In the United States, we’re surrounded by endless food choices. Most grocery stores and markets stock every type of produce year-round: buying strawberries in December and oranges in July has become commonplace. Aside from the sheer quantities and varieties of food we can choose from, consumers can also select products based on the method of production. Organic, free-range, conventional, non-GMO…. the terminology for how our food is produced can be confusing. How do you decide which products are best for your family? Are organic products worth the extra price, and are they really healthier? Let’s explore what those terms mean, and how to make informed choices when you shop.
What Does Organic Really Mean?
The term “organic” is highly regulated. In order for a product to be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture, it must meet a set of standards known as the National Organic Product (NOP) standards. According to the USDA, organic agriculture is, “… the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.” Organic production methods are more environmentally sustainable and contribute to greater biological diversity. They’re also considered healthier for people and animals because they are free of synthetic antibiotics, fertilizers or pesticides, and any product fed to organically-raised animals must also be certified organic.
Organic products must also be labeled as such. However, organic certification is time-consuming, expensive and out of reach for many small producers. Some growers may meet all of the agricultural requirements but simply lack the USDA label. Many follow Good Agricultural Products (or GAP’s); these practices are meant to reduce the risk of microbial food safety hazards. Most of the food grown this way is produced and sold in smaller local markets.
Organically produced items are often more expensive than conventional products for a number of reasons.
1. More demand than supply
2. Higher production costs
3. Inefficient production chain due to relatively small yields
4. Externalities* not reflected in the price of conventional products
*this includes things like environmental protection, higher standards for animal welfare and rural development and support for small farmers
Purchasing Organic, or Not
Organic foods often carry a “health halo,” or a reputation for being superior to conventional products. While some studies have claimed that organic products are more nutritious than conventional ones, a 2012 review of the literature revealed little evidence to support that claim. Organic foods may be safer in terms of exposure to pesticides, but aren’t necessarily more nutrient-dense. The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual list of the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen, items that have the lowest and the highest pesticide loads. Items on the Dirty Dozen (including strawberries, peaches and celery) may be worth purchasing organic, whereas items with lower pesticide loads (like avocados) may not be.
Whether or not you purchase organic foods is a matter of personal preference. There are many reasons to purchase organic products, but it may not be necessary 100% of the time. Simply looking for a USDA-certified organic label on a product, or offering your child an organic granola bar instead of a conventional apple may be too simplistic. It’s worth your time and energy (and money!) to research organic products, and to decide for yourself when it makes sense to buy them.
Environmental Working Group https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php
United States Department of Agriculture https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/introduction-organic-practices
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq5/en/
Smith-Spangler, C. et al. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.” 2012. Annals of Internal Medicine. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685