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The Science of Food

It's easy for psi-advocates to think they are waging a lonely battle against misrepresentation, but they aren't the only ones. Exactly the same battle is being fought all over the place on different fronts.

Take this week's eye-catching claim by the Food Standards Agency that any extra nutritional value in organic foods is tiny and 'unlikely to confer any health benefit'.

So that's cleared that up. If you thought it made no sense to pay extra for the wrinkly fruit and veg in the organic basket, you're right. It's pointless.  The billions collectively invested by the army of smallholders all over the country, all earnestly pursuing the good life, has been a complete waste. 

The sceptics are out in force. 'What con trick will we fall for next?' asks Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph, who characterises the organic 'craze' as an opportunity for sharp businessmen to levy huge mark-ups on produce targeted at gullible shoppers.

In my part of the world, it seems to have become a form of outdoor relief for thick ex-public schoolboys who never quite made it as estate agents or low-rent antique dealers, but had an overwhelming instinct to empty the wallets of the middle classes. I don't blame them for a moment - there's one born every minute, after all. But I do blame us. The next time such a bus comes along, can we be brave enough not to get on it, whatever everybody else is doing?

And this from the Yorkshire Post:

In truth, eating organic is nothing more than a fashionable lifestyle choice - like buying an iPod or splashing out on a new pair of trendy shoes... It is a harmless enough modern fad, but the idea that it is somehow healthier or better for you is clearly bunkum.

To be fair, the FSA acknowledged that people have other reasons for buying organic, which have all been on display this week. Good for the environment... organic farms are more humane, and have on average 30% more species and 50% more wildlife like birds, butterflies and bees...less dangerous waste, almost no pesticides, no nitrogen fertilisers that poison rivers ... no antibiotics, no hormones... the taste and smell are vastly better, if your palate hasn't been wrecked by too much Coke and crisps... and so on.

The Soil Association went further and claimed the FSA study ignores the most up-to-date research on the nutritional benefits of organic food, which I read as implying that it was being misleadingly selective. That seemed to be backed by food author Joanna Blythman, who had some interesting numbers to share. According to the FSA's findings, organic vegetables actually contain 53.6 per cent more betacarotene - which helps combat cancer and heart disease - than non-organic ones. Similarly, she says, organic food has 11.3 per cent more zinc, 38.4 per cent more flavonoids and 12.7 per cent more proteins. She adds that an in-depth study by Newcastle University, 'far deeper' than the FSA's, has shown that organic produce contains 40 per cent more antioxidants than non-organic foods - research the FSA appears to have overlooked.

So what's going on here? For Blythman, it's simple: supposedly an independent body, the FSA is fighting a propaganda war on behalf of the food industry, which, 'in alliance with pharmaceutical and big biotechnology companies, has waged a long, often cynical campaign to convince the public that mass-produced, chemically-assisted and intensively-farmed products are just as good as organic foods, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.'

I'm starting to collect these examples, because I think it helps to explain to people why the evidence about psi is so ambiguous and contradictory. The better we understand how easy it is for people to present scientific findings in a way that matches their prejudices, the more we can motivate people to check these things out for themselves.