Outdoor produce market.

“Organic” does NOT mean “Healthy.”

Do you buy organic food? If you do, it’s likely that you’re spending substantially more money on your eats… so, what is it that you’re paying for?

Much has been written about organic foods, and that volume of verbiage appears to be inversely proportional to the general public’s understanding of what the heck “organic” even means.

Before I get any further, though, it’s worth mentioning that this is an extremely polarized issue with lots of money and giant egos involved. This article is FAR from comprehensive, and indeed only scratches the surface of the topic. What I hope to provide you with is a basic framework of what “organic” IS and is NOT, in order for you to make your own informed decisions. As always, I urge you to investigate the primary literature.

Still with me? Okay, let’s begin.

Many people are under the impression that organic food is somehow healthier than non-organic food. Is that really true, though? Well, the answer is a resounding, “It depends.”

First of all, what do you mean by healthy?

“Healthy” is a nebulous term. Do you expect organic produce to contain more vitamin C and organic meat to contain more iron? Do you expect organic food to contain lower amounts of residual pesticides? Do you expect organic food to lower your cholesterol, stave off cancer, and boost your life-expectancy by twenty years?

Food that is marketed as “organic” does not guarantee any of these benefits.

It’s important to recognize that the main difference between organic and non-organic food is the set of rules regulating their production. The rules governing organic farming are NOT created with the directive of making the food “healthier,” but rather with the guiding star of involving fewer synthetically-produced substances during production.

So do lower amounts of synthetically-produced substances make the food healthier, then?

To be perfectly clear: as any scientist will tell you, the origin of a molecule does NOT determine its healthfulness or toxicity.

Already we’re off to a bad start – one of the main founding principles of organic food is bogus and seems to be almost designed to prey upon consumers that are unfamiliar with basic science.

Now before you start hyperventilating, I’m not saying that organic food is inherently bad (even if the branding is rather misleading), nor am I saying that organic food is exactly the same as non-organic food. There are differences between the two, and it’s worth recognizing what those differences are when deciding where to spend your grocery money.

Organic food production does indeed prohibit the use of many pesticides that are quite toxic. However, it specifically ALLOWS the use of other pesticides that are also quite toxic. If you are trying to avoid a PARTICULAR pesticide, you may be able to do so by eating organic food. If there’s a specific substance (that happens to be synthetically produced) that you’re really worried about (e.g., pesticides on this list), and you don’t care about any of the pesticides that are permitted in organic farming (which is – with a few exceptions – absolutely ANYTHING that is not synthetic), then organic food may be a good fit for you.

However, if you’re trying to avoid ALL pesticides, the “organic” distinction will not be helpful to you. In fact, if you’re particularly bummed out by rotenone or pyrethrum, for example, you may want to actually AVOID organic food, as these two substances are often used in organic food production.

Remember that farms are not held accountable to the idealistic values that many of their consumers hold dear. In order to obtain organic certification, they are just required to follow the rules.

“But what about the local organic farm just outside of town? They’re so nice, and their food is so tasty. Are they just a bunch of disingenuous scumbags?”

No, I didn’t say that.

Here’s the deal. The rules regulating organic food production are very permissive. Some organic food is likely to be very high quality and produced with the aid of little to no pesticides… but the same could be also said for non-organic food. It really depends on the farm. If you trust a particular farmer to produce food that is in keeping with what YOU consider to be healthy, then by all means go to town.

What I AM saying is that the label of “organic” does not imply any specific health benefits… even though – in some cases – it COULD actually be healthier (or less healthy!). There’s just no way of knowing for certain without having intimate knowledge of the practices of the farm that produced each and every food item in your refrigerator.

“So what about study ABC? They said that they found organic food to XYZ? Are these a bunch of lies?”

Well…since food produced in accordance with the rules governing organic farming is so variable in so many aspects, at a minimum, you’d want to know where the food that was tested came from. I’m talking which company – not just whether or not they were certified organic. What were their precise farming methods? Do they still use these practices? Analyses run on organic or non-organic products are only applicable to food that was generated using the EXACT same production methods. Out of the handful of studies that I’ve had time to review, none have disclosed the origin of the food they tested, which makes them essentially useless.

In conclusion, whether you’re buying organic or non-organic, you’re probably being sold food that at least meets the federal government’s minimum safety standards. Hopefully that’s good enough (but that’s another can of worms), though if you want better than that baseline, the only way to be certain that you’re getting the best-quality food is to either grow it yourself or to invest your trust in a particular farmer. Having blind faith in “organic” is not helpful.