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Here's why organic and natural health claims could put you in a credibility squeeze

"Are organic foods better than conventional foods and worth the extra money?" a reader asked the Lincoln JournalStar's "Food Doc," Bob Hutkins. As you might expect, considering his position as a food-science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Food Doc was very measured in his answer, attempting to balance both sides of the sometimes contentious debate about organics.

We'd like to take this opportunity to be a bit more blunt. 

Grocers seeking to make their stores the new center for wellness must do everything to guard their health-information credibility. Controlled studies are casting doubt on the ability to support claims that organic foods are healthier and more nutritious. Research continues to demonstrate what farmers intuitively understand: Over-selling the health benefits of organics may be setting us all up to disappoint educated customers.

Consumer studies have shown again and again that shoppers buy organic products first and foremost because they believe they’re getting safer, more nutritious food in exchange for the premium price. And many retailers, looking for that sales advantage, have done nothing to dissuade them of that notion—some have even openly advocated the message.

The problem is no science supports that claim, a fact of life USDA recognizes when it cautions that organic is merely a name for a process of growing plants and animals—it says nothing about the quality or safety of the food. Here’s what a sampling of the research says:

  • An International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition study found that despite costing twice as much, organic chicken was found to be less nutritious, fatter and worse tasting than conventional chicken.
  • A late 2006 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed no statistical differences in the nutritional quality—whether for humans or animals—of organic over conventionally grown wheat.
  • A December 2006 Chicago Tribune article examined the value behind organics’ premium price, concluding Americans face a risk of poor health by not eating enough fruits and vegetables of any kind that far outweighs the relatively minute risk of pesticide exposure organics may prevent. To the extent high organic prices further drive consumers away from produce, they stand to hurt health more than benefit it.
  • A 2008 review of the research by New York’s American Council on Science and Health directly challenged a widely reported pro-organic report by Charles Benbrook and colleagues at the Organic Trade Association's Organic Center. The Benbrook study’s conclusion that organic produce is 25 percent "more nutritious" than that produced by conventional agricultural practices was flawed, ACSH scientific advisor and emeritus professor of Food Toxicology at Rutgers University Joseph D. Rosen argued. The organic study cited results that were not statistically significant throughout, used unreliable non-peer reviewed papers and much irrelevant data, and openly ignored studies in which the results were favorable to conventional food.

“….a consumer who buys organic food thinking that it is more nutritious is wasting a considerable amount of money,” Rosen observed. “Even if organic advocates turn out to be correct in their assertions that organic food has more nutrient content than conventional food when tested against each other in valid matched pairs, how is the consumer going to use this information to make the right choice? Except for just a few fruits and vegetables, the consumer can not tell what variety of a crop is being offered for sale, thus making the selection of organic or conventional a crap shoot.”

Other research concludes organic production can actually increase Salmonella contamination in eggs, poultry and pork. Other studies have shown free-range poultry have a higher risk of being infected with Campylobacter. Pastured animals and birds also have higher rates of parasitic worm infections than their confined counterparts, studies prove.

No wonder, then, that a comprehensive review of British conventional vs. organic agriculture--although written to argue in favor of widespread adoption of organic production--nevertheless succinctly concludes: “Based on our current limited scientific knowledge, it appears that the widely held view of the public that organic foods are safer and healthier than conventional foods is incorrect for the great majority of consumers.”

 

Where does that leave the grocer?

Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. Therein lies the real power of organic. Rather than using organic standards to lecture consumers to “take their medicine” through their food, the smart retailer instead uses organic, and local, and natural and farm-fresh and the other indicators of an aura of authenticity to center themselves within both the community and the health scene. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness effects of organic.

 

 

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