Friday, October 5, 2012

The Power of Suggestion

I wrote last month about psychics and the dangers of believing their claims of special powers without scientific evidence.  When claims or ideas make us feel more confident or secure, we are less likely to challenge them.  We spend our time and money supporting hype or trickery instead of making wise decisions.  Here is another example where lack of evidence and a scientifically unsophisticated populace lead to waste.

A recent Stanford study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed 237 published studies comparing organics to conventional foods.  They found that both scored equally on vitamin and mineral content with very few nutritional differences, “though evidence from a few studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids” (emphasis added).  Furthermore, “not all the organic produce tested was 100 percent pesticide free,” and “the pesticide levels of all foods fell within allowable safety limits.”   

In other words, there was no firm evidence that organic food was a healthier choice.  Plants really don’t care.  They take up the same nutrients in the same form regardless of the type of fertilizer used.  When you peel or wash off produce, you remove most of the pesticides and other unwanted matter, and some organic or natural pesticides are actually more dangerous than synthetic ones.  These facts negate any presumed mechanism by which organics would be healthier or safer.

The article goes on to portray organic as a fad, not a justifiable option.  Other sources have labeled it as trendy and chic, comparing food to fashion; your choices say something about you.  Grocers take advantage of this perception through advertising, as the demand for organic, natural and specialty food continues to outpace other segments in the grocery industry.

What are we really getting for the extra money? – Good feelings and possibly a sense of social superiority (for imaginary reasons), as pointed out in this article.  Recent reminders that these high-end grocery purchases carry no guarantees came in form of a Whole Foods brand of rice  on the high-arsenic list and the recall of a Trader Joe’s peanut butter after a suspected outbreak of Salmonella infections.  After choosing to pay perhaps 15-20% more for supposedly healthier groceries, how much sympathy should people expect when the car breaks down with no emergency fund to fall back on?  Limited resources must be spent wisely.

Defenders of organics state that the long-term effects of exposure to pesticide and preservatives are unknown, but we now have a large population of baby-boomers and older, most of whom have lived long, healthy lives on a steady diet of non-organic foods.

This whole issue is not really news.  The report was based on reviews of over 200 previous studies, and I have frequently used organic foods as an example of how some people throw away money on unproven products.  It should be common knowledge by now, but fads are hard to deal with.  I have little hope of converting many people on this subject.  Back on February 27, 2012 , I explained how “it’s tough to get people to change their mind when their opinion is not based on logic.  The more you talk, the deeper they dig in to protect long-held beliefs.”   The power of suggestion and the hype of organics are strong,  but I hope a few may be willing to reconsider.

Late addition from NBC News (October 22):   "The nation’s pediatricians have weighed in on the issue for the first time, and they say that when it comes to nutritional value, organics are virtually indistinguishable from conventionally produced foods."

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