March 1, 2006
When it comes to food quality in the United States, all apples are created equal. Or are they?
A growing number of people are willing to pay a premium for food certified as organic — produce generally barred from being grown with pesticides, synthetic materials or genetic modification and livestock raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.
But many scientists say it’s unlikely organic food gives consumers any extra health benefit, and they’re better off eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains of any kind.
That message of pursuing proven dietary benefits over speculative ones seems to be getting lost as fears about the traditional food-supply chain rattle consumers.
Consumer Reports’ February cover story on organic food, for example, does a noble job of addressing what the myriad of agricultural and social-issue labels slapped on food products actually mean — in the case of organic seafood and cosmetics the term means very little, for example, since standards don’t yet exist.
The labels “natural” and “all natural” also are flimsy and don’t necessarily mean organic, Consumer Reports said.
But the magazine also aims to help consumers prioritize their organic-food dollars by setting up a hierarchy of foods deemed to be more or less affected by things such as pesticide residues and antibiotics, based on studies from advocacy groups such as the Environmental Working Group.
The assumption is that organic food is superior to conventionally grown food for long-term health, and there are those who contend there is no solid evidence of that.
“The science to date does not indicate a clear and substantial benefit from selecting organic as opposed to conventionally grown products,” said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis, who said she gets no funding from the food industry.
It’s true that organic foods have low levels of pesticide residues — but so do conventionally grown foods, she said. “There is no indication that people in the United States are becoming ill from pesticide residues in conventional food.”
Even so, sales of organic foods and beverages have been on a tear since the late 1990s. Consumers snapped up an estimated $15.4 billion worth of them in 2004, up 19% from $12.8 billion in 2003, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com.
Much of the sales gain appears to be driven by the worried well, an educated, mostly healthy group with ample disposable income.
Before shelling out for pricier goods, though, consumers need to keep in mind that the National Organic Program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a marketing directive that doesn’t address food safety or nutrition. In 2002, the USDA put out a vast set of rules for what qualifies as organic, ranging from soil conditions to handling systems.
Shoppers see three levels of organic standards in stores, only two of which can display the official USDA “organic” seal: Products labeled “100% organic,” which must contain only organically produced ingredients, and those labeled “organic,” which have to consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” but can’t use the USDA “organic” seal.
Organic products can cost 50% more than the regular kinds, and research suggests as many as two-thirds of consumers have made an organic-food purchase, according to Consumer Reports. And organic foods certainly have their defenders.
“Organics started out decades ago as an environmentally sound production system,” said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “What’s emerging lately are scientific studies that show there may be some health benefits to organic products.”
But those studies are generally small, preliminary and inconclusive, other experts say. Even Rangan conceded the data is far from overwhelming.
“It’s very difficult to grow an organic orange and a conventional orange side by side.”
For people concerned about potentially lowering their exposure to pesticide residues, Consumer Reports said it’s worth routinely paying more for organic items such as apples, peaches, spinach, baby food, beef and milk. Unless you have deep pockets, the magazine recommends passing on organic items such as asparagus, broccoli, onions and sweet peas because, it says, they’re lower in pesticide residues.
The limited presence of pesticide residues in Americans’ food isn’t a big risk to human health and shouldn’t guide buying decisions, said Fergus Clydesdale, head of the food science department at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a functional-foods expert with the Institute of Food Technologists, an independent scientific organization.
Pesticide residues on any food marketed in the United States have to fall within federal guidelines, he said. Consumers need to make sure they wash their produce well, whether organic or not, Clydesdale said, noting the focus should be on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains of any kind.