Exposing the Manic Organic

In our efforts to fight off weight gain, we often go to extreme measures, trying just about anything. Certainly everyone has heard about organic foods, and all too often organic is synonymous with healthy, which isn’t always the case.

But what does organic really mean?

“Organic foods are agricultural products – produced by farmers who recognize and emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality. The use of natural plant nutrition and traditional cultivation methods, such as crop rotation, lets farmers work to maintain biological diversity of crops and replenish soil fertility naturally,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This definition is vague and heavily open to interpretation. One common claim made by pro-organic groups is that organic food is more nutritious and safer for the consumer.

But contrary to popular belief, organic farmers use natural pesticides and fertilizers, while conventional farmers use synthetic or chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It’s true that organic fruits and vegetables typically contain fewer amounts of chemicals, but this is often taken out of context since the difference is so small, and both types of farming yield chemical levels well below the acceptable limits, and the health risk of pesticides is very rare. Imagine a speed limit of 75 mph. One person travels 65 mph and another 55 mph. They’re both under the limit, but this is an example of how lower doesn’t always mean better. The differences seem to be miniscule.

A review by Christine Williams, pro-vice chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of Reading, and her colleagues concluded that data does not support organic food being superior or inferior to conventionally-grown food, overall differing little in micronutrients. One of the only significant findings was a slightly higher concentration of vitamin C in leafy green vegetables. Last time I checked, most people don’t acquire the bulk of their vitamin C from vegetables.

In their scientific status summary of organic foods, The Institute of Food Technologists concluded, “While many studies demonstrate these qualitative differences between organic and conventional foods, it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition.”

Lastly, and I believe most importantly, Faidon Magkos, a researcher in the Department of Home Economics and Ecology at Harokopio University, and his colleagues concluded their review of organic foods by stating, “a well-balanced diet can equally improve health, regardless of whether it’s organic or conventional”

Another factor to consider is cost. While it varies with each individual food, a 2011 review showed that organic food averaged 68 percent higher costs for yogurt. For peanut butter, organic costs were over 100 percent higher than other foods.

While it ultimately comes down to a personal choice, considering the lack of scientific data and the limited amount of funds for most Americans, organic food is most likely hurting your wallet more than helping your health.