Organic food: What question did the study ask?

Stanford University researchers are reporting today that they "did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives," according to a press release on a study sure to trigger strong reactions on foodie websites. 

Before we look at the coverage, it's important to look closely at what the researchers said. They reviewed 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrients and contaminants in foods and, in a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, they concluded the following: "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."

Alice Park on Time's Healthland blog reported that "organic products aren’t necessarily more nutritional than conventional varieties, and they’re no less susceptible to contamination from disease-causing microbes like E. coli either." She is on target: the issue is nutrition, and the researchers did say that the risk of E. coli infection was similar in organic and conventional foods. She noted that organic foods are grown without pesticides, but did not note that the study found a possibly reduced risk of pesticide exposure.

At the New York TimesKenneth Chang reports the news accurately as well, and he does something Time didn't do–he seeks comment from the Organic Trade Association. But the comment proves to be not terribly helpful. A spokesperson told him that reduced contamination with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria were important for consumers, but she did not address the main finding of the study–concerning the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. Chang gives an analyst with the Environmental Working Group a free ride, letting her say, "We feel organic food is living up to its promise," without pressing her on why she thinks so. 

The AP's Lauran Neergaard shows up with a smart story that neatly puts the study in the context of the debate over using antibiotics to encourage growth of farm animals. (The version I read was on The Huffington Post.) She also quotes one of the researchers as saying that there are plenty of reasons people might want to choose organic food, from environmental concerns to taste preferences. That's an important point; the study looked at nutrition and contamination, not such things as taste or appearance.

Elizabeth Weise at USA Today includes useful agricultural stats in her story, noting, for example, that organic food generally costs 25% more in wholesale markets in San Francisco and Boston and can sometimes be double the price. Her reporting also shows that the study's emphasis on nutrition was important; she quotes a 2010 Nielsen study that found that 76% of consumers bought organic foods because they thought they were healthier.

The reporting might not have much effect on consumers' purchases, but it should give them a better idea of what they are–and are not–paying for.

-Paul Raeburn

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