How science may be used to confuse consumers

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — On July 10 a study was published on-line by the British Journal of Nutrition that showed organic crops have higher levels of some antioxidants and lower levels of pesticide residues than conventionally grown crops. The study, a meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies, is another component in the effort to determine if organically grown crops are nutritionally superior to their conventionally grown counterparts. What the study is not is conclusive.

The New York Times on July 11 accurately noted that while the study is promising, it stops “short of claiming that eating organic products will lead to better health.”

Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England, who led the research, told the New York Times, “We are not making health claims based on this study, because we can’t.”

The study’s authors explicitly state that much more work must be done to determine if eating organic foods will provide greater health benefits to consumers compared to conventionally produced products.

Despite the caveats associated with the research, proponents of organic foods were effusive about the study’s results. Take the Organic Trade Association, for example.

“A major new study from the United Kingdom finds conclusive evidence that organic crops, and the food made from them, are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterparts, corrects many of the shortcomings of earlier studies and should put to rest any doubts about the benefits of organic …,” the association said in a news release about the study.

The O.T.A. went on to quote Jessica Shade, director of science programs for The Organic Center, as saying, “This important research should help greatly dispel consumer confusion about the benefits of organic.”

The purpose of this column is not to pick on the O.T.A. They are a marketing organization charged with promoting organic foods and the group’s zeal to promote the results of the study may be understood. They are also not the first nor will they be the last group to overstate the results of a research study.

But compare what the Newcastle study actually said to what the O.T.A. said, and you get a sense of the challenges consumers face when trying to understand what changes they may make to their diet to improve their health. This is a timely example of an issue that plagues the research community, and that the food and beverage industry has seen play out with regards to bioengineered ingredients, colors, preservatives and a host of other topics, including fats and carbohydrates.

The concept of health and wellness is simple to understand, but the science behind it is complicated and, in many instances, ongoing. Overstating the results of a single study may provide short-term gains, but sow greater confusion in the long term. That confusion may lead to a reduction in consumer confidence, and that is an issue all food and beverage manufacturers currently face.
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