Is Organic Food Worth the Hype and Expense?
My family has been “leaning” into the organic food world over the last couple of years. We aren’t all in yet, but we have started to purchase some key organic products: organic meats, chicken, fish and some select fruits and vegetables.
Advocates say organic food is safer, possibly more nutritious, and better tasting than non-organic food. They say organic food is better for the environment and kinder to animals. And these advocates are convincing millions of consumers, and the sales are steadily increasing. If it was the same cost, no one would bat an eye. But organic food costs more, sometimes A LOT more! So you may be sitting on the fence about whether it’s worth it to buy organic food.
Well, here’s what you should know.
What does organic mean anyway?
Since the early 2000s, organic foods are grown and processed according to strict standards set by your country’s Department of Agriculture. Organic crops must be produced without conventional pesticides and herbicides, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, or radiation (this list alone may make you chose organic!). Organically raised animals must have pasture land for grazing; they have access to the outdoors and more spacious enclosures than their counterparts.
What organic food is definitely not:
Pesticide free: Studies show that organic crops typically have ¼ to 1/3 the pesticide residue as non-organic crops. We don’t know for sure that these pesticides are dangerous. The amount of pesticide residue in conventional food is still far below the level that our governments deem unsafe. The real question is, whether there is health risk to ingesting these minimal amounts over years and decades, especially in our growing kids. Unfortunately, we may need decades and generations to find out.
More nutritious: Stanford University completed the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and non-organic foods. They did not find significant evidence that organic foods is indeed more nutritious or poses fewer health risks than alternatives. They did find that consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure, though the result of this decreased exposure is not yet known.
Thus far, there is no hard evidence that organic food is more nutritious, has more minerals or vitamins than conventional foods or tastes better per se.
Other things you should know about organic food:
Organic food is often fertilized with manure fertilizers. Some critics fear that using manure to fertilize organic crops increases the risk of contamination with bacteria such as E. coli. The jury is out on this one. No matter what you buy, please wash your fruits and vegetables well, or spray with a fruit and vegetable spray to decrease soil and pesticide accumulation. Or do both like we do! You should even wash items with inedible skin, as you introduce contamination into the fruit or vegetable when you cut the item.
Advocates say it is better for the environment and society as a whole. Pesticides accumulate in the soil, water and in our bodies, and this pollution can be decreased by switching to organic options. Natural, however, isn’t synonymous with harmless to us. What we shouldn’t assume is that ‘organic’ equals ‘safe’ when it comes to pesticide consumption.
Before a farmer can use the word ‘organic’ on their product label, they must be given an official certification and approval by the governing body, such as the USDA in the United States. This is a time-consuming and expensive process that many farmers may not be able to complete.
What about the farmers that don’t have the time or money to certify their produce or meat is organic? They can’t be certified, but that doesn’t mean their food is any different from the stuff with the ‘organic’ stamp of approval. If you know your farmer, and know their practices, you may be getting what you are looking for, without the same added cost. Do your homework.
The lowdown – in my opinion:
Organic food doesn’t have a clear, immediate benefit–at least not one I can appreciate. There are many proponents that cite “evidence” that organic foods are healthier, carry less risk of pesticides, carcinogens, hormones. But I am an evidence based person, and I don’t see convincing evidence, at least not yet. There is a scarcity, to my eye, of studies that prove any real advantage to eating organic foods.
This said, in my lean towards the fad, I can say that organic berries do taste better to me. We did a blind taste test in my house, and my kids and I all preferred the organic strawberries and blueberries, and have continued to buy them since.
We switched to organic chicken and meats about a year ago. Though I don’t feel better about the switch per se, I do feel more comfortable providing my kids with hormone-free, antibiotic-free proteins. Using hormones and antibiotic to raise animals grosses me out, truly. These are used to alter reproductive cycles and allow animals to grow bigger faster. Perhaps they have no negative affect on us… or perhaps they do. It isn’t a risk I think is worth taking at the moment.
So is organic food healthier? We don’t know. What is certain is to get the most from your food, eat it when it is fresh. Vitamins and nutrients oxidize over time, so eat them soon after you buy them. Plus, fresh food tastes better, so indulge early! Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and chose variety when you can. This way you get lots of nutrients and vitamins from a wide selection, of clear benefit.
Organic food worth buying:
Leaning in, like me, and not ready to fully commit to an all-organic diet? Here are a few items you may want to put on your list to reduce your pesticide exposure.
- Green peas
- Green beans
To reduce your exposure to antibiotics and hormones, consider organically raised livestock such as: