Blog | Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are organic foods healthier?

In American society, packaging trumps contents. Look at both the Democratic and the Republican presidential nominating conventions we all endured. In the old days, these conventions had a purpose, to select nominees. Now, they are scripted, grandiose infomercials that insult our intelligence more than they inform us. They are coronations.

I heard great oratory, decent rhetoric and pabulum. The spectacles wasted tons of money that could have been devoted to charity or some other worthy cause. As marketing and political folks understand well, packaging sells products. Think of this the next time you are choosing a bottle of shampoo off the shelf. Are you really buying the sleek bottle? Are you voting for the sleeker and more likable candidate?

Except for Mitt Romney, it seemed that every other speaker was raised in a log cabin. Lincoln would have no advantage if he were running today.

There's plenty of packaging and fluff in the medical universe also. Complementary and alternative medicine, in my view, lures us with a seductive package that often overpromises on what it can deliver. Don't misunderstand me here. I am not dissing C & A medicine categorically or suggesting that it is not worthy of study. I maintain that any medical treatment that we contemplate for our patients should be based on science and not faith. Admittedly, in many clinical circumstances, we physicians must make a judgment before science has ruled on the issue. Yes, there is artistry in medicine.

I dine out often with close friends who believe that organic foods are more healthful. I'm skeptical of this and many other health claims made with regard to stuff that we eat. Is irradiated milk really dangerous even though this label sounds like we should be hearing scary music when we open the carton? Remember the phrase "farm fresh eggs," which are no better than competing chicken eggs even though the label conjures up feelings of health and wellness? And probiotics? This requires its own blog post to sort out what we know from what we believe.

I'll admit that the organic food label suggests a higher quality product, but this is not evidence. Just because we think, or other folks want us to think, that something is better for us, doesn't make it so. Hebrew National hotdogs had a brilliant ad campaign years ago when they told viewers that their company "answered to a higher authority," suggesting that their kosher product had a divine imprimatur. I'm not certain, however, that these porkless franks were truly food for the gods.

The respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study concluding that organic foods were not more healthful than "inorganic" alternatives. There were some differences found with regard to antibiotic-resistant germs and pesticide exposure, but this does not mean that these products are safer for consumers.

Organic food is big business and it's getting bigger. Tens of billions of dollars are spent on them each year by Americans who believe that these foods are higher quality. There is one indisputable difference that distinguished organic stuff from the rest of the stale and moldy stuff that I eat regularly. It sure costs more. Maybe the higher cost is part of the packaging to convince us that it's really better. Remember the hair color product that used the phrase "It costs a little more, but it's worth it," to convince us that a higher price implied higher quality?

So, whom should I vote for this November? I'll likely be voting against the president, although neither candidate inspires me. However, when it comes to packaging, the president is far ahead. Barack Obama is presented as the organic candidate. Romney is white bread.

This post by Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.