Is Organic Food a Waste of your Hard Earned Money?
Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and many other countries require a special certification from producers in order to sell food as organic. In the context of these regulations, organic food is food produced in a way that complies with organic standards set by national governments and international organizations.
Very Brief History
• Historically, organic farms have been relatively small family-run farms, which is why organic food was once only available in small stores or farmers’ markets.
• In 1939, Lord Northbourne coined the term organic farming in his book Look to the Land (1940), out of his conception of “the farm as organism,” to describe a holistic, ecologically balanced approach to farming.
• J.I. Rodale, a New Yorker, had an interest in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle that emphasized organically grown foods, inspired by his encounter with the ideas of Sir Albert Howard (British agronomist)
• He was the founder of Rodale Press and publisher of Organic Farming and Gardening magazine starting in 1942 (Rodale Press later published the popular Men’s Health magazine)
• Organic Farming and Gardening promoted organic foods; later re-titled Organic Gardening – this publication was the birth of organic foods in the U.S.
• In 1990 Congress in the US passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which led to the National Standards on Organic Agricultural Production and Handling rule in 2000.
• In the US the USDA carries out routine inspections of farms that produce USDA Organic labeled foods.
• On April 20, 2010, the Department of Agriculture said that it would begin enforcing rules requiring the spot testing of organically grown foods for traces of pesticides, after an auditor exposed major gaps in federal oversight of the organic food industry according to the New York Times.
What’s the deal with Organic foods?
During the past few decades the organic food industry has grown immensely. In 2012 the total size of the organic food market in the United States was about $30 billion from $3.6 billion in 1997. So economic growth of this food sector begs the question:
Is organic food really organic and is it worth it?
Answer: Yes and Maybe.
Are Organic foods really “Organic”?
When a food is labeled organic, it actually has been deemed so through a federally approval process that regulates the food so that it has no genetic engineering (No GMO), no synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, no antibiotics or growth hormone and has not been irradiated.
With organic livestock animals eat organically produced feed that is pesticide and animal byproduct free with the freedom to move around, have access to fresh air and sunlight.
Is eating organically healthier for you?
Most of it is. Some is not.
Allow me to explain.
Although there is no clear evidence of health benefits or harm from consuming organic foods (Dangour 2010), we know that conventional (non-organic) foods are 30% higher in pesticides and conventional chicken and pork have a higher risk for contamination with bacteria resistant to antibiotics. (Smith-Spangler et al. 2012)
While I promote organic food, especially those most contaminated with pesticides and herbicides (See dirty dozen – actually dirty 15 foods) I realize not all organic food is good for us.
For example, organic packaged dry products such as cookies, breads, etc. are still poor nourishing foods – the organic versions are just “poor” organic foods. Also, packaged foods are not required to be 100% organic. In fact, products “made with organic ingredients” up to 30 percent of the content need not be.
Lastly, foods made from organic livestock, like organic milk for example, only means the cows eat organic corn. Cows are meant to eat grass, not corn. While cows fed organic corn might be marginally better, only foods from organic, grass-fed cattle are highest in nutritional value.
The flip side of the story is that I want less ‘crap’ in my body with less GMO products (more on this later), pesticides, herbicides, hormone and anti-biotic byproducts that are harmful for prostate cancer and overall health. In other words, the poison may be in the dose, but I don’t know what that dose is, so minimizing the consumption of these harmful chemicals makes sense.
Studies showing no major benefit (Dangour et al. 2010) looked at other studies (meta-analysis) with a small number of studied subjects and for a short length of time.
Therefore, proving non-organic foods to be harmful is a difficult task.
Such a study would require more than 500 people consuming organic food compared to another 500 people consuming conventionally grown, non-organic food. These two groups would be followed for over 10 years to assess whether or not organic food protects against cancer and other maladies.
This type of research would be exorbitantly expensive and difficult to manage since it would be challenging to control what each group eats.
So what should you do?
• Eat mostly fruits and vegetables from nearby farms or farmers markets even if the food is not organic.
• Don’t be fooled. Just because something is organic doesn’t necessarily make it better for you. Packaged organic products are NOT healthier.
• Real organic foods – are natural foods (right from nature), with organic farming practices and if possible. This is what Sir Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale promoted.
• Organic Milk is 2 notches better than regular milk. The best type to consume however, is milk from organic, grass-fed cattle. Still consume moderately as some studies have suggested dairy to increase prostate cancer risk. Consumption of organic, grass-fed milk has never been studied in relation to any disease – but it’s much higher in Omega-3 fatty acids (really good fat) and other nutrients.
• Organic meats are 2 notches better as well. Again, grass-fed, organic beef is much superior in nutritional content.
• With fruits and vegetables, organic is certainly better. But, don’t use this as an excuse to avoid non-organic vegetables. If for whatever reason you don’t have access to organic vegetables, non-organic vegetables are always better than no vegetables
• Eat the ”dirty” 15 foods organically, don’t worry much about the others.
Lastly, I realize organic foods cost 10 to 40% more than non-organic foods. For packaged, processed food with the organic label stuck on the front of the box, the extra money may not be worth it. For fruits and vegetables, especially those 15 foods most sprayed with potentially harmful chemicals, the organic variety is money well spent.
What’s your opinion on organic foods? Is it worth the extra expense?
Dangour AD1, Lock K, Hayter A, Aikenhead A, Allen E, Uauy R.Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;92(1):203-10.
Smith-Spangler C1, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, Olkin I, Bravata DM. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66.