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)


  1. I heard the same story from a news blurb on the radio this morning (CBC Calgary Radio news update) and came to the same conclusion… that I would choose “Organic” food with the assumption that it has fewer pesticides and other chemicals while not necessarily having a higher nutritional value.  Then it occurred to me that this bit of common sense might not be common.  The study has value, the reporting of it leaves something to be desired.

  2. ‘Tarted Up’ headlines is a problem over here in the UK too, and in response the NHS have created a wonderful ‘Behind the Headlines’ page – http://www.nhs.uk/News/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx – where they explain the research in more detail.

    Sadly though, I don’t think that it gets read nearly as much as the OTT headlines that it examines.

  3. Can’t we just all agree to stop using “organic” like this in general?

    It just doesn’t make any sense. Why presume that “man-made chemicals” are somehow more dangerous than naturally-occurring chemicals? Chemicals don’t know where they came from; they don’t have differing effects depending on if they were synthesized in a round-bottom flask or in living cells.

    Not to derail you, there, Xeni. Rant over.

    1. Yeah, I get this, and I braced myself for the inevitability of a comment such as yours showing up beneath the post. 

      I am a big fan of some man-made chemicals. I just survived months of chemotherapy, after all! 

      But the notion that man-made chemical pesticides are associated with health risks, including cancer, is hardly a radical one.

      For example…


      Some are worse than others.

      How old are you? I am old enough to have eaten food grown in America with DDT as a child. We also played in fields where DDT was likely sprayed on growing crops. This was legal in the US until 1980. Care for a DDT smoothie? I thought not.

      1. I’m all for specificity in labeling. Tell me just which chemicals were used in the production of what I’m consuming.

        So no, I wouldn’t want to be dipping my fries in that DDT smoothie, but maybe I’m less concerned with some chemical where the research is more on-the-fence about its risks.

        I feel that “organic” and to a lesser extent “pesticide-free” are just too broad to be of value.

    2. Because organic farming isn’t only about “man-made chemicals” vs “natural chemicals.”

      While everything gets simplified to easy-to-measure metrics when it comes time to legislate it, organic farming also involves

      – better soil management, increasing the fertility of the soil while reducing harmful runoffs and erosion
      – less emphasis on eradicating all known organisms besides the crop (both weeds and pests), thus leading to greater biodiversity in the area
      – not using potent chemicals that harm other organisms in the surrounding area and the waterways as a side-effect, irrespective of whether the chemicals are man-made or natural

      I don’t know for certain which of these are mandated by law, and to what extent, which is why the value of the “Organic” label has become so dilluted, but the fact remains that there needs to be some description to separate the good-to-the-earth farms and the rape-and-pillage-the-earth farms (to be just a little hyperbolic).

    3. “Why presume that “man-made chemicals” are somehow more dangerous than naturally-occurring chemicals?”

      Because the evolutionary history of our species and those species with whom we have swell relationships has been characterized by evolutionary strategies to deal with the latter, and the former often present novel challenges that our systems are poorly equipped to handle (where “our” means “most living organisms”). Hence bioaccumulation (Get it? Because we can’t break the stuff down, so it accumulates, and concentrates up the food chain.).

      Seriously. You, me and every other aerobic organism is still trying to adapt to the toxic challenges presented by the revolutionary new ubiquitous chemical oxygen which made the atmospheric scene billions of years ago. Why would you presume that novel chemicals don’t present unique challenges to living systems?

      1. Sure, but there is also the possibility that we could make something that is more benign as well. Take for instance pyrethins versus beta-cyflurin, the pyrethrins can cause benign neck tumors and the b-cyflurin hasn’t been shown to cause any increase in cancerous cells. However pyrethrins are allowable under an organic regiment. Just because the compound is novel doesn’t automatically indicate that it is going to negatively effect humans.

        1. “Just because the compound is novel doesn’t automatically indicate that it is going to negatively effect humans.”

          That is true, but just because a compound is novel does mean that we didn’t evolve to cope with it. Sometimes we can and sometimes can’t cope. This raises the question of whether we adopt the precautionary principle and err on the side of demonstrating safety, or whether we take the privatize the gains, and socialize the risks principle and err on the side of demonstrating harm.

          Social needs will be met somewhere in the middle.

          1. Demonstrating safety sounds an awful lot like proving here is no harm.  Last time I checked demanding proof of a negative was either an unfair burden or an impossibility depending on whom you ask. It seems like any evidence offered as proof of no harm would never be able to satisfy the precautionary principle.

    4. It’s not the ‘man made’ aspect that is a problem. Sodium chloride made in a a lab or a factory is just as much NaCl as stuff made by evaporating sea water. In fact it’s potentially less dangerous because your salt-pan salt has all sorts of random crap (sometimes literally) floating in it. Quite a lot of poisons are perfectly natural. Just ask your local friendly Curare-tipped arrow vendor.
      Not-normally-found-in-nature chemicals, wherever they come from, factory or accidental reaction between molecules out in the wild, may be dangerous or may be utterly inert. You don’t know until you analyse and test.
      It ain’t the provenance, it’s the product.

    5. Why presume that “man-made chemicals” are somehow more dangerous than naturally-occurring chemicals?

      You mean besides the fact that we’ve evolved to have certain interactions with naturally occurring chemicals?

        1. Of which there seem to be less than 100 worldwide since anyone’s been keeping records of that sort of thing.

          But the point is that we know what happens if you’re bitten by a Latrodectus or make yourself a Digitalis salad.

    6. This is a good comment, organic does not mean pesticide-free. Many organic pesticides have been in use for hundreds of years, so they have had more time to show their effects compared to new synthetic pesticides. However, there was at least one organic pesticide, rotenone, shown to be harmful and is now banned in the US except as a fish killer.

      I do buy certain things organic, but research which particular products are likely to contain a lot of pesticides. I think you are correct that the label ‘organic’ itself is no guarantee of superior safety compared to conventional, however, even this report says that the levels of pesticides in conventionally grown produce is higher than organic.

      There is also the way the farming affects the land, that and pesticide levels are the two main reasons most people buy organic. Articles like this seem to try to confuse the issue by claiming that most people expect organic food to have more vitamins, and then showing that they don’t. A bit of a straw man argument by the conventional farming industry.

      1. Dolo54’s observations are precisely right. A straw man was constructed by the article writer(s). The AP article about this study I read did (eventually) point out that ‘some’ people buy organic because of concerns about pesticides and pollution. But the thrust of the writing was embodied in its overreaching headline: “Study Questions How Much Better Organic Food Is.” As if the doctors studying organic food had any sort of say about anything other than its medical or nutritive value! Good call dolo54!

  4. At the end of the NPR piece, they mentioned that the maximum length of the studies in this meta-study was 2 years.  Only two years?!? When effects of pesticides are known to be long-term and cumulative?  Talk to me in ten, twenty, and 30 years, guys; then we might have something worth discussing. 

    In any case, we know the effects of “organic” farming practices on the environment are more beneficial than those of conventional farming, and the food often tastes better.  Reasons enough, while we wait for the results of the long-term studies.

    1. Another point: the regulatory safety limits represented in the article are generally for lifetime risk of harm based on average exposure by an average individual. They do not account for exceptional exposure (e.g. average American eats 2 avocados per year, the average Californian something like 50, if I recall correctly), nor for exceptional susceptibility (e.g. young children, who have developing immune and metabolic systems and who consume about twice as much food and water per unit mass as adults), nor for the interaction effects of complex mixtures of pesticides (e.g. what if the health effects of being exposed to pesticide A residue and pesticide B residue aren’t simply additive but produce additional effects in combination?).

    2. Well said Barbara.

      With the number of materials and chemicals we’re exposed to now I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered some pretty nasty consequences (especially from combinations) in a few decades time.

      Anything we can do to keep away from superfluous additives the better, I say.

    3.  This. I can imagine that some organic foods may be better for me than their dark-satanic-mill-agriculture counterparts, but a big reason that I go for them is that they’re better for the rest of the living world, and for the people who grow and harvest them. This is especially true for things like “dried organic cane juice”.

      (Oh, and a nit: the truth in these pieces is diluted, not distilled. Or perhaps the content of the studies is distilled, and the truth is in one of the discarded cuts.)

    4.  I eat organic much of the time, but in fairness, one point to the counter.

      Organic in a general way is less efficient.  It uses more land and often takes more energy to produce, and can have a larger percent spoilage because of the spots on the apples as it were.  So its better for the environment in the pesticide realm of things but in terms of land use and energy might be worse for the environment and I haven’t seen an honest analysis of how those factors balance out.

      1. Organic takes more energy if you look at labor as an energy cost, while looking at subsidized petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and the downstream costs they impose as somehow not an energy cost.

        Moreover “takes more land” applies, perhaps to organic agriculture based on high-input USDA style land use. If you start talking multi-cropping and under-canopy agriculture the land use argument falls away. Of course, much if not most of the organics available in stores are the former, and not the latter, but as long as we’re playing devil’s advocate…

        1.  Yeah, just pointing out that the Environmental impact issue isn’t cut and dry. We shouldn’t jsut assume that it is actually better for the environment.  Primary reason for eating organic is to avoid the personal consumption of pesticides and fertilizers, which may contribute to bad general health when consumed over decades.  And we that link is still not one I have seen proven one way or the other.  The health of farm workers and neighbors is another fair reason, but again one I haven’t seen good numbers on.

    5. The main purpose of the study was to determine the relative nutritive value of organic vs conventional – which concluded ‘about the same.’ Its intent was not Which is better in regard to pesticides, farming techniques, etc. At least according to the husband of one of the doctors named in the study. So that’s second-hand.

      1.  It’s intent and use were to discredit organic food as a superior product.  And make claims about the health impact of eating organic.  Their choice to focus on something for which one can imagine no mechanism is just a way to get the answer they wanted.  In what way could not using pesticides make a tomato more nutritious?

  5. The Certified Organic ™ farms around here are right next to roads.

    But hey, at least its clean california gasoline whose exhaust they enjoy (and plants do enjoy a bit more CO2 than is currently available).

  6. > I grew up playing in crop fields sprayed with all kinds of chemicals,
    >  many of which are now banned.

    THAT is why I prefer to buy organic produce; not for my sake, but for the sake of farm-workers and others who live amidst or downstream from fields and orchards.  I’m not much worried about eating the occasional trace of pesticide, but for every trace at the grocery store there’s a full dose soaked into some apple-picker’s overalls.

  7. I’m not sure why these headlines appeal to people anyway tbh.

    I buy organic because I don’t like my food to pollute the land it occupies while it’s growing.  It’s not for my benefit, it’s for the ecosystems benefit.

      1. I suppose it was a subtle jab toward the majority (?) of people who have absolutely no idea what Organic actually means – i.e. you’d have to not really know why Organic produce is important to find this headline interesting.

        Of course as I’ve mentioned above keeping extra chemicals out of food is always a plus, but I don’t think that was ever the primary intention of the organic movement. As far as I’m aware anyway.

    1.  Yeah, I see it with vegetarianism too.  It’s like a weird form of sour grapes or something.  I think people are worried they’re bad people for not recycling or eating organic or being vegetarian so they need to try to make those things seem stupid to feel better about themselves.  It’s a very middle class white thing to do.

  8. I used to work at a company that made mass spectrometers. Most of my colleagues were chemists or had a background in chemistry. Because these people had worked in their earlier lives testing water quality and testing pesticide levels in soil, they were some  of the cleanest eating people I ever met. I started eating organic produce when my co-worker who had previously worked testing levels of pesticides in soil explained to me that pesticides never get flushed out of the body, they build up in fat tissue. For me, eating organic produce is about reducing not only the level of pesticides in my body but in the environment.

    1. Which is a huge argument for eating vegetarian or vegan.  The higher the food chain you eat from, the more you’re prone to chemical concentration. Just ask the pelicans or tuna.

    2. “Never get flushed out of the body” is scare-mongery bullshit. Everything flows. Some really long-lived stuff, like cadmium, has a half life in the body of a several decades, but even it flows.

  9. Screw “Organic”. I want “Patent-free” produce. That’s what I actually aim to support, when I shop. No corporate personhood is in the league of Mother Nature. Prior art. Full stop. Fuck you Monsanto and everyone else trying to patent genetic traits.

  10. While non-organic produce can still contain residual traces of pesticide by the time it gets to the supermarket, the land on which that non-organic produce grew will have been treated with pounds of chemicals which seep into the local environment and groundwater, putting native vegetation, insects, fish, wildlife — and yes, humans — at potential risk. 

    We try to buy both local and organic and value what *isn’t* being released into the environment. Also: organic often tastes better.

    1. That’s not a matter of “organic,” as much as it is a matter of sprouts being famous for periodic pathogen outbreaks. Barf Blog covers this well. The way sprouts are commercially produced makes it all but impossible to prevent potentially fatal pathogen outbreaks. Not a matter of organic vs. conventional farming.

      I kind of hate sprouts, but if I wanted to eat them, I’d grow them at home. Carefully.

  11. When I first heard the talk about how “organic vegetables are not more nutritious than ‘regular’ vegetables” my first thought was “uhhh. . . I never assumed they WOULD be– supporting organic farming is about keeping pesticides out of our food and environment by promoting cleaner farming.”

  12. I agree that in general, organic foods are better for the environment then conventionally grown foods. I am a food science grad student, and obviously this topic (as well as GM foods) comes up often in discussion.  The one thing that nobody is talking about is the current food supply system worldwide.  You have to remember that there are 6 billion (or is it 7 billion) people on the planet, and everyone needs to be fed. While it’s great that we, as Americans (or Europeans), have the option to pick organic vs conventional, the rest of the world may not be in the same position.  Some areas have trouble growing crops because of extrinsic factors (bugs, blight, drought, etc) that can’t be controlled without pesticides/chemicals/genetic engineering. If you can’t grow crops, you don’t eat, plain and simple. Obviously it would be great if we didn’t need this crap, but think about what would happen if we didn’t have them?  Think about man-made fertilizers.  Fritz Haber developed the Haber-process in the early 20th century, which synthesized “man-made” ammonia.  The world literally would have run out of food if man hadn’t stepped in and done something about it. Granted, Fritz Haber is also the father of chemical warfare and indirectly, Zyklon B.  It may be a stretch to connect modern day pesticides with man-made ammonia, but I think you get my point.  Sometimes we have to step in, for better or worse.  

    1. It’s the “in general” that’s the problem to me. People will often make health or environmental claims about ‘genetically modified foods’ or ‘processed foods’ or ‘conventionally farmed’ foods in general, where in reality science is much more complicated than that. Some techniques might be harmful, others might be life-saving innovations, others may be neither. Applying chemistry, genetics, physics, etc. to agriculture is the sensible, moral thing to do. All our food should be ‘engineered’, for the same reasons bridges and skyscrapers are engineered: lives depend on getting it right. Engineering and science are great tools for optimizing. The problem, if there is a problem, is we’ve allowed customer demand and business needs to dictate which variables to optimize, and they may not be the ones that best serve us long term.

    2. I was recently talking to a coworker who grew up in a 3rd world country in south America. He mentioned how it’s funny that where he grew up, EVERYTHING was grown in ways more in line with the current Organic standards and to get your hands on the non-organically grown stuff was more difficult and more expensive. Now that he’s in the U.S. and more specifically California, he generally has to pay more to get food closer to the standards he had elsewhere.

      If you do some reading you’ll also find instances where people in less developed areas actually end up worse when they switch to more pesticide and fertilizer dependent farming techniques. These things have real costs associated with them. When the farmers can’t afford these chemicals, then what? When the farmer’s have messed up the quality of their soil by dumping all these chemicals, then what?

    3. It’s funny how agribusiness always trots out the GMO/pesticides/synthetic fertilizers are to feed the poor! shibboleth, when the reality is that (1) famines are almost universally socially produced phenomena entailing a trade off of access and food system stability in order to support agricultural giants and agricultural finance, (2) we as a species discard more than twice as much food as we can eat: the issue is access and whether access to food ought to be something that one can make profit on.

    4. This is completely backwards.  There are seven billion people on the planet because of the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, etc.  Before the 1600s or so human beings only reproduced at a rate that could be supported by local agriculture. 

      Obviously it would be great if we didn’t need this crap, but think about what would happen if we didn’t have them?

      If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.  See what I mean?  “Stepping in” caused the problem. 

      It gets worse, though.  Jared Diamond argued pretty persuasively that the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and Greenlanders all overwhelmed their resource base practicing what we would today call organic farming.  So apparently even organic farming isn’t really sustainable. 

      Next couple generations are going to live in interesting times.

        1. You didn’t even read my post, did you?  You certainly didn’t comprehend it.

          Those people who were being “saved from starvation” did not exist. You cannot save nonexistent people from starvation. They did not exist because in the past agriculture was much lower-yield than it is today and as a consequence demographic growth was much slower. The demographic growth that Cool K is citing as requiring lots more food is in fact an effect of having more food, not the cause. (Obviously.)

          This is like arguing that we cannot make marijuana legal because police departments are do dependent on drug war funding. But this is backwards — marijuana is not illegal because of how police departments are funded. The sensible solution would be to change how police departments are funded, not throw hands up in despair.

          Industrial monoculture makes a lot of food in the short run but it’s a complex and brittle system — even more brittle than the organic agriculture that depleted the agricultural basis for pretty much every society on earth that has ever collapsed. When it fails (not if) there’s going to be starvation on a large scale whether or not Cool K or yourself approve.

          And what’s with “monstrous”? My post was pretty much entirely value neutral — just pointing out bad logic, not taking a moral stand on anything.

          1. When these agricultural practices were created, there were people starving.  Saving those people from starving was a good thing to do.  Now there are more people starving.  Why should we throw up our hands and say,”wow, we should have just let all those previous people to starve?” So, just because one solution led to a different problem we should not try to solve that problem?

          2. You act as though the purpose of more efficient farming was to feed starving people.  No, it was a way for individual farmers to make more money for less effort by increasing yield per acre (this plan backfired as it turned out).  You’ll notice that despite all the food we produce there are still people starving, and always have been.  If the purpose of growing all this food were really to feed the starving then please explain to me why so much food is thrown out in the US.  If the point of growing all this food is to feed starving people then why does the US government pay farmers not to grow corn

            If modern agriculture was the solution to starving people why are there — in your very own words “more people starving” than before?

            I’m not throwing my hands up, I’m suggesting that industrial monoculture is actually the source of the problem by allowing 7 billion people to be born in the first place.  There would be many fewer starving people in the world today if it weren’t for industrial monoculture as perverse as that sounds.  My solution: expand small and local food production as much as possible even if it’s less efficient in terms of inputs than industrial monoculture.  It’s more robust and it empowers people to grow their own food which is a much better deal than a bunch of Monsanto technocrats saying “Don’t worry, we won’t let you go hungry!”

      1. You certainly bring up valid points. Understanding where the problem comes from can give us an idea of where we’re going, however there is no way to change what happened, only what will happen. It’s like blaming antibiotics for the growth of resistant pathogen strains. It’s a catch 22, yes? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for wholesome, sustainable agriculture. Times are obviously different from the 1600s though; aside from modern food production, populations have grown exponentially due to better healthcare, sanitation, and better overall standards of living. So what happens when something catastrophic happens to the food supply that could have been prevented? People starve. History is riddled with famine that wouldn’t happen because of todays advances. Look at it objectively. Shoulda coulda woulda doesn’t help the situation.

        1. So what happens when something catastrophic happens to the food supply that could have been prevented?

          This is exactly my point.  Relying on industrial monoculture as much as we do makes food catastrophes more likely, not less.

          Meanwhile, industrial monoculture has failed to feed the 7 billion people you’re talking about.  “History is riddled with famine that wouldn’t happen because of todays advances.”  And yet there’s still famine to spare.  Your only argument for industrial monoculture is that it does something that it actually does not do: feed the world.

          Not only that, but since industrial monoculture has allowed the world population to balloon to 7 billion, there are more probably more people starving right now than there were at any point before 1600.  More food means more people means more hunger.  And, in fact, the famines of the past of which you speak usually followed this same pattern: a decade of high crop yields would lead to burgeoning demographics, and then when there was a drought or similar problem with the crops there would be famine…because the population outstripped what the agricultural system could steadily supply.

          Industrial monoculture relies heavily on a great number of scarce inputs — petroleum is one of the biggies but chemical phosophorous and some other minerals are important too.  Jeremy Grantham wrote about this in one of his quarterly letters a few years ago, but I’m having trouble tracking down the PDF.  I think he titled it “The Great Inflection” because he believes commodities are going to stop dropping in price and start rising in price within the next few decades.  If you want to talk about “something catastrophic happening to the food supply” this is the sort of thing you’re talking about.

  13. I’m afraid you’ve done the same thing, too, though, Xeni. Two included studies showed elevated pesticide levels in the urine of children eating non-organic vs. those on an organic diet. But the authors noted that the design of these studies limit generalizability.
    As for the remainder, “ We found no studies comparing pesticide levels among adult consumers of organic versus conventional foods.“

    So the authors of the meta-analysis justly conclude, “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.“ 

    But you state in your post, “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.“ I’m all for organic, but the study’s findings are not that definitive.

    1. fig. a: “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues”

      fig. b: “the meta-study of all these studies concludes that existing science shows consumption of organic produce is associated with lower levels of pesticide exposure”

      “may” and “is associated with” are, in the context of this blog post, pretty equivalent. “pesticide residues” and “pesticides” are, in the context of that sentence, pretty equivalent.

      Yes, I’m paraphrasing, but not distorting the original. I think you’re splitting a way-too-fine pedantic hair, there.

      Also, the post points to the limitations in the meta-study, and the studies it studies. My head now hurts.

  14. It’s unclear to me – by “nutrients” are they including micronutrients?  I thought it was well known that industrial farming practices depleted micronutrients in soil (i.e. chemical fertilizers failed to replenish them), something reflected in the crops (whose micronutrient content had been steadily falling over the decades).

  15. Who cares about healthier?

    Organic food, especially locally grown organic food, more often than not tastes better. It is probably not because the produce is grown without pesticides, but rather because the farmer gives a damn.

    1. I wonder to what degree we can generalize the statement that organic farmers “give a damn.” Certainly, there are farmers who “give a damn,” and who would farm according to organic principles with or without the label. But there are a lot of large commercial operations, too, who latch onto the organic label simply as a marketing gimmick. I’m hardly the first to make this point. Do you really think that Horizon dairy “gives a damn” about their product any more than Mayfield? Furthermore, there are lots of farmers out there like Joel Salatin, for example, whose meat and produce do not meet federal standards for organic labeling, but who are FAR more consistent with ACTUAL organic principles than most.

  16. Personally, I have encountered PLENTY of people who seem quite certain that their organic produce has more nutritional value other (inorganic?) produce. The marketers of organic food do a great deal to promote this idea (some of the same people promoting questionable “natural” alternative medicine, energy healing, and other anti-scientific thinking). The organic farming movement will better off if it sticks to the facts.  So I think this is a useful study, and as shlocky headlines for science reporting go, this one isn’t even all that egregious. Honestly, it seems like Xeni is reacting defensively about her own decision to choose organic.  If you want to see really bad science headline, Google “obesity is contagious”.

  17. I was listening to NPR because it was supposed to be better for me. Now I find out that public radio won’t lower my risk of cancer or heart disease, or lower my auto insurance rates? It’s obviously not good for anything!

  18. I think this issue comes from people (including reporters) misunderstanding the role of science. Science is ever changing. It does not tell us the ever-lasting truth. Before the scientific discoveries that lead to the discovery that the world was a sphere, saying the world was flat was scientifically correct.

    All this study is telling us is that currently we have no evidence that the small quantities of pesticides that exist will harm us. Therefore, using Occam’s razor we will assume that they do not harm us.

    If tomorrow a study comes out showing that a certain pesticide harms our health, then that becomes the new scientific conclusion.

    People who eat Organic foods are either believing something that has not been proven yet, which is totally fine. Or at least protecting themselves in case the Science changes which is also totally fine. Science has not proven that Organic food does not harm you, they simply have not proven that it does harm you.

    In a way this is similar to religious people or agnostics. Just because Science has not proven that there is a G-d does not preclude me from believing that G-d exists nor does it prevent an agnostic from entertaining that possibility. Science has not proven that G-d does not exist; it simply has not proven that He does.

    If you want to live your life taking science into account you must be prepared to change your beliefs and actions a lot. If the Scientific community concludes that evolution is incorrect, if you are a true Scientist you would celebrate the progression of Science and how our knowledge is moving ever forward.

  19. My understanding about the nutrient/organic food research is you can break it into three categories.  In one group previously conventional fields were planted with identical seed, and one was grown conventionally and the other with no chemical inputs.  Needless to say this kind of research finds nutrient levels similar and yields considerably lower in the “organic” food.  The second group simply goes out and buys organic and conventional products as they currently exist in stores and compares them.  This is in many ways more intellectually honest, however, it includes factory organic, such as organic milk from cows fed organic grain in large barns with no access to light etc.  This type of study finds similar nutrient levels, slightly lower pesticide levels and significantly higher costs in the organic food.  However, the third category looks at small producer, intensively managed, organic, grass fed, etc. food (think Joel Salatin) vs. conventional food and counts oil subsidies and farm supports into their analysis, these types of studies consistently find that organic food has substantially more nutrients, and is also more economically sustainable over the long term.  The first category of research is generally conducted by agra-business or agra-business supported land grant universities, the third category is generally funded by social policy advocacy groups with their own agenda.  I think the safest thing to say is: much, much more research needs to be done, but in the mean time I personally am going to take a risk reduction approach.

    1. The first one is controlling for variations in soil and climate by having the plots consistent. This mean any variation would come from the differing practices. The second ignores all that and just tells you on the day they collected samples one group rated differently from another. There have been studies that show some years the conventional produce have higher nutrient values and some years organic comes out on top. Those market sample studies are the least valuable imo. The last one doesn’t control for location but at least it has a longer timeframe.

  20. Since no one else has pointed it out yet, I just wanted to give a warm round of applause for:

    “each time diluting the actual science in the story to concentrations so weak, they might as well be labeled homeopathic tincture of news”

    That is the best description of the US “news” media I have ever seen, and of course an even better description for “science” “news” in the general media.

  21. I buy “organic” olive oil and other products in the forlorn hope that they contain more of what they’re supposed to contain (olive oil is cut with many other cheap oils, which acc. to the New Yorker are difficult to test for without human tasters who quit after so few samples!) or at least that more thought and care went into their production. But my friend was an organic farm inspector here in WA and told me the situation is rather confused.

    It would be nice to be able to buy good foods and know why they’re good. My brother-in-law bribes Argentinian butchers in Miami. I find myself eating more calamari in Seattle in the hope that with squid, at least, it’s not yet corn syrup and cannibalism all the way down.

  22. I was expecting the oversimplification to target vague claims such as “natural” or “healthier” that tend to surround organic produce. As long as there’s skepticism both ways though, we can maybe stay rational.

  23. One of the problems is that “by definition”, organic farming cannot be safer (or more dangerous) than conventional farming.

    Any pesticide approved for use (including organic pesticides like copper sulphate [chemists will get the irony] or bt toxin) must have shown that it is safe to humans and the environment – according to the best standards of science (at the time, as Xeni points out).

    Therefore all any “organic vs non-organic” study can do is compare two things that have already been certified as ‘safe’.

    My view is that organic vs non-organic is ridiculous, like making a sweeping judgement on whether America is better than Canada. Some bits are, some bits aren’t, and some pedant will always point out that pesticides are organic or that Canada is part of America.

    Arguments about evolution are overly simplistic. Many natural substances are highly toxic and/or occur at low levels in nature. The fact that some natural pesticide is present at ppm levels in leaf tissue of an inedible plant does not mean we have evolved resistance to spraying kilo per hectare quantities of it on a field crop.

    Most synthetic pesticides are analogues to natural substances, which are designed to maximise the desired effect and minimize side effects. Having said that, by making a small change to the chemical structure, a synthetic chemical may produce more side effects than the natural version.

    Disclaimer: I work in pesticide/biocide risk assessment (synthetic and natural chemicals) , thus my views are educated but possibly biased.

  24. Lost in the discussion–even in Maggie’s fine post–are the authors’ conclusions, which seemed rational and sensible to me. Eat more local foods, and when possible, choose local over long-distance organic. Those are practical, sensible and wise.

  25. The National Cancer Institute, a branch of the Department of Heath and Human Services, came out with a document in 2010:

    President’s Cancer Panel: Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, April 2010


    That advised Americans to choose organic food, “food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers,” over conventional food, to reduce exposure to pesticides and other cancer-causing chemicals.

  26. As to diseases that are linked to pesticides,  the study below found that people with high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides were 38 times! more likely to have diabetes than those with low levels (food is the primary source of POPs)

    A Strong Dose-Response Relation Between Serum Concentrations Of Persistent Organic Pollutants [POPs] And Diabetes: Results From The National Health And Examination Survey 1999–2002, Diabetes Care, 2006 http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/29/7/1638.full

  27. One thing left unsaid is that it is assumed that because this research appeared in a respected journal, it is assumed that the science behind it is driving a neutral, dispassionate appraisal. This ain’t necessarily so and in this case it is most definitely not so.

    The study is DESIGNED to ask the question in such a way as to deliver statistics to back up a predetermined hypothesis, in this case one pushing the GMO and agribusiness agenda.

    Two techniques are used to mask this as dispassionate science:
    1. the question is asked in a particular way (it concerns purely nutrient content and not the health effects of pesticides, antibiotics, nor environmental impact) and
    2. the method (complex statistical analysis of SELECTED extant studies) allows outcomes to be manipulated by the study selection (studies appraised may be funded by particular interests) and the statistical method of analysis.

    Whilst this may sound somewhat conspiratorial, it should be noted that both Stanford University and Dr. Ingram Olkin, one of the study’s co-authors has a  history of doing exactly this to produce bogus science for the tobacco industry as head of Stanford’s Department of Statistics see http://andrewgelman.com/2012/09/cigarettes/ and http://tobaccodocuments.org/bliley_pm/22205.html On Olkin’s use of statistical models such as the “”Dr. Ingram Olkin multivariate Logistic Risk Function” to produce selective results see http://tobaccodocuments.org/lor/00500252-0253.html and http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/qbo66b00.

    In addition, Stanford gets millions of dollars in donations from pro-agribusiness front groups such as Cargill and has research groups set up explicitely to push a pro-GMO/agribusiness agenda, such as the Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE).
    A UK study which was published about a year ago and made big headlines came to the same conclusion about exactly the same specific question, using similar statistical study appraisal methodologies. It was directly funded by agribusiness interest groups.

    The whole affair is an exercise in the use of science as a means of misdirection. Getting people to focus on the vitamin content of tomatoes distracts them from the question of pesticide content, antibiotics and genetic modification and their influence, for example on the microbial ecology of the body, especially intestinal flora.

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