Is Organic Food Worth the Cost? What the Label Really Means

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Just as I prefer to use non-toxic kitchen equipment, I also try to stick with organic foods when possible. But many people wonder if organic food is really worth the extra cost. Here’s what I found about when it is (and when it isn’t) worth it.

What Is Organic Food?

We’ve all been to a grocery store or farmer’s market with foods labeled as organic. What that means exactly can be confusing.

To be labeled as organic, produce must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms. Animals raised for meat must be fed 100 percent organic feed as well as be raised with access to the outdoors all year long. Ruminants (like cows) must be fed at least 30 percent of their diet from pasture.

Additionally, prepared foods that are made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients are allowed to use the organic label. Those with at least 70 percent organic ingredients will use the label “made with organic ingredients” and foods made with 100 percent organic ingredients will display this percentage on their labels.

How Is the Organic Label Regulated?

Before a product can boast the label “organic” the food producer must first go through a process that ensures a farm’s land, growing practices, and operations meet standards outlined by regulators. The organization that regulates the organic label in the U.S. is the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

Organic food producers need to update the NOP on their operation practices each year. The NOP works with third-party certifiers who inspect food producers’ operations each year.

Beginning in 2013, certifiers are now required to test residue on at least 5 percent of the food products each agency certifies. This test can help point out any food producers who are not following strict organic guidelines.

USDA keeps track of certified organic operations in its organic integrity database.

Organic Imports

When foods are imported, in order to be labeled organic they must be certified by an NOP-accredited certifying agent or the equivalent in that country if the regulations are similar. In countries that don’t have organic certification or their regulations are different from the U.S., foods must be produced under a recognition agreement. This means growing practices and operations must meet NOP regulations before being imported.

Unfortunately, not all of these precautions and regulations are followed as they are supposed to be. In 2019, while the NOP revoked organic certification from a Turkish supplier, they did not investigate the most recent shipment even though it was at high risk of being fraudulent.

How to Know If Organic Food Is Really Organic

An obvious concern is that organic food is definitely not worth the cost if it’s not even organic.

While we may not be able to know if what we are eating is truly organic since there is no way to tell by looking at it, there are some things we can do to reduce the chances of getting fraudulent organic food:

  • Grow a garden – If grown organically, you know your own vegetables will be safe. I always try to have something in my summer garden!
  • Avoid imported foods (especially grains) – The main concern with fraudulent organic foods is imported grains, so avoiding imported foods when possible can help.
  • Avoid grains altogether – Since grains are one of the biggest concerns for fraudulent organic food, avoiding grains when possible gives you a better chance of avoiding fraudulent foods.
  • Shop local – The other side of the coin is to buy local organic produce. Foods produced in the U.S. are easier to regulate.

It’s also important to put pressure on regulators to do their jobs and keep fraudulent organic foods from entering the market.

Are There Benefits to Organic Food?

Assuming the organic foods we’re talking about are truly organic, there are some benefits that may make them worth the extra cost:

Nutrients

Many families believe that organic foods have higher nutrient content than conventional. According to a 2012 meta-analysis, there is no significant difference in nutrient values of conventionally grown and organically grown food. However, more updated research challenges this finding.

A review published two years later found organic produce has substantially lower heavy metals than conventional produce. Organic foods also have higher antioxidants (between 19 percent and 69 percent more than conventional foods). This increase in antioxidants is like eating an additional serving or two of vegetables each day.

Additionally, a 2016 review found that organic dairy and meat contain higher levels of iron and about 50 percent more omega-3s than conventional options. Omega-3s are important for balancing fatty acids in the body and reducing inflammation. They do this by lowering your level of blood fats called triglycerides and slowing plaque buildup inside the blood vessels, balancing the “good” and “bad” cholesterol and reducing cardiovascular disease.

This review also found that organic dairy had lower levels of selenium and iodine, so more research is needed on this subject.

Taste

Health aside, this is often my main reason for shopping locally for seasonal food. It just tastes better!

Nutrition and taste often go hand in hand. Food with more nutrients often tastes better than ones with fewer nutrients (think fresh, red strawberries in June versus the whitish ones you get in January). While there isn’t a lot of data on which foods taste better, each family can see for themselves whether organic tastes better or not.

Pesticides

If consulting a room of concerned parents, pesticides are usually the top of the list when it comes to organic versus conventional foods. Pesticide residue is five times higher in conventional produce according to the above 2012 analysis (four times higher according to the 2014 meta-analysis).

Despite this difference, these levels are still under the allowable amount by EPA (i.e. “safe” levels). But concerned consumers argue that pesticide upper levels are set individually and don’t account for the combined harm. In other words, maybe low levels of an individual pesticide are okay, but when there are low levels of 10 or more pesticide chemicals, the total pesticide exposure is much higher. Others argue that any amount of these chemicals is harmful.

Harmful Bacteria

Another concern with conventional food is that it may contain more harmful bacteria than organic food. While organic animal products don’t have less bacteria overall, they do contain much less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The CDC states that antibiotic-resistant bacteria causes by antibiotic use in animal agriculture is a public health concern.

Studies like this 2017 Canadian study consistently show that reducing the use of antibiotics in animals reduces the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria the meat contains.

Environment and Animal Welfare

Beyond human health, consumers are also concerned about the health of the environment and animals. A Columbia University article explains that organic farming is usually better on the environment due to more biodiversity, less chemical run-off, and less soil erosion than conventional farms. All of this makes organic farming more sustainable. While some critics believe that yields per acre are lower with organic farming (making it less eco-friendly), high yield organic farming is possible.

According to an article on Rodaleinstitue.org, organic farming outperforms conventional by 40 percent when the weather is not ideal (like during droughts). Organic farming also prioritizes high nutrient food (like vegetables) over low nutrient foods like grains.

Additionally, based on the way animals must be raised if they are labeled organic (with organic feed, a percentage of their food coming from pasture, and access to outdoors), organically raised animals live in better conditions than conventionally raised animals.

The Problem With Organic Regulation

Many people argue that instead of asking organic farmers to prove that they grow organically (and pay a fee to do so), we should be asking conventional farmers and producers to take on that burden of proof.

While organic labels are helpful in recognizing where you may want to spend your food dollars, it’s not the only way to know what’s going on with your food.

Many small farms grow their food organically (possibly with more care than regulations require) but they don’t want to go through the process of getting officially certified. Additionally, some growers may not fit the guidelines of organic but may be close enough for many families’ preferences.

Ideally, finding a local farm that can be trusted is a better strategy for finding healthy food than relying on an organic label exclusively.

Is Organic Food Worth it?

To figure out if organic foods are worth the cost you need to consider a few things:

  • Is your organic food truly organic? – If it’s not, it’s probably not worth paying for.
  • Can you get comparable food without the label? – Do you have a source for fresh produce or animal products that are produced in an acceptable way? Maybe paying extra for the label isn’t worth the cost.
  • Can you afford organic food? – This is potentially the most important question to answer. While we can change our budgets to allow for more grocery money, sometimes it’s simply not possible to buy organic (or all organic).

If you decide organic is worth the cost, but you’re stuck on the budget part, read on…

What to Do if Organic Isn’t in the Budget?

As mentioned, even if you play with your budget to make room for organic foods, sometimes you still can’t afford all organic foods. It’s never worth putting yourself into a financial crisis just for organic foods. But luckily, organic isn’t an all or nothing choice. If you can’t afford everything to be organic use the tips in this post to choose the most important foods to buy organic and just relax about everything else!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.

What have you found? Is organic worth it for you?

Sources:

  1. Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., . . . Bravata, D. M. (2012). Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Annals of Internal Medicine, 157(5), 348. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007
  2. Baraski, M., Prednicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G. B., . . . Leifert, C. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), 794-811. doi:10.1017/s0007114514001366
  3. Prednicka-Tober, D., Bara?ski, M., Seal, C. J., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., . . . Leifert, C. (2016). Higher PUFA andn-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid,?-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), 1043-1060. doi:10.1017/s0007114516000349
  4. CDC. (n.d.). Antibiotic Resistance and NARMS Surveillance. Retrieved June 12, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/narms/faq.html
  5. Tang, K. L., Caffrey, N. P., Nóbrega, D. B., Cork, S. C., Ronksley, P. E., Barkema, H. W., . . . Ghali, W. A. (2017). Restricting the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and its associations with antibiotic resistance in food-producing animals and human beings. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1(8). doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(17)30141-9
  6. Varanasi, A., Rana, P., Maria, Marty Klein, K., Jon, Schaff, R., . . . Rattenberg, C. (2019, October 21). Is Organic Food Really Better for the Environment?
  7. Pollicap, L., & Rodale Institute. (2019, November 01). Can Organic Feed the World?