Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.
Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.
Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”
Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?
Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late. Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.
He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position. The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”
Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.
What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices. (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)
Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )
Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.
(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past. A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)
Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.