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.

______________

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.

Share this post

Magazine Search

More recent articles:

Food:
Fruit is a colorful and sweet addition to your holiday table
December 2, 2014
How to have fun, but not too much
December 2, 2014
Fitness hoops are a great workout—and a fun DIY gift project
December 2, 2014
New study shows people who eat more fruit and veggies are happier
November 19, 2014
Wash your hands!
October 29, 2014
How to hold the scale steady during the holidays
October 29, 2014
Food:
Adventures of a self-taught home cook
October 29, 2014
How to throw your company’s annual shindig without losing your mind
October 27, 2014
Doing it right is the key to stretching benefits
October 27, 2014
Food:
Fruit Can Surprise even The FruitGuys
October 24, 2014

Sign up for the monthly newsletter

 

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.