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Questioning the Organic Myth

Opinion | March 4, 2013

“It’s organic, so it must be healthy.”
“Why am I paying so much for a bag of carrots?”
“These taste much better than regular grapes.”

We’ve all heard it before: the confusion of whether or not organic foods are better for us. Many argue that grocery trips to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to stock up on organic strawberries and eggs are worth the price . while Others would rather stick to their local Stop & Shop. For years now, this debate has been ongoing, yet no one has seemed to reach a conclusive decision . While it is important to consider both sides of this argument, at the end of the day, only you can decide what goes into your mouth. If you want to spend the extra money on a banana, go right ahead. If not, well, go buy yourself an extra pack of gum or something.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic foods are the result of “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony” .

In simpler terms, organic food is made with fewer pesticides. Pesticides are usually used in the production of conventionally grown food and pollute our environment. From an environmentalist’s point of view, organic food is somewhat superior to its less expensive, non-organic competition. The accumulation of pesticides and other nonsense within the soil and bodies of waters is found less among organic farms.

However, less definitely does not equal “none at all.” Following USDA regulations, organic foods need only contain seventy percent organic ingredients. So what about the other thirty percent? How are these unspecified ingredients affecting the environment ? My guess: we’ll probably never know, but if organic companies aren’t revealing to consumers what’s hidden in the last thirty percent, then it can’t be very good . We may receive part of the truth on the food label, but certainly not all of it.

Yet not receiving the “whole truth” of what actually lies within organic foods does not seem to affect many students here at Tufts. Attending a very eco-friendly school, the word “organic”, seems to come up a lot. Many of my friends will chat about their latest trips to Whole Foods and/or Trader Joe’s with great pride and satisfaction. The extra money spent on the peanut butter cups was worth it to them because “hey, at least they’re organic .”

But is the word “organic” being used correctly? People seem to have the tendency to substitute “organic” with “nutritious,” but that shouldn’t be the case, because the words are non-interchangeable. A stalk of broccoli may be grown conventionally, rather than organically, but that doesn’t change the nutritional value of that broccoli. Several studies, such as last year’s experiment done by students at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, suggest that organic food is neither more nutritious nor less likely of bacterial contamination than conventionally grown food. So why is there this tendency among so many people to automatically pin organic food as healthy? Because let’s face it, organic or not, those peanut butter cups are equally bad for you.

According to junior Anushay Mistry, “I’m not sure if [organic foods] are actually always significantly better for you, but it’s like the placebo effect—even if it’s not better, my body feels better.”

Shira Faigel, freshman and member of Tufts Culinary Society,states, “ I feel like there’s a connotation that organic food has become representative of healthy living. I feel like people assume organic equals healthy.”

Interestingly enough, with both students, neither was able to explicitly state that organically grown food is undeniably better than conventionally grown. Which got me thinking, maybe this whole obsession over organic food is simply due to its name? When people see the word “organic” attached to a carton of milk or a bag of chips, they gravitate towards it because of the connotation of the word. But the “organic” in organic food is just a title . Yet despite its lack of studies conclusively proving its advantages for our health, organic food has still become a billion dollar industry.

However, this tendency of ours to assume the absolute best from organic food isn’t necessarily our fault. The organic food industry has done a great deal of marketing to get us as consumers to believe every little thing that is put forth. In grocery stores, you don’t often see the word “organic” without the words “natural” or “wholesome” or “healthy” or “nourishing” right next to it. And the list goes on and on. It is those words and the intricately designed packaging of the foods that create a bizarre “must buy it” effect on consumers. We see all of these things, and then we see the television, computer, and magazine advertisements with images of perfectly toned bodies surfing on the waves of a crystal blue ocean, and we assume that we can’t go wrong buying the organic pepperoni pizza. But it is still just pizza. No better than non-organic pizza. So please, eat in moderation.

But even with all the studies and evidence proving that organic food is not really better than non-organic food, people still pay the price—literally. Comparing the Safeway price to the Whole Foods price of a pound of gala apples, you save fifty cents buying from Safeway. With parsley and cilantro, you also save fifty cents from Safeway, and these items are just a few of the many less expensive foods.

Yet as mentioned before, unless you’re a baby, only you control what goes into your mouth. So if you want to spend the extra cash on food that really isn’t as special as what the industry has hyped it up to be, go right ahead. But if I were you, I’d save your money. There are way too many bills to pay.