Why oversimplified science news headlines may not be healthier for you

Here's why I wish SEO didn't factor into science news: the hunger for traffic encourages headline writers to tart up the findings of studies beyond recognition, and away from more boring truths. Case in point, this NPR item, forwarded to me by more than one friend: "Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You."

This headline is amplified by secondary and tertiary outlets, Facebooked and tweeted, each time diluting the actual science in the story to concentrations so weak, they might as well be labeled homeopathic tincture of news.

But let's dig further. The study it references, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, examined a number of existing studies and comes to a more nuanced conclusion than the viral headline suggests. Quote:

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.

Oh, and,

Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.

So the meta-study of all these studies concludes that existing science shows consumption of organic produce is associated with lower levels of pesticide exposure. And, that there is no conclusive evidence from existing studies that, say, an organic apple will always be higher in nutrients than an apple grown with man-made chemical pesticides and the like.

Well, fine. I buy organic when possible not because I presume the organic apple has more vitamins, but because we don't really know how chemical pesticide residues affect our bodies over longer periods of time (not to mention intergenerational DNA, or the bodies of farm workers, or our environment). It makes sense to me that the less of those chemicals we use and consume, the better.

I believe this in part because I do not have faith that the industry producing those chemicals has my best interest at heart, and in part because I don't really know that our federal standards for food pesticides are as safe as they should be.

I grew up playing in crop fields sprayed with all kinds of chemicals, many of which are now banned. What is considered safe in one era (hello, cigarettes!) may be found unsafe the next.

But tedious common sense like that doesn't tend to generate clicks any more than my crazy new diet secret: consume fewer calories, and burn more through exercise.

My conclusion? For optimum health, eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and read the actual studies behind the news headlines your mom emails you.

* Yes, "organic" is a widely abused term, and not all chemical-pesticide-free farming is Certified Organic, and with food, things are always complicated. For the purposes of this blog post, we're talking about food grown without the use of man-made chemicals for growth stimulation, pest control, and the like.

(Image: pesticide free, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from hciere's photostream)

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