Should we spend more to buy organic? It’s a tough decision. We want to be good stewards of our the environment, our bodies, and our finances. For some of us, the added cost is prohibitive. We simply can’t afford it. But others have some discretionary income. Is this a good place to spend it?
Back in January, I pointed out that we tend to consider buying organic for a number of reasons:
- We expect these products to have been grown in an earth-friendly manner.
- We assume they are free of dangerous chemicals.
- We expect the food to be healthier and more nutritious.
- We might assume it tastes better.
- We hope that meat and dairy animals were treated humanely.
While flavor isn’t directly related to nutrition or environmentally friendly methods of growing, it is important. After all, no matter how healthy the food is, if it tastes bad no one will eat it! So, how does organic food taste? How does it compare to conventionally grown food? Does organic taste better?
First, we should remember that not everyone likes the same thing. McDonald’s manages to sell an incredible number of burgers, and I think they’re awful. I happen to enjoy Brussels sprouts and lima beans, which probably puts me in the minority. Still, most people like chocolate, strawberries, and fried chicken, so there are some flavors we can agree on. The question is, do most people prefer organic food?
What makes food healthy? I’d venture to guess that there are two considerations: what it has in it (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients) and what it doesn’t have in it (harmful bacteria, plus pesticides and other natural and synthetic chemicals that might harm us).
(This first appeared on my other blog, Mountain Plover.)
I was at the market picking out some grapes when a large woman ran up to me and grabbed my arm. “Don’t buy those!” She looked alarmed. “They’re not organic!”
Thankfully, I’m rarely accosted in the produce department , but I frequently hear the same lecture from many of my friends. Don’t take man-made drugs. Don’t use artificial sweeteners. Don’t eat food that isn’t organic. You’re poisoning yourself. Natural is safe. Everything else isn’t.
I should point out that I have no desire to poison myself with dangerous chemicals, but our concern about the difference between “natural” and “manmade” chemicals is irrelevant. Both laboratories and nature produce those that are safe and others that are not-so-safe. Arsenic is natural. Vitamin C can be replicated in a laboratory.
(This is the next post in my “Organic” series. If you missed the first one, you can find it here.)
It may surprise you to learn that organic farmers use pesticides. The only difference is that, for the most part, their pesticides must derive from natural sources rather than a laboratory. Does this make them safer than synthetic ones?
Consider—copper sulfate, an organic pesticide allowed by the USDA, is more toxic than some synthetic pesticides; an overdose can cause anemia, liver disease, mutations and cancer. Arsenic is a natural substance, but is so toxic that it is banned by the USDA for use on organic crops. Nicotine-derived pesticides, another group of natural chemicals, are also considered too dangerous for use by organic farmers.
Organic is popular. We eat organic food. We wear organic cotton. Even our household cleaners are organic. Organic is supposed to be good for us and good for the environment. But what does organic mean? Is it really always better?
To the dictionary, organic means “of, relating to, or derived from living matter.” So you and I are organic. The cement sidewalk is not. All the food in my fridge is organic. The refrigerator itself is not.
To a chemist, an organic molecule is “the kind normally found in living systems.” Organic molecules usually include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. These atoms can be strung together into long chains or arranged into rings. Starches and proteins are organic molecules. Salt is not.
I was looking through an old cookbook, circa 1955, snickering at all the recipes for Jello “salads” and casseroles laced with cream of mushroom soup (with crushed saltines on top). It was a cuisine based on white bread, white potatoes, and white rice. I grew up on this sort of diet. My mom was the consummate consumer, enthusiastically trying every new mix that Betty Crocker could come up with.
Of course, these days we are much more nutritionally savvy. We eat whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, and brown rice. Our fruits and veggies are organic. We shun junk food. Our consciences are clear. Right? Then explain this:
Standing in front of the open refrigerator door, you survey the contents. What do you want to snack on? In today’s globalized world, this is a complicated question. In April I commented about our nutritional choices. Today I’m more interested in the environmental repercussions.
How is the food grown? What fertilizers are used? Are the plants sprayed with pesticides? And are organic growing methods automatically better? How about the use of fossil fuels to transport food over long distances? Or the energy and other resources used in processing, preserving, and packaging those convenience products? If you believe all the hype, you could be convinced that an environmental apocalypse is just around the corner, all because of our food choices.
There are two piles of apples in the produce section of my market. The first, at $2 per pound, are grown conventionally. The other pile, at twice the price, have been grown organically. Which apples should I buy?
Every time I go to the market, I have to make the decision whether or not to buy organic. If my food budget was unlimited, it would be easy. Organic farming is better for the planet. It’s better for the field workers. And it’s better for the consumer. But organic food is also more expensive. Given that our family is on a strict food allowance, I need some sort of criteria to help me decide when to spend extra and when to buy the cheapest available.
Happily, a bit of searching came up with a list of commonly purchased food items, and their average pesticide load when grown by conventional farmers. You can find it at the Environmental Working Group’s website.
Seeing that apples score among the highest produce items for pesticide load, I’ll definitely spring for the organic ones. Onions and peas, however, are traditionally grown without a lot of spraying, so I’ll stick to the cheapest ones I can find.
I think I’ll print out this list and stick it in my wallet for my next trip to the market.