Many of us have been told for years that organic food was healthier (for people, streams, bees, cows, Gaia, etc.) than conventional alternatives.
But others have disagreed.
“Organic foods may cost nearly twice as much as ordinary foods without offering consumers extra nutritional values.”
That was the conclusion reached by a USDA official in a report issued in 1974.
The debate raged. But this week a report issued by Stanford University researchers attempted to answer the question once and for all.
The study, a meta analysis of more than 200 studies over the past decade looking at the nutrient and pathogenic content of organic food and conventional food, concludes that organic food is a big fat waste of money.
Organic critics pounced.
But is the Stanford study really the final say? There are reasons to be skeptical of the research.
"[M]eta-analysis has many well-known pitfalls,” write a trio of Harvard School of Public Health faculty in a 2001 letter to British Medical Journal editors. “These include lack of homogeneity of the studies, failure to consider important covariates, inadequate understanding of the scientific subject in question, failure to consider quality of the studies, and biases in including or excluding certain studies.”
Meta analyses also tend to feature multiple articles on the same topic by the same author. The Stanford study is no different. For example, footnotes 50, 52, and 53 of the Stanford study point to three separate articles on antimicrobial resistance by J.M. Miranda and co-authors. Footnotes 59, 60, and 63 point to separate insecticide articles co-authored by C. Lu C. Notes 62, 66, 69, 259, and 260 cite B.A. Stracke’s various research on nutrient content of foods.
This is not to impugn in any way the work of Miranda, C, and Stracke—nor that of the Stanford study authors. They may all do fine work. But a “meta” study of 223 studies becomes much less meta—and in fact appears much more beta—when it turns out the study is in fact just a literature review pointing to a series of different studies by many of the same authors.