Consumers spent 43.3 billion dollars on organic food in 2015, and that amount continues to rise each year. This is an incredibly popular industry driven by some clever marketing; organic food is portrayed as healthier, tastier, and better for the environment than non-organic alternatives.
But does the marketing match reality? Let’s find out.
First, we need to define what, exactly, “organic” means. Usually, “organic” means “relating to or derived from living matter.” Pretty simple, right? Under this definition, “organic” would cover everything from tomatoes to formaldehyde to the smelly surprise your dog left on the living room floor while you were at work.
So “organic food” must mean something different. For this definition, we go straight to the source—the USDA. According to this organization, organic foods and organic farming "integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity."
To get that little “USDA Organic” sticker, a food item must be 95 percent free of synthetic additives, such as dyes and pesticides, and must not have been processed using industrial solvents, genetic engineering, or irradiation. That remaining 5 percent can only have approved additives or processes used on them. There are a variety of other rules and regulations which apply to things like livestock living conditions and land usage that promote environmental sustainability.
If any of this is violated, the USDA levies fines. And, yes—they do check.
Now that we know what organic food is, let’s take a look at some of the common marketing claims made in the organic food industry—you know, the statements that make you want to actually spend an extra 2 dollars for that avocado.
The first thing a consumer is presented with when encountering organic food items is the high price—47 percent higher, to be exact. Rather than being a deterrent, this actually acts to draw consumers in. After all, if it’s more expensive, it must be better, right?
These prices are justified by presenting organic food as something that verifiably improves your lifestyle and personal heath. Specifically, common claims include organic food having greater amounts of nutrients, a better taste, and a lack of toxic pesticide residue.
Because of this excellent marketing, organic food has slowly become something of a status item. Consumers buy into the industry to show that they support efforts at environmental conservation, and to promote their own good health.
But do organic foods that adhere to the USDA’s standards actually deliver a better product? To find out, we need simply look to a few recent scientific studies.
One overarching study, published in the Anals of Internal Medicine, examined the physiological differences in groups that ate organic food and those that did not. This study looked at things like allergy outcomes, urinary pesticide levels, and blood nutrient levels.
Know what they found? The blood nutrient levels of both groups remained the same—there was no difference between the organic and non-organic consumers.
What they did find was slightly reduced levels of pesticides among children. This difference was not found in adults.
Further tests in 2012 and 2014 found the same results: no nutritional difference, but some difference in pesticide levels.
And so we can ascertain from these studies that while organic foods aren’t really any more nutrient-dense than their non-organic counterparts, they do offer the benefit of fewer pesticide contaminants.
But nutrition and contaminants aren’t the only aspects of the organic food industry. The USDA regulates organic food all the way from farm to store, creating what is supposed to be a more environmentally-friendly process.
One area in which the organic food industry indisputably wins out over the non-organic industry lies in the life conditions of the animals used for food and food products. Organic regulations strictly enforce humane treatment of animals, regulating their housing and level of comfort.
In the non-organic industry, livestock is subjected to horrific abuse and squalid living conditions, and are subject to antibiotics and growth-enhancing compounds.
If you value animal life, this alone does, indeed, make organic meat, milk and eggs worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, crops are a different matter entirely. Organic farming is marketed as being more environmentally-friendly. But a recent study has proved this untrue. Because of the way organic agriculture is performed—mostly by large corporations, at very large scales, using large equipment—organic farming actually produces more emissions and pollution.
If this seems like a mixed bag, it is. Marketing, science, and public perception have all mingled to create the image of the organic food industry—an image that isn’t exactly factual. Whether or not organics are worth the—sometimes vastly—increased price depends on your motivation for purchasing them.
If you spend more on organics in order to obtain greater nutritional benefits or a fresher taste, there’s no reason to keep doing so. Organics are no better, nutritionally, than non-organics, and taste is a matter of, well, taste.
If you’re buying organic because you want to avoid common contaminants like pesticides and antibiotics, there’s a definite benefit, but the scientific jury is still out as to whether the difference is large enough to actually improve your health.
If the marketing claims of environmental sustainability draw you to the organic isle, you can definitely keep walking. Organic agriculture is no better than, and may be worse than, non-organic farming.
But if your mind is more on how livestock is treated, organics are more than worth the price. As we’ve said, animals in non-organic farming operations are abused. There’s no other word for it. And while livestock on organic farms aren’t treated perfectly, the animals do live much better lives and are treated more humanely.
Whatever your reason, arm yourself with the latest information so that you can spend your hard-earned money well—on things which actually bring you the benefits you want. Marketing is often manipulative at best, and a weave of outright lies, at worst. Trust yourself to do your own research and find out what the best choice is for you and your family when it comes to organic food products.