Bahl: Organic food doesn’t mean better food

Morgan Bahl

You may have noticed when you walk into the produce department at the local Hy-Vee there are fruits and vegetables with the label “ORGANIC” plastered all over their packaging and displays, often accompanied with head-scratching prices.

Do you get what you pay for? Are organic foods actually better for your health? Should we all be eating organic or is it a fad, money-making marketing scheme? What even makes a food “organic?”

There are lots of questions you might ask yourself before paying such high prices. Unfortunately, the food industry is misleading consumers on this topic and using the lure of health claims to make extra profit.

“Normal” foods are healthy, nutritious and safe just as they are, which makes organic foods an unnecessary product choice. This is good news for many college students because they are also budget busters and we all know that none of us have the money for that.

So what makes a food item organic? The USDA defines organic foods as ones that preserve biodiversity, support animal health and welfare, use approved materials, are inspected on site and utilize fewer herbicides and pesticides. These foods undergo inspections and require farmers to be certified as organic growers, a long process that requires high levels of commitment.

When consumers hear the term “organic,” many expect foods that are treated with fewer or no “bad chemicals,” foods that are more nutritious, or “natural,” and those that are less processed or may entail closer care and attention to crops and livestock. However, this is a long list of expectations that are difficult to meet, so the question is actually whether or not the certification process and benefits are worth the hassle.

Becoming certified is a process that many farmers choose not to go through because of the time commitment and the specific standards. USDA certification requires a 3-year documented history of the farm procedures and practices. Qualifying farmers have to plan their use of organic seeds, pest control aids, manure and composting, while also preventing crop contact with non-organic substances by means of drift, harvest and shipping.

Rose Martin, senior lecturer in food science and human nutrition at Iowa State, often discusses this topic and reassures others that, due to this intensive process, we can feel confident that if we choose to buy organic foods, we will be getting foods that meet the USDA federal regulations for organic growing.

Given that the food meets regulations, it can be labelled as either “100% organic”, “organic” or “made with organic ingredients,” as regulated by the National Organic Standards Board.

“100% organic” is given the USDA seal and shows that the product was raised separately, is not a genetically modified organism, and contains only organic ingredients. The label “organic” is also able to display the seal but is made with at least 95% organic ingredients.

The “made with organic ingredients” label indicates at least 70% organic ingredients but cannot display the USDA’s seal on its packaging. A point to remember with organic certification and labeling is that they give no indication of food safety or nutrition.

When consumers see the USDA stamp of approval, the foods are often given a “health halo” and are regarded as more beneficial than conventionally grown foods, but they do not necessarily deserve that reputation.

According to Martin, “nutritionally, there is no significant difference between organic and conventionally grown foods.” Both are nutritionally adequate and thus there is no additional health benefit for choosing organic foods.

One of the biggest health interests associated with organic foods is the reduced use of chemicals or use of so-called natural chemicals. While it is true that organic foods have less pesticide residue than conventional products, the benefit is negligible.

The pesticide residue found on non-organic foods is so low that consumers are taking in less than 5 percent of the Acceptable Dietary Intake.

This means that when we eat most non-organic foods, we are taking in 95 percent less than the amount we are able to ingest and be completely safe from harm. This is enough to put pesticide concerns to rest and show that the lowered presence of chemicals on organic foods is essentially meaningless.

The perceived “benefit” of lower pesticides is countered with the high prices. Because of the more labor-intensive process and the lower product yields, the prices can be very expensive, up to 50-100% higher than conventional foods.

With all factors weighed, choosing organic foods is unnecessary for good health and nutrition. Martin summarized this debate well by saying that, “We cannot say that organic is better, but food is better … broccoli is better.”

Really, eating healthy is about making the case for good food choices. Choose fruits and vegetables which are nutritious and protective, regardless of their processing methods.

Luckily, there is no “right or wrong” decision between organic and non-organic foods and it comes down to your preferences. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there is also not necessarily anything significantly special about them.

If you wish to pay $6.00 for that bag of oranges, that is fine, but rest easy knowing that if you choose non-organic foods instead, you are not doing your body any disfavors or compromising your health.