A systematic review of research into organic foods and conventional alternatives by Smith-Spangler et al has been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, discussed at Science-Based Medicine in a post by Steven Novella and attacked as “flawed” by the the Natural Society website. There is now a change.org petition, apparently authored by Mike Adams, The Health Ranger & Anthony Gucciardi. The claim that the study is flawed is, um, interestingly argued.
Mike Adams of Natural News and Anthony Gucciardi of Natural Society appear to base their claim that the article is flawed on two points: firstly, they argue that the researchers didn’t ask the right questions; secondly, they claim that one of the researchers has been linked to the tobacco industry and that Stanford University has received some funding from the biotech industry. I’ll look at the second part first.
The text of the petition begins:
The fatally flawed Stanford study claiming that organic food is the same as conventional was conducted by Ingram Olkin…
Ingram Olkin is named as an author on the study but I don’t think it is fair to say it was “conducted by Ingram Olkin”. Under the article information, the journal has this:
As the corresponding author and guarantor of the manuscript, Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, takes full responsibility for the work as a whole, including the study design, access to data, and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Smith-Spangler is the corresponding author and takes full responsibility for the study. I checked the author contributions: Smith-Spangler was involved in the drafting of the article, and the collection and assembly of the data. Olkin was not. Why do the conspiracy theorists portray this as Olkin’s study? Perhaps because they have found it easier to write an attack on Olkin than on Smith-Spangler. I don’t know if what they write about Olkin is true – essentially, that he developed a tool that was used by the tobacco industry and once received a grant from the Council of Tobacco Research – but it hardly seems relevant. Whatever Olkin’s historic associations with business have consisted of, I don’t see their relevance to a study he has recently co-authored with researchers who Adams and Gucciardi seem to have no issue with. A fairly tenuous, decades-old association with an industry that has nothing to do with the research Olkin is currently involved in appears to be the best they can do. It’s not all that impressive. More importantly, even if it were, it would not demonstrate that the research was flawed.
As for there being financial conflicts of interest for the researchers or Stanford University in this study, the article information says that no potential conflicts of interest were disclosed and the article states “primary funding: none”. Natural Society point to a donation to Stanford from a company called Cargill and a Fellow at Stanford being on the board of Monsanto. No direct funding of the study is claimed by Natural Society.
We know Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet paper was flawed not because Wakefield held a patent or received funding from legal aid but because the histories of the patients in the study were misreported. Looking for conflicts of interest or commenting on the links between researchers and business is not the same thing as demonstrating flaws in a study – it is a poor substitute. The retraction notice for Wakefield’s study stated that “the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false”. Gucciardi and Adams haven’t proven anything in the Smith-Spangler et al paper to be false – in fact, they haven’t even claimed that any element of the paper is false. They’ve simply attacked the character of a co-author and grumbled about who a university accepts donations from. They demand the retraction of a paper that they have not found fault with.
Onto the first argument: that the researchers asked the wrong questions.
It failed to examine key food issues such as the use of GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, mercury in the food supply, and countless other factors.
Most of the food I eat, whether labelled as organic or not, does not contain GMOs or high-fructose corn syrup. If you wanted to compare GMO and non-GMO foods then you could do that. The aim of this research, however, was to “review evidence comparing the health effects of organic and conventional foods”. The researchers were not attempting to study the health benefits of avoiding GMO foods or HFCS. Complaining that the researchers haven’t examined their pet side-issues rather than the simple question of whether organic food is healthier or safer than conventional alternatives is nothing more than a red herring. Gucciardi and Adams don’t want people to think about what Smith-Spangler et al actually did in their research – their methods, their results – they want to distract people with talk of associations with industry and unanswered questions. If there were flaws in the paper that they had spotted then I’d have thought Gucciardi and Adams would have discussed those flaws. They haven’t mentioned a single one. And yet they claim the study is flawed and demand its retraction.
As Steven Novella points out, “fifty years of research has so far not produced convincing evidence that there is any health benefit to consuming organic food. Likewise, systematic reviews of nutritional quality of organic produce also reveals no difference from conventional produce.” This new review doesn’t stand alone – it agrees with previous systematic reviews that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce.