This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.
When a food or drink is labeled “organic,” we tend to assume that it must be healthier and better tasting than its conventionally produced counterpart. This reaction is an example of “the halo effect,” a biased judgment that causes us to associate one positive trait (the “organic” label, in this case) with other positive traits that may or may not be related.
To say that something is organic, is to say that it has been grown or made without the use of artificial substances, such as synthetic fertilizers (as opposed to compost or manure), herbicides, and pesticides, and that it is free of genetically modified organisms. Organic growing isn’t a new concept, but with our increasing concern for health and well-being, many of us have shifted toward buying organic products over conventional ones. From 1997 through 2011, organic food sales in the United States grew from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion, and today they account for more than three percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
That said, are we paying more for organic foods because they’re better for us, or just because we just think they are?
A study by a graduate student at Cornell University in 2011 devised a test in which 144 people participated in a comparison of what they believed to be organic versus conventional foods. The foods tasted were plain yogurt, chocolate sandwich cookies, and potato chips, each in “organic” and “conventional” varieties. Despite the fact that all the foods in the tasting were actually organic, participants unanimously agreed that the foods they thought were organic tasted better, and perceived them to be lower in fat and calories and higher in fiber and in price than the supposedly conventional choices.
When choosing between organic and conventional foods, taste is generally subjective, says Joy Bauer, M.S., RD, CDN, and health expert for The Today Show. People may opt for packaged organic foods such as crackers and cookies thinking they’ll taste better, when actually there’s little difference in flavor. Organic produce, on the other hand, possibly does taste better, according to Lori Shemek, Ph.D., CLC, NC, and Bauer's counterpart on ABC’s Good Morning Texas.
“It [organic produce] tastes a lot better because it’s higher in anti-oxidants and in nutrients,” Shemek says.
Flavor aside, it’s difficult to say for certain whether organic foods are significantly better for you nutritionally than non-organic ones, since studies comparing the nutritional properties of both tend to flip-flop, some arguing in support of organic and others arguing against it.
Bauer says it depends on what types of foods you’re choosing. Organic fruits and vegetables, dairy, and whole grains may pack more of a nutritional punch than conventional foods, partly due to a built-in, natural pest control — which organic plants use (rather than pesticides) to protect themselves — as well as the reduced time it takes to get them to market shelves. But cookies and other snacks marked “organic” aren’t necessarily good for you nutrition-wise.