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Organic food offers basically no health benefit, boffins find

Does offer prospect of grub grown in human excrement

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US medical scientists reviewing the state of knowledge on organic food have come to the conclusion that the pricey old-school grub offers no appreciable health benefits. However consumers may still wish to buy it for the purpose of promoting organic farming methods.

To be certified organic, food must be produced without the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals deemed to be a poor idea by certifying organisations such as the Soil Association. This tends to greatly reduce yields from a given amount of land, making organic food very expensive compared to the regular stuff.

"Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious," says physician-boffin Dr Crystal Smith-Spangler.

That's true: no less a figure than the heir to the British throne has said:

"I do not see why people cannot see organic really is better for us. Not only for the environment but for human health."

"We were a little surprised that we didn't find that," says Smith-Spangler.

"There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," adds her colleague Dr Dena Bravata.

The scientists base these findings on a mass trawl through the available scientific literature on the subject. According to Bravata the area is submerged under a "confusing body of studies, including some that were not very rigorous appearing in trade publications."

That's not too surprising as organic grub is a huge money-spinning business, turning over $24.4bn in the US last year, and money like that tends to lead to a lot of ropey science and analysis.

"This was a ripe area in which to do a systematic review," says Smith-Spangler.

Once subjected to proper scrutiny, the idea that organic food is any healthier than ordinary products was exposed as a load of, well, crap. (One method of fertilisation which is allowed in organic farming is the use of animal manure.)

That said there are other reasons to cough up the double prices that may well be asked for organic grub. Agro-chemicals can undeniably cause pollution when misused, and supplies of some of them - for instance phosphorus - may be finite, or may involve the use of large amounts of energy and thus could be seen as a bad thing from a carbon-emissions point of view.

The Soil Ass., indeed, considers that humanity is facing a "peak phosphorus" situation, and that the best solution to this would be the use of human excrement as well as animal for fertiliser. Though this might well be approved by the organic certifier, it would at the moment be entirely illegal under the health laws, a situation which the Soil Ass. would like to see changed.

Bravata and Smith-Spangler's study will appear in today's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. ®

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