As a college student, you might step into the congested aisle of your local grocery story, stomach growling, a grocery list in the notes section of your iPhone and maybe if you are obsessed with Greta Thunberg like I am - you have a large, nifty canvas renewable grocery bag with her face on it swung over your shoulder - her angered voice saying, “How dare you!”
You dodge the groups of frantic shoppers and come to a halt in the colorful produce section. You reach down to grasp a carton of cherries but you notice that the cherries you grabbed are $4.75 and there’s a stack of cartons to your right that are only $3.75. They look the same, they both smell fine, so why should I pay more for my cherries?
Organic food assumptions fueled by marketing are that the cherries in my hand are more nutritious, safer, and healthier for me since organic farming is better for the environment.
Is this the truth?
Foods with the USDA organic seal are grown and processed following a set of regulations and there’s no question that keeping farmland free of pesticides is better for the environment.
But herbicides freed farmers from tilling the soil which requires more labor and disrupts the soil’s natural ecosystem - recognized as a cause of the Dust Bowl.
How does the USDA organic labeling work? What is the carbon footprint transporting organic cherries from Washington state to Washington, D.C.? Does it make food taste better?
Let’s break it down and debunk 5 myths about organic food to make your grocery store choices easier.
1. Organic fruit is always healthier for you.
It turns out, the more expensive cherries that I chose is the healthier choice. Conventional fruit that you can eat with peeling off skin including strawberries, raspberries and cherries could possibly contain residues from pesticides and chemicals sprayed on the crops.
Fruits like oranges, bananas, pineapple and kiwi among other fruits have a layer of skin or peel that protects the edible inside of the fruit. If they are sprayed with pesticides, only the outside layer will be directly affected.
According to USDA statistics, annual spending on organic food and drinks has jumped from about $1 billion to $28 billion in the past 20 years.
In a recent study by Pew Research Center, 76% say of U.S. adults who bought organic food in the past month say they were looking to eat healthier. Only 33% say they bought organic food to help the environment and 22% of people say it’s for convenience.
The larger portion of Americans believe it is healthier since organic foods have higher levels of antioxidants. But having more antioxidants does not say there is a significant difference between the nutritional boost of organic foods compared to those who eat conventionally grown foods.
It is important to note that the health benefits of organic food can vary by context. For example, in low-income countries, micronutrient differences matter more, whereas in high-income countries, we care more about how many antioxidants and vitamins it contains.
Another surprising statistic is that a whopping 72% of adult Americans say their choice in buying organic food depends on the price in comparison.
So my advice is to choose wisely. You may not need to spend the extra $1.50 on your organic bananas on top of your morning oatmeal.
2. Organic food is better for the environment.
Just because food is organic, doesn’t mean its production and distribution are necessarily good for the environment.
Consider a can of organic black beans from Bolivia or a bag of organic rice from China. Transporting such products to your neighborhood grocery store creates a carbon footprint much bigger than transporting locally grown products.
Although organic farming requires a much more time consuming, labor inducing process for farmers — contributing to its higher price in your grocery store — the Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations says there are key environmental benefits to organic agriculture.
3. Products labeled “organic” are completely free of all pesticides.
USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines and relying on natural substances for farming methods. It can be certified as organic if it has been grown on soil that has had no prohibited substances like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for three years prior to harvest.
According to a blog written by the National Organic Program Deputy Administrator, when packaged products are “made with organic,” it means
they contain at least 70% of organic ingredients. These products will not have the USDA organic seal, but must identify with a USDA certifier.
In addition, only 95% of food must be organic to be labeled as so. So that means, there may still be pesticides and chemicals present in your cereal.
4. Organic produce tastes better.
About 59% majority of American adults say that organic and conventionally grown produce taste about the same. The rest of Americans who say it tastes better, buy and eat more organic foods.
So does public opinion reflect the science?
According to a study conducted by Sciences Advances, there is a gray area in which some found a significant difference in nutrient content between organic and conventional crops, but other did not.
These disagreements could be because of differences in food components, whether the nutrient content was measured on dry or wet matter and produce freshness, how it has been transported and inspected for any decay or rottenness.
Not only that, one person could have different opinions on how one organic tastes in comparison to conventionally grown apple.
There are too many context-based factors to determine whether organic produce does in fact taste better, which is why we believe it usually tastes about the same.
5. Products labeled “organic” are inspected to guarantee their authenticity.
The USDA claims that, all organic farming methods must, “integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Farms are held to these methodological guidelines and may be inspected. But realistically, every apple in the grocery store cannot be inspected to make the distinction between conventional or organic, especially if it isn’t labeled with a small, yellow sticker that says, “from an organic farm.”