Dr Caroline Leaf: All scare and no science?

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On her social media feed today, Dr Leaf posted a meme implying that conventionally farmed food was toxic.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Anyone who’s been following Dr Leaf will know from her frequent food selfies that she is an organic convert.

Dr Leaf is welcome to eat whatever she chooses, though not content to simply push her personal belief in organic foods, Dr Leaf is now actively criticising conventional food, publishing memes on her social media posts which imply that conventional produce is poisonous.

As I’ve written before, despite Dr Leaf’s blinding passion and quasi-religious zeal for organic foods, there is no evidence that organic food is any more beneficial than conventional food (Dangour et al, 2009; Bradbury et al, 2014). Indeed, there’s no magic to a healthy food lifestyle. Eat more vegetables. Drink more water. Conventional veggies and conventional water do just fine. Sage advice, even if it doesn’t lend itself to food selfies.

While organic zealots believe they have the high ground on the topic of food safety, the published science cuts through the hype. As noted by Smith-Spangler et al (2012), there is some evidence that there may be less pesticide residue on organically grown foods, but there is no significant difference in the risk of each group exceeding the overcautious Maximum Residue Limit.

Two points on the Maximum Residue Limit that are particularly important:

  1. The Maximum Residue Limit is extremely cautious, and most food tested is well below this already overcautious limit. The Maximum Residue Limit is set to about 1% of the amount of the pesticide that has no effect on test animals.   According to a recent survey of grapes done by Choice Australia, the amount of residue was well below the Maximum Residue Limit (about 1% of the Maximum Residue Limit on average) (Choice Australia, 2014). So on the average bunch of grapes in Australia, the pesticide residue is about one ten thousandth of the level that is safe in animals, and this pattern is the same across all conventional produce. Thinking in more practical terms, “a 68 kg man would have to eat 3,000 heads of lettuce every day of his life to exceed the level of a residue that has been proven to have no effect on laboratory animals … an 18 kg boy would have to eat 534 apples every day of his life to exceed a residue level that is not dangerous to laboratory animals. And an 18 kg girl would have to eat 13,636 kg of carrots every day of her life to exceed such a level.” (ecpa.eu, 2014)

    2. Organic foods have pesticides too. Granted, this is at lower levels than their conventional counterparts, but it’s there all the same (Smith-Spangler et al, 2012). I once had a lively discussion with an organic food zealot about the pesticides in organic farming. Her argument was that organic pesticides are safe because they’re “natural” poisons. So are arsenic, cyanide, belladonna and digitalis (foxglove), but why let the truth get in the way of ones opinion. Poisons are poisons whether they’re “natural” or not. The Maximum Residue Limit applies to organic foods just the same as conventionally farmed produce for that reason.

Another interesting thing … in the Choice survey, the organic grapes had no detectable pesticides, but so did conventionally farmed grapes bought at a local green grocer. So organic food zealots can’t claim that they have a monopoly on low pesticides in their foods.

Not that having lower pesticide residues means that organic foods are necessarily safer. Organically farmed produce has a higher risk of contamination from E. coli and other potentially toxic bacteria, depending on the farming method used (Mukherjee et al, 2007; Sample, 2011).

So to bring it all together, conventional produce has levels of pesticide residues so low that it would take an extra-ordinary feat of vegetarian gluttony to exceed a level that was still found to be non-toxic in animals. The risk to human health from conventional farming with pesticides is nanoscopic. Organic foods may have less pesticide, but they have a higher risk from enterotoxigenic bacteria.

Since there is nothing to fear from conventional foods, it seems irresponsible for Dr Leaf to promote the unscientific idea that conventional foods are poisonous. One wonders why Dr Leaf would engage in a campaign of fear against healthy, nutritious foods? Personal bias perhaps, although that doesn’t bode well for her credibility as an objective scientist. Another plausible reason could be marketing. Fear sells things, that’s Marketing 101. Gardner (2008) wrote, “Fear sells. Fear makes money. The countless companies and consultants in the business of protecting the fearful from whatever they may fear know it only too well. The more fear, the better the sales.”

Posts like today’s make Dr Leaf seem like all scare and no science. Publishing images with the skull and cross bones and the word “POISON” is certainly not attempting to allay anyone’s anxiety, and that fact that it‘s directly tied to a reminder of her upcoming book on food only makes shameless promotion all the more likely. I’m sure that a Godly woman of Dr Leaf’s standing wouldn’t stoop so low as to use fear and mistruth just to make better sales, but posts like today’s open her up to legitimate questions from others regarding her credibility and her motivation.

For her sake, I hope that she tightens up her future posts, and reconsiders her stance on the science of organic and conventional foods.

References

Bradbury, K.E., et al., Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer, 2014. 110(9): 2321-6 doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.148

Choice Australia, 2014. <http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/groceries/pesticide-residues-in-fruit-and-vegetables.aspx&gt;

Dangour, A. D., Dodhia, S. K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr, 90(3), 680-685. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041

European Crop Protection Agency, 2014, <http://www.ecpa.eu/faq/what-maximum-residue-level-mrl-and-how-are-they-set>

Gardner, D., The science of fear: Why we fear the things we shouldn’t – and put ourselves in greater danger; 2008, Dutton / The Penguin Group, New York

Mukherjee, A., et al., Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre-harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Int J Food Microbiol, 2007. 120(3): 296-302 doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2007.09.007

Sample, I., E coli outbreak: German organic farm officially identified. The Guardian, London, UK, 11 June 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/10/e-coli-bean-sprouts-blamed>

Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., . . . Stave, C. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Ann Intern Med, 157(5), 348-366.

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