The Debate on Organic Foods

Attorney General: Brawndo’s got what plants crave.
Secretary of Energy: Yeah, it’s got electrolytes.
Joe: What are electrolytes? Do you even know?
Secretary of State: It’s what they use to make Brawndo.
Joe: Yeah, but why do they use them to make Brawndo?
Secretary of Defense: ’Cause Brawndo’s got electrolytes.
Idiocracy, 20th Century Fox.
One of the biggest trends to emerge in society today is the craving for organic foods. Organic food sales in 2015 was reportedly $45 billion in the United States and represented roughly 5% of the total food sales1. For environment and animal-conscious consumers, organic foods present a more natural and eco-friendly approach to regular items in our supermarkets. But, how rigorous are our standards and is there actual compelling data supporting these claims?
Sales of organic foods has steadily been climbing for years.
The Name Game
First of all, let’s examine the standards for “organic” food here in the U.S. In 2014, the definition and regulations for organic food was tightened up. Today, these are the organic definitions:
  • 100% Organic: Products must be either completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic: Products must be at least 95% organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients: Products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
  • Organic crops must be made without conventional pesticides/herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, and bioengineering (GMOs).
  • Organic farm animals must have access to the outdoors, be free of growth hormones and antibiotics, and fed organic feed.

What’s in a name?
American Horror Story, FX Networks.
Now, your first question may be to ask...what’s in that other 5% or 30% in the latter definitions? The rest of this fraction can come from a list of ~200 USDA-approved materials that are NOT organic, which would seem to defeat the purpose of buying organic.
Part of the concerns with these health food trends are the definitions being used. A lot of people believe the terms “natural” and “organic” are interchangeable, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, while organic foods have a stricter set of guidelines, the term “natural” is still heavily debated and landed several companies in hot water for their ambiguous use of the term. There is no actual regulation of the term “natural” and it doesn’t preclude the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or drugs in meat. Even GMOs can be labeled as natural (to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with GMOs and recent literature even indicated GMOs are not dangerous to humans in any way2). Why can’t we control what’s deemed “natural”? All foods have to be processed in some manner, chemical components exist in nature, and who’s to say juice is any more or less natural than the fruit itself3? As you can see, it’s rather complicated.

Both Snapple and Nature Valley got in trouble for their use of the term “Natural” on their products
Health Benefits
Many people assume that the going organic offers more vitamins, more nutrients and just generally overall improves health. Some studies have indicated significant differences with organic food, including increased omega-3 fatty acids in dairy and meat and higher antioxidants in crops4. However, there is quite a bit of variability from crop to crop, and a number of factors influence its nutrient contents, such as genetic makeup, ripeness, and even weather. Other reports indicate organic foods share no significant difference in nutrients than conventional foods. And, a 2012 report indicated there were no significant beneficial effects of organic food on health5:
“There’s a definite lack of evidence...some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”
-Researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, Stanford University School of Medicine.
Environmental Effects and Pesticides
Organic animal farming typically provides more ethical and better living condition considerations for the animals. With crops, this improvement isn’t as clear-cut. It has been found that organic crops contain a third as much pesticide residues compared to their non-organic counterparts6 (both, however, are still well under the restricted level of pesticides). While pesticide use on organic crops is restricted, it’s not actually banned. These organic pesticides that can be used are not necessarily safer than the alternative. If big companies are serving as the farmers, the intensive machinery can also contribute to the footprint of production7. Finally, let’s not forget that since GMOs can’t be used, you could have less hardy crops and lose out on crops enhanced in size or vitamin/mineral content. The overall yield of organic crops can actually be less than non-organic ones (up to 80% less in some cases!)8, so overall, you may not be feeding as many people as you might hope.

Those look natural.
Harvest Moon, Nastume.
Money, money, money
Finally, one of the last things to consider with organic food is the price. Typically, the food items will cost more due to the extra processes required to “go organic”. Organic foods typically cost 47% more than conventional equivalents. Some vendors may charge up to 300% more. A PNAS publication found that organic food should only cost 5-7% more to break even. Whether this extra price for the “organic brand name” is worth it is up to you.
Hopefully, we’ve shed a bit of light on organic foods so that the concepts are a little less abstract. In the end, it’s each consumer’s job to dig into the facts and determine whether organic food is right for them. Don’t just follow the fads because they’re trendy! If you have any comments, feel free to message us at

Just when I thought I got the hang of science...
  1. The organic food revolution that is minting millionaires
  2. Academies of Science finds GMOs not harmful to human health
  3. You need to know: what do natural, local, and organic mean?
  4. Is organic more nutritious? New study adds to the evidence
  5. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?
  6. Is organic food better for you?
  7. Is organic food actually better? Here’s what the science says
  8. Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming
Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.
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