Posts Tagged ‘organic’

Organic is the new Placebo @NPRinskeep @KCRW

November 12, 2012

My grandfather loved to say, “I’ll take the placebo, please,” then smack his lips on the end of his Meerschaum pipe with a grin. He just loved to say it. I can hear the smile in his voice. As a chemist, placebos to him represented the power of words, power of labeling to create a desired effect from an inert treatment. No science, more fiction. No side effects, just thinking that calling something a cure, you would feel assured, feel cured or perhaps even be cured. He just loved to say it. And he also dutifully took his prescribed medication, his daily aspirin, knowing that no placebo effect would fool his high blood pressure. His wisdom was always there, in his jokes, his lectures, his advice, his letters.

The idea of a placebo having the power to change our minds really struck home with me when I first heard him say it; marketing is kind of a placebo. Marketing is words, trying to assure you, change your mind, make your life better, stay with you. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the phenomena of labeling food as “vegan” finding that fascinating because of the unwanted stigma, associating animal-free food with something tasteless or worse. Power of words and not effective marketing, right?

The label “homeopathic” is a placebo, for example. At one point in his letters, my grandfather dismissed homeopathic remedies as, “an expensive pack of placebos.” This was at a time when I was married. Ulcer medication that had been taken for more than a decade wasn’t working for my soon-to-be ex-husband, and he was convinced that switching to homeopathic remedies would be effective. Grandfather knew better. I hadn’t thought about this foolishness much until this last fall.

“Why Organic Food May Not be Healthier For You,” was a story on NPR I heard in early September. As I heard it, my thoughts went zipping to my grandfather. I was actually zipping along the northbound 110, about 70 mph, driving to work. Don’t get tense. The 110 commute is far more scenic, much less stressful and even faster than a single commute on the 405 ever was. My three years of commuting on the 405 sucked a joy from life that I will never get back. Being on the 110 was a treat by comparison. This morning like most mornings heading to work I was joined by broadcasts from KCRW. Radio is the source of my imaginary friend community now, those familiar voices that live in my car, unlike the childhood imaginary friends. Grandfather heard NPR stories on KUHF. On many a visit, he would encourage me to join him and his imaginary friend John Lienhard for the airing of The Engines of Our Ingenuity show. (

The voice of David Green was joined by Steve Inskeep (“I’m Steve Inskeep”) as they began talking about organic foods, how much people buy and about a Stanford University Medical School study. The study concluded that “there’s hardly any conclusive evidence at all of health benefits if you choose organic.” Placebo alert! I turned up the volume and signaled to change lanes. My grandfather would love this story; “as far as scientists are concerned…”organic was the new placebo. I heard that Stanford was raising the distinct possibility that foods grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were no more, no less nutritious than conventionally grown produce. My mind flashed to my last shopping experience at Albertsons, where organic produce was segregated into different bins and boasted higher prices. Organic cucumbers often look like the smaller, less sexy version of conventionally grown cucumbers. And I pay more for the label – the label which makes me feel less guilty for food that isn’t actually healthier? Score 1 for marketing.

On the ballot in California, one of the 11 proposed measures took up food labeling as its cause. This interested me but I quickly found myself against it. Organic farmers were strongly in favor of labeling requirements on genetically modified foods. The requirement would exempt restaurants and certified organic growers from identifying foods as modified, while the administrative cost on the state was anticipated to be more than $1 million. Who benefits? Not the smaller regional farmers who can’t afford the costs of certifying their crops. And the lawyers win, as always with lawsuits that would result when growers were found out of compliance. It was defeated 53.1% to 46.9% and labeling for genetically modified foods was found an ineffective placebo. The Just Label It movement is afoot to force the hand of the FDA to address the labeling elephant in the room. My grandfather would love that fight.

He would have. Shortly after NPR aired the story on organic foods, my grandfather passed away. I can never again share the NPR stories, conversations or even blog posts again. I miss him very much. His words, his wisdom as a chemist, an organic gardener, and a grandfather have a profound impact on me. In exploring the intersection of food and discovery, I find myself keeping the spirit of “placebo” close, and the words of my grandfather closer.