FOOD: Organic or Non-Organic? Is the value really there? You may be surprised…..
There has been a lot of information published in recent years about organic food, which has resulted in some confusion among consumers. What does organic mean? Is it more nutritious? Is it worth the additional expense? Does organic food taste better than conventional food?
Let me say up front, “organic” sure sounds better than “conventional,” so let’s try to analyze the facts.
Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods of organic farming that do not involve modern synthetic materials such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. The United States and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as organic, which they cannot do unless the food is produced in a way that complies with established organic standards.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic food will cost you between 10 – 30 percent more than conventional food. This is primarily because organic food is produced in much lower quantities so that the producers cannot take advantage of economies of scale.
Evidence of substantial difference between organic food and conventional food is insufficient to make claims that organic food is safer or healthier than conventional food. With respect to taste, the evidence is also insufficient to make scientific claims that organic food tastes better. Yet the popularity of organic food has grown dramatically in recent years.
A major scientific study at the Stanford School of Medicine sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products. There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice.
There was no evidence that conventional foods posed greater health risks than organic products, and pesticide levels in all foods fell well within allowable safety limits, although organic foods were 30 percent lower.
So, if there are no health benefits in organic food, why pay 10 – 30 percent more for them?
How about taste preference? Here we find a very interesting phenomenon referred to by scientists as the “Health Halo Effect.” Simply put, organic labels on food bias consumers perceptions of it.
A study by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab showed that an organic label can influence much more than health views: perceptions of taste, calories and value can be significantly altered when a food is labeled “organic.”
115 people were recruited from a local shopping mall in Ithaca, New York. Participants were asked to evaluate 3 pairs of products—2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 potato chip portions. One item in each food pair was labeled “organic,” while the other was labeled “regular.” However, all of the product pairs were identical (organic). Participants were asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item, and how much they would be willing to pay for the items.[adrotate group=”4″]
Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions. The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled “organic” and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. The nutritional aspects of these foods were also greatly biased by the health halo effect. The “organic” cookies and yogurt were said to taste ‘lower in fat’ than the “regular” variety, and the “organic” cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious!
The label tricked people’s taste, too. When thought to be organic, chips seemed more appetizing and yogurt was judged more flavorful.
Even knowing all this, there may be reasons other than nutrition, health and taste for some people to pay the extra money for organic foods, such as concern about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare, although I’m not sure how much of an effect we as individuals can have on those aspects.
If you are inclined to “go organic” because of current hype and perceptions of the benefits, perhaps it would be worthwhile to reconsider.
Until next time,