Is organic food really better for you and your family? Or is it just a way to get you to fork over more of your hard earned cash and line the pockets of sneaky farmers?
The Organic Industry
Eating and buying organic food has grown in popularity of late. One report shows a 3400% increase in sales over the last 24 years, making organic the fastest growing food and lifestyle trend in modern history. With sales over $30 billion (yes that is billion with a B), the organic industry is definitely booming.
Some critics claim the organic food industry uses fear-mongering through third party advocacy groups in order to protect the organic brands. With the higher prices of organic and confusion about what organic really means, it leaves many wondering if it is really worth it. Which is why the Organic Trade Association’s marketing campaign has the slogan, “Organic: It’s Worth It.”
Let’s back up for just a minute. There are two reasons to buy organic. One, you want to eat food that is better for you and healthier. Two, you feel organic farming practices are better for the environment. I’m only going to address the issue from the first perspective, that organic may be better for you and a healthier choice.
But does organic really make a difference? Is it healthier for you? There are studies that have shown organically produced food contains lower levels of pesticides and higher antioxidants, while other studies show there is little significant difference between the health benefits of organic and conventional foods. Which just makes things all the more confusing for consumers.
What’s it all about?
When you walk into your local supermarket you are bombarded with multiple marketing messages. Each product uses words and phrases on the packaging all designed to entice you to buy. You can buy free-range eggs, organic carrots, and all-natural milk. So what does it all mean? All-natural, non-GMO, organic, locally produced. Unless you are a farmer, it may be difficult to get a true picture of what all these phrases mean in terms of what is best for you and your children.
According to a survey published in International Food and Agribusiness Review, 25% of US consumers think that locally grown food is all organic. And 2 out of 3 consumers think organic food is produced with no pesticides whatsoever. See a full review of the study here. While synthetic pesticides are banned from organic farming, there is a list of numerous pesticides that are allowable through the National Organic Program. Additionally, if you stick to just certified organic, you may be missing out. A study out of Perdue University cites that of the producers using organic practices in the US, nearly three quarters choose not to get certified.
Perhaps you don’t mind non-organic food, but you do look for all-natural food. You may have trouble with that too. Many food industry leaders have noted that “all-natural” has lost some of its appeal to consumers. It is starting to be seen less on packaging with other marketing buzz words taking their place such as pure and simple or the phrase “nothing artificial.” Let’s face it, unless what you’re eating looks the same as it did when it was picked from the ground or tree or bush, it isn’t natural, and certainly not ALL natural. The phrase “all-natural” is a marketing term that large companies use to capture the artisanal category.
Okay, then don’t trust “all-natural” but certainly “non-GMO” is going to be healthy, right? Some consumers assume that because a product is verified “non-GMO” that means it is inherently more natural. A product can be truthfully labeled as non-GMO, organic, and all-natural and still contain tons of organic raw sugar. So is that a product you want to feed your kids? Isn’t organic, non-GMO sugar also fattening and bad for you? And high fructose corn syrup that is made from non-GMO corn isn’t any better.
Additionally, there is a misconceived perception among some that non-GMO products are organic. Organic products are by definition non-GMO, but not the other way around. There is a lot of confusion out there and marketers tend to take advantage of that.
So what’s a mom to do?
Just the facts Ma’am
While Cargill, the food ingredient giant, may not be at the top of your list for sources of information on food purchases, I have to agree with this statement they made to Food Navigator, “Well informed consumers are better equipped to make food purchase decisions that are best for themselves and their families.”
That means we need to hit the books (so to speak). Read labels. Do your own research. Look for sound, science-backed data with validated studies. Don’t take my word or your mom, your sister, or your best friend from high school’s word for it. Know why you are buying organic, and the practices the farm you are buying from uses to be organic. Research GMOs and develop your own opinions.