Organic food costs more and is generally harder to find than conventionally grown food — but that hasn’t slowed its growing popularity among consumers. Many shoppers assume organic products are more nutritious and safer to eat, but these perceptions are based more on hype than hard science.
“Some supporters of organic food production promote it as being ‘better’ without any supporting science,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Health and Human Development. “In terms of both nutrition and safety, organic food is no different than foods produced by other contemporary food production practices.”
In a 2010 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers reviewed 12 major studies on organic food from the past 50 years and found “evidence lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.”
Some consumers buy organic produce to reduce their exposure to residue from pesticides. However, studies comparing pesticide- with non-pesticide-grown foods have found that neither is significantly safer than the other. According to the Environmental Working Group (an organization of scientists, researchers and policymakers), certain types of produce have higher pesticide levels than others. To guide consumers, the group has created a “dirty dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels and a “clean 15” list of those lowest in pesticides. AHA encourages consumers to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, regardless of if they are organic or non-organic since either kind provides important nutrients and fiber for healthy diets.
What does ‘organic’ mean?
To be considered “organic,” an agricultural product or animal must be grown or raised according to specifications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For agricultural products, these requirements include nonuse of hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. Animals used for meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products must not receive antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic products are subject to the same USDA safety standards as all other food products.
The USDA has three categories for labeling organic products: “100 percent organic” for products made with 100 percent organic ingredients; “Organic” for products with at least 95 percent organic ingredients; and “Made With Organic Ingredients,” denoting a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may not list “organic” on the front of the package.
Increased cost = better taste?
Organic products have a higher price tag because of the increased cost of complying with USDA standards and a decreased yield per acre or farm animal, Kris-Etherton said. Some consumers are happy to shell out the extra shekels because, they say, organic tastes better. Again, however, no evidence indicates organically grown food tastes better, although it’s usually fresher when purchased. This is because it doesn’t contain preservatives and therefore must be brought to market sooner.
“Based on subjective criteria like taste, organic food is a preference for some consumers, and that’s fine,” said Kris-Etherton. “However, they need to know that these foods will be more expensive, and do not offer any health benefits that we know of.”
For more information, see the American Dietetic Association’s brief report, Advising Consumers About Organic Foods and Healthful Eating.