Today I want to talk about organic foods and whether it is really the path to better health and a better environment, or if it is hype from corporate marketing as a way to get consumers to spend more of their hard earned dollars with no clear benefit. Before I started my research, I was certain the answer was yes, organics must be better because it costs more and says ?healthier’ right on the label! During my research however, I discovered things are not as clear as what I first thought.
Now I’m certainly not going to tell you that organic food is unhealthy, but if you believe all the marketing, eating organic foods should make us healthier and smarter than our non-organic eating neighbors. Buying organic is marketed that it will also stop the use of unhealthy chemicals and improve the environment (). The research studies show that those comments are all a stretch of the facts, so now let’s talk about some of the facts as well as the myths.
The research is ongoing, but the sales figures are clear. The Organic Trade Association reported that, Organic sales hit a new record in 2017 of $49.4 billion, up 6.4% from the previous year. With more people in America looking for the quick heath fix, sales growth of organic foods is outpacing growth in non-organic categories by a factor of 6.
A March Consumer Report study, as well as the USDA, report that on average, organic food is 47% more expensive to purchase than conventional food (). However, at the same time the National Academy of Sciences report indicates organic foods only cost 5-7% more (ZME Science). While these facts don’t indicate whether organic food is good or bad, it does show that there are a lot of profits for big companies to be made by promoting organic foods ().
Beyond corporate profits, what else is driving this ?organic craze’? There were initial thoughts that organic food was better in terms of nutritional value, but there are no consensus reports that have proven that to be true. In fact, Dr. Smith-Spangler, one of twelve researchers at Stanford University, conducted a study, where they examined almost two hundred and fifty studies on organic food that were conducted during a fifteen year time span (Smith-Spangler). Their findings were stunning, Organic foods are not any more nutritious than their conventional food counterparts (Smith-Spangler).
This was a huge finding and raised a lot of question, but was not the only study to have these findings regarding nutrients.
A related finding from this same study, however, which does have merit for organic foods, is the potential impact of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and bacteria (). Most people are not buying organic for what they contain, but because of the ingredients they do not contain. Dr. Smith-Spangler also concluded, for pesticides residues,[we] found a 30 percent lower rate of detectable contamination in organically-grown produce. Two of [our] studies found that children who ate conventional produce had higher levels of pesticide residues in their urine, and the levels fell when the children switched to organic foods.
A factor that often confuses the debate on whether there are any benefits to eating organic food is that consumers who regularly buy or consume organic food often have healthier lifestyles and dietary patterns. Those individuals have a higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grain products. And they have a lower consumption of meat, compared to other consumers. (). The overall dietary patterns are also associated with various health benefits, as opposed to any specific benefit from the organic food.
Another area often discussed and more often misunderstood is the use of pesticides on crops and their impact on the environment. While many think that pesticides are only associated with non-organic foods, a food product labeled as organic often has organic pesticides used on them. (). In fact, a 2010 study by Environmental Sciences Professor Rebecca Hallett of the University of Guelph in the UK, found that organic pesticides can actually have a worse environmental impact than conventional ones. In this study they determined that the organic pesticides on soybean crops required much higher and repeated concentrations to be effective.
Those organic pesticides proved to be less effective on crops, and they can kill ladybugs and flower bugs, which are important factors of the environment. These insects actually help the crop grow and become ready for harvest (). Further, supporting the UK’s study is biologist Christie Wilcox. He explained in the 2012 Scientific American article that, Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.
ADDD INTRO TO PERSON HERE, And while natural pesticides certainly sound healthier, it again boils down to how much of a specific substance you’re ingesting. A derivative of copper, for instance, is used as a fungicide in organic farming. If ingested at inappropriate levels, it can be toxic (Winter).
As this is stated in his study, you do not need to worry because as consumers we do not consume an appropriate amount of these toxic substances, in organic and non-organic foods.
I know this is a lot of information to digest (no pun intended). But what does this all mean to us as consumers? Well in short, if you don’t mind spending some extra money, don’t mind going to the store more often, and tend to be extra cautious when it comes to your health, then there is very little downside in choosing to purchase organic. On the other hand, given there are no long term consensus studies on the health benefits of organic foods, cost are much higher, and the impact on the environment is mixed, the educated consumer will make the best choice on how to prioritize what they buy and why they buy it. For me, the inconclusive benefits mean that the cost difference will help determine the choice I make on the produce isles.
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