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Stanford Organics Study: Have Faulty Methods, Political Motivations Threatened Kids' Health?

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It offered all the ingredients for a highly clickable news story: an elite university, a reputable scientific journal, surprising results and a conclusion that would be welcomed by many.

There's no need to spend extra money buying organic at the grocery store, suggested the Stanford University press release, which stated that a university team's review of scientific literature published last Tuesday "did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives."

"They did a good job in their press release," said John Reganold, a crop and soil scientist at Washington State University. "No difference would get a lot of press."

And that it did.

Dozens of headlines across the world reiterated Stanford's message, at least initially. Now, Reganold and other experts are worried about the possible environmental health dangers -- particularly to children -- posed by this widespread dissemination of what they see as misinformation. They question the review's design, findings and interpretation -- including an alleged downplay of the higher levels of omega-3's, as well as lower levels of pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in organic compared to conventional foods.

Kirsten Brandt of Newcastle University, who published a similar review of relevant studies in 2011 and concluded that organic was more nutritious than conventional, even identified a spelling error that swayed one of Stanford's results.

Brandt wondered how the Stanford team, led by faculty from the School of Medicine and Center for Health Policy, could have found no difference in total flavanols between organic and conventional foods when her own results showed organics carried far more of the heart-healthy nutrient. Upon further inspection, she noticed that the team had actually calculated the difference in total flavonols, a different nutrient, and reported the result with the swap of an "o" for an "a".

Many of the other nutrients Brandt analyzed and found to be greater in organics were also missing altogether from the new review, she noted. "The choices they made don't seem to make sense -- they seemed to include ones where the difference was smallest to begin with," said Brandt. "I'd like to know why they chose these and not others that were just as well-described in the same papers they included."

As questions mounted over the past week, it seemed Stanford had also provided all the ingredients for a lot of noise: Supporters of the $25 billion-plus organics industry were ready and willing to start digging up dirt.

The blogosphere is now filled with suspicions that Stanford downplayed the benefits of organic foods because they had received large donations from conventional agriculture giant Cargill. When questioned by The Huffington Post, Stanford officials denied any such link. The research itself received no external funding, and the Cargill money went to a department not directly involved in the research, said Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokesperson.

At least some experts interviewed suggested that the industry money could still pose a subtle influence. And that pressure, or aura of accountability to a funding source, could then be easily hidden from the public. 

Meanwhile, Brandt still awaits answers from an email she sent the Stanford team on Sept. 1, in which she expressed her concerns. "She eviscerated their methods," said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center in Oregon, of the email.

"The Stanford team is a bunch of doctors and clinicians, and they took on a project completely outside their training and experience," added Benbrook, who published a critique of the review. "Unfortunately, their study doesn't shed any light on the subject -- just a lot of smoke."

Further obscured in the review, he said, are organics' more important selling points. Organic farming methods encourage soil and water conservation and reduce contamination of air, water, food and human bodies by avoiding antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Genetic engineering, under increased scrutiny by health experts, is also prohibited for organics.

While the researchers didn't address many of these health concerns, they did note lower levels of pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic compared to conventional foods. But critics suggest that these points were glossed over or manipulated.

For example, the authors reported that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination compared to conventional fruits and vegetables. Not included in the publicly-available abstract or press release was the fact that pesticide residues were found in 7 percent of organics and 38 percent of conventional foods. In relative terms, that's a more impressive 81 percent difference.

"Come on, that's simple math," said Benbrook.

Ingram Olkin, the team's statistician, defended his use of the absolute difference between risks. "I think it's more understandable to tell you the truth," said Olkin, who is now under attack by critics over his paid work for "Big Tobacco" in late 1970s.

"I'm not sure of the relevance," Olkin told HuffPost regarding his work for the tobacco industry. "That was 40 years ago."

The Stanford authors also reported that the levels of pesticides detected in both organic and conventional generally fell within federal guidelines.

"The thing about federal guidelines," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, "is that they are imperfect. They don't truly protect the infant in the womb or the young child."

An increasing amount of studies suggest that even minuscule amounts of pesticides can wreak havoc on the developing body -- resulting in hormone problems, learning disabilities, and possibly autism. The damage might even be felt across future generations.

The comparison of pesticide residues in the review didn't take into account the quantity of each pesticide, if exposures included multiple pesticides, or whether they were more or less harmful types. Some pesticides also can accumulate in the environment and the human body, where they can combine and interact with other chemicals.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that of the 237 studies the team chose to include, only 17 looked at people. And only three addressed clinical health outcomes.

The Stanford researchers have acknowledged their review's limitations. "The reason this study has the notoriety it has is because people don't really recognize that all this study does is look at nutrients," said Olkin, adding the inherent problems in trying to combine, compare and contrast data from diverse studies.

"We tried to be really clear about when there was good evidence of a difference and good evidence of no difference, versus also being clear about when there was not good evidence of a difference," added Dr. Dena Bravata, senior researcher on the team.

But this subtlety may have been missed by the average reader of Bravata's quote in the press release, which was subsequently included in many news stories: "There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health."

"I think they did a disservice to public health," said Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "I don't think they did that because they were beholden to industry. They just didn't know what they were talking about."

But the Stanford researchers still had plenty of ears ready to listen.

"There must be some people who are very happy with this result," said Mount Sinai's Landrigan.

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