Organic vs. conventional: 3 things to consider before your next trip to the grocery store

I often complain to my friends about being “over-stimulated.” The creeping feeling usually manifests while I’m at a crowded club or a big concert. However, no place makes me wig out more than a busy grocery store. For this reason, I have become quite the night owl, frequenting the United by my house exclusively after 9 p.m.

It’s not just the herds of people, blaring eighties music (Madonna must be making millions in royalties from grocery store playlists alone), and violent shopping buggy collisions that push me into sensory overload, though.

It’s the amount of choices! And I’m not talking about Red Delicious versus Gala apples. I’m talking about choices that are marketed to seem as if making the wrong decision might detrimentally affect your health. I’m talking about organic food.

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Following the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA rolled out its USDA Organic Seal. If companies get caught labeling a product that doesn’t meet the USDA’s guidelines with this seal, they can face an $11,000 fine. Yikes!
Photo by Lindsey M. Henry © 2018

What does that seal even mean? What happens if you consume non-organic food? Is organic food healthier than non-organic? With these questions and more in mind, I’ll share 3 things I always consider while navigating the screaming-child-laden, over-lit, and often confusing aisles of the grocery store.

1. What exactly does “organic” mean?

According to the USDA, in order for an item to be branded with the USDA Organic Seal, it must have been grown and processed in compliance with a multitude of different federal guidelines. Organic food is free of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified organisms.

Something else to keep in mind: organic food is significantly more expensive than non-organic. This is due to several factors, including the fact that organic goods will generally have a lower yield and will cost more to raise due to the high cost of natural pesticides and fertilizers.

2. There isn’t substantial scientific evidence proving that organic food is healthier or that non-organic food is harmful.

Read this one more time: There isn’t substantial scientific evidence proving that organic food is healthier. Numerous studies suggest this, but the best I could find was conducted by Stanford University. A team of researchers analyzed 200 peer-reviewed studies focused on the differences between organic and non-organic food and the differences between people that chose to solely consume one or the other.

There was no notable difference, nutrition-wise, between organic and non-organic goods. The only real contrast was that the organic food had a smaller amount of pesticide residue present. However, it is important to note that all conventionally grown food must have less pesticide residue present than the legal limits put in place by regulatory bodies. In addition to feeding the entire world, it’s important to remember that producers are also feeding their very own families, and care very much about their well-being. Farmers and ranchers put an extensive amount of care and dedication into their yield to assure they produce a safe and quality product.

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Here’s the organic fruit section at my local United store in Lubbock. The manager was extremely nice and accommodating while I took pictures.
Photo by Lindsey M. Henry © 2018

3. Millions of people are buying organic. Why?

Forbes magazine recently highlighted a study done in Australia where two groups were fed cookies. (If anyone has any information on how to be a part of these cookie-eating research groups, please let me know!) The first group was told not only that the cookies were organic, but that they were produced by a company that is committed to environmentally conscious manufacturing standards and utilizing locally sourced grains. The other group was giving the same exact cookie (hopefully not oatmeal raisin – gross!) but told that the cookies were manufactured by a terrible, awful company that imported its grains and was frequently criticized for causing environmental pollution, while also refusing to do anything to offset its carbon footprint. At the end of the tasting and information session, both groups rated the cookies on factors including taste and overall experience. The first group, which was told about a locally sourcing, environmentally conscious cookie company rated the cookies much, much higher than the bad, environmentally indifferent company.

After reading through numerous similar studies, I found a similar theme. While there is scant evidence that eating organic food is nutritionally superior, the presence of the USDA Organic Seal holds a positive connotation to most consumers, perhaps leading them to think that the brand bearing it is more environmentally conscious, practices higher standards of animal welfare, or is more “natural.” Consumers may think that they’re seeking better quality, more nutritious foods, but what they really get out of it is moral satisfaction – the feeling that they are doing good for them, their families and their world by purchasing a certain product.

Bottom line:

  • Don’t buy the organic tomato because it’s maybe, possibly, but probably not healthier than the alternative. But if you think it’s better looking than the non-organic one, or you just simply want to buy it, go for it. As someone who loves to grocery shop, I generally buy whatever looks the most delicious.
  • Be respectful of ALL opinions. At school, I am surrounded by people who are well versed in food and consumer science issues. They can see that it’s simply unnecessary to put more money toward organic food that offers no substantial health benefits. At the studio where I practice hot yoga, I hear ladies talking in the lounge about this fabulous organic, GMO-free (that’s a conversation for another day) cream cheese that everyone just has to try. Whatever their reason is for seeking out that USDA Organic Seal, is fine with me.
  • As supporters of agriculture, we need to support producers, including organic farmers and ranchers. Even if you don’t personally seek out organic food, don’t disparage the practices of those who produce and consume it. I once attended a lecture by Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist. He talked about the importance of consumer choice. While its excessive signage may clutter up the aisles, as long as there’s a strong market for organic food, the need should be met by quality products from dedicated producers.

In review, we probably can’t make the grocery store stop playing repetitive, kitschy music. I don’t see any shopping buggy defensive driving courses being offered in the near future. But what can we do? We can arm ourselves with knowledge and become smart shoppers. I also recommend a double shot latte one hour prior to the grocery expedition.

Want to learn more about the organic conundrum? Check out these sources, and please, do some digging for yourself!

The Science of Why People Prefer Organic, Natural, and Non-GMO Foods

Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You

Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means