Organic Food Fact or Fiction

As organic foods make their way into more and more supermarkets around the country, the option to choose between organic and conventionally farmed products is increasingly at your fingertips. How do you make the decision? Get your facts straight before you fill your cart with misinformation.

1Organic farming never uses pesticides: False

Many organic farmers do try to avoid using pesticides, and most organic foods have lower total pesticide residues, but the fact is, organic farmers use many methods of controlling pests, including pesticides. Part of what defines “organic” is not the absence of pesticides, but the particular pesticides used. Only certain compounds are approved for use as pesticides on organic farms. This includes ingredients derived from natural sources, or synthetic ones that adhere to a list of regulations not required for conventional agriculture—for example, potassium silicate sourced from naturally occurring sand, and copper sulfate, provided that copper accumulation in the soil is minimized. Here’s the rub: Organic pesticides may be just as bad for you and for other animals as their synthetic counterparts (and in the case of copper sulfate, even worse). Therefore, it’s important to wash your produce even if it’s organically grown.

2Organic food spoils faster: True(ish)

Organic foods do not have preservatives added and they are not irradiated, two methods used to stop the mold, bacteria and yeast that break down food and cause it to spoil. Irradiation uses energy—much like a microwave—to kill microorganisms, including dangerous ones that cause food-borne illness. Preservatives are chemicals that extend shelf life. By opting out of both methods, organic foods have less defense against the critters that cause spoiling, but no study has been conducted to quantify just how much faster organic food spoils. Interestingly, organic milk often has a longer shelf life than regular milk, though that is not inherent to its organic-ness. Most organic milk undergoes ultrapasteurization, where the milk is heated to a higher temperature than the usual pasteurization process. Normal pasteurization kills potentially dangerous bacteria in milk; ultrapasteurization kills everything. Organic companies probably ultrapasteurize to compensate for the fact that their cows don’t get antibiotics, but not all dairies do it.

3Organic foods have more salmonella and E. coli...

So, if organic foods don’t use irradiation to kill bacteria and other microorganisms, does that mean they’re less safe? No, it doesn’t. When scientists put organic and conventional foods under the microscope, they found no statistical difference between them when it came to E. coli. And thankfully, whether organic or not, our food is screened for pathogens by the USDA and the FDA. Yes, there’s still risk, as recent recalls of Salmonella-tainted chicken and Glass Onion Catering’s E. coli-contaminated salad have shown, but you don’t need to worry about organic foods any more than you do about conventional ones.

4Organic food tastes better: False

Though many people will tell you organic food tastes better, when organic and conventional foods go head-to-head in taste tests, we can’t tell the difference. So why do so many people swear they can tell them apart? Sometimes, it could be a matter of timing. Organic foods that are sourced locally are likely to be fresher than conventionally grown varieties that have traveled farther. But perhaps our belief in the tastiness of non-conventional food is psychological: A December 2013 study gave volunteers two identical cups of coffee to try—one was presented as a plain ol’ cuppa joe, and one was labeled “eco-friendly.” The tasters claimed they preferred the taste of the “eco-friendly” one.

5Organic farming is better for the environment: True

Organic farming methods seek to reduce chemical inputs and minimize ecological disturbance—and by and large, they succeed. They avoid the damage to water systems caused by runoff from synthetic fertilizers, and typically mitigate impacts on wildlife. But there is a big caveat. Organic farmers may have to use more pesticides than would be required with conventional formulas, and their farming methods produce less food per acre than conventional methods, which means it takes more land and energy to churn out the same amount of food. Plus, the more land there is dedicated to agriculture, the less there is for animal habitats. But organic methods have improved over time, and they’re being adopted by conventional farmers, too, for more eco-friendly yields across the board.

6Organic food is more nutritious: False

Between 1958 and 2008, more than 160 studies were published that looked at the amounts of vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients found in organic and conventionally grown foods. When researchers reviewed the more than 3,500 nutrient-content comparisons performed over those 50 years, only a few revealed significant differences (and not always in favor of organics). When it came to commonly sought-after nutrients such as vitamin Cbeta-carotene and calcium, organics were no richer in the stuff we care about. So while single, unrepeated studies have found instances where one particular organic item has slight benefits, on a nutritional level, chemists generally can’t tell them apart.

MORE: Test Whether You’re Getting the Beauty Nutrients You Need

7Organic foods will help you lose weight: False

Simply substituting organic foods in for other foods won’t help you shed pounds—not if your substitutions are similar, that is. Eating an organic apple doesn’t give you a weight-loss advantage over eating a conventionally grown one. However, going organic might help you lose weight if, as a side effect, you change your overall diet for the better. If you’re nibbling on organic fruits and vegetables instead of a processed snack, you’re likely going to see results. But people often think organic equals healthy and healthy equals lower-calorie, and that’s just not true. An organic cookie contains as many calories as a regular cookie.

8It’s more expensive: True

Whether you think it’s worth the extra expense or not, one thing is for certain: Organic foods cost more. Organic alternatives can cost anywhere from 10 to 100 percent more than their conventional counterparts. There are several reasons for this. Often, organic methods require more labor, and thus cost more to produce. Similarly, getting certified as organic is an expensive ordeal, a cost that gets added to the price tag. There’s also extremely high demand for organics right now, so companies are able to get away with charging more.

MORE: 5 Ways to Eat Organic on a Budget

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