Is Organic Food Worth The Extra Cost?

There has been a lot of controversy lately on whether there is any true benefit to buying organic food.  I have been meaning to write an article about this, but found an article written today that sums everything up quite well.  Check it out.

What Does Organic Really Mean, and Is It Worth My Money?

What Does Organic Really Mean, and Is It Worth My Money?

Dear Lifehacker,
I know some people who swear by organic food. They say it has all kinds of benefits, and I should start buying it too. What does it really mean to be “organic,” anyway? Should I buy organic food?

Healthy Eater

Dear Healthy Eater,
Your friends are right: organic food does have some benefits, but depending on what your friends told you, some may be bigger than others. For example, there’s a lot of controversy around a new study published by the American College of Physicians that reviewed over 200 studies and determined that organic foods do not have higher vitamin or mineral content than the same foods grown using conventional methods.

However, that’s one piece in a much bigger puzzle when it comes to your personal buying habits. It’s a sticky topic, but let’s start with what exactly it means to be “organic,” and then try to help you decide if you should buy organic or not.

What Does Organic Really Mean, and Is It Worth My Money?

What Is Organic, Exactly?

The USDA states that the goal of organic foods and organic farming is to “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

Put simply, if you see the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” seal on your food, the item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering, according to the USDA. The remaining 5% may only be foods or processed with additives on an approved list. Photo by Sheri.

“Certified Organic” isn’t the only label you’ll see though. You may also see “100% organic,” which means all of the ingredients must meet the guidelines above, or “made with organic,” which means that the ingredients must contain 70% or more organic ingredients, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package, and the remaining 30% of the ingredients may not be foods or processed with additives on a special exclusion list.

Violations of the USDA’s organic labeling rules can earn companies civil penalties of up to $11,000. If that seems small, it should. The low penalties and the volume of organic products flooding the markets have led to skepticism that the USDA is properly enforcing the label, inspecting foods, and punishing violators. Some worry that “organic” has turned into a marketing term with little meaning. Still, when you buy organic goods at most stores and from most known brands, you can be largely sure that it meets the guidelines.

We’ve tackled this topic in detail before, and for more information on the USDA’s organic labeling program, check out this fact sheet, the full federal regulations for organic terminology, or visit the USDA’s organic certification portal. If you’re not in the United States, the Organic Certification wikipedia page has information on how the certification varies from region to region.

What Does Organic Really Mean, and Is It Worth My Money?

What Are The Benefits of Organic Food?

Now that we know what it means to be “organic,” we can discuss the benefits—or, in some cases, imagined benefits—to buying organic food. There are more considerations when buying organic foods than just the price tag and the nutritional content. Here are a few others:

  • Nutritional Value: The the Annals of Internal Medicine summary concluded that organic foods have no substantial vitamin or mineral advantage (save phosphorous, which is in high abundance in human diets anyway) over foods that are conventionally grown. The study concluded:

    The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    The study has been hotly debated, and some outlets say the added-cost of organics is wasted money. Others point out that focusing on nutritional benefit misses the point entirely of certifying, supporting, and buying organic foods. Regardless, the thrust is this: the result should cast doubt on any assertions that organic foods somehow have higher nutritional benefits than conventional foods. Granted, the latest study is far from the last word on nutritional value and organic foods, but it’s important to note that nutritional value is neither in the stated mission of the USDA’s organic food certification program (and, from what we can tell, not in that of other countries either).Photo by Andy Roberts.

  • Environmental Impact: One of the goals of organically grown and produced foods are to encourage environmentally friendly farming and growth practices, cycling of natural resources, and growing food without the need for harsh pesticides or chemical fertilizers. This makes many organic crops more volatile, but focuses on environmental sustainability as well as yield. Some studies have shown organic farms have a lower environmental impactthan conventional ones. A sharp eye would note that this could be because organic yields tend to be lower and there are fewer organic farms in general. Ultimately, as a consumer it’s important to determine whether the money you spend on groceries should make a statement about your position on issues like local agriculture or environmental sustainability. It may or may not—science can’t make a decision for you. Photo by photologue_np.

  • Public Health and Antibiotics: The Atlantic also points out that because organic foods—epsecially organic meats—have to contain 95%-100% organic materials, synthetic additives and antibiotics cannot be added to the animal feed. If that’s a concern to you, then that’s another point to consider when buying groceries. At the same time, some practices, like irradiation, which minimize contaminants, are not part of the organic food production process, which is another factor to consider. The study had two things to say about contamination: that conventionally farmed meat and produce were more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but both had equal risk of being contaminated overall.
  • Pesticides and Chemical Additives: One point that the study also made was that organic foods are much less likely to contain pesticides (consuming organics reduces risk of consuming pesticides by 30%) although both conventional and organic foods were shown to have pesticide traces well below USDA limits. It’s also worth noting that organic doesn’t equal “pesticide free,” it means their use is restricted or limited to an allowed list. The Atlantic notes: “In the Stanford study, just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have traces of pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally-farmed produce. Again, that doesn’t mean organic foods will supercharge your health — you’ll just be at less risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances, for whatever that’s worth to you. Quantifying that benefit is a contentious area and certainly worthy of more research.” It’s also worth noting that because organic foods are grown without harsh herbicides and pesticides, it means the farmers and pickers who bring you those foods don’t have to work in an environment full of them either. Photo by jetsandzeppelins.

  • Taste: Obviously, whether organic foods taste better is a matter of, well, taste. Many people swear by the difference in organic eggs, dairy, meats, and some produce. Others say that when blindfolded, those same people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between organic and conventional. There’s incredibly little data on this topic, so we’ll have to leave it up to you and your palate to decide.
  • Price: At most supermarkets, organic goods come at a premium price. Part of it is a matter of supply and demand, and part of it is that organic produce, meat, and dairy often require more money to grow than conventional goods. It doesn’t always have to be that way though: signing up for a local CSA, or scouting out a nearby food co-op, or even hitting your local farmer’s market can all bring you high quality, often organically grown foods at great (even negotiable) prices. Still, whether or not the price is right depends on you and your budget.

What Does Organic Really Mean, and Is It Worth My Money?

Should I Buy Organic or Not?

Whether you should buy organic foods over conventional depends entirely on you, your budget, and what you expect to get out of those foods. If the reason you’ve been buying organic is because you believe they’re “better for you” nutritionally, then there’s no reason to continue. However, if you’ve been buying them because they’re “better for you” in terms of chemical pesticides or growth hormones or antibiotics, you’ll definitely be getting food with lower levels, but whether that actually matters has yet to be seen. If the critical concern for you is environmental sustainability, or putting your money where your agricultural mouth is, then you have a compelling reason to keep buying organic.Photo by reivax.

Dr. Darya Pino, who writes the blog Summer Tomatohas a great breakdown of the issue and points out that whether you should buy organic is a bigger picture issue that individuals have to decide based on their own needs. For many, eating organic is a luxury they can’t afford. For others, it’s a matter of taste and quality. Whatever you choose to do, you should go into the decision with both eyes open and armed with the most complete and up-to-date information science can offer.

Alan Henry at Lifehacker

Well there you have it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article.  Also, do you buy organic produce; and does this article change your prospective on buying it in the future?

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