Are You Wasting Your Money Buying Organic Food?

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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?If you trust the government, the answer is: probably not. The Environmental Protection Agency maintains this very user-unfriendly website that explains what levels of pesticides are deemed safe and how the agency regulates their use. Buried on that website is this information about the government program:

Federal law requires that before selling or distributing a pesticide in the United States, a person or company must obtain registration or license, from EPA. Before registering a new pesticide or new use for a registered pesticide, EPA must first ensure that the pesticide, when used according to label directions, can be used with a reasonable certainty of no harm to human health and without posing unreasonable risks to the environment. To make such determinations, EPA requires more than 100 different scientific studies and tests from applicants. Where pesticides may be used on food or feed crops, EPA also sets tolerances (maximum pesticide residue levels) for the amount of the pesticide that can legally remain in or on foods.

On the other side of the issue are advocacy groups, such as the Pesticide Action Network, that say these chemicals represent a Pandora’s box poised to wreak havoc on our health. Among other things, critics charge the government hasn’t accounted for a potential accumulation of pesticides within the body over time or the total amount of pesticides an individual may be exposed to by eating multiple foods all containing residue.

Taking the middle road on organics

So depending on whom you ask, organics are either better for our health or an excuse to jack up prices. If you feel stuck in the middle, we have a suggestion.

Check out this article Money Talks News published last year. It includes a list of 10 foods you probably don’t need to buy organic and 12 you probably should.

In a nutshell: The 10 foods that you can feel safe buying as conventional products either have thick skins that likely prevent the transfer of pesticides to their edible insides or are products that traditionally require very little pesticides anyway. The 12 foods to buy organic have thin skins and, according to the Environmental Working Group, have the highest levels of pesticide residue in them.

I’m not naïve enough to think this definitely settles the organic vs. conventional debate you may be having internally every time you step into the grocery store. The decision whether to buy organics may go beyond simply good health and extend to environmental impacts and how best to support local farmers.

However, this should at least give you some food for thought as you decide how best to spend your grocery dollars each week.

Do you buy organics? Tell us why or why not in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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