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Boise State Researchers Begin Pilot Study on Organic Produce Consumption by Pregnant Women

pregnant student speak with Cynthia Curl in produce section of grocery store
Recent Boise State graduate and mom-to-be Taylor Barrera-Lopez speaks with Cynthia Curl in the produce section of a local grocery store.

Making healthy food decisions can be daunting, particularly for pregnant women who need to consider the nutrients that they need to grow a strong, healthy baby. Additionally, healthy food and pregnancy can be financially burdensome.

Despite its relatively high cost, more than 50 percent of Americans purchase organic food at least occasionally. Organic food is grown without using specific pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These purchases are often driven by a belief that organic food confers a health benefit. However, very little evidence exists to suggest what, if any, health improvement is provided by eating organic food.

Boise State researcher Cynthia Curl, assistant professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Health in the School of Allied Health Sciences, is beginning a pilot study to better understand the effect of eating organic produce during pregnancy. She hopes that this pilot study will lay the groundwork for a larger dietary intervention study to investigate whether there is a relationship between eating organic food during pregnancy and subsequent cognitive outcomes in children.

In this pilot study, Curl will recruit ten pregnant women who currently do not eat organic produce. The women will be randomly assigned to either continue their current diets or to eat organic produce throughout their pregnancies, and the study will provide the women with the appropriate produce. Curl and her student research assistant, Jessica Porter, will assess the efficacy of the dietary intervention by measuring biological levels of selected pesticides at repeated intervals throughout the course of each woman’s pregnancy.

The research team hopes to identify and overcome logistical and analytical challenges and to collect data that is useful for designing the larger, future study.  That future study would include more women and would follow the children for up to two years to identify any differences in cognitive performance associated with the maternal diet during pregnancy.

Curl is one of twelve new investigators who were awarded participation in the University of Washington’s Institute of Translational Health Sciences’ “Rising Stars” program. The program was launched to help promising, early-stage investigators from the five-state WWAMI region of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho to make good impressions as they apply for additional funding opportunities.

On June 1, 2015, Curl and the other participants began a two-year career-development package designed to culminate with the submission of a K- or R-series grant application to the National Institutes of Health. The participants are receiving mentoring and instruction in grant-writing, and they will receive monthly check-ins from peers to get feedback on projects and will face mock grant reviews. Each participant is also receiving up to $15,000 in development funding.

Curl is an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Health in the School of Allied Health Sciences. Prior to joining the Boise State faculty in 2015, she spent eight years as the project manager for the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution at the University of Washington, a job she held while earning her doctoral degree. Prior to that position, Curl worked in academia as a researcher for the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington. Throughout her academic training, Curl has earned several honors and awards, including the prestigious Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency, which supported her doctoral research, and the Magnuson Scholar Award, awarded each year to the top student in each of the Health Sciences Schools at the University of Washington.

The Rising Stars program is supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health, through Grant Number UL1TR000423. Learn more about Curl.