On Organic Food

by F.

At one time, we bought all organic food, but our love affair with organic stuff is more or less over. Or at least the initial infatuation is. Why? Because it’s more expensive and of dubious utility. The WSJ had a decent piece on this recently—about when you should buy organic stuff and when you shouldn’t.

Veggies and Fruits
According to the article, “It may not make much difference to spend money on organic versions of foods already low in residues. Generally, say organic experts, it makes the most sense to buy organic versions of foods that you — and especially your growing children — eat a lot of. But if your main concern is nutrition, it’s unclear whether organic is more healthful.”

Specifically, “the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that raises concerns about pesticides, found that many [veggies] were already low in residues, including broccoli, asparagus, avocados and onions.” So there is little need to buy organic versions of those. On the other hand, “Among fruits and vegetables that were found to be higher in residues than other produce are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, strawberries and imported grapes.” Still, even these veggies and fruits had pesticide levels within legal limits (based on US government standards—whatever those mean).

Meat and Dairy
Not much difference: “Risk of mad cow or E. coli is probably low in both organic and conventional meat. Organic may be worth buying if you are concerned about antibiotic use. If you are concerned about growth hormones, there may be cheaper alternatives to organic. And if it’s farming methods that most concern you, read the labels: Some companies tout their production techniques to explain what they mean by terms such as ‘grass fed’ or free range.'”

There really isn’t any such thing: “There is no official “organic” label for seafood. Some seafood purveyors tout that their fish is “wild,” which some consumers may perceive as more natural and healthful than farmed. But as waters become increasingly polluted it has become harder to make sure they are free of contaminants, experts say.”

The bottom line seems to be that just buying “organic” may not be worth the extra cost. But it’s clear why we want to buy organic: the label, we hope, is a proxy for “healthy food.” Since the cost of compiling information on all the attributes of various foods we buy is too high—infinitely high in some cases—we would like to have some simple short-cut. But there isn’t one. Bummer.