By Michael Collins
A widely publicized study claiming that there is no demonstrated difference in nutritional value between organically and conventionally grown foods just appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Broad mainstream media coverage produced headlines like Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce. The media failed to mention one point that may be of major interest.
The study relied on a statistical technique called meta-analysis. Over 200 plus scientific journal articles were combined as the data set for the study. The article co-author with recognized expertise in meta-analysis, Ingram Olkin, applied for a grant from Council of Tobacco Research (CTR) in 1976.
CTR was part of the infamous Tobacco Institute, an industry group of cigarette manufacturers. Ingram was on the faculty of Stanford University at the time. The authors of the current study diminishing the value of organic foods are also from Stanford University, with Olkin listed as a professor emeritus.
Olkin applied to the CTR to conduct a project on the statistical methods used in the Framingham Heart Study, the landmark project linking cigarette smoking with increased risk of heart disease. From publicly available tobacco industry documents, we find this from cigarette manufacturer lawyers:
“I met with Dr. Olkin and Dr. Marvin Kastenbaum [Tobacco Institute Statistics Director] on December 17, 1975, .at which time we discussed Dr. Olkin’s interest in multivariate analysis statistical models. Dr. Olkin is well qualified and is very articulate. I learned, in visiting with Dr. Olkin, that he would like to examine the theoretical structure of the “multivariate logistic risk function.”
The Tobacco Documents describe Katzenbaum as knowledgeable of “the tobacco industry’s participation in the public disinformation regarding the health hazards of tobacco use …”
According to internal tobacco company documents from cigarette manufacturers, Olkin received a grant from CRT and submitted a final paper in 1979. The paper could not be found online.
Olkin’s work for the Tobacco Institute was originally discussed by Robert N. Proctor in his January 2012 Google eBook, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, University of California Press. Columbia University professor Andrew Gelman cited Olkin’s work in his September article in the journal Statistics and Ethics, which discusses the ethical challenges of statisticians when working for big business.
Objective statistical analysis was central to this study
Professor Olkin’s specialty, meta-analysis, was the research technique employed to generate the findings for the study designed to debunk the value of organic foods. Contrary to the conclusion that there’s little evidence of a difference in nutritional value, the article notes that “Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets.” The researchers say that they “did not identify clinically meaningful differences” in measures among adults. That’s a statistical inference. The study found “phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.” Again, the statistical analysis negated a finding in favor of organic produce based on statistical analysis.
The researchers concluded::
“The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The mainstream media picked up and ran with this relatively obscure research. The New York Times headline reads, Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce. Fox News had this to say: Study says organic food may not be worth the money. Bucking the tide, the Los Angeles Times editorialized against the study’s significance in a major editorial, the case for organic food.
Studies like the one out of Stanford are less about the quality of the research than they are about the headlines when mainstream media gets involved. In this case, the findings prop up conventional foods at the expense of organics by the mere mention of Stanford researchers claiming there’s no nutritional difference.
This minor article was picked up by media all over the country. No doubt, it raised questions for some who are currently buying organic foods and those who were considering making the switch from conventional to organic.
This value of this type of narrow research was discussed by the Tobacco Institutes legal counsel William W. Shinn when he recommended Professor Olkin’s 1976 proposed study on the impact of cigarette smoking on heart disease:
“We believe that a modest effort now may stimulate a broader interest in such questions especially among theoretical statisticians at Stanford and elsewhere.”
Ironic, isn’t it?
This article may be reposted with attribution of authorship and a link to this article.