Backlash to Stanford Study? Food Fight in the Produce Aisle

There's been an onslaught of organic food advocacy in recent days in response to the Stanford study concluding organic produce and meats are no more nutritious.  Why left so many folks sour? Here's the less than earth shattering conclusions from the study authors:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Sounds pretty tempered. No one said it's definitive proof organic isn't worth the price. No one said there was absolutely no evidence of any benefits.  No one said pesticides wouldn't stunt your child's growth. Anyhow, posted about the study last week then watched the media fanfare roll out in response to the initial reports of the study...

Here's a sampling of the Backlash:

The Case for Organic Food, Los Angeles Times

5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short, Mother Jones

Organic Food vs. Conventional: What the Stanford Study Missed, Huffington Post, Robyn O'Brien  

Don't Give Up on Organic Food, Our Experts Urge, Consumer Reports

Then a rare if too brief examination of the Backlash:

When It Comes to Buying Organic, Science and Beliefs Don't Always Mesh, NPR

The biggest complaint about that Stanford study?

The pesticides. No surprise.

Many objected to the lack of attention paid to the significantly greater pesticide residue on conventional (38%) than organic (7%). Critics accused researchers and the media of downplaying pesticide risk. Personally, I was surprised to learn organic produce shows traces of organophosphates. There's no doubt the issue of linking pesticide exposure to future health is complicated and not addressed in a meaningful manner in this study.

Pesticides aside, some people noted potentially important differences between organic and conventional produce left out of the study. Robyn O'Brien at Huffpo detailed these differences (e.g., artificial ingredients, antibiotics, growth hormones). Some argued the study was biased (rich!), the researchers biased (rich!), the headlines slanted (ditto) or the findings misrepresented or oversimplified in the media (you don't say!).

Taking a different approach, NPR reported a discrepancy between beliefs and science on this one but couldn't help but conclude the jury's still out (i.e. please don't send us anymore hateful comments).  Friday Brian Lehrer had a nuanced talk with food expert Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor of Sociology and in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University (ranked by Mr. Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan as the #2 most powerful food guru in the US only behind Michelle Obama). Nestle, no relation to that one, opined it would be difficult to conclusively say whether eating organic food makes people healthy because there's the fact that healthy people often choose to eat organically. You know, the chicken or the egg.  The problem of the healthy user, the health-conscious research participant. 

After all this I couldn't help but make a few Post Media-Backlash observations of my own. I'll start with the sorta good news.

The media can critically examine evidence.  Or make a good show of it at least.

The bad news?

It seems limited to evidence that challenges popular beliefs or sacred cows, organic grass-fed or otherwise (i.e. organic is better).  

The remaining challenge, however, is critically examining evidence that does not challenge the beliefs of the media or the many articulate, educated and informed voices that populate the media. It's all good that journalists and commentators can argue against studies or arguments that conflict with their perspective or that of reigning experts. It's another competency to question evidence that confirm one's worldview or fears (e.g., pesticide exposure in utero "effects" IQ).

What if the media could replicate this same passion, this same level of analysis to all areas of health or parenting discoveries? Imagine if this critical lens focused on breastfeeding. If only. Fruits and vegetables are but mere table scraps compared to the five-star eight-course drama that ensues after anyone dares question the health benefits not to mention the costs or catch me if I faint, potential downsides of breastfeeding (see the Fearless Formula Feeder).

The media seems to either misunderstand or misinterpret the basic purpose of a large review study or as Mother Jones puts it "what's known among academics as a meta-analysis". 

Consumer Reports argued that the findings were "distorted" and "oversimplified" in the media (hurray!) then proceeded to illustrate a simple misunderstanding of the value of a meta-analytic study, its ability to corral decades of research into a more manageable and fingers crossed, informative take away:
The analysis included plenty of studies that did find a nutritional benefit to eating organic food, such as higher levels of phosphorous and phenols (a type of antioxidant compound) in organic produce and more omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and chicken. Some other studies weren't able to identify a benefit, meaning the findings overall were heterogeneous, or mixed—which is very different from "no benefit" across the board. Don't Give Up On Organic Food, Our Experts Urge, Consumer Reports
The whole point of a meta-analytic study is to gather all existing research (within a few parameters) and assess the general trend, in this case, does organic produce have any benefits?  Of course there are mixed results, one study says yes, one says no, one maybe. One study looked at strawberries, another melons. This the real world of scientific investigation. In part the results were "mixed" also because a variety of mineral and vitamins were studied, a variety of produce and meats. As for phosphorous, this never makes it to the Consumer Reports story or other major media who reported organics had more of the mineral - there was no statistically significant difference in phosphorous. That's right, as if the mom in the yoga pants cares a thing about phosphorus. Duh.

Also, just love how Consumer Reports describes pro-organic studies as ones that "did find a nutritional benefit" while the ones that didn't "weren't able to identify a benefit" as if it were a mere fluke, oversight or lack of scientific rigor that prevented advantages from being discovered. 

Some reports that skewer this study would appear to laud the value of a single study over this one.

Is this a great study? Not really. Is it a waste of human capitol? Not at all.  For one it restored my faltering faith that science and health writers could sink their teeth into empirical evidence (if only for the wrong reasons) despite my concerns above about the merits of said criticism.

The media debated the costs of organic produce but never mentioned the 18 million American households having a really hard time putting food of any nutritional value on the table (see previous post for details). 

Please tell me I am not the only one who wonders if we've lost our perspective. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go scramble my "cage-free, organic-fed" eggs with a bit of artisanal cheddar and locally-churned butter.


Sarah said...

Read your blog daily - heaven knows why I don't comment more. LOVE your work! LOVE LOVE LOVE this post.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Dearest Sarah, where have you been? Thanks for de-lurking. What did you find so great about this post and pray tell, did you eat organic today?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

P.S. Sarah, just found your site and am even more honored by your faithful following in light of the fact you are in the beauteous Sydney where I'd never get anything done. BTW, in my next life I'd like to be a neuroscientist.

Barbara @therextras said...

As a fellow MommaDataFan, Sarah, I am also appreciative of your de-lurking! Wishing for more from you - as in more frequent blogging and/or a twitter presence. Game?

Breastfeeding Without BS said...

Brilliant post, Mommadata! It is so hard to challenge our own biases and preconceptions... and yet so important that we continually challenge ourselves to do so.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, BWOBS, well said and if I may say so, you are preaching to the choir here. I'll try to remember the value of challenge our own biases and convictions as I wake up beside my Republican husband for the next couple months and no, I am not a Republican.