I love Ming Tsai and his cooking empire as much as the next 3-am TV viewer. Actually, his recipes are fantastic and you should make them yourself. But I have noticed an odd tendency for him to say (paraphrased) “you should always use organic, it’s much better for you”. This leaves me a bit puzzled. What exactly does he mean? Ming is well-educated and this is not anything he should be solely responsible for, but he echoes an all too common misconception that organic is actually better. By better I am interpreting this as healthier, which seems to be a logical gap to bridge. So, let’s look at the data.
A recent and comprehensive review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has largely convinced me of what I was always skeptical of; that organic foods can not actually be healthier for you. In their breakdown they cited 55 studies and came to the conclusion that “there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs”.
So what is the harm? My problem with all of this is that it is based on the naturalistic fallacy, that “natural” or “organic” somehow means that the product is safer or healthier. How many times do you see the term “natural” in the store and never give it second thought? If natural things really were safer then traditional Ayurvedic medicines would not be horribly toxic. Afterall, arsenic, lead and mercury are NATURAL – but they are also some of the most toxic compounds known to man. In the end it is 100% marketing.
Taken from another angle Ming Tsai may not be all that incorrect afterall. I do not have all the data in front of me regarding pesticide contamination of foodstuffs, but it is logical to assume the less contaminated the better. Obviously pesticides can be a bad thing, there are mountains of literature to support the damage they can cause. But the jury seems out on exactly how bad, if at all, these minute residues on our foods are. Conventionally grown foods have regulated levels of residues, but even organics are not free of pesticide contamination. So I look at it differently. Our environment benefits from having safer food. Less chemicals are dumped into our waterways, farmers have to battle less with incredibly powerful toxins, and blinky the fish fights to see another day. We should all strive to live sustainably and organic farming does provide us with an edge.
So once again, what is the harm? People who buy organic quite possibly do so based on genuine environmental stewardship. I would also argue that a very high percentage of these people also believe these foods are healthier (anyone have survey data to support this claim?). So in this instance the result is a net positive. But, being right for the wrong reasons should never be acceptable. This strikes at the peak of a larger problem that is driven by marketing and zero science. Case in point – Vitamin C as a cold remedy. A study in PLOS medicine has shown there is no indication for efficacy of VitC against the common cold. Go figure, a once believed to be true staple has begun to be picked apart by science and data. Let’s be careful on what bandwagon we jump and why.