Are You Wasting Your Money Buying Organic Food?

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You want to be healthy, but are organic foods just a gimmick to get you to pay more?

As a Money Talks News reader, you undoubtedly want to be smart with your money. You don’t necessarily want to be a cheapskate, but you definitely don’t want to pay more than you have to.

That leaves all of us in a bit of a quandary when it comes to organic food. After all, organics can cost significantly more than conventional food. Pricing obviously varies by region, but a 2011 survey in Maine found that organics cost an average of 68 percent more than conventional foods. Organic ground beef topped the list with a premium price that was 134 percent more than your run-of-the-mill ground-up cow.

Financially, it may seem as though the regular 29 cents-per-pound bananas are the better deal than the organic ones selling on the next shelf for 49 cents per pound. But then proponents of organic eating assure us the organic bananas are healthier, and if they keep us out of the doctor’s office and off the disability rolls, then maybe that is 20 extra cents well spent.

So what to do?

Well, to start, check out the video below to learn about growing your own food. Then keep reading to learn more about what science has to say on the subject. We’ll wrap it up with some practical advice on how to find the middle ground between protecting your health and protecting your pocketbook.

Only special food can be called organic

First, let’s start by reviewing what the word organic means. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not just anyone can slap the word organic on their food and sell it for 68 percent more.

Instead, organic farmers and food producers must go through a rigorous certification process to prove their operations are organic. The word at my local farmers market is that it’s no small feat to become certified organic and that it typically involves a lot of time and a fair amount of money. Maybe that’s why some producers skip the organic certification process and use the unregulated term “natural” on their products instead.

However, those who go through the process are able to advertise and label their food as organic. Per the USDA, this is what an organic label means:

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock. The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100 percent organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

Organic multi-ingredient foods. The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95 percent or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.

The case for organic foods

The USDA process ensures organic foods meet certain requirements, but does that make them healthier and worth the premium price? Supporters say absolutely, and they argue organics aren’t only good for us, they are better for the environment, too.

For example, The Organic Center reported in September that conservation and organic farming were associated with a 30 to 70 percent increase in the number of microorganisms in soil as well as an increase in earthworms, both of which presumably indicate healthier soil. Meanwhile, the Rodale Institute suggests organic farming can reduce greenhouse emissions and may even help reverse climate change.

On the human side of things, a July report in the British Journal of Nutrition reviewed 343 food studies to determine if organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown products. According to report findings, organics have higher concentrations of antioxidants, while conventional food contains more cadmium, a toxic metal.

Not everyone is convinced organics are better

However, not everyone is ready to jump on the organics bandwagon. Some naysayers argue that the July study is contradicted by two earlier reports.

In 2009, a review of 162 studies spanning a 50-year period from 1958 to 2008 was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That report found no evidence that the nutrients in organics were different from those found in conventional foods. When small differences in nutrient quality were detected, the authors chalked that up to different production methods.

More recently, a 2012 report from Stanford made waves with its conclusion that organic food doesn’t really offer any health benefits above and beyond that offered by conventionally grown foods. Critics charge the report was tainted by money from agribusiness, but we’ll leave the Monsanto debate for another day.

All about pesticide residue

Well, that may be all fine and good, you say, but what if you’re more concerned about avoiding pesticides than you are about absorbing nutrients? In that case, organics definitely win the day.

That 2012 Stanford study found that there were detectable traces of pesticides in 38 percent of conventional food samples. By comparison, only 7 percent of organic food samples had detectible levels of pesticides. If you’re wondering how an organic food could have any pesticide residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published a whole study on the subject for your reading pleasure.

While conventional foods may be more likely to have pesticide residue, the bigger question may be: Is that a problem?

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