Browsing through the produce section at Jewel-Osco, you’re repeatedly confronted with the same question — should you buy the regular pears or the organic pears? Regular spring mix or the organic arugula? Eyeing the price difference, you consider buying the conventional produce, but the thought of pesticides nags in the back of your mind. Should you fork over the extra couple dollars?
As reports citing the health dangers of chemicals and pesticides circulate in the news, more Americans are reaching for the organic option despite its often heftier price tag. Sales of organic foods in the U.S. grew from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion between 1997 and 2011. The numbers seem to indicate an increasing trust in what is believed to be “good for you,” but it begs the question of whether organic products are comparatively beneficial enough to warrant this popularity.
What does the label ‘organic’ mean?
According to the USDA, the organic label denotes produce and other ingredients grown without the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat or diary products with the organic label do not take antibiotics or growth hormones, are fed certified organic feed for their entire lives, are raised on certified organic pastures and have year-round outdoor access.
So, is organic food more nutritious?
In 2012, researchers at Stanford University found the only compelling nutritional difference between conventional and organic foods was a slightly higher level of phosphorus in organic produce. There were no consistent differences in vitamin, protein or fat content. However, the case may be different from product to product: A 2013 study found that organically grown tomatoes from a northeastern state of Brazil were smaller but had a higher nutritional value than conventionally grown tomatoes. The organic tomatoes had more vitamin C, sugar and lycopene.
Is organic farming really better for the environment?
Organic farming is often considered less damaging to the environment because it does not use chemically-based fertilizer or insecticides. Instead it employs alternatives like manure or compost, which may not be organic themselves. However, organic farming still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent pests from destroying their crops. Turns out the US Organic Standards approve pesticides derived from natural sources for use in producing organic food. Moreover, the government does not record or regulate the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms, meaning it is unclear what the actual long-term impact of natural pesticides is on the environment or on our health.
Does organic taste better?
There is no substantial evidence that organic food tastes better. Genetically speaking, if the plants are the same and receive the same nutrition and care, they should taste the same. However, if crops are not well-nourished, there could be taste discrepancies. The season, location of growth and many other factors can also contribute to the end result.
Are some organic foods more worth it than others?
Buying organic foods does not have to be all or nothing — there are foods that might be better bought in their organic incarnation. Among the most commonly pesticide-contaminated produce are fruits and vegetables whose skin or leaves you typically consume. These include apples, spinach, peaches and grapes. Some of the least commonly contaminated foods, and therefore not worth spending extra for, are onions, pineapples, cantaloupe, cabbage and mushrooms. All in all, there is no substantial proof as to whether or not organic food is the better option, but when it comes to dollar value, going organic may not be entirely justifiable. In the end, it’s a personal choice.