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May 12, 2016

Organic Foods: Are they Worth the Cost?

Kaci Adams, MS, RD, LDN

Organic-a term that has become more of a lifestyle than method for producing food for a growing number of Americans.  According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic food products grew 11% in the last year, accounting for 5% ($35.9 billion) of the total food market.  In 2012 out of the 2.1 million operating farms in American, 19,500 of them are organic.

Many Americans (51%) are turning to organic fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk products believing they are safer, more nutritious, and better for the environment.  However, are organic foods truly worth the 20-100% higher cost than conventional food items?

Let us first take a look into what it means to be organic.   The USDA monitors labeling of organic foods ensuring all organic food products meet federal standards for production, processing, and certification under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. According to the USDA, organic foods must be grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or ionizing radiation. Animals used to produce organic meat and poultry must have access to the outdoors, and cannot be given any growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs. All animal feed must be 100% organic, with no animal by-products.

Food safety is the primary reason families are turning to organic food products.  Roughly 30% of families choose to buy organic foods to avoid pesticide residues.  However, organic food products are not 100% pesticide free.  Organic farmers use “organic pesticides and herbicides,” and there can be indirect pesticide contact from neighboring conventional farms as long as the level of prohibited pesticides remains below 5% of the accepted tolerance levels.  A 2012 Stanford review of over 250 studies comparing organic vs. non-organic food products found organic foods to have 30% lower levels of pesticides than traditionally grown foods.  However, pesticide levels were within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safe levels for consumption in both organic and conventional foods.

The antibiotics and hormones used in conventional farming to stimulate growth of animals and prevent spread of disease is another safety concern for 29% of Americans.  The use of antibiotics in animals can promote growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.  While the Stanford study found levels of food borne illness bacteria to be equal in organic and conventional chicken and pork products, they found the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria contamination to be 33% higher in conventional chicken and pork than organic.  However, the FDA regulates antibiotic use in conventional farming to prevent high levels of resistant bacteria.  For example, in 2012 the FDA banned the use of cephalosporin, a class of antibiotics given to conventional animals, to prevent the growth of resistant strains of E. Coli.

Nutritional superiority is another reason people are turning to organic foods. To date, comparisons of nutrient content between organic and conventional foods have been inconsistent due to the variety of factors that affect a plant’s nutritional content including: plant species, weather during the growing season, and soil make-up.  A 2011 a meta-analysis at Newcastle University in England found that organic produce has a 12% higher content of phytochemicals and a 6% higher vitamin C content than corresponding conventional samples.  The 2012 Stanford review found slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and chicken and slightly higher phosphorus levels overall in organic products between organic and non-organic food products; however, these findings were not statistically significant. To date, no long-term studies in humans on the health effects of organic vs. non-organic foods have been completed.

Environmental impact is an additional motivating factor for many when buying organic foods.  Organic farms can utilize carbon-based amendments, diverse crop rotations, and cover crops to build soil fertility. These practices have been shown in research to improve soil quality by increasing the biodiversity of beneficial soil flora, reduce fossil fuel emissions, reduce chemical runoff into waterways and land, use less energy, and produce less waste. Furthermore, organic farming practices utilize more humane treatment of animals.

Bottom Line: Buying organic is a personal choice, and you must weigh the added cost of organic foods against the potential benefits.  However, there may be some health and environmental benefits of organic food. If your goal is to avoid pesticides, but are on a budget you may want to buy only organic foods that are included in the “dirty dozen” (fruits and vegetables shown to have the highest amount of pesticide residue).  These include: celery, apples, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, spinach, grapes, potatoes, lettuce, kale, peppers, and nectarines.  To date, there is no scientific evidence concluding organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic.  Therefore, it is important to remember that whether you are purchasing organic or conventional food products, it is the overall quality of your diet that truly matters. Aim to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and healthy whole grains in your diet, and to avoid highly processed foods.


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