September 14, 2012
Recently a controversial study came out that found that organic vegetables aren’t healthier than vegetables that are, well, I guess inorganic. And while no vegetables would fall into that category I’m pretty sure there are some inorganic foods out there, especially junk food, some of which never has contact with a living thing until it’s actually consumed, although whether a guy sitting back in his armchair munching on imitation pork-flavored Cracklins (and try the new chipotle flavor!) is actually living is a matter for some debate, especially if you ask his wife. And I’m pretty sure vitamin pills are inorganic, especially the new gummy ones for adults. Every time I see those I wonder why adults need gummy vitamins.
Of course as a kid I hated gummy candies because they all tasted to me like a lightly sweetened eraser, but I also think that when you’re a kid it’s understandable that adults get you to take your vitamins by making them taste like candy, but when you’re a grown-up you need to be responsible and take your grown-up medicine without it tasting like candy and being shaped like a dinosaur, but that’s another story. The study that found that organically grown foods aren’t healthier than foods grown with fertilizers and pesticides isn’t controversial because anyone thinks the results are wrong. It’s controversial because most people who buy organic vegetables aren’t necessarily doing it because they think the vegetables themselves are healthier. Some people say they prefer organic vegetables because they don’t want to eat or feed their families pesticides, but I think most of us are smart enough to realize that a cucumber grown out in a sunny field from seeds by a farmer who looks like he was in audience at Woodstock is going to have pretty much the same vitamin content as one grown from a tissue culture in a styrofoam tray under fluorescent lights.
As nutritional science I’d say the study was probably valuable, but there are a few people who like to point at it and feel smug and say that it proves people who prefer organic vegetables are stupid for being willing to pay more for the same thing. Of course nothing of the sort has been proven, and even though the study wasn’t intended as social science the way people respond to it says a lot about us. And that’s the danger of studies: they can easily be misused. Or misinterpreted. Legitimate results can be skewed depending on whom you ask. Several decades ago lots of people thought DDT was a great thing, and there was very little reason to disagree until someone thought to ask the bald eagles what they thought of it. Studies don’t always take the big picture into account, which is why, whenever I volunteer for studies, how my results will ultimately influence the research. Of course the studies I participate in are slightly different than the one about organic versus inorganic vegetables, mainly because I’m not a vegetable, although there are times when I’m sitting back watching TV when that’s a matter of some debate, but that’s another story. In the interests of science I’ve volunteered for quite a few studies. I’ve been poked, prodded, had my blood drawn and my urine collected, and sometimes, in the process of having these things done to me, been asked, "Hey, have you ever thought about volunteering for a research study?" Maybe it’s a matter of respect that no one conducting the study has yet called me a guinea pig, even though I always think of guinea pig as a generic term for scientific study participants, whether they’re voluntary or not. And I’ve always wondered why.
It seems like most scientists use mice or rats, probably because mice and rats are active little critters who like to run in their exercise wheels when they’re not sitting back in an armchair watching TV. I never had a guinea pig as a pet, but several of my friends did, and I could never understand the attraction of keeping a pet that rarely moved but mostly sat in one corner of its cage and ate and occasionally shrieked. If I’d wanted something like that I would have asked my parents if Aunt Gerda could move in with us. I volunteer for research studies because I like to think my participation benefits humanity, although it doesn’t hurt that researchers usually pay, so it also benefits my wallet. But I do put limits on what I’ll volunteer for. I won’t volunteer for anything that puts my health or life in danger, although there are studies like that. And there are some incredibly brave people who will volunteer for those kinds of studies. There are even some researchers who will purposely put themselves in harm’s way. One of my favorite stories is of Professor W.J. Baerg who, in 1922, decided to study the effects of the black widow spider bite. He studied it by getting himself bitten. He experienced several hours of difficulty breathing, paralysis and pain in his muscles, and spent three days in a hospital, but, at a time when toxicology was still a new science and black widow bites were a lot more common it was pretty important research. And the amazing thing is he didn’t even get paid for it.