A Texas teenager named Ria Chhabra and a cohort of willing fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), have provided a fairly convincing answer to a question that has vexed food scientists, public health experts and consumers for decades: Is organic produce really healthier?
Ms. Chhabra, now 16 and a student at Clark High School in Plano, TX, tried to answer this question by comparing health measures in two cohorts of flies: one fed exclusively on organic bananas, potatoes, raisins and soybeans; the other fed solely on conventionally-grown versions of the same produce. The organic and conventional produce used to make the fly food were both obtained from a Whole Foods Market.
The flies raised on the organic fruits and vegetables bested those raised on conventional produce in all measures of fly health, including fertility, lifespan, activity level and stress resistance.
Ms. Chhabra was guided in her research by Dr. Johannes Bauer, a professor at Southern Methodist University, who was himself interested in factors that affect Drosophila health. Though initially wary of working with a middle-school kid, Dr. Bauer described Ms. Chhabra's degree of scientific acumen as "just stunning." He encouraged her to publish her findings. The study earned the young researcher her first lead authorship when it was published on PLOS ONE earlier this month. It also landed her a job in Dr. Bauer's lab, and a feature article in the New York Times.
The idea for the fruit fly study emerged from an earlier science fair project in which Ms. Chhabra measured vitamin C levels in organic versus conventional fruits, and found that the former had consistently and significantly higher concentrations. For her 10th grade project, she's working on a study of diabetes in fruit flies, and the potential for compounds derived from turmeric and cinnamon to prevent it.
UpShots is looking forward to more cutting edge research from this earnest young scientist in years to come!