Beneath the Headlines

Share this post

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.


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.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter


Recent The FruitLife articles:

The (not so) dormant season brings a to-do list to the farm
November 9, 2015
How farming became a second career for the owners of Bear Track Farm
September 18, 2015
September 17, 2015
September 17, 2015
Grantee farms progress on solar, soil, and pleasing pollinators
September 9, 2015
Grantee farms progress on solar, soil, and pleasing pollinators
September 9, 2015
Save Sonoma County’s special apple, the Gravenstein
July 13, 2015

More recent articles:

Helping those in need brings deeper meaning to business
November 18, 2015
3 poses that can help ease holiday overindulgences
November 18, 2015
Have a holly, jolly office gift exchange with these etiquette tips
November 17, 2015
November 15, 2015
November 15, 2015
How to send fruit to those in need
October 28, 2015
How to make diet challenges work during the holidays
October 27, 2015
What’s for lunch? Autumn edition
October 21, 2015
The right way to recover from a heavy workout
October 14, 2015

About Us

The FruitGuys Magazine is your source for workplace culture, trends, and healthy living. Previously known as The FruitGuys Almanac, the Magazine began in 2007. Editors and contributors include nationally known journalists and food writers. Submissions and suggestions can be sent to the editor.