Written by: Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC
Many consumers ask if buying organic is healthier than conventional. With the higher costs of organic foods, it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons to help make informed decisions on your next grocery shopping trip.
According to the Organic Trade Association, there is an increasing demand for organic food and the industry continues to grow. Consumers choose to buy organic for a variety of reasons. When surveyed on why they buy organic, most of them believe organic foods are a healthier choice. In this article, we’ll explore a few lingering questions surrounding organic goods: Are they actually healthier, and are they worth the expense?
Distinguishing Between Organic Farming and Conventional Farming
According to USDA.gov, “Organic” is a food-labeling term that certifies the foods are grown and processed in compliance with federal guidelines. They prohibit the use of most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, additives, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are any organism whose genetic material has been artificially modified in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Organic produce farmers are required to rely on natural processes, biodiversity, and seasonal rotations adapted to local conditions. They may use natural fertilizers such as manure, compost or bone meal, and natural pesticides that are derived from plants or bacteria.
On the other hand, conventional farming involves the use of synthetic inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs to fight pests and weeds and provide nutrition for plants. Production is often more controllable and has been associated with greater crop yield. Conventional farmers tend to have higher profits. With rising food costs and population demand, conventional methods can meet the demands by producing large amounts of food at affordable prices.
A Look at Both Sides: Organic vs Conventional
Over the years, common concerns with food supply include antibiotic resistance attributed to the overuse or misuse of antibiotics, synthetic pesticide residue on food, and the potential effects of growth hormones used in food production on childhood development. For these reasons, consumers may choose to buy organic foods to lower their risks and help put their mind at ease.
While organic foods may be associated with fewer risks, conventional foods have their own benefits, as well. Oftentimes, conventional foods are more readily available to consumers, cost less, and have an ability for greater yield that allows them to meet the food supply demand. It is also important to point out that modern agriculture practices have to adhere to strict control measures for pesticide use. Under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must ensure that all pesticides used on food in the United States meet safety standards.
Factors to Consider
There are a number of factors to consider when deciding to purchase organic or conventional foods. Consumers may choose to buy all, some, or no organic foods. Compared to conventional foods, the USDA found the costs of organic fruits and vegetables are typically 20% higher. This often can be hard on the wallet. For some consumers, when buying all organic is not possible, they may choose to only buy organic produce that is in season. They’re usually more available, harvested at the peak of ripeness, and cost less than organic produce that’s not in season.
The physical accessibility of organic foods compared to conventional foods is another factor to consider. Some geographic areas lack easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone easy access to organic foods. In these cases, purchasing organic foods is often not a top priority. It is recommended to buy conventionally-grown fresh produce as part of a good quality diet than to skip out on them entirely.
Lastly, while organic foods may be associated with fewer risks, the question of whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods remains a long-standing debate. In fact, there is a lack of conclusive scientific evidence that shows organic foods are healthier than conventional foods. In September 2012, Stanford University researches published a meta-analysis study in Annals of Internal Medicine that concluded “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” With the exception of some foods, such as organic milk reported with higher Omega 3s and antioxidant content, there is more research to be done in this area.
It is one’s personal decision to buy organic or conventional foods. There are pros and cons to both choices. By staying educated on them, it will help consumers make informed decisions. What needs to be emphasized is that the decision to consume organic foods or conventional foods alone is not an accurate indicator of a person’s diet quality. It is important to look at the overall dietary patterns and habits as a whole to determine the nutritional quality of a person’s diet. Aim for balanced meals, incorporating variety with a focus on having more whole foods and less processed foods for the best health benefits of a good quality diet.