Green graphic; text reads "How to research food questions"

We’ve talked about a lot of common questions in this series. But there’s so many others that we don’t have room for — everything from antibiotics usage to pesticide usage. Since there are so many issues out there, we wanted to spend this article giving you some tips for doing your own research on food controversies. That way, whether you’re a consumer yourself or a producer helping consumers understand the issue, you can tackle whatever issue comes up.

The biggest encouragement we can give you? Keeping an open mind. Whichever side you lean towards when you start researching, do look at sources on both sides. That variety will help you see which specific claims you want to examine, and what kinds of arguments each side is making.

Giving both sides a fair shot will also help you be properly balanced. It’s not a universal rule, but we’re willing to bet that for most of these issues, both sides will make some good points. And acknowledging those good points, even if you ultimately disagree, can go a long way towards reducing the divisiveness that food controversies tend to cause.

That said, on to some research tips.

How to Start Researching Food Controversies

First, let’s talk about sources. When our team was researching this series, we intentionally avoided info from the websites of activist groups or companies selling the product under discussion. For example, we didn’t use to research grass-fed milk, simply because Organic Valley sells grass-fed milk. That’s not to say that these groups or companies can’t have solid information. But they do have a vested interest in supporting one side of the debate, and we wanted our sources to be as objective as possible.

Where to go, then? Most often, we turned to academic sources — that is, the websites of universities’ ag extension offices or, even better, scientific articles written by researchers at a university. Yes, scientific articles can have a lot of jargon. But they’re not impossible to get through, especially if you take your time reading the introduction. Those first few paragraphs usually lay out some background info, what precisely this study researched, and often what the researchers’ conclusions were. Getting clear on that section makes diving into the data much easier.

Finding Your Research Sources
Young woman with a shopping cart in a grocery store looking at produce

How do you find scientific studies, you ask? Google Scholar is a great place to start. Its search box works just the same as the main search engine’s, but your results will all be scholarly sources. Most of them are links to free PDFs of the articles. You can also try PubMed, a database of medicine-related research. It has a surprising number of open-source articles too, which are great for discovering the nutrition/human health research about various food controversies.

What other sources are out there? Well, one is the people involved in the ag community. Try emailing someone at your local farm bureau and seeing what they can tell you. Maybe the farm bureau itself has conducted or sponsored research on your question. Even if it hasn’t, though, they might be able to point you to other good places to look. Moreover, many farm bureau leaders are farmers themselves, so they’ll likely have some personal experience to speak from.

Speaking of which, if you have the opportunity to talk to a farmer, take it! Maybe head to the closest farmers market and ask the guy selling cheese what he knows about raw milk. Or the lady selling organic vegetables why she chose to grow organic. Then ask another question. Where did they get their info? Is it something you can look up yourself and use for research? And so on.

Time to Research

The most important thing is just to ask. There’s information out there, even if you might have to dig to find it. Doing research on food controversies can be challenging, but getting good information is worth it. And producers have a great opportunity to help consumers here. Agriculture is your everyday world, which isn’t the case for the vast majority of American consumers. Sharing some solid facts with them is one of the best ways to close the gap between ag producers and the people they serve.