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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Fact Check:Five Reasons to Buy Organic

by Josh DeWald

March 29, 2013

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Donate I came across a sign entitled "5 Reasons to Buy Organic" at my local grocery store. Some of the reasons struck me as being inaccurate, or at least misleading, so I decided I would take a quick look at the truth of them.

(While nearly finished writing this, I saw that one of my fellow Skeptoid writers has their own post on organic nutrition that you should take a look at as well, it goes into much more detail on some aspects while discussing the fruit fly study in question).


The sign makes these statements:

"Organic food tastes better which encourages your family to eat more healthy foods"


This is a subjective statement. Even if organic food had been shown to taste better, the difference seems unlikely to drastically modify eating habits of "healthy" food. Additionally, what is being defined as "healthy" food in this case? Organic foods are the exact same foods that can also be produced "conventionally". You can have organic "junk" food just as easily as you can have fruits, veggies, etc.

My search through Google Scholar only turned up a single study (of orange juice and milk), which concluded the idea of organic food tasting better was "invalid". I immediately recalled an episode of Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t (around 5:50) and 22:00) where they had some conventional bananas and tomatoes cut in half and would say that one side was organic and one side was conventional. People almost unanimously said that the "organic" side was better.

Maybe some organic food tastes better to some people, but there seems little evidence of this statement, certainly not enough to apply to all available foods. Claiming that this will have a significant effect on actual eating habits seem completely uncalled for.

"Organic food delivers more nutrition, which means more nutritional quality per calorie per food serving"


The scientific evidence does not support this statement. Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine wrote last September about a series of large systematic reviews of the evidence on nutritional quality (and other factors), which found that "the published literature lack strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods". I also on my other blog wrote about previous nutritional studies, which found the same.

You can of course find individual pieces of organic fruit or vegetables that are "more nutritious" than their "conventional" counterpart, but the same applies in reverse.

"Organic produce tends to taste better, most likely because of higher antioxidant levels, which help it store longer too"


The authors of this list really want the reader to think that organic food tastes better I guess. The actual claims here though are around antioxidants and storage time of produce.

This claim fits with the second one; there is a lack of consistent evidence to support the claim that organic food is higher in any nutrients, though I have come across some weak evidence of a slight trend for higher amounts of polyphenols and vitamin C in some organic produce, which can have an antioxidant effect. But even that varies so much as to be useless to base buying decisions on.

At this point, I am unable to find any evidence that organic produce stores longer, or how antioxidants would be related to the time.

"Many organic farmers are small, local producers, so food can get to market much more quickly sometimes even the same day it was picked"


Technically, this statement is true. And so it would be reasonable to read it and think "oh cool, the organic produce I am buying at this store is locally grown". The definition of "local" can vary, but it generally means between 100 and 400 miles. I happen to live in Las Vegas and was shopping at a chain grocery store.

Is Organic Local?

Curious as to where they had sourced the produce from, I decided to just read the labels, which frequently featured the farm and location.

What I found was:
    • Iceberg lettuce and radishes came from Lakeside Organic Garden in Watsonville, CA (~520 miles)

    • Green leaf lettuce came from Cal-Organic (varies depending on season: Coachella (~250 miles), Cuyama (~350 miles), Kern County (~300 miles), Tehachapi (~300 miles). They actually sell as far as West Virginia, so they farm a decent amount on their 2000+ acre farms.

    • Oregano and Rosemary from Jacob farms in Pescadero, CA (~600 miles)

    • Onions from Earthbound Farm:"Earthbound Farm employs approximately 1,000 people primarily in California's Central Coast area, plus regional sales personnel in other parts of the country." They are in the Carmel Valley and San Juan Bautista, CA (~500 miles)

    • Mangos and roma tomatoes from Mexico

    • Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples from Rainier Organic, "one of the largest growers of fresh apples, pears, cherries and blueberries in the United States", from central Washington

    • Kale from Pure Pacific out of California, Arizona (and Mexico)

So from Las Vegas, most of these would not be considered local by any definition, and it depends on your definition of "small", these farms seem to range from 200 to 1000+ acres, employed thousands of people. Earthbound even describes itself as one of the "largest" farms.

Is Local (Necessarily) Organic?

The original statement also seems to imply that "buying local" means "buying organic". But this also is not necessarily true. Using the cool site LocalHarvest.org, you can find the closest farms and farmers market to your area. Plugging in my current zip returned 12 farms within 50 miles or so.

The number of local farms by type:
      • Conventional - 2 (16%)

      • Integrated Pest Management - 3 (25%)

      • Naturally grown (6) and Organic (1) - (58%)



Using my former address in Los Angeles (admittedly Las Vegas is not exactly in farm country) got 24 useful results:
      • Conventional - 5 (20%)

      • IPM - 3 (13%)

      • Naturally grown (12) and Organic (4) - 67%



"Naturally grown" is intended to be similar to organic, and a few will seek certification, otherwise I guess it is honor system based. (Note that some were conventional/IPM on top of naturally grown).
Integrated Pest Management is a practice that tries to do the minimum necessary to control pests, but does include the use of some pesticides "when necessary".

Buying at a local farmer's market provides a good opportunity to get produce that is both local and organic (or organic-like), but would also have conventional and IPM. If your primary goal is to just "support local", mileage will vary, and you may be supporting "conventional" in addition to what one would normally consider organic. But, at least in my case, purchasing from a chain grocery store will provide organic produce, but calling it "local" is pushing it quite a bit.

"Organic food doesn't contain additives that can cause health problems"


This is a bit of a loaded statement, implying that "conventional" does have additives that can cause health problems. But it is unclear what the writer is actually referring to here: pesticides? antibiotics? hormones? There is no good evidence that the trace pesticides left on produce does any harm, especially after the normal rinse you should do. Everything is a matter of dose, without specifics this one is difficult to even address.

That said, organic food can certainly have additives. Organic still makes use of herbicides and pesticides, they are just non-synthetic. Many actually have unknown toxicity, especially when based on naturally occurring pesticides from other plants. Others, such as Rotenone, are known to be deadly to fish and at least partially toxic to most mammals.

"The bottom line is that Organic Produce is grown the way Mother Nature intended it to be"


What does that even mean?

Conclusion


Out of all the claims presented in the sign, the one that most directly impacts consumers would actually lead them to purchase at a farmer's market rather than the chain grocery store that presented the sign. The statements addressing the objective quality of the food simply do not hold up to scrutiny. It's your choice to support organic food. But this remains a personal value judgement, and not one supported by scientific evidence. If I were to ask the writer of the list where they got their information, I have no doubt they could cite individual studies for each of the claims, but this is not the same as actual systematic evidence.

by Josh DeWald

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