I'm not fanatical about food choices. I just try to make the healthiest choices and sometimes those choices are also based on economics. But I can rationalize (I am the queen of rationalization!) spending more on a healthier option by comparing it to what that bag of chips or cookies, the ones that I'm not buying, costs. Funny how I don't remember ever giving a second thought to price when I was buying some of those things. There was no way I would buy store-brand shortbread cookies over Lorna Doones. We humans can be so oddly funny about how we spend money (but that's another subject!).
Produce is probably the one food that I might consider paying a higher price for the organic option. Processed foods labeled "organic", from cottage cheese to potato chips, are still processed and can have added fat and sugars. Are they healthier - and for the price?
Trying to understand "organic" labeling standards can make your head spin!
“Organic” refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. Foods labeled organic must meet or exceed the regulations of the National Organic Program (NOP). They must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, bioengineered genes and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
Easy enough, eh? But wait ...
USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed. Labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:
- Products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.
- Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Agricultural products labeled “100 percent organic” and “organic” cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.
- Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. The percentage of organic content and the certifying agent seal or mark may be used on the principal display panel. However, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.
I believe that organic farming is better for the environment.
It seems to me that organic produce may get a healthier start, but once it leaves the farm it follows the same packaging, handling and transportation routes as conventional produce. Guaranteed Organic does not mean guaranteed E.coli free.
Organic does not mean more nutritious. It may mean less harmful.
Organic does not mean pesticide-free, it means free of synthetic pesticides - and, of course, there are those who question whether synthetic pesticides are any more harmful than natural pesticides.
You can find a study to support or dispute most any position (depends on who is paying for it). The best you can do is try to educate yourself, research the source of information, and make decisions that you feel are best for you.
These are some of the interesting and helpful resources I used:
Glossary of Organic and Natural Food Terms (The Nibble, a specialty foods magazine)
Organic Food Standards and Labels (The University of Wisconsin-Madison)
USDA National Organic Program (US Government web site)
Synthetic v. Natural Pesticides (New York Times)
Something I found very interesting in my reading is that consumers are more drawn to a "100% Natural" label than an "Organic" label - significantly. Next time, I'll write about what I've learned about "All-Natural" and "100% Natural" labeling and how food manufacturers take full advantage of that.