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Beneath the Headlines

Organics Study Buried Key Findings
By Dave Lawrence

In September, a research team led by Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford University published a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that set the media ablaze with its contrarian punch line: organically grown foods are no healthier than their conventionally grown counterparts.

The press release, written by Michelle Brandt of Stanford’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs, was titled “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds,” and began:

‘You’re in the supermarket eyeing a basket of sweet, juicy plums. You reach for the conventionally grown stone fruit, then decide to spring the extra $1/pound for its organic cousin. You figure you’ve just made the healthier decision by choosing the organic product—but new findings from Stanford University cast some doubt on your thinking.”

This contrarian angle presented in the press release is what much of the mainstream media ran with, but beyond the headlines was a nuance present in the actual research article that went MIA.

As scientific studies—particularly meta-analyses (or studies of other studies)—go, the Smith-Spangler et al., paper, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional alternatives? A Systematic Review,” is not too bad. Nor are the findings terribly surprising. Here are the key results:

  • Organically grown foods are no higher in nutrient content that conventionally grown ones;
  • Levels of pesticide residues are lower in organically grown foods than conventionally grown ones.
  • Children who ate organically grown foods had lower urinary concentrations of pesticides and their metabolic breakdown products than children who ate  conventionally grown foods.
  • Conventionally raised chicken and pork were more likely to be contaminated with bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than organically raised chicken and pork.

The paper itself was appropriately seasoned with relevant scientific caveats about limitations of its method and variability and uncertainty in its source studies. But many of the journalists who wrote the initial reports focused on the sexiest claim—organic foods are no healthier—and gave scant attention and space to those caveats, some of which were listed but buried deep in the Stanford press release.

The initial uncritical press reports provoked a vigorous counter-attack, some of which is highlighted in a link to some of those responses from the Web page containing the original Stanford press release.

FruitGuys News attempted to contact Bravata, cited in the press release as one of the lead authors of the team. Brandt responded with an e-mail saying the researchers had been so inundated with press inquiries that they could no longer “accommodate interview requests.”

We asked Brandt if she felt the media response was geared more towards the way the press release packaged the study than the study itself

“We’ll let the paper speak for itself,” she said.

The episode should make for an interesting case study by a media studies researcher someday.

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Dave Lawrence is a journalist, author, and scientist who has worked for the EPA, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality; USDA Ag research station; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Sea Education Association. He has also taught biology, geography, meteorology, and ecology at several colleges and universities in the Richmond, Virginia, area.

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