Organic – What is it really?

American consumers are constantly bombarded with messaging about food. We are being told what foods we should be eating and what foods to avoid.

When it comes to organic food, though, what does it actually mean? Are organic foods produced without the use of chemicals? Are they healthier?

Myth #1 – There is no way to tell an organic food from a conventional food in the grocery store.

Organic foods are produced in accordance with specific production practices outlined by
the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If the grower adheres to the guidelines and meets the certification criteria, and the product is made from at least 95% or more certified organic ingredients, the food can be labeled with the Certified Organic seal. In the grocery store, consumers can identify organic foods by the USDA Organic label.  

Myth #2 – Organic foods are grown with no chemicals or fertilizers.

In order for a food to be certified organic, the item must have been produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. However, these guidelines do include a list of synthetic and nonsynthetic substances that may be used on crops. And even though there is oversight, if a farm generates less than $5,000 in gross agricultural income from organic sales, they are exempt from certification.

Myth #3 – Organic foods are healthier.

Claims that organic foods are healthier can also be disputed. The Mayo Clinic has weighed in on the issue.  In September, Stanford University released a study stating “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your heath;” and just last week the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on organic foods for children stating ”in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease. However, no large studies in humans have been performed that specifically address this issue.”

Myth #4 – Organic foods are produced locally and more sustainably.

While your local farmer’s market may offer some organic options, buying organic doesn’t
necessarily mean the food was produced by a small scale or local company. Organic
food is big business, one that’s seen 20 percent growth in the last 7 years and is now a $3.5 billion industry, so it should be no surprise that large scale food companies, including Kellogg, General Mills and Hain Celestial, own organic food companies.

Last week, Anderson Cooper began a series of Farmer’s Field Food Questions spots in which a consumer has the opportunity to spend time on a farm asking questions of the farmer. The episode featured a Mom from New York traveling to an Illinois farm to ask questions about the differences between organic and conventional crops.

So what are organic foods and why do people buy them?

Organic food production is just that, a production method and purchasing organic foods is a choice. Organic is a choice for farmers who chose to grow products using these
methods and for consumers who chose to purchase them. And because food
decisions are influenced by many factors and perceptions, it is important that both
consumers and businesses remain aware why those decisions are being made. 

Where do you go for food information? What factors influence your buying decisions?