CP editorial: Is organic produce worth the extra cost?

Your local grocery store serves as a battlefield for an advertising war in which producers fight for the attention of the consumer. Down every aisle, there are more products than anyone would care to count, and each one uses different catch phrases and eye-catching packaging in order to stand out on the shelf.

While nearly every packaged food item has some sort of label on it, consumers might be surprised to find that these same techniques are also employed in the produce section.  

But advertising in the produce section is different than many other items found in the grocery store because they typically use significantly less packaging. Additionally, produce has to be able to speak for itself.

If a piece of fruit looks to be rotten, then no one is going to want to purchase it. This means that producers have to go to great lengths to keep produce fresh for a longer period of time. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in recent years has allowed this to happen.

As GMO usage has become more common in agriculture, there has been backlash from some consumers who believe the practice to be harmful. Many consumers believe that GMOs are not safe for human consumption and believe that organic foods are much healthier than the alternative.

In order for a product to be labeled as “organic,” it must meet the guidelines put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These guidelines include restricting the usage of pesticides to only those that have been approved for organic farming and keeping organic and non-organic foods separate.

Additionally, the usage of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, and artificial preservatives, flavors and colorings are also banned. Because of these additional measures producers must take in order to be considered an organic operation, many consumers believe these organic products to be healthier than conventional ones.

A negative association with purchasing organic produce is the cost. On average, organic products are more expensive than those grown conventionally. According to a study done by Consumer Reports, organic produce is around 20 percent more expensive than the conventional counterpart.

This number varies between products, with the highest difference being listed as a 107 percent markup for baby carrots.

While these products are more expensive, there is very little evidence that shows there is a nutritional advantage to purchasing and consuming organic foods.

For many consumers, the fear of pesticide usage in produce is the motivation to purchase organic. In reality, organic producers are still using pesticides to manage their crops. While there are fewer traces of pesticides found in organic produce, the miniscule levels of residue found on conventional produce are considered to be safe by USDA standards.

Even though organic producers are banned from using synthetic pesticides on their crops, they are still able to use pesticides that are considered “organic,” and the long-term health effects of these non-synthetic pesticides have not yet been discovered.

“There’ve been a number of studies examining the macro- and micronutrient content, but whether organically or conventionally grown, the foods are really similar for vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates,” said Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

In the food industry, companies use labels such as “organic” to convince consumers that they are getting a bigger bang for their buck when in reality, they are receiving a product that has a nearly identical, cheaper counterpart.

For consumers who have not done their research on what they are purchasing, it is easy to think they are making a choice that is ultimately going to make them healthier. If you want to continue purchasing organic foods, by all means, go for it. However, please do not assume that you are making healthier choices than those of us who stick to conventional products.