The Organic Food Placebo

Last month my parents threw a party to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. After dinner, dad gave a speech recalling their honeymoon, for which they traveled from Scotland to Port Bou, a village on the France-Spain border squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. While he was discretely sketchy about certain aspects of the adventure, he vividly described meals as though he'd just eaten them.Food rationing was just ending in the Britain of 1954. After years of compulsory restricti

By | October 11, 2004

Last month my parents threw a party to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. After dinner, dad gave a speech recalling their honeymoon, for which they traveled from Scotland to Port Bou, a village on the France-Spain border squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. While he was discretely sketchy about certain aspects of the adventure, he vividly described meals as though he'd just eaten them.

Food rationing was just ending in the Britain of 1954. After years of compulsory restriction, people were free again to indulge in meat, butter, sugar, eggs, and white bread. This probably helps explain why his memories of those dinners were so clear.

But the availability of food and contemplation of its pleasures have always been important for one reason or another. These days, for the relatively affluent – which includes many readers of The Scientist but, sadly, not the majority of our fellow human beings – food obsession is reflected in the polarized attitudes towards organic foodstuffs.

I find myself at the same pole as Dick Taverne. A peer in the British House of Lords, Taverne has enjoyed a long career in politics, the law, business, and lobbying, so he's no stranger to a good lunch. He characterizes the organic food movement as a massive con trick: "...the craze for organic food is built on myth. It starts with a scientific howler, has rules with neither rhyme nor reason. None of the claims made for it have ever been substantiated, and if it grows it will damage the nation's health."1

The "scientific howler" in question is that "natural" chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad.

Are organic foods safer? No. While foods can be unsafe for any number of reasons, normal farming procedures are perfectly safe. The head of the UK Food Standards Agency has written: "A single cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to at least a year's worth of carcinogenic synthetic pesticides in the diet."

Well how about taste? No again. Blind tests show no difference in taste between organic and inorganic foods. Given all this, how has the organic movement become so successful? Why have so many been taken in?

We now have our answer: the placebo effect writ large.

In retrospect, the clues have been around for a while. Consider this consumer's quote from CNN Student News, a TV program for classrooms: "You feel healthy shopping [for organic foods]. You are rewarding yourself both mentally and physically by eating healthy foods. It's worth the cost in the long run."2

The anecdotes were borne out by a recent supermarket-commissioned poll, which revealed that, yes, simply making the choice to buy organic food can induce a sense of well-being. According to the BBC, "One nutritionist says people feel [that] organic food can even boost emotional and mental health, increasing their sense of well-being and optimism when they choose the food they think is healthier."3

While Taverne, others, and myself at least have our explanations for what appears to be silliness on the grandest scale, the discovery that the benefit of organic food is a figment of consumers' imagination doesn't seem to have broken the charm.

Should we tell them?

Richard Gallagher, Editor rgallagher@the-scientist.com

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