Emphasizing the Negative, Stanford Draws Wide Audience for Report on Organic Foods

Stanford University researchers scored hundreds of newspaper and broadcast reports on Tuesday with a study suggesting that expensive organic foods are no better for consumers than those produced through conventional farming methods.

The findings were compiled by a team led by Dena M. Bravata, a senior affiliate in Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor in the Stanford medical school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines, as evidence that the high cost of organics simply isn’t justified.

Their study may help affirm suspicions that organic foods are “a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying,” The New York Times said, in one of many such reports describing the Stanford study as casting doubt on the wisdom of buying organic.

“It’s hard not to notice the press on it,” John P. Reganold, a professor of soil science at Washington State University, said of the study, published in Tuesday’s edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

But if consumers push beyond the negative headlines, which Stanford promoted in its news release describing the new report, they may find themselves not quite satiated with the results.

That’s because the Stanford study acknowledges there may be some evidence, as past research has shown, that organic foods do provide nutritional benefit. And, in terms of what polls show as the key reason consumers choose organics—to reduce their exposure to pesticides—the study says organics are 30 percent better.

Furthermore, in what Mr. Reganold calls an unusual area of study, the data compiled by Drs. Bravata and Smith-Spangler conclude that consumers of chicken and pork may reduce their exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria by choosing organics.

“So in a lot of ways,” said Mr. Reganold, who also studies organic foods, “this study’s pretty positive toward organic.”

The Stanford study is at least the 12th meta-analysis in the past 12 years to assess the nutritional value of organic foods by compiling the outcomes of some 150 research projects evaluating the use of organic methods for specific foods. But it’s only the third among them to find no significant nutritional benefit, Mr. Reganold said. Other studies have found, for example, that organically grown apples have greater levels of antioxidants and strawberries have more Vitamin C, he said.

The Stanford study also minimizes the importance of the 30-percent reduction in pesticide exposure, saying that even the higher level of pesticide residue with conventional farming methods is still considered to be within the acceptable range as defined by federal regulators.

The federal benchmark, however, isn’t necessarily a guarantee of safety, Mr. Reganold said. “The issue is we don’t really know that eating those foods with those pesticide residues over long periods of time—15, 20, 25 years—does that cause problems? It may; we don’t know that.”

The emphasis by Stanford on the negative findings about nutrition, rather than the positive findings about pesticide exposure, could reflect a realization about news-media preferences, Mr. Reganold said. A meta-analysis of nutritional benefits that came out last year showed evidence that organic food was more nutritious. It was largely ignored by the media, he said.

“The press,” Mr. Reganold said, “likes to get people to look at their stories.”

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