The “Organic” Myth: How Natural Our Pricy Food Really Is?

Although the idea of organic food is actually much older than the general public is prone to believe, millions of nutrition savvy shoppers are quite determined that this concept is a much-awaited revolution in healthy dieting. Once available only in health food stores, organic food is now separately presented in both supermarkets and farmer’s markets, promoted by online nutritionists and glorified by TV chefs.

Convinced by scientific references and encouraged by global frenzy, consumers are quick to spend their money on products labelled as reliable and trustworthy, without ever noticing the difference. The question remains – how can we know exactly where our food is coming from or what it is made of, and, ultimately, is it all really organic?

A Revolutionary Upturn?

Advertised as a revolution and priced accordingly, organic food was once quite a normal phenomenon. Before World War II, all crops were purely organic; it was after the rapid acceleration of consumerism in its aftermath that farmers began using synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

Thoughtfully build and strategically marketed, the concept of a modern natural diet has become a worldwide trend. As a number of dedicated followers continues to rise, the market analysis estimates that in 2015, American consumers solely have spent more than $43 billion on organic food. Advocates firmly claim that such products are not only safer and more nutritious, but tastier and better for the environment as well, and the public mostly agrees.

Nonetheless, a vast number of experts warns that there’s insufficient evidence regarding the unparalleled nutritional value of organic food. As one of them explains: “There’s really very limited information in people on actual health outcomes with consumption of these products”. “We don’t know enough to say that one is better than the other”, says David Klurfeld, PhD, chairman of the department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University in Detroit.

What’s The Big Difference?

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Before deciding whether to trust one side or the other, we should learn where the term “organic” comes from, what it refers to and how is it different than the rest of the produce available on the market.

As Jennifer Rose, media manager of the Organic Trade Association, explains, “Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed, and includes a system of production, processing, distribution and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm.”

What this system implies is that, instead of minimizing weed, insects, and rodent damage with chemicals, farmers that choose the organic approach grow and produce fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat on soil fed by natural fertilizers and in environment-conscious conditions. Sustainable farming, as experts call it, doesn’t only cover the additives used on soil, but a food production process in general, even the food given to farm animals and conditions in which they are kept. Instead of contaminating the produce with pesticides, as with conventional farming, sustainable farming manages weeds by using unconventional methods like crop rotation and mulch, thus encouraging soil and water conservation and avoiding pollution.

Is Organic Really Safer?

Knowing all that, it’s quite easy to believe that the food made of chemically polluted produce is much less safer than organically grown and produced one. But is it really so?

Man-Made Pollution

Both insecticides and fertilizers used in conventional farming leave traces and residues on the food even after its being processed. A study conveyed by the Consumers Union clearly proves such statements, but provokes further debate as well – examining more than 94,000 samples from around 20 various crops, this study has shown that those crops that were organically grown contain about one-third as many pesticide residues as the conventionally grown food, an amount significantly lesser, but still high enough to demystify the most popular myth of modern nutrition – scientifically, organic food is not 100% pollution-free.

Even though this amount is still approved and clarified as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, the problem appears once it becomes evident that these amounts pile up during time, which basically means that a number of decades, or years even, of regular consummation of organic food can still led up to some kind of health risk.

Natural Toxins

Even if it was entirely pollution-free, organically produced food still contains natural toxins that plants in certain conditions produce themselves. In fact, all products labelled as organic carry a bigger amount of natural pesticides in comparison to conventional food, simply because they have not been treated with insecticides and herbicides at all.

It’s debatable if naturally produced toxins are more hazardous than synthetic ones – solanine, for instance, that can be found in tomatoes, is one of those toxins that can be harmful if ingested in excessive amounts. Less damaging or not, natural pesticides are still the problem in the organic food market and its advocates are not so happy talking about this issue.

How Can We Know for Sure?

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Every country has its own certification program that complies with government-proclaimed standards that regulate how food is grown and processed. In the U.S, the government body liable for controlling the food market is the Department of Agriculture, which means that every product labelled as organic has to be certified by them. Requirements for approval are quite clear – in order to earn the label, the product needs to contain at least 95% ingredients grown and produced with methods of organic farming, which means without any use of manmade toxins.

Everything from the soil and conditions in which organic food is grown, to the packaging and storing can now be easily monitored by different variants of food traceability software, frequently used by large food distributors. The ability of Produce Traceability Initiative capabilities, which these software systems are based on, to handle bar codes on fresh produce the same way as with packed food is no longer focused on lot tracking exclusively, but equally verifies product quality as well. Finally, the technology has made the market more transparent and consequently brought more security to consumers.

Even if less safe that we were led to believe, an organic apple is still as healthy and nutritious as the regular one. Perhaps those pieces of evidence that sceptics are so impatient to receive will appear any day soon. Until then, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be misled by those whose interests are purely financial. If food labelled as organic is still more expensive than conventional food, then we have every right to ask why it is so, and is it worth the cost.