How Much Do You Care About Buying and Eating Organic Food?

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I'm not trying to be provocative with that headline, I truly am curious about how people feel about this. Let me start by confessing that buying organic foods isn't always my number one priority when I'm deciding what to cook, so don't think I'm claiming to be any kind of expert. In fact, when BlogHer Community Manager Denise asked me if I'd write about organic food for BlogHer's Every Day is Earth Day spotlight, I wasn't sure I wanted to, until I thought about what a great learning opportunity it would be for me.

Of course I don't want to eat foods that have been sprayed with pesticides. Actually, in spite of my organic food apathy, I'm probably more concerned about healthy eating than the average grocery shopper, and there are some organic foods I buy regularly (like Muir Glen Organic Tomatoes, which absolutely taste better than other canned tomatoes!) I do love the idea behind organic food production, but price is also an issue for me when I'm shopping for food, and I sometimes wonder if organic red bell peppers are worth $2.99 each when commercially grown ones are on sale for $.99. I found a few answers, but also a lot more questions when I was writing this piece, and I'd love to keep learning more about the topic, so hopefully BlogHer readers will chime in with comments or links to continue the discussion.

There Are Strict Government Standards for Organic Labeling
Just what does organic food mean? I consulted the USDA website to learn about standards for organic foods in the U.S. The U.S.D.A. seal tells you that a food is at least 95 % organic, although the U.S.D.A. states up front that they're making no claim that organic foods are better for you than commercially produced ones. USDA standards have been in place since October 2002, and here's the summary of how organic food is defined

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Reasons People Give for Choosing Organic Foods
Although organic foods account for only a small (but growing) percentage of world food sales, people who care about buying organic are passionate about the topic. At A Lucid Spoonful, Paula tells us Why I Eat Organic Food, and Why You Should Too. She compares the price differences in organic and commercially produced vegetables and concludes it's worth it to her to have food that's pesticide-free and grown in ways that don't harm the environment, and claims "cleaner and less processed food means more nutritional content." A very comprehensive post about the basics of organic food at Treehugger expands on reasons people in that community consider organic food so important. I also found a great list of Reasons to Buy Organic at Whole Foods Whole Green Blog.

There's Not Complete Agreement that Organic Foods Are More Healthful
Proving the health benefits of organic food is a complicated prospect, with many studies often contradicting each other. SFGate reported in November 2007 about recent studies finding higher nutrient levels in organic crops. However, in the same article UC Davis food scientist Alyson Mitchel cautions that you can't generalize that higher nutrient levels measured in food in a laboratory means consumers are getting more nutrients, and clarifies that "market studies" attempting to prove that organic foods are better have all failed. Other scientists are reporting results that are more certain. In the U.K a four-year study concluding in late 2007 reported conclusively that organic food is better than regular produce. Of course, there's more to health than healthy eating, and nutritional benefits are only one way to measure the value of organic food. Eco Child's Play is one of many sources I found who were alarmed at recent reports that Pesticides Permeate Children's Pee.

Choosing Organic is More Important for Certain Foods than Others
Something I did find complete agreement on is that buying organic matters more for some foods than it does for others. Foods where all the peel is discarded, like bananas, are a safer food to buy commercially grown if you can't buy all organic produce than something like apples, where the peel is often eaten. McCauliflower from Brownie Points had the most recent post I found, and she links us to a printable list of the cleanest non-organic foods, ranked by pesticide levels.

Organic Foods May or May Not Taste Better
I mentioned how I think my brand of organic canned tomatoes tastes better than other canned tomatoes, but finding scientific evidence that organic foods taste better has been difficult. Food scientist and blogger Harold McGee wrote in The New York Times about a 21-year study on organic wheat production which showed that rats consistently ate more of the foods made with organic wheat. However, McGee also reported in the same article that many studies in the last few years involving taste tests with humans have shown that people are unable to identify organic foods and may not always prefer them. Baking Bites reported on a Cook's Illustrated egg taste test which ranked farm-fresh eggs over organic ones. On the other side of the argument, in Chew on That samples Organic vs. Regular Chicken, and reports organic chicken simply tastes better.

Not All Organic Foods are Labeled Organic
One of my biggest "aha" moments while writing this was provided by a commenter on Serious Eats who advised someone who wanted advice on going organic with a large family to look beyond the organic label for more inexpensive options, explaining that small farmers may not bother to go through the government red-tape to have their foods labeled as organic. This means that shopping at farmers markets and local food stands can often be a good way to get organic foods with a smaller price tag, and merely asking the person who grew the food is the easiest way to know whether or not food is organic when shopping at local markets like these.

Organic Food is Becoming Big Business
Finally, people who equate organic with local and sustainable foods may not like knowing that organic food is becoming big business. I found more than ten blogs who spotlighted a recent chart in Good Magazine showing organic food labels that are owned by some of the countries largest food producers.

More Reading:
The National Geographic Green Guide Food Quiz will help you find out how much you don't know about organic food.
U.S. National Organic Program Standards (full document of all the U.S. standards)
Hints and Tips for Eating Organic from Recipe 4 Living
Ten Reasons Organic can Feed The World from The Ecologist
Organic Consumers Association (found on Farmgirl Fare)

BlogHer Food Editor Kalyn Denny also blogs at Kalyn's Kitchen.

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