You probably know the confused state of affairs: There are individual studies showing that organic food is nutritionally superior to industrially produced foods , but an analysis of all the evidence available suggests that it’s not. There’s no consensus. Now people are buzzing about a fun little study out of Southern Methodists University that takes on this issue from a new angle.
Here’s the thing about those old nutrient comparison studies: We don’t know if they are counting the right things. Every plant is packed with chemicals with affects that we don’t understand (consider the falcarindiol 3-acetate found in carrots) or haven’t yet noticed. Over and over in the course of nutritional history, we’ve thought that we knew about everything we needed to eat, only to discover that, (for example) there was something else important (vitamin C to stave of scurvy, not to mention amino acids, and iodine to help with your little goiter issue). I’ve written about the evidence suggesting that the structure of nutrients (not the chemicals themselves but the way they are stacked) may be important, and the power our gut microbes have over us. The point is, there are huge unknown unknowns in nutrition.
The nice thing about this new study (published in PLoS One), is that it’s holistic: Instead of looking just at those nutrients we already know, the scientists tried to look at organic foods in all their complex glory. They did this by comparing fruit flies fed on organic versus conventional produce (both purchased from a Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, incidentally). And the bugs eating organic did better: They lived about 25 percent longer and were more fertile, a basic sign of randy vitality. If this sounds like a simple school science project that’s because, in a way, it was. The lead author of the study, Ria Chhabra, is still in high school. She brought the idea to real-deal scientist Johannes Bauer and he took on the project. Pretty cool.
They made a nice little video explaining it:
There are also problems with holistic studies like this. When you embrace complexity you then have to ask, what piece of this complicated system is causing this effect? Is it some unknown phytochemical? Is it the balance of nutrients in organic food? The synergy between food chemicals? What? As a supporter of organic food, I’m going to refrain from gloating over this result: There’s just way too much here that still needs to be unpackaged.
My bet is that the flies fed organic foods did better because they were exposed to fewer pesticides. There is consensus that organic food contains significantly lower levels pesticides. We are talking about tiny, tiny amounts here: hardly enough to hurt a human, but maybe enough to slow down a little fruit fly. Plus, many insecticides don’t target humans (they go after things like exoskeleton development, which those of us who aren’t mutant superheroes don’t have to worry about).
The takeaway? It will be fascinating to see what this area of study turns up, but don’t start celebrating just yet.