These days, many people are interested in organic food. In fact, a Gallup poll in 2014 indicated that 45% of Americans actively seek out organic food. The reasons that people offer to explain this preference are many and varied, but a common one is the belief that organic food is somehow better for you than conventionally grown food. But is this really true? It’s important to look at the facts behind this and other common beliefs about organic food, and decide for yourself.
Myth: Organic food is healthier.
It’s not unusual to hear people claim that organic fruits and vegetables are healthier than those that have been grown with the aid of agrochemicals. However, this is simply not backed up by the current science.
According to research by a team from Stanford University (just one of many institutions that has supported research on this issue), there is no significant nutritional difference between organic food and other options. Looking at more than 230 studies comparing organic and conventional food, the Stanford team could not find convincing evidence that organic foods were more nutritious or conveyed fewer health risks than conventional foods. This research was published in 2012 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
Why do many people assume organic food is healthier, then? The reason may have to do with the higher price these foods command. When people spend more money on a product that appears to be virtually identical to a similar product, they may try to come up with a justification for it. Assuming that it is better for them on a nutritional level makes this much easier, even if there is little evidence to support this assumption.
This is especially the case when dealing with junk food, sweets, and other foods that may be unhealthy when consumed in excess. Some people feel more comfortable drinking a can of soda if they are told that it’s organic. In reality, of course, it’s no better or worse than a regular can of soda. A label on the bottle doesn’t change that.
Myth: Organic food is always better for the environment.
Aside from the presumed health benefits, some people assume that buying organic is always better for the environment. Again, though, this is not a conclusion for which there is much evidence.
First of all, you have to consider how much food the typical organic farm actually generates. While farms that use agrochemicals are able to protect their crops from pests and invasive plant species, organic farms don’t have as many resources for this. As a result, they produce a smaller yield per acre—meaning that an organic farm must use more land to produce the same amount of food as a conventional farm. This is problematic because converting land to farms can destroy natural habitats for wildlife.
On the other hand, researchers at the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute estimate that modern farming practices have saved 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat. The same researchers also calculated that 10 million square of miles of forest would have to be cut down if the world solely relied on organic farms for food.
Myth: Organic food is grown without pesticides.
In addition, some people think that organic food is grown without the use of any pesticides or agrochemicals—that an organic strawberry, for example, has been exposed to no more than soil, sunlight, and water.
This simply is not the case, however. There are more than 20 agrochemicals approved by the US National Organic Standards Board for use in growing and processing organic crops. These pesticides differ from those commonly used in conventional farming, because they are derived from natural sources rather than synthetic ones. But it is still incorrect to assume that organic food is produced without any help from agrochemicals. The fact of the matter is that any large-scale farm, whether organic or conventional, will likely need pesticides, herbicides, and other tools to protect crops and improve yields.
Myth: Organic food tastes better
There are still some who claim that organic food does at least taste better. Again, though, this claim doesn’t seem to stand up to greater scrutiny. There have been multiple studies conducted on this subject, and the results are inconclusive at best. Some have shown that people can taste the difference, while others have demonstrated that they cannot. There simply isn’t enough evidence to claim that organic food tastes better, or that pesticides and herbicides rob fruits and vegetables of their flavor.
But what does matter, if you want your produce to taste its best, is when you buy it and how you store it. Buying produce in season and eating it at the peak of its ripeness will typically ensure that you get the best-tasting product.
There are many myths surrounding both agrochemicals and organic food, and it’s important to know the facts so you can decide for yourself. However, many of the common beliefs about organic food don’t stand up to further scrutiny. It may be that organic seems special for a simple reason—there’s a lot less of it. But exclusivity doesn’t necessarily translate to other benefits.