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Are Organics A Healthier Option? Perceptions and Evidence

April 15, 2011, 7:54 PM
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In a guest post today, Samantha Miller probes the relation between perceptions and reality in the organic food marketplace.  Miller is a graduate student in Journalism at American University.  She is a student in this semester's "Science, the Environment and the Media" course -- MCN.

Despite shaky consumer spending, a growing number of Americans are willing to fork over big bucks for organic fare. Organic food sales reached almost $25 billion in 2009, a 5 percent increase from 2008, according to the Organic Trade Association. And while that may seem like a hefty sum, organic food sales only represent a small sliver of the U.S. food market — less than 4 percent.  

WHY DO PEOPLE BUY ORGANIC?

A slew of studies found that people primarily buy organics for the perceived health benefits, according to an article in the Journal of Consumer Behavior. “Consumers buy organic because of their desire to avoid the chemicals used in conventional food productions,” the authors wrote. “The use of pesticides is perceived to be associated with long-term and unknown effects on health.” And while the Environmental Protection Agency admits that pesticides can cause health problems like birth defects, cancer and nerve damage, federal laws ensure that “these products can be used with a reasonable certainty that they will pose no harm.”

Yet to date, there haven’t been any scientific studies proving that organic produce is more nutritious than traditionally grown fruits and veggies. In 2010, Danish researchers found that organically grown potatoes, carrots and onions have the same levels of flavonoids and phenolic acids, disease preventing nutrients, as their conventional alternatives. And yet 76 percent of Americans believe organic food is healthier than traditional options, according to a 2007 Harris poll.

In addition, the same poll found that 86 percent of people who frequently buy organic food think it tastes better. In fact, a blind taste-test found that people thought organic orange juice tasted better than conventional orange juice, but no differences were found between organic and conventional milk.  

Some other motivations for buying organic include concern for the environment, animal welfare and food safety — although these factors aren’t nearly as influential as perceived health benefits and taste.

In general, organic food consumers are women who have children living in the household, according to the Journal of Consumer Behavior article. And because of this, organic products “marketed to children will probably continue to thrive because they appeal to parents’ concern about health,” Andrew Martin said in a New York Times article.

But what about organic cookies, chips or crackers — those must be the healthier option … right?

“ORGANIC FOOD IS STILL JUNK FOOD”

That’s what Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University’s department of nutrition, said in a New York Times article. While organic farming practices are certainly less taxing on the environment, there are some downsides to the organic lifestyle worth mentioning.

The word organic “seems to have become the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, and even ethically,” journalist Mark Bittman wrote. “The truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is ‘sweets’; and one-third of [the] nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one.” In fact, college students who eat organic junk food believe the treats have fewer calories, according to a Cornell University study. And here’s a fun fact: Organic Oreos have the same amount of calories and fat as the original cookies. So eating organically probably isn’t going to solve the obesity pandemic anytime soon.

Moreover, organic doesn’t always mean “local.” Ever notice that your organic strawberries have “Product of Mexico” stamped on the carton? One European study estimated that organic foods shipped to Britain traveled nearly 150,000 miles — leaving behind a lofty carbon footprint.

In the end, the emergence of organic retail chains like Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe’s has created a slippery slope for environmentalists. On the one hand, supporters are thrilled that organic fare has achieved such widespread appeal and individual support — the kind of bottom-up support that has sparked widespread social movements in the past. On the other hand, they worry that the original goal of producing healthy, sustainable and local food is being squashed by large corporations — ahem, Natural Cheetos.

“They worry that when organics are added to the regular supermarket's dizzying array of choices, the consumer may somehow feel absolved of any need to think critically about the agri-food system,” wrote Vijay Cuddeford in Alternatives journal. “Supermarket organics may allow shoppers to assume they can eat healthier and be greener without changing, or inconveniencing, the consumer lifestyle.”

In my next blog post, I will break down organic food labels and explore how sustainability became a Hollywood trend.

-- Guest post by Samantha Miller, a graduate student in Journalism at American University, Washington, D.C.  This post is part of the course "Science, Environment, and the Media" taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on food policy by Winn and members of her project team.

 

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