In the blink of an eye, organic vs. nonorganic has taken center stage in our national discussion on healthy eating, pushing aside, for the moment, any responsible discussion of the evidence in exchange for quick thirty-second sound bites amongst friends and neighbors and by the press. The fact that an unexamined axiom can elevate a bit player in our health and well being to what is approaching an out-of-control fetish simply takes my breath away. An organic sticker affixed to our daily goods demands no footnote. Discussion is preempted.
Could it be that consumers flock to this ideology because of its simplicity rather than its inherent ability to actually improve health and well-being? Perception, after all, is reality. Could it really be that simple – conventional food is bad, organic good? Check the box and go on with my day.
In focusing on organic vs. conventionally grown foods at the expense of more important factors affecting human health, we are wasting valuable time, a boatload of money and mountains of good intentions that could very well make a real difference. Do we really believe that the 23 million diagnosed diabetics and 57 million pre-diabetics in the U.S. are so because they don’t eat organic? Or that increasing our consumption of organic foods would wipe away the horrifying fact that 81 million people suffer from one or more forms of cardiovascular disease or will reduce the nearly forty-percent of New York City youngsters that are overweight?
This should not be taken as some attack on the sacred cow of organic – we applaud our brothers and sisters doing their organic thing and trying to make the world a better place. Rather, it’s an attempt to draw attention to what is clearly a more complex problem and explore nutritional and business strategies that will get us all to a better place. This is why the idea of Naked Pizza is worth pursuing and the reason we spent the last few years developing and bringing our concept to market.
At the core, Naked Pizza is science-based – from our operations to our dough balls. Thus, in our early discussions the decision on whether to “go organic” with our ingredients and brand positioning boiled to some very simple questions: First, do organics offer a nutritional benefit to our customers beyond that which are achieved through conventionally grown foods and secondly, does an organic business model allow us to achieve a price point we can scale beyond a niche consumer base, all within the disciplined model of a limited number of rooftops in a tightly defined delivery radius? Since traditional organic agriculture forbids the use of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, yields are lower per planted acre and thus prices are on average, higher. The math was simple for us: if organics only feed 2 percent of the world’s population, what percentage of the households in our tightly defined delivery area(s) eat organic and what percentage of those would swallow the higher price point on a frequent enough basis to justify our existence in the neighborhoods of America? I know its Byzantine and boring, but no matter how we sliced it, we could not figure out how to scale the niche of organic with our model and as far as we are aware, nor has anyone else.
But more important to us than the mathematics of delivery areas and economics of cost of goods, was the science of the health benefits associated with a diet of organic foods and in our case, pizza. I have found that the health benefits of organic foods is not a concept that’s well understood by folks who talk about it the most, and those people and groups who are in a position to understand the science are near silent. The human health benefits of organic foods is festooned with so many misconceptions that it’s difficult to know where to begin. So, I will cut to the chase and point to two recently published analysis that summarize 1) the nutritional quality of organic foods and 2) the human health benefits associated.
The myth of organics’ nutritional superiority
In a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from various research institutes throughout the UK systematically culled and reviewed 52,471 articles relating to nutritional quality of organic and conventionally grown foods published over the last 50 years. From this massive set of peer-reviewed papers, they identified 162 studies (137 on crops and 25 livestock products) relevant to the question at hand and of those, 55 were of satisfactory quality to be considered in the pooled meta-analysis. They looked at 1,149 comparisons among nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and so forth, to determine whether organic foods pack a bigger nutrient punch. The researchers concluded the following:
“On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced food stuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.”
In a follow-up article this past July, the same researchers published an article in the same journal, but this time they pored over 98,727 peer-reviewed articles looking for any measurable health benefits of organic foods as a result of controlled clinical and other scientific studies. There were so few relevant studies (n=12) the researchers stated “no quantitative meta-analysis was justified” and concluded that:
“From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.”
When faced with the human nutritional realities above, organic defenders often shrug and then quickly retreat to the safety blanket of “organic foods are cleaner and purer alternatives to chemically intensive practices of conventional agriculture.” True. But fertilizers today are much safer than their pre-1970 counterparts that so much of the conversation feeds off.
Consider: Bruce Ames, a molecular biologist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California at Berkeley does not think synthetic chemicals are innocuous. But he likes to point out the oft-overlooked fact that “99.9 percent of the toxic chemicals we’re exposed to are completely natural.” This is not a trivial detail. Ames is pointing to the simple fact that when we consume the average plant – organic or not – we “consume about 50 toxic chemicals” as natural pesticides occurring both within and on the food surface. It is true that most plants do not want to be eaten and have therefore natural defenses.
The tit-for-tat that takes place between applying or not applying synthetic fertilizers would be more productive if we did maintain a healthy skepticism but based it on accurate scientific information rather than ideological presuppositions or fear. For example: Organic farmers are allowed to use sulfur, copper, zinc oxide and copper sulfate as natural fungicides. All of these substances are deemed dangerous, “high mammalian toxcitiy” and “highly toxic” in certain dosages according to California worker injury stats, the EPA and the WHO, respectively.
Jeff Leach is the co-founder of New Orleans-based Naked Pizza. Jeff is currently completing his PhD in anthropology and has published widely in nutrition, medical and anthropological journals. Through Naked Pizza, Jeff hopes to influence public health policy in the U.S. and demonstrate that pizza can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.