Ask Ignacio: Is Organic Food Really Worth It?

October 2012

Here at the Office of Sustainability, we get frequent questions from UChicago students, staff, faculty, and alumni about what is environmentally preferable. Plastic or paper? Hand dryers or paper towels? A friend told me I should only eat organic, is this true? Each month will be dedicated to one of these questions. To submit a question, please email AskIgnacio@uchicago.edu. Think of it as sage advice (wink) for the scholar on the go.

It's been said that a room with 50 UChicagoans will report 50 different opinions; you might say every argument has 50 shades of gray (wink). Sorry, I really wanted to make that joke.

This is especially true of the debate over what the "Organic" label means. On the extremes, the points of view sound something like this:

  1. The organic label is a hoax that lets you charge a great deal more for the same foods, and people who buy organic are idiots.
  2. Food companies are poisoning us. Organic is the only way to get away from all of those chemicals that will give me cancer.

I would say most people lie somewhere in between.

So what am I talking about? There was an article a few weeks ago pertaining to a study about organic food. The study found that overall, organic produce is not more nutritious than non-organic produce. The past few weeks have been filled with a lot of "SEE, I told you! Organic is for suckers!" or "You people just don't understand." In other words "rabble rabble rabble."

There seem to be many misunderstandings about what this article is concluding. This article is not concluding that there is no point in ever buying organic. The gist of the article is that when you compare organic produce to non-organic produce, nutritional value is not statistically different when averaged over many different types of produce.

That last bit is important. This is different than saying "organic produce is never more nutritious than the non-organic alternative." The study allows for the possibility that there may be a nutritional difference in certain specific foods or other reasons to justify organic.

That being said, the value of the organic label has never been so much about the nutritional value of the food anyway. Most people buy organic because they are concerned with the effect of food production on the environment. Indeed, organic certification requires:

  1. No pesticides
  2. No antibiotics, which create antibiotic resistant pathogens
  3. No hormones
  4. Better living conditions for the animals

Quite simply, whether you choose to buy organic depends on what you prioritize in your food purchases. If you are looking to get more nutrition from your produce, in general it would seem organic vs. non-organic does not make much of a difference. If you care about the effects of your produce on the environment, buying organic is generally more suitable than the alternative. I only say generally because there are some very sustainable farms that do not apply for the Organic label because their operations are too small to merit the cost of certification. In cases such as these, I recommend visiting the farm or talk to the farmer at your local farmers' market. For those of us without the time, certified organic can be a handy little shortcut.

We square?

Ignacio