Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Organic food and nutrition

We do not live our lives based on evidence – we are governed by custom, superstition, belief and irrationality (amongst others). If you want to understand just how irrational we are I recommend getting hold of a copy of Irrationality, the enemy within by the late Stuart Sutherland. It is a brilliant book written for a lay audience which sets out very clearly how our behaviour is influenced and gives examples of common failures of human judgment.

However, evidence does matter, and matters hugely in some areas. We need very good evidence before drugs are allowed to be prescribed and Breast Cancer Campaign, as an organization, bases every statement we make about breast cancer on evidence. This is why we sometimes hedge our remarks on recommendations on areas such as diet. There is some evidence and lots of supposition.

I am on an external committee for the Food Standards Agency called the General Advisory Committee on Science – GACS to its friends. It was established in December 2007 and provides independent advice on the Agency's governance and use of science. The Committee's work includes horizon scanning, science governance, developing good practice and informing science priorities.

I mention this because there are always conspiracy theorists out there who ferret out connections no matter how tangential – so let me now state that I had nothing to do with the FSA report on nutrition which was published last week and everything that follows is my own personal view – not representing the FSA or Breast Cancer Campaign.

The review clearly states: This systematic review of the available published literature was designed to seek to determine the size and relevance to health of any differences in content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products. This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.

It then goes on to say: No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

Ref: http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2009/jul/organic

There is a key phrase here – “broadly comparable in their nutrient content”. That’s it – that’s all – but given the outpouring from the press, the Soil Association and anyone with an interest in organic food, you would never have believed it. Much of the focus was on what the report didn’t say or even attempt to say. All the report states is that whether or not you eat organic food you will receive roughly the same nutrients.

The press was full of all the things that the report didn’t say – they looked at the research, they eliminated the research which was not well done, they didn’t do new research, they reviewed what was there. If you believe that organic food is the only way forward nutritionally (we are not discussing the environment, animal husbandry or anything else here) then commission well constructed peer reviewed research and let’s see the results.

I actually don’t care either way personally – the FSA has a duty to make sure that food is safe to eat (gross simplification I know), and I buy an organic box every week because I like the idea that independent farmers are supplying food that, on the whole, tastes better without having to ensure that every apple is exactly the same size. I can tell from the condition of the soil on the carrots that they have just been picked and I can wash them the way I want to. I still buy stuff from the supermarket but I don’t do any of this because of nutrition.

Thank goodness for Ben Goldacre (Bad Science in the Guardian and online). Ben is prepared to plough through the 200 odd pages of the FSA research, understand it and determine whether it is good research or not. He has been through the paper and also the negative media outpouring that followed and says: The Soil Association’s response has been swift, receiving prominent and blanket right of reply: this is testament to the lobbying power of this £2bn (organic food) industry, and the cultural values of people who work in the media. I don’t care about organic food. I am interested in bad arguments. Thank you Ben – please read

Last year one of our researchers published some very exciting results. We sent out a press release which excited one of the journalists on a national daily so much that s/he recommended to the health editor by email that it be a major news story. The editor replied to the journalist’s email and mistakenly copied us in as follows:

“You’ve read a press release! A very complicated press release about drugs you have never heard of. You don’t even know what the study results are. Honestly (name deleted), just at least wait until we know what the paper says, basing a splash on a press release is a bit premature!”

Wish that all editors were as meticulous! As it happens the story did hit the front pages so instinct was right but backed by evidence.

No comments:

Post a Comment