The AAP weighs in on organic food, and the media blows it. Again.

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

Perhaps I’ve been a little harsh on the media ‘round here lately. After all, I just wrote about a study that clearly showed that acupuncture was no better than placebo—yet was widely reported to have said the opposite.  And last month, I shockingly revealed that the alleged “let babies cry it out” paper didn’t actually look at any group of babies that was left to cry at bedtime, despite what was widely reported.

But I’m not a journalist. I don’t even touch-type correctly. Maybe them high-falootin’ newspaper writers know something I don’t. Maybe I should leave the science reporting to the science reporters, who (after all) are Paid Professionals.

Nah.

Today, the AAP released a “clinical report” on organic food during their big gala yearly convention. You want to know what it says? Let’s peruse the headlines:

“Docs say choose organic food to reduce kids’ exposure to pesticides” says NPR.

“Organic food no better than conventional for kids, pediatricians say” reports NBC.

Huh. Two respected outlets, two completely different conclusions from the same report. But let’s not just pick on traditional media—what do some newer sources say?

“AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics’ clinical report highlights benefits of organic” says Yahoo.

But Huffpo’s headline reads: “Organics provide no ‘meaningful nutritional benefits’, pediatricians say.”

Spinning: it’s not just for politicians anymore! One might wonder—did these reporters even read the same study?

Well, you can count on me. I did read it, and so can you, right here. It’s called “Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages.” The AAP’s conclusion:

In terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease. Organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches. However, current evidence does not support any meaningful nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown foods, and there are no well-powered human studies that directly demonstrate health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.

It’s similar to what I’ve written before: Organic and conventional foods are nutritionally identical, though organic foods overall are less likely to have pesticide and other chemical residue. There is no good evidence that the chemicals that may be in conventional foods are harmful. Still, if you want to avoid these exposures, wash or peel your fruits and veggies well. Or buy organic.

The AAP report also briefly discusses the environmental impact of organic farming, which causes less chemical pollution. However, more land is needed to get the same amount of food when farming is done without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The report is brief, and I don’t think summarizing it was very difficult. I shouldn’t be surprised that so many news outlets sensationalized and spun their headlines to make the story seem more edgy. You want cool headlines? Visit big media sites. You want to know the real story? Visit here.

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8 Comments on “The AAP weighs in on organic food, and the media blows it. Again.”

  1. Mark Says:

    What is “well-powered” study? Is a study better if it is plugged into a big coal-powered generator? How much power makes a study good?

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Mark, the “power” of a study is the probability that the study will be able to correctly discern a statistically meaningful positive result. A “well-powered” study needs to have enough participants to show a difference. If the true difference is small, you’ll need more study participants to show it. A “well powered” study usually assumes that you’re aiming for an 80% chance of showing a true difference at the assumed minimum effect size of a continuously variable outcome. For an even more heady answer: http://www.jeremymiles.co.uk/misc/power/.

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  3. Mark Says:

    On a more serious note, I do find the last sentence of the official statement to be frustratingly ambiguous. Have researchers tried to do studies and found no ill health effects from pesticides, or have no studies been attempted? Notice how the wording of that sentence could mean either. Notice how the two possible interpretations could lead to vastly different consumer behavior.

    (If no one’s bothered to look at the issue, then I have no choice but to go with my intuition about whether pesticides are likely to be harmful to my kids, and determine how much money I want to bet on that intuition. On the other hand, with each subsequent study that looks hard and finds no ill effect from pesticides, the lack of information actually becomes an increasingly strong case that pesticides are no big deal.)

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  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    It really is complex, and (as often with science) it is maddeningly difficult to “prove” a negative to the satisfaction of all interested parties. Certainly, there is very good proof of significant short-term side effects of single high dose of pesticide. A mouthful of Sevin will kill a toddler. There is also good proof that continuous or prolonged lower-levels of exposure have significant ill effects (these are studies following industrial accidents or inadvertent exposures from the third world.) What is much slipperier and more-difficult to look at are real-world exposures over a long time.

    Let me give you an example. Let’s say I come up with a new powder that when sprinkled on growing bananas repels marauding primates. I might do a study showing that 50 grams of “Gorillacillin” consumed daily over 2 years has no ill effects. But what about 26 grams? And what if that’s consumed over 5 years? Ten? And what if in addition to the Gorillacillin, the farmers also use “Tarantulanot” to keep away giant hairy spiders. Could the combination of 2 grams of X plus 1 gram of Y over 15 years cause problems? What if it’s only 1 gram, and over 30 years?

    Kind of makes your head spin.

    Fortunately: the EPA, FDA, and US Dept of Agriculture establish safety thresholds that are orders of magnitude less than the levels that cause harm in animal models. That’s not perfect, but it’s good to know. Peeling and washing produce removes almost all of the residual whateveryamacallit chemicals. Or, if you’d like, spend the dough on organic. Your choice.

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  5. Durango Says:

    I stopped buying organic years ago when I discovered that organic food is still grown with pesticides, albeit “naturally derived” pesticides. But I was still shocked to hear that although organic produce has fewer synthetic pesticide residues (duh, since they’re not supposed to use them!), apparently no one tests to see if there are pesticide residues from the stuff they do use.

    It’s always fascinating to me what personal biases do. In this case, the assumption is that the “naturally derived” pesticides are either completely safe or won’t show up on the customer’s produce, so no one bothers to even check.

    In the end, of course, there is still no evidence of harm from either, so I’ll go with what’s cheaper. Or local, when I can.

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  6. Sylvia Says:

    I get the pro/con list for organic. I’m trying for local where possible, but have no confidence that it changes much except give small business owners (family-run farms) a little boost. Oh, and don’t forget my hobby of torturing tomato plants! I grow my own a bit too.

    My bigger question relates to the antibiotics and hormones in meats. We avoid antibiotics unless necessary for the kids (wait and see on ear infections; try to let the cold cure over time), but what about in our food supply? Do the antibiotics in Bessie the cow make it through to the hamburger on the grill or the milk in their cup? Does that impact how well antibiotics work on my kids?

    Do you feel like there are “well-powered” or trustworthy studies that have been done on this front?

    If you’ve posted on this, sorry I missed it. You can imagine how many results are returned when you search “antibiotic” in your blog!

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  7. Dr. Roy Says:

    Sylvia, you raise some very good points.

    RE: antibiotics, there are two reasons they’re used in agriculture. I have no problems with farmers or veterinarians using antibiotics to treat sick animals, though as with humans their use should be minimized, and preventive techniques should be the main strategy to keep animals healthy. These techniques include farming strategies that overlap with the humane treatment of animals. What I strongly object to is the routine use of antibiotic in the feed of non-sick animals. This does apparently help animals grow bigger and faster, but this indiscriminate use is certainly contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have been transmitted to humans. The solution to this problem is on the government level. The practice of widespread antibiotic consumption for animals should be banned. Unfortunately, even if you as a family choose to go organic, there is so much non-organic farming going on that there is not evidence that your own family will be less likely to get a resistant bug.

    RE: local foods: I like to shop local, and grow my own veggies, too. The environmental impact of this is probably minimal, but it’s fun. For your own ‘maters: make sure the soil is well drained– if it’s not, build a raised bed. ‘maters like fertilizer way at the beginning, but don’t keep putting down fertilizer all summer or you’ll get more plant than fruit. You also have to keep the weeds away, so mulch heavy or get out there frequently with a hoe. And let the soil pretty much dry out, then water deep and heavy. Less-frequent, heavy watering is better than daily spritzing. And don’t forget to sing to the them.

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  8. jstainer Says:

    I also read this entire study today (it was not long) and had to laugh at the divergent media headlines.

    Was really disappointed that the study (seemed like it was more of a literature review) did not touch on the effect of organic pesticides. Perhaps that was not their goal but it seemed like a gaping hole to me. Aside from that, as a pretty staunch anti-organic type person myself, it have me some good things to chew on about the benefits of organic farming – particularly in thew area of environmental impact and the rise of antibiotic resistant bacterias. Interesting points that I have to give credit to organic farming for.

    Crop yields and effectiveness still seemed somewhat foggy to me after reading the article though and I think I need to try and find some more specific studies in that area to see if there is really anything conclusive on it.

    The article though is really geared for doctors trying to give informed decisions to families, many of who may be low income and the decison of “a small amount of organic fruits/veggies vs more non-organic fruits/veggies” is a real decision that they need to handle due to very high organic food costs.

    Whether they are going to be slowly killed by non-organic foods is a ‘bottom line’ type issue here and the only thing science can sigh (at this point) is … meh….we don’t know! It might not make people happy but due to the highly complicated nature of studying the question it’s the best we can do. Combine that with the lack of information of the effect of organic pesticides on humans and the issue become even more complicated!

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