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When It Comes To Buying Organic, Science And Beliefs Don't Always Mesh

Sep 7, 2012
Originally published on September 19, 2012 4:10 pm

We heard from a lot of you — and we mean a lot of you — about our recent report on the Stanford School of Medicine analysis of several studies on the health effects of organic foods.

The upshot of the Stanford review, as we reported, was that the scientists found very little evidence of health benefits. As we explained, the limitation of the review is that many of the studies included were narrowly targeted and that they didn't last longer than a couple of years. Basically, more studies are needed to determine whether there are measurable health benefits from eating organically grown food.

But many of you wrote in to us and to Morning Edition to let us know you weren't happy with the study or our coverage of it. What about environmental benefits? you asked. How could pesticide residues on conventionally grown food not be bad for us? What about genetically modified food? And, aren't you just shilling for the big food companies?

Listen to the radio piece this morning as correspondent Allison Aubrey addresses some of those questions, and our brain & behavior science correspondent, Shankar Vendantam, provides some possible explanations for why people react so strongly when it comes to questions raised about organic food. Hint: There are a variety of motivations for buying organic, many of which have to do with personal values and perceptions, rather than scientific reasons, Vendantam explains.

Rest assured, this isn't the last word on organics, either from us or from science.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit



Let's follow up, now, on a story that prompted a powerful reaction from many listeners - to this program. We reported on a Stanford University study on the healthful effects of organic food, or the lack of them. The study found little evidence so far, to suggest that there is a health benefit to buying and eating organic food.

Many listeners were disappointed by the findings of the study, and our reporting on it. For example, Jason Todd of Bogalusa, Louisiana, argued that we were, quote, "using the results to criticize the idea of organic foods." People had so many questions, that we're going to try to answer some more of them, starting with NPR's Allison Aubrey, who's in our studios. Welcome back to the program.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Happy to be here.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, first, that the study did not say there's no benefit. It said that so far, researchers have been unable to identify a benefit, a health benefit. It's a little different, right?

AUBREY: That's exactly right. I think that - you know, the question that lots of people want answered is this: If I spend the money on organic; if I buy and eat organic now, am I somehow reducing the risk of - say, developing a disease, or a cancer, 10 or 20 years down the line? And unfortunately, this question can't be answered now because the study - or studies - that would be needed to determine this, have, simply, never been done.

INSKEEP: And the Stanford University survey of studies also wasn't looking at environmental effects of pesticides in foods, or so forth. It was health effects of eating organic - which prompted questions like this one, from Eugene Marner(ph) of Franklin, New York. Quote, "Do the fiction writers who put this piece of corporate propaganda together even understand what is meant by health? What is NPR up to now, shilling for Monsanto?" That's the question, so let me ask: Who funded this Stanford University study?

AUBREY: Well, this analysis was done by researchers at Stanford University, as you just said. And the study was completely funded internally by the university; no outside funding. One of the researchers that I interviewed, she's also a practicing doctor. She sees patients. And she says, she hears so often the question from patients - you know, is eating organic better? - that she decided to take a look at the evidence.

INSKEEP: OK. So whatever criticism you may have of the study, it would not be about the funding. It appears to be funded just by the university. But there is another question here about the actual findings of this study, saying they can't find evidence of health benefits to eating organic food. James Johnson of Windsor, California, writes: I honestly can't believe that a scientist in this day and age would make the claim that pesticides building up in the human body does not matter.

And it certainly does seem intuitive; that it's better not to be ingesting pesticides than to be ingesting pesticides, Allison.

AUBREY: Well, I think this goes back to the answer I started with; that if this is the question that people want answered, science has not answered it yet. We can make lots of assumptions, but if you look at the body of evidence that these researchers were reviewing, they're mostly short-term, narrow studies.

For instance, they're looking at - if pregnant women and their children eat organic, are they going to be less inclined to have allergic conditions; say, eczema? And when they look at that body of evidence, they don't see any big signs of big benefits. But as the researchers told me - that some of the findings are what they call hypothesis-generating; meaning, they look at the data, and they see a subgroup of people for whom maybe there's an influence between these two things. So...

INSKEEP: Meaning that maybe in some cases, there is some possibility of an organic benefit. But in studies lasting several years, they have yet to uncover it for sure.

AUBREY: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: And at the same time, is part of this that, at least according to the government - according to the EPA - even food that is non-organic does not have massive amounts of pesticide that would be associated with it.

AUBREY: Well, what the researchers found here is that for the vast majority of conventionally grown food, the foods are well within the thresholds that are set by federal standards. So, you know, whether you want to call that super-low, I mean, that's sort of a judgment. But they're well within the standards that have been worked out.

INSKEEP: We actually got a response, also, from a listener who said we were being too nice to organic food. This is Will Zander(ph) of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The following comment should have been attributed to Wayne Parrott, a listener in Athens, Ga.] who writes: You guys need to stop propagating the myth that organic is pesticide-free. Far from it - he writes. Organic relies primarily on natural pesticides, as opposed to synthetic pesticides. But at the end of the day, a pesticide is still a pesticide.

Is that true, Allison?

AUBREY: Well, I think this listener makes a really interesting point. Organic farmers also need to control pests, right? You can't have pests, and funguses, ruining your crop. There are a whole list of natural products, including some naturally derived pesticides they can use. And they're still chemicals, but the distinction here is that they're naturally derived, as opposed to synthetic.

INSKEEP: Which brings us to another issue: the definition of organic. There are a lot of terms that get thrown around. It's easy to confuse them. Eating locally is something different than eating organic. Dealing with genetically modified organisms is something a little different than organic, although there's some overlap. Let's just remember what the definition of organic food is.

AUBREY: Well, this is complicated, but let me give you the basics. The USDA actually has a uniform set of standards that organic farmers have to follow. And in essence, it means that for organic produce - fruits and vegetables - farmers are producing these foods without the use of most conventional synthetic pesticides, or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. And for organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, these products come from animals that are generally, not given antibiotics or growth hormones.

INSKEEP: So it's pretty complicated, which makes it hard for people to make decisions - which is why we're going to bring another voice into the program. NPR's Shankar Vendantam monitors social science research, and he's going to give us a look into our brains on this complicated topic.

Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: So how do people manage a complicated decision like this?

VENDANTAM: Well, I think there are a couple of different crosscurrents going on here, Steve. So I looked at some work done by Renee Hughner. She's a researcher at Arizona State University. And she finds, in some ways, there's a mismatch in why people eat organic foods.

So if you ask people, they say that the two main reasons they eat organic food are because it's nutritious, and because it's good for the environment. But she also finds there are a whole bunch of emotional values that are tied up with eating organic food. So people who eat organic food tend to value altruism. They tend to value benevolence. They tend to value spirituality. And organic food has gotten wrapped up in all of these values that don't necessarily have to do with the very specific things that science studies.

INSKEEP: Which is exactly what we heard from Jason Todd of Louisiana, the man we mentioned earlier - because he goes on to write: Buying organic is a way for consumers to exercise our right to know what we are putting into our bodies, and the bodies of our loved ones. It's about choice, not health - which is, essentially, saying he doesn't care whether the studies find it's more healthy or not. That's not the bottom line for him.

VENDANTAM: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, many consumers are having to choose right now between a whole bunch of different issues that are very hard for individuals to look at. So, I mean, it used to be that when you looked at food, food was either healthy or it was not healthy - you know, fried food or salads.

Now, people are being asked to make ecological decisions, environmental decisions, ethical decisions, economic decisions. And sometimes, these decisions play against one another. So the thing that makes the most ecological sense, might not make the most economic sense. You know, it used to be that when you bought organic, you were just supporting the small, local farmer. Organic now has become a giant business.

And so there are these tensions between what we want organic to be at a psychological level, and what it actually does at a practical level. And the science is very good at telling us at the practical level what's going on. But sometimes, that could feel like the science is attacking our values.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vendantam and Allison Aubrey, thanks to you both.

AUBREY: Thanks, Steve.

VENDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: We're glad you've heard this discussion on this local public radio station. And you can continue the discussion with us throughout the day. We're on social media. We're on Facebook. You can also find us on Twitter. Among other places on Twitter, we are @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.