What does ‘healthier’ mean?

Coverage of organic-food study plays loose with the term

“Healthier” is a word the media often use without enough care, and that shortcoming was on full display during last week’s coverage of a study examining the nutritional value and presence of contaminants in organic versus conventional foods.

The study, from a team of researchers at Stanford University, was a “meta-analysis” of 237 previous papers and it reignited the debate about whether or not buying organic food is worth the higher cost. The analysis itself had nothing to do with economics or consumer choices, but it encouraged the media to take a negative view of organic food by adopting a narrow definition of “healthier.”

The researchers’ bottom-line conclusion was that:

The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Given the last clause, and what is known about the health risks of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the sentence seems self-contradictory. And notice the qualifier in front of health. The absence of “marked” benefits could also be read as the presence of some benefits—which is exactly what the researchers found.

Like the study itself, however, most news reports were able to convey the existence of some advantages of organic foods while still leaving the impression that, on the whole, they’re basically worthless. Take Matt Lauer’s introduction of the study on the Today show:

Out this morning—which may make you think twice before spending money on organic foods—according to researchers at Stanford University, they are not much healthier than conventional meats, fruits or vegetables.

Its grammatical shortcomings aside, the clip goes on to mention the reduced exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the damage has already been done.

It was the same at NPR, which ran with the headline, “Organic food may not be healthier for you,” and then dismissed one of organics’ key health benefits by noting that the Stanford study “found that the vast majority of conventionally grown food did not exceed allowable limits of pesticide residue set by federal regulations,” as if that somehow erases organics’ relative advantage. Also, it assumes that the “allowable levels” are, in fact, perfectly safe, but this is a matter of some debate.

The Associated Press was equally dismissive, writing that the researchers “concluded there’s little evidence that going organic is much healthier, citing only a few differences involving pesticides and antibiotics.” Only a few! Eventually, of course, the story gets around to acknowledging “some studies have suggested that even small pesticide exposures might be risky for some children….”

Unlike these other articles—in fact, unlike most articles—Reuters found space to report that in addition to less risk of pesticide and bacteria exposure, the study also found that “organic milk and chicken may also contain more [beneficial] omega-3 fatty acids.” But it still went with the unqualified and misleading headline: “Organic food no healthier than non-organic.”

The New York Times had a better headline, and got the fatty acids. But it almost certainly confounded readers when it stated in the fourth paragraph that “the researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats,” and then waited for another five to explain that, actually, “Organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Is that not an advantage? Not according to the Times, which wrote it off later in the story by arguing that “bacteria, antibiotic-resistant or otherwise would be killed during cooking.” So, Plan B it is.

Articles from USA Today, ABC News, and Time, which avoided blanket statements about the “healthiness” of organic versus conventional food in their introductory paragraphs were much better. They first presented the study’s conclusions in terms of nutritional value and contamination. Then, based on that information, the pieces got into a more nuanced discussion of the upshot, quoting various sources on what “healthier” means to them.

That’s the responsible way to go, especially given that the strength of the Stanford analysis was not health. Of the 237 papers it reviewed, only 17 were studies of human diets and health outcomes (like infections or allergic reactions) and health markers (like fat and vitamin levels). All the rest were food studies looking at nutrient and contaminant levels—which is fine, but the Los Angeles Times editorial board was right to admonish the researchers for touting the lack of nutritional benefit and “shrugging off” the risk of pesticides when discussing health.

According to USA Today, “A 2010 Nielsen study found that 76% [of people] bought [organic foods] believing they are healthier, 53% because they allowed them to avoid pesticides and other toxins, 51% because they are more nutritious and 49% because organic farming is better for the environment.”

The point is that people are defining “healthier” in a variety of ways. Not only can it mean the conferral of some benefit, it can mean the avoidance of some harm or even the risk of harm—low risk included.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , , ,