To organic or not to organic, that is the question?

To organic or not to organic: that is the question?

In recent years the American diet has gone through a lot of changes—changes caused by fads. For instance, do you remember when carbohydrates were the enemy and no one wanted anything to do with them? It was the Atkins (no carb) diet fad, and was supposed to help you lose weight and get that Baywatch beach body. But then we learned that carbs are actually our friends and humans need them as a means of getting energy. Oh, but what about fats? Remember back then when people hated fats just as much as they (now) hate Justin Bieber? Or Kim Kardashian? Yeah, that no-fats diet fad!—Well, it turned out that humans need good fats and totally eliminating them from our diet is not ideal. (Lowering saturated and trans fats has been correlated to lowering the chances of getting certain diseases…but that’s a complicated subject.) Today the food fads continue, and one of the predominant diets is…organic food. It seems that in today’s society people are under a strong impression that organic food is by far way better than conventionally grown food; but is this truth or another misconception that would change if the public were more informed?

We walked into class to see a bunch of different delicious foods—like Noah’s ark, two by two, one organic and the other conventional. But there was a problem…we were not told which was which, we had to guess. From looking at the picture below can you figure out which foods are organic and which are not?

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How do you think that went? In you can’t see clearly, under each food is either an A or B. Aren’t they cute?

plates

I know what you’re thinking, “Which is which…Do the organic foods look better than the conventional foods? Or is it the other way around?” Well, before I reveal the answer…. Let’s take a look at 3 common misconceptions of organic food and make a more informed decision on whether “to organic or not to organic”.

Misconception 1: Organic Food is grown the way nature intended.

The term organic is not as clear as one would think. The USDA has its own way of defining what organic is, as summarized here:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

This information can be found on the following URL: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=organic-agriculture.html

The list seems great, it promotes animals getting exercise (something we should do, too!) and that no genetically modified material be used. But there are some ambiguities, such as that animals are “provided access” to the outdoors and that only “approved” materials can be used. When digging a little further, the word access should be taken literally, because animals that are grown organically have access to the outdoors…but they do not necessarily live a lifestyle that can be considered “free-range”. Organically grown animals can be subject to conditions similar to those faced by conventionally grown animals, as detailed in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (p. 171). The only difference is a door to the outdoors that they can access for some allotted amount time before they are slaughtered (p. 172).1

The phrase “only use approved material” also has some ambiguity to it, as well. For instance, pesticides can be used on organically grown food as long as they are “natural” or, in other terms, not made “synthetically” in a lab. But the chemicals could be identical to those used on conventional farms. Although the amount of pesticides that organic food receives is limited, organic farming can have other adverse effects, which leads to our second…

Misconception #2: The process by which organic food is grown is good for the environment.

Some people decide to buy organic because they think it is more ecologically friendly. But there have been studies that show that this is not entirely true. For instance, the studies cited here2 found that some organic pesticides have been shown to be equally or less effective at pest control. They also have a higher Environmental Impact Quotient, which tests the environmental impacts of pesticides (higher numbers are associated with more negative impact, while 0 is a neutral impact).

Misconception #3: Organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown food.

A great number of people want organic food to be nutritionally better than conventionally grown food. It would make sense because organically grown foods are grown under more restricted guidelines that should promote healthier food. Whole Foods even posted on their website that studies have found that fruits grown organically have more phytochemicals (chemicals that have been linked to better health) than non-organic foods.3 But scientific studies show (and popular nutritionists sometimes agree) that there are no scientifically proven studies that demonstrate significant statistical differences between organic and conventional foods in terms of their nutritional value—see Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, p. 53. Some even say that “any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.”4,5

We would be misleading you if we didn’t mention that conventionally grown foods do use pesticides, are not regulated in that regard, and can be extremely environmentally unfriendly as well.

So, now that we are more informed: Should we organic or should we not organic? Organically grown foods do have pesticides—alright, fine. But they are also subject to stricter guidelines so there are likely fewer pesticides in organic food than in conventional food. Organic foods are perhaps not as environmentally friendly as they are advertised to be, but that doesn’t mean conventionally grown food is any better (it’s probably not), especially when taking into account the larger scale on which conventional food is grown. Organic food has not been proven to be more nutritious, but there is some evidence that shows that organic fruits have more phytochemicals than conventional fruits. So what is the verdict, should we organic or should we not organic?

Now that you’re more informed about organic and inorganic foods, try guessing again, like we did.

ppl

Okay, this is the time for the results. If I were a betting individual I would bet you probably did way better the second time around. This shows how important it is to be informed about what organic and conventional actually are.

Foods Organic = plate A Conventional = plate A
Apples X
Blueberries X
Red peppers X
Yogurt X
Chocolate chips X
Applesauce X
Tomatoes X
Animal Crackers X
Pita bread X
Raspberry X
Peanut butter X
Cheddar cheese X

So what’s the verdict, should we organic or should we not organic?

Verdict:

It’s up to you.

(You really thought I was going to decide for you?)

Reference

1: Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group (2006), pp. 171 – 172.

2: Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, Hallett RH (2010) Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

3: (http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/5-myths-about-organics) (date accessed: May 5, 2015)

4: Nestle, Marion. What to Eat, North Point Press/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2006), pp. 53.

5: Joseph D. Rosen. A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food Science and Safety (2010). 9(3). pp.270-277.

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