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Behind the Buzz: The media fact-checks itself over organic food?

Posted Oct 25 2012 11:44am
It's a bird, it's a plane, no, a flying pig....

The health media has peeked behind the buzz and fact-checked recent scientific studies in the news.  Well, kinda sorta checked facts, at least hinted that certain facts or findings might not absolutely reflect reality. 

Several health stories in the news offer up rare glimpses into the pitfalls of publicizing studies serving as reminders that it's a slippery slope between accuracy and inaccuracy. You may be sick of hearing about the first, the organic food fight and possibly even the second, the multi-vitamins prevent cancer claim but many of you probably haven't heard about the third and that's a story in and of itself, the curious case of  aspartame causing cancer , the study that almost made the news.  But today I'll stick to the first because I'd hate to bore you and anyhow I'm planning a new series, tentatively called Behind the Buzz and like all good media I hope to come up with an on-going set of stories I can package into a neat headline and hopefully cute graphic. 

Food Fight in the Produce Aisle: The nutritional benefits or lack thereof in organic food, especially fruits and veggies. 

To refresh, a recent study out of Stanford reported organic provided little to no nutritional benefits (see my first post ) followed by a backlash from the Whole Foods-Downward Dog universe (see my second post ) who called bs on the study primarily on the grounds they eat organic not for extra vitamins but to avoid toxins. Foodie-in-Chief Mark Bittman heaped mounds of dirt on the study and the researchers (yes there's a third post here).  An amusing display of take-that! considering the lack of concern or critical coverage of findings that don't conflict with the beliefs and diets of journalists.     

An unusually illuminating article in the New York Time's Science section took up the Food Fight weeks later and explained how previously another group of UK scientists dug through the same set of data and ended up with different results (organic produce is better!), in other words, how the scientific community dished up dueling meta-analyses
Such analyses seek out robust nuggets in studies of disparate designs and quality that offer confounding and often conflicting findings, especially in nutrition and medicine. The way the data from various studies is divvied up or combined in a meta-analysis can make a big difference in the conclusions. In the organic food research, some studies reported many measurements, some only a few. Some included several crops grown over multiple years, while others looked at only a few samples. Parsing of Data Led to Mixed Messages on Organic Food's Value

Who was right? Savour this my friends:
Craig Osenberg, an ecology professor at the University of Florida who was not involved in either study, said there was no definitive method. “I can see both approaches being justifiable in different contexts,” he said, “and personally I don’t know which decision I would have made if I had been facing that.” Parsing of Data Led to Mixed Messages on Organic Food's Value 
A rare treat. A researcher seemingly unencumbered by bias, ego or looming tenure vote. Can see multiple viewpoints.  Not afraid to admit he doesn't have all the answers. Given this level of reasonableness I thought three kids, orthotics, weekends pruning and checking oil. NPR tote. Then I saw this . Wetsuit, anyone?

Anyhow, my point. Yes my point that the professor in the neoprene so valiantly voiced is that no one study can provide a definitive answer.  Different studies yield different answers. When the media buzzes over one at at time it distorts the context, implies there is a rather solid answer then the next week or month or year trots out the next one often with different results. Cue the confusion and frustration over mixed messages and the incoherent nature of science.  But hey science is often messy, empirical evidence is not black and white. Fortunately we have at least one guy who admits it. 

UPDATE: The American Academy of Pediatrics just weighed in on the benefits and disadvantage (yes) of eating organic.  You can read it for free:  Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages , a clinical report basically concluding there's not great empirical evidence espousing organic benefits though the authors don't discount the possible effects of pesticide exposure.  As for organic milk, they all but say it's not worth the price. I'll post on it soon but how thoughtful to publish this at first glance reasonable report so quick on the heels of the Stanford Food Fight. 
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