Ooops. Spoiler title. Sorry. I’ve written before about the belief that organic food is more healthful. Pretty much all the claims made of it rapidly crumble under the weight of available data, and all the evidence shoes organic food is a scientifically and nutritionally bankrupt scam that relies on the naturalistic fallacy to fleece the gullible and deluded.

So what of the recent media reports regarding the latest analysis claiming that organic beef:

“…is better for your health than non-organic produce, because it contains around 50 per cent more omega-3 fatty acids”

Unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – in this case the news media is uncritically regurgitating the press release and the spin put on it by the Soil Association. I’ll come back to them later. But if journalists could be bothered to read the original paper they might spot that it is quite a piece of work.

Fatty Acids

Let’s look at that principal claim – that organic beef contains 23% more polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and 47% more omega-3 fatty acids and so is ‘healthier’, notably in preventing cardiovascular disease. The British Journal of Nutrition claims these fatty acids:

…are known to reduce LDL production and to enhance its clearance… reduce arrhythmias, blood pressure, platelet sensitivity, inflammation and serum TAG concentrations.

Which is true – but ignores the simple truth that red meat is a rubbish source of omega-3 fatty acids. This means even a 50% relative increase is meaningless. In absolute terms 50% of three parts of fuck all is still three parts of fuck all – and if you want more polyunsaturated fats with your protein, you’re better off eating chicken or fish, not red meat. Red meat also contains a lot of saturated fats – which really isn’t good.

Claiming organic red meat is a good source of omega-3 FAs is rather like saying dissolving your heroin in lemon juice before you inject it is a good source of vitamin C.

Is Organic Better?

This is why the whole issue is smoke and mirrors. This is not about organic vs traditional agriculture – here’s why. As a rule, organic beef is grass-fed, traditionally-produced beef is grain-fed. It’s this basic difference in the animals’ diet that explains the differences in the fatty acid profiles of the meat. Again, you need to read the paper. But don’t worry; I’ve done that for you. The authors admit in the paper:

Evidence from controlled experimental studies indicates that the high grazing / forage-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards may be the main reason for differences in FA profiles.

So this isn’t about organic farming at all, it’s about grain vs grass. The animals’ diet is just being conflated with organic farming methods. Why? Could it be because the Soil Association and their cronies both part-funded and reviewed the paper?

What Else?

For many nutritionally relevant compounds (e.g. minerals, antioxidants and most individual fatty acids), the evidence base was too weak for meaningful meta-analyses.

Or, “despite looking at 67 studies we couldn’t show any benefit for organic produce over traditional”.

However, for these and many other composition parameters, for which meta-analyses found significant differences, heterogeneity was high, and this could be explained by differences between animal species / meat types.

Or “the numbers were all over the place but we’ve tried really hard to show some effect”. But we did manage to find one difference – strictly speaking it was nothing to do with ‘organic’ but let’s not shout too loudly about that. For me this smacks of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy – where you fire a bullet in to a barn door, draw a target around it and shout ‘Bullseye!!

Study Design

This is a meta-analysis, not new research. I’ve written about those before – it’s where you get a bunch of similar studies, amalgamate the data and see what the larger data set tells you. At its best you can draw wider and more accurate conclusions. But at its worst, you basically get a bunch of dog turds, mix them together and claim the result is a pot of gold.

I’ve kebbabed the British Medical Journal, no less, on dodgy meta-analyses in the past so this sort of stuff is more common than you think.

However, results for specific parameters reported in this study were variable, and both previous reviews covering livestock products and the present study acknowledge serious deficiencies in the evidence, which result in considerable uncertainty.

Or when you try to mix all the colours in the bucket you inevitably end up with brown.

“Serious deficiencies”. No fucking shit, Sherlock! And in the above quote the authors explicitly acknowledge that the evidence has “serious deficienceies” but thought it would be helful to release the conclusion they wanted based on bullshit. Or”

“We’ve all dipped their hands in a bucket of shit and given ourselves a great big round of applause”

Conflicts of Interest

So, if – say – a drug trial is funded a pharmaceutical business, you need to say so. That way folks can judge if the interpretation of the results is fair. But there isn’t a problem with undeclared conflicts of interest if you just declare them all!

Just look at the funding sources and the acknowledgement:

Support from Lord Peter Melchett (Policy Director, Soil Association, Bristol, UK) and Bruno Martin (Centre ClermontFerrand-Theix, Institut National de la Recerche Agronomique, INRA, Saint Genès Champanelle, France) for the critical review/ editing of the manuscript is gratefully acknowledged.

So, more drivel spun by the Soil Association – which claims they ‘put animal welfare first‘ then recommend animals are treated with homeopathy. 

And permit ‘organic’ crops to be slathered in pesticides. So long as they are ‘natural’ such as using copper salts to treat fungal diseases – which stays toxic in the soil forever. Or insecticides like rotenone which is highly neurotoxic to humans and can cause Parkinson’s. Or that organically reared cows produce twice the methane of conventionally reared cattle – and that methane is a more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

But it’s natural, innit.