Response to the Organic Debate in the Media

Putting a spin on science may grab attention -- but it's not making consumers more informed about their decisions.
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yellow and purple plums on...
yellow and purple plums on...

"Organic." When that word first took root in our parlance people used it in business meetings to suggest that their project (or business) would grow unfettered. I don't know about you, but this usage of "organic" along with other yuppie words (like "facetime") made my head spin.

But the reason "organic" wheedled its way into our vernacular was not because it implied that a business project would have a higher vitamin content. It just meant it wouldn't be unduly cultivated by outside forces. The project would just grow, as apparently nature intends business projects to do.

Let me be clear before I continue. I am not recommending organic or non-organic food in this blog. I only aim to illustrate how an article can bias science facts -- just by how it was written. I am using the New York Times article as an example. But many similar pieces across publications came out the same day.

1.) Let's start out of the gate with the opening line: "Does an organic strawberry contain more vitamin C than a conventional one?"

If you were hooked by this, you may have been lured into "accepting the premise." If you accepted the premise, you may have then thought that organic food should be more nutritious and it should have more vitamins than non-organic food.

It should not.

If you read the Organic Food Production Act (I just did, and it's actually pretty interesting. OK, it is not even half as interesting as the celebrity photos on HuffPost, but it is worth perusing), you will see that there is no mention of nutrition, nutrients or higher vitamin levels whatsoever.

Further, if you go to the EPA site, not only does their definition of organic not mention nutrition -- "'organically grown' food is food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides" -- but in the middle of the page, it plainly states: "Neither the Organic Foods Production Act nor the NOP address food safety or nutrition."

An organic label does not promise more vitamins, and it doesn't even guarantee your safety. The government has agreed to set standards about how something is manufactured and to hold the industry to those standards. And what you do with that information is totally up to you.

Are you concerned about limiting the amount of synthetic chemicals in your body, or are you okay with them? The government and farmers have given you an option. They have increased your choices at the market place based on fairly narrow manufacturing criteria. They did not create an über-vitamin C-filled strawberry.

2.) The NYT article then states there is no meaningful difference in the amount of E. coli found in organic versus non-organic. I actually read this as a positive thing. I would have expected the non-organic food to have less E. coli. Now, I based that just on the hunch that chemicals that could kill plant-eating bugs may also put a dent in E. coli bacteria. So, I was happy to read that organic is on par with non-organic food. Nevertheless, this statement is tossed out there as if one would have expected organic food to be E. coli-free, and thereby made it seem like there is one more thing organic food has promised but didn't deliver.

3.) Third up we get into the very controversial area. The next line is: "The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats."

Setting aside that "health advantages" is a broad and vague term, and that we've already addressed that organic does not confer increased nutritional value, let's do think about animal products.

The Organic Food Act says that famers cannot inject animals with hormones, unnecessary medication, or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. The last term is referring to the practice of giving prophylactic antibiotics to animals to prevent infection.

There are no conclusive studies that I have seen that can uniformly point to the hormones in the milk and meat and the increasingly earlier age of the onset of puberty for girls or the incidence of gynecomastia in boys. Nor have I seen any well-done studies that show these hormones cause weight gain or other issues. Further, the jury is also still out on the direct impact of this additional source of antibiotics and its effect on antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This is not to say studies are not looking at these -- just that the data has been hard to produce. One reason is that trial design of this issue in a clinical setting has some pretty high ethical hurdles to jump. Second, is that looking at epidemiological data over a long period of time is interesting -- but not also the most helpful way to isolate variables.

We make health decisions every day. Do you want to run in the park or pay for the convenience of a gym? Do you love clean air and nature, or do you want to live in a city that has pollution but other conveniences? Do you want to smoke even though the surgeon general seriously warns against it? Etc, etc... The organic issue also boils down to your choice. Non-organic food production uses hormones, prophylactic antibiotics and chemical pesticides for various business reasons. Do you find those acceptable things in your food?

That's the only question here. And it is a tough one. There is cost, convenience, availability and all manner of other things to consider.

While the NYT article does mention some of the above, the headline alone -- and the similar headlines on many other sites that day -- is so misleading about the premise of the situation that the spin was already set.

Putting a spin on science may grab attention -- but it's not making consumers more informed about their decisions.

As ever, there is more to this issue than what can be managed in the purview of a blog entry -- not the least of which is what a "meta-analysis" is. But I hoped to at least open the door on reading such news with a critical eye.

For more by Amy M. FitzPatrick, MS, L.Ac., click here.

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