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About Organic Food: Is It Worth the Cost?

About Organic Food: Is It Worth the Cost?

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In the business world, organic food has arrived. What was once a small niche market for foods considered "natural" has turned into a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business. Even the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, now offers organic foods. Nutritionists and other experts, however, are still debating the merits of their purported health benefits. What remains certain is that those who want to eat organic foods can expect to pay a price, and a hefty one at that. While sales of organic foods have skyrocketed from $23 billion to $40 billion in just four years, the price of organic food remains high; indeed, organic foods, on average, cost 50 to 100 percent more than conventionally grown foods. This begs the question: Is going organic worth the price?

The Organic Movement

The notion of organic farming (and thus organic food) first surfaced in the early 1900s as a direct response to industrial agriculture, which used a slew of new synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. During the first half of the twentieth century, the public's awareness of organic farming was negligible, to say the least. The opponents of the new forms of mechanized agriculture, however, continued to press for what they considered to be more sustainable and healthy farming practices. In the United States, Rodale Press was one such group. In 1942, Rodale Press started Organic Farming magazine. Now, more than 60 years later, Organic Farming is one of the most widely read gardening magazines in the world. How times have changed.

The popularity of organic food continued to increase throughout the 1970s and 80s. With consumers paying a premium for organically grown food, and no real way to verify the validity of claims involving organic farming practices, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stepped in. Today the USDA National Organic Program sets organic food standards and oversees the mandatory certification of foods labeled "organic."

What Makes Food "Organic"?

Organic food, according to the USDA, is food that is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality.

Organic produce is grown without most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead, organic farming involves enhancing the soil through natural means, including crop rotation, the application of compost, and mulching. Pest, weeds, crop disease, and other common thorns in the side of the farming industry are controlled through natural means, as well, including the introduction of beneficial species, exceedingly careful crop selection and rotation practices, and trapping. Weeds may also be removed by hand. Generally speaking, organic food is developed through agricultural practices that aim to utilize the resources nature provides, instead of conquering nature through man-made means.

In many cases, the production and consumption of organic food simply means accepting a certain amount of crop damage. Think Joni Mitchell singing, "Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees."

Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products that are certified organic come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones. In most counties, genetic engineering also cannot be used for food to be considered organic.

When you see an organic seal on a product at your local grocery store, that product has been grown, harvested, and/or processed using organic means as defined by the USDA. The USDA also sets restrictions on the amount of pesticide residue and other foreign matter, such as hormones or antibiotics, that can be present on or in a certified organic product. A minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients must be present if a product is to carry the USDA "organic" seal, and a separate "100% organic" seal indicates that no synthetic ingredients have been used. "Made with organic ingredients" means a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients where used.

Why Do People Eat Organic Food?

Many people choose to pay the extra premium for organic food because they believe it affords important health benefits, is more environmentally friendly, and allows farm workers to have safer work environments. A growing number of parents are also providing their children with an organic diet due to increased concerns about pesticide residues found more often on conventionally grown foods. Because children's immune systems are not fully developed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that children are at greater risk when exposed to pesticides. Although some organic foods do contains pesticide residue, the percentage of residue occurrences and the amount of pesticide present are smaller in organic foods than in non-organic foods. A 2003 study by the University of Washington, Seattle showed that children who eat organic food consume a decreased amount of pesticides.

It should be noted that the USDA certifies foods as being organic, but makes no claims that organic food is safer or healthier than other foods. The results of research concerning the health effects of organic food are mixed. A 2007 study of organic food health benefits, the largest study of its kind, suggests that some organic foods are, indeed, healthier that their non-organic equivalents. The four-year European Union study carried out by the Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project was released in 2007 and found that those who eat organic food are consuming additional nutrients equivalent to an extra portion of fruits and vegetables each day. The study also concluded that organic fruits and vegetables contain as much as 40 percent more antioxidants, which are believed to cut the risk of heart disease and cancer.

This research is not without its detractors, however. Another 2007 study was carried out by Dr. Susanne Bugel and a team at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Human Nutrition. They researched common fruits and vegetables and found them to contain no additional nutritional value when grown using organic methods. Citing their findings, and the increased cost consumers pay for these products, the researchers called the purchase of organic foods a "lifestyle choice," and not a health necessity.

Despite all the uncertainly regarding the benefits of organic food, many organic devotees tout what they consider to be a common sense benefit: Pesticides contain poison and, given the opportunity to consume less poison through organic foods, why would you not take it? According to a recent poll by GfK Roper Consulting, the overwhelming answer to that question is cost.

Is Organic Food Worth the Extra Expense?

Now that organic food has gone from the farmers’ market to American's mainstream consciousness, consumers seem more and more willing to absorb the increased prices associated with organic products. The GfK Roper poll showed 64 percent of respondents had purchased organic foods or beverages during their lives. These people, not surprisingly, responded more positively to questions about the benefits of organic foods than those who had not purchased organic products. Even so, the survey found that the single biggest factor preventing consumers from purchasing organic food was cost.

The non-profit Environmental Working Group, based in Washington D.C., recommends getting the biggest bang for your organic buck by concentrating on those foods that otherwise are most affected by pesticide residue:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Imported Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

The Environmental Working Group has dubbed these items the "dirty dozen," and if you're going to convert some of your diet to organic foods, you should probably concentrate on these items first. If the availability of organic foods continues to increase and more major food chains carry organic products, prices will likely fall in the future.

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