal eating and buying practices?

A: I buy organic from the market or directly from farmers. I buy food in bulk and freeze or can it. I buy very basic food that is as close to the earth as possible. Chocolate and coffee are the two things I don't buy at the market. My diet is very plant-based. I do eat meat, but I buy it directly from the farmer. I have a freezer that I can store food in, which is a luxury. It's a different way of eating. I rarely eat fast food. I would eat fast organic food if I could find it, but I prefer to eat slow organic food.

Q: What other reasons do you believe people buy organic?

A: People don't want to consume pesticides and chemicals. People also want to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). We don't have GMO labeling in the U.S., but until we do, the best way for consumers to avoid eating genetically engineered food is to choose organic food.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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Harold Sutton September 6, 2012 | 8:33 p.m.

The organic discussion will go on for ever.

But a good point to consider is this; How did mankind survive before pesticides and synthetic fertilizers?

Old photographs and portraits from back then do not show a large number of obese people.

While the average lifespan was much lower than it is now, remember that there were very few doctors with good medical training and medical facilities.

Yes there were a lot of malnourishment deaths during times of drought or other adverse conditions.

And lots of accidents were not treated properly if at all.

But, people who did live in a healthy envirionment often lived a long time.

Food that needed to be preserved for the non-growing season was either root crops, pickled by several methods, or dryed. Meats were usually smoked, brined, or fresh killed.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 7, 2012 | 2:33 a.m.

"With all else being the same, as soil quality improves, the nutritional value of food improves."

It is possible to grow optimal produce without soil at all (hydroponically). EPCOT in Florida raises a lot of very good produce this way. Food plants, if presented with necessary nutrients, will yield nutrition (for humans) according to their genetics. Without them, they won't grow well, and may have less of certain nutrients than a happier plant, but that has little to do with "organic". "Healthy soil making healthy food" is a slogan without much basis in science.

"Organic foods provide higher amounts of Omega-3 and less exposure to pesticides."

Where is it shown that exposure to pesticides at the levels found in conventional food is harmful? Remember, the vast majority of "pesticides" in produce are natural products, and few have been characterized or tested. As far as any particular nutrient, as long as one eats enough of the right stuff, the nutrients take care of themselves. We do not generally have a problem with lack of food. We generally have a problem with peoples food choices and especially portions. IOW, too much sugar, salt, and fat, not anything to do with "organic".

"Learning to cook is a big part of it."

Cooking is a huge money saver, but most people have enough money (or think they do) that the drive-thru, or the little fat, sugar, and salt laden microwave packages are what they choose. The healthy part of cooking is being able to control your sugar, salt and fat, and it's just as easy to cook high calorie comfort food at home as something lighter.

"People don't want to consume pesticides and chemicals. People also want to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms)."

You consume pesticides and chemicals every time you feed, no matter what you eat or how it is prepared. Whether they are synthetic (within limits aet very cautiously by regulators) or natural makes a lot less difference. GMO's, similarly, have not been shown to be a human health hazard. It's important to realize that any effects of GMO plants on the surrounding environment do not translate into harmful foods. They're entirely separate issues.

As a dietition, Ms. Hemmelgarn would help a lot more people by advising them to eat lower calorie, lower fat, and most importantly, smaller portions of food. Whatever food they can afford. Also, advising them to get off the couch, get out of their cars, and MOVE. Exercise is far more important to general health than diet, at least with the bountiful food supply in the US.

This study is notable, and reinforces the findings of many other such studies over the years. The "organic good, conventional bad", at least as far as nutrition, is a silly ideology that persists because of scientific ignorance among a frightening part of the modern US population. As a dietitian, she should be advising on dietary issues that really help people.


(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 7, 2012 | 3:09 a.m.

Harold Sutton wrote;

"While the average lifespan was much lower than it is now, remember that there were very few doctors with good medical training and medical facilities."

Improvements in lifespan have come about largely by the lessening of infectious disease as a cause of death. Hygiene, water treatment, antibiotics and vaccines have all done their part.

Nowadays, these gains may be reversed because of our abundant food supply and pervasive lack of exercise. The vast majority of prescriptions are for conditions that are largely preventable through diet and exercise.

Virtually all risk of disease from modern American food is microbiological, and this can be minimized by proper cooking and storage.

Go to an old cemetary and look at some of the markers. You'll see truly how many people died in their childhood and youth/middle age before scientific medicine really took off. It's sobering.


(Report Comment)
Harold Sutton September 7, 2012 | 9:06 a.m.

Mark F.
I am assuming that what you wrote is supportive of my comments. I did not go into detail for time and space reasons.
My reference to "good medical training and medical facilities"was to refer to how it now with our medical services teaching the public how to take better care of their health.

Obesity is the number one greatest health concern in this country. So many are becoming so grossly overweight that the time may come when "first responders" (EMT/Paramedics) may have to bring along self-powered & propelled lifting equipment as standard inventory on the Ambulances.

(Report Comment)

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