Is Organic Food Worth the Extra Cost?
This post is a long one so if you don't feel like reading through the whole thing here's the shortened version:
There are clear documented benefits to eating organic food, but it is not as black and white as it can sometimes be portrayed. There are local farms producing safe and healthy non-organic foods that compare very closely to their certified organic counterparts. There are also big brand food companies producing certified organic foods that might be questionable. You have to do your research before buying organic and evaluate your own personal situation to determine if it is worth it or not
There is a lot of debate, confusion and opinions lately about whether or not we "should" eat organic. The debate stems from questioning whether the benefits of eating organic justifies the extra cost. I've seen both sides of the argument with several factors coming into play including nutritional value, harmful chemicals, environmental concerns and of course politics. The truth is there's a lot of validity to both sides of the argument whether you're for it or against it. Depending on the article or news outlet you’re listening to, you’ll get a different impression of the story. At this point we have enough solid evidence to have a decent understanding, so let's break down what the facts are showing.
1. Process of becoming organic: First let’s start with what organic means. Being USDA certified organic means following established guidelines around the farmers soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives (more details here). Produce has to be grown in soil that has had no prohibited substances for at least 3 years, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Substances used during the farming process are approved only after examining effect on human health and the environment. For meats regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones, according to the USDA.
Many companies are now offering certified organic food options from big food companies like Purdue and Tyson to small local farmers. One valid concern is that companies can get around these regulations and offer foods that aren’t organic even though they are certified.
Some companies do the bare minimum or in the worst cases play politics to get the stamp of approval without actually following organic practices. Unfortunately, that’s just the world we live in and it’s smart to be aware of that. On the flip side, there are local small farmers who can’t afford or choose not to go through the certification process even though their practices pretty much follow organic regulations.
My advice: A few bad players shouldn’t ruin organic food for the whole industry. Before you start buying organic foods, do your research on the company you plan to buy from. There are some great companies providing us with some really great food. If you value eating organic, sort through some of the not-so-great companies and find the good ones. Side note, if you can buy from local farmers following organic practices (certified or not) that’s the ideal situation!
2. Is organic better for the environment ? This one is pretty clear, generally yes it is. These practices are better for our environment because they eliminate the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals during the farming process. Which means organic farming practices use naturally occurring materials that aren't harmful to the environment. Remember everything the farmers use, ends up in the ground, soil and water sources. Organic farming practices is also beneficial to preserve local wildlife and biodiversity. This benefit of organic farming methods is pretty widely accepted. Again, it's not black and white - there are some companies who are not certified organic following decent farming practices and vice versa big companies selling certified organic that aren't following great farming practices, so do your research.
3. Materials used in the farming practices. Non organic or conventionally grown food companies can use whatever they see fit growing food and growing their pockets including harmful pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and more. Did you know some conventional farms use sewage sludge for fertilization after removing the human waste product? ..Gross. With organic as long as you do your research on the company and they truly are practicing organic farming you at least know what is in your food.
4. The use of pesticides and antibiotics in conventionally grown foods can, and do end up in our bodies. Some sources will state that you can rinse your food or peel the skin to get the chemicals off, but it is well documented that that is not effective. Studies show that after consuming conventionally grown food, chemical levels can be 30% higher in adults and children compared to organic foods.
Now the question is, is this harmful to our long term health? This is where the research falls short. There are not enough longitudinal studies 20, 30, 40+ years that look at the impact. However, it is well documented that some of the more commonly used pesticides, herbicides and fungicides can negatively impact hormonal health and have been linked to negative effects on insulin resistance, fat storage mechanisms and in particular disrupt function of male hormones. It is also well documented that consuming more antibiotics through our food can make us more antibiotic-resistant aka drug-resistance making drugs less effective when we really need them during times of illness.
6. There's more nutrition in organic food. It is well documented that organic foods have more nutrients than non organic foods, some studies show only small amounts and some studies show significant amounts. Which is great but I don't think that's the main reason people buy organic. Nonetheless, a nice perk!
7. Finally, let’s talk price. Yes organic foods generally cost more compared to conventionally grown foods but we spend money on things that we value. That’s a personal choice everyone has to make for themselves depending on if it's worth or not.
Here’s my take, full disclosure: Eating organic food is something that I personally value enough to spend a little extra on. I'm willing to sacrifice in other areas of spending in order to buy food that I can trust. Although there are not enough longitudinal studies to show long term impact, I'm confident that consuming pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics is not beneficial to our health. Also, the majority of my diet consists of whole foods (food that exist in their natural state), where organic options can have the biggest impact, for better or for worse. I did my research and found the brands that I can trust. I also found a local market that isn’t too pricey and I shop the sales to save a little extra to make it all work.
Do I eat 100% organic 100% of the time? No. I enjoy non-organic dinners out, rely on foods on the go and often have meals with friends and family that will be out of my control. I still believe in living your life realistically without strict diet boundaries (unless you have a medical condition that requires it). But when I’m the one doing the shopping, I do my best to choose the food I feel good about.
My quick list of things that I try to always get organic:
Fruits and vegetables
Nuts and grains
(you don't see milk on here because I don't drink cow's milk. But if I did it would be on this list)
What about foods like cereal, crackers, cookies, etc.? I’m not as strict in those categories because the benefits minimize with processed foods, but when the price is good I’ll choose organic.
One thing we can all agree on is that organic food does come with a higher price tag. Everyone has to evaluate their individual situation including access to food to make their own decision on whether it’s worth it or not. It’s tough to generalized “organic is better.” When looking at the facts, research and various companies, the benefit of organic food is more of a spectrum than a black and white “good” “not good.” There are companies that do not have the organic certification that are producing safe, healthy foods and on the flip side there are companies (mostly big brands) selling certified organic that I wouldn’t trust either. So long story short, evaluate your own situation and do your research before you buy from companies, organic or not.
I hope you found this helpful. If you have any feedback, question or comments let me know!
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