Organic$ - Do the benefits justify the price?

It's that time of Summer when our Farmer's markets and country stalls are teeming with tempting offerings of Nature's bounty.  The trend in local produce, eggs, dairy, and animal proteins has swung decidedly in the direction of the Organic, especially over the last six or so years, so much so that we'd be hard-pressed to find conventional foods at these outlets.  But it's interesting to note that even in large supermarkets today organics occupy almost as much aisle space as non-organics and, for better or worse, this trend is on the rise according to recent findings by Consumer Reports.

But what of pricing?  The shopper is still often faced with the dilemma of choosing to spend beyond the budget when both offerings, when viewed side by side, appear to be of similar quality.  What are the benefits, in terms of Health, environmental practices, humane animal treatment, preservation of species diversity, or lower atmospheric pollutants that warrant the choice to pay a premium for the Organic selections?  And does the public view them as being sufficiently important to ignore the price variable?

Recent public surveys have revealed that many more consumers would opt to buy organic than currently were it not for budgetary considerations.  The overall difference for identical items compared side by side is estimated to be on average 47%, with a range of from 20% to 100% higher for the organic choices. Over the past decade these prices have seen a steady decline owing to market pressures, averaging as much as an 87% drop in most marketplaces adjusting for inflation.  These pressures are felt to be attributable, in large part, to greater demand (since 2012 over 90% of retailers have included at least some to over 2/3 organics among their offerings), increased competition owing to the expansion of organic growers worldwide, the adoption of organic farming practices by a majority of small growers and even a few large "factory farms", and growing awareness of the advantages of organics to both consumers and growers.  The aforementioned Consumer Reports study states that "around 8 in 10 households currently buy at least some 'certified organic' products, mostly produce and dairy" evidencing increased consumer demand.

We believe that the most important factors to be considered when weighing whether to pay a premium are the demonstrable health effects of an organic lifestyle.  One of the difficulties in advocating for an "organic movement" is the relative scarcity of independent scientific research as compared to that undertaken by government-funded organizations and rich, powerful commercial food and grower lobbies; there is precious little available in the way of subsidies for proponents of organics.  Among the few reputable groups who have studied the science of this point of view, we are fortunate to rely, in part, on the well-known, though often challenged, Benbrook Studies, in association with renowned researchers in this field from Washington State University.  The very vocal detractors of this ongoing research declare it to be scientifically invalid for several reasons but, most often, offer as definitive evidence against Dr. Benbrook's reliability, the fact that in his condemnation of glyphosate as a potentially dangerous herbicide neglects to point out that those formulations preceding glyphosate were far more powerful and potentially harmful by comparison.  To my way of thinking this is a patently absurd rationale:  it's almost as ridiculous as saying that because the synthetic opiate, Fentanyl, is hundreds of times more potent than heroin or morphine, then it must be acceptable to abuse these latter drugs.  So much for the attempt to discredit Benbrook et al.

The Benbrook study offers three basic Health reasons, distilled from its volumes of research, for choosing a basically Organic diet:

NUTRITION -- Organic crops have been shown to contain higher anti-oxidant levels than conventional crops as follows:

Flavanones                69%

Anthocyanins            51%

Flavanols                   50%

Stilbenes                    28%

Flavones                    26%

Phenolic Acids           19%     

Another important nutritional finding:  Organic milk contains 62% more Omega-3 Fatty Acids than conventional milk!

HEAVY METALS -- Organic crops contain 48% less Cadmium, a toxic metal, than conventional.

PESTICIDES -- Pesticides are 4 Times more frequent on and in conventional crops than Organic.

A study which concluded early this year by the European Parliament's Independent Research Service has confirmed the health benefits reported by the Benbrook Study and found, additionally, that consumers who prefer an Organic foods tended toward healthier dietary practices overall.  While these researchers admit that much more research is required in order to fully understand the cause and effect of the health benefits of a basically organic lifestyle, they are confident in reporting many significant findings, chief among them:

  1. Reduced occurrence of obesity and Type-2 Diabetes
  2. An overall reduction in cardiovascular diseases and mortality
  3. Reduced exposure to pesticides by consumers and farm workers alike, leading to a much lower incidence of cognitive disorders and Autism, Autism Spectrum disorder, and behavioral problems
  4. Reduced incidence of adolescent allergies
  5. Higher levels of antioxidants, especially Omega-3's, secondary to less processing
  6. Considerably lower levels of the heavy metal Cadmium, chiefly introduced through use of artificial fertilizers
  7. A significantly lower risk of antibiotic resistance, substances forbidden in Organic certification

The second most frequent reason for choosing and adhering to an Organic philosophy cited by consumers is the beneficial effect of organic production on the Environment.  Organic agriculture is a holistic management system which by its very nature is protective of the ecosystem.  The hazards of pesticides and herbicides on human health are fairly well known as their discussion is fairly ubiquitous in today's media.  Less well known, however, are the secondary affects of these substances.  Pesticides are largely indiscriminate in their targets, and are subject to "drift" onto unintended natural areas, frequently killing off beneficial insects essential to a healthy ecological balance and species diversity.  (Indeed, it is possible that drift is responsible for the traces of pesticides encountered on Organic produce of late. ) The demise of beneficial species would soon lead to a virtual plague of harmful species, as has been known to occur in so many alarming examples of poor land management over the past century. Organic practices dictate the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to naturally control harmful pests through introduction of beneficial insects thereby decreasing the need for a chemical arsenal. These synthesized chemicals have also been shown to upset biological health of the soil, causing a decline in diversity and activity of soil biota, essential soil micro-, meso-, and macro-organisms. 

Soil sustainability is an important by-product of organic practices.  We are not alerted to the fact that soil is a non-renewable resource in terms of human time scales.  It is therefore important to guard against soil degradation in the span of our lifetimes by demanding protection of soil biota.  These promote fertility, available mineral exchange, soil oxygenation, and overall tilth. More importantly they promote structural soil stability and pore geometry, enhancing its ability to sequester carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor, the so-called "greenhouse gases".  Restoration of soil quality is therefore essential in slowing climate change.  In the well-known occurrences where chemicals have been applied for an extended period of time or in large quantities, the soil quickly becomes a sterile substrate, requiring ever increasing amounts of synthetic nutrients to support plant health.  Healthy soil can be thought of as analogous to our own bodies' gut biomes which must have a constant level of healthy microorganisms to support human biological systems and our health in general.

Organic management techniques are equally important in the production of farm animals.  We are all too well aware of the conditions under which meat and milk producing animals are forced to live on commercial "factory farms".  Not only are these very crowded conditions inhumane, but they promote disease and frequent bacterial infections transmitted among the herds thereby requiring large amounts of antibiotics which unfortunately remain in the food supply.  Grazing animals whose digestive systems have evolved to process grasses are, in non-organic systems, instead fed grains for rapid bulking and growing to faster marketing size.  This practice also necessitates the use of large quantities of hormones that promote growth, again making their way to the consumers of non-organic, non-free range animals. 

You are likely aware that a significant portion of my practice involves weight management, weight loss, and a nutritional profile that promotes general good health and longevity.  While it is possible to live a healthy life without consuming organic nutrients in whole or in part, I believe the evidence of the past few decades lean strongly in favor of a better outcome in avoiding illness, having a greater sense of wellness and energy, maintaining a sharper mental focus and memory, participating enthusiastically in human relationships and life's pleasure-giving activities, and a longer life when adopting a more sensible dietary lifestyle including as many organics as possible.  Costs must certainly be considered by most of us particularly in uncertain economic times.  But, as we have seen, as consumers of organic products continues to increase at an ever-increasing pace (up by over 120% in the past decade), costs will continue to fall as compared to conventional selections.  And - the greater the demand, the greater the production to meet that demand.  We are beginning to see instances of organic items actually costing less than their non-organic brethren, as evidenced in particular by popular selections of summer produce, honey, maple syrup, and other occasional offerings

If you would like to incorporate more organics into your diet while maintaining your budget, start to formulate a few changes in your shopping plans and weekly menus.  First, going meat-free one or more days each week will confer substantial savings.  The availability of excellent and palatable grain and vegetable recipes are abundant online, in topical books and magazines, and amongst friends and family -- just ask them for suggestions.  You will most likely not find this to be a difficult sacrifice to achieve especially as most would agree that organically raised produce have a far better flavor than that to which you may be accustomed. One of the reasons organics can be more costly is that they mature more slowly and with lower yield than chemically forced items, thereby concentrating minerals and compounds that lend greater flavor.

Consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  These cost-sharing groups have proliferated by the thousands nationwide in the past few years so you'll have no problem locating some near your community.  Check out their prices and do the math.  Typically, a season of produce sufficient for a small family will start at an average of $250 - $400, certainly more economical than your local grocery.  But, keep in mind that several of the larger grocery chains have their own private label for organic offerings which are also typically cheaper than name-brand.  Look or ask for it.  If you plan well, you can find some great coupons online which are well worth searching for the savings -- and no clipping -- you can upload them for use on a smart phone.

Some common-sense suggestions:  1) Buy seasonal!  Not only are the items fresher and better tasting, with a higher nutrient content, they can be much more economical.  A good example is berries in season - often less than half the cost of out-of-season. 2) And, whenever you can, buy in Bulk!  You'll be astonished at the savings.  Many items lend themselves to freezing quite nicely - just check them out online.  Berries, for example, should be spread to a single layer on a sheet tray and frozen.  When solid, transfer them to good storage bags and be sure to date them. 3) If you're really ambitious and talented, learn how to can!  Nothing can give more eating pleasure than opening a Ball jar of tomatoes processed in season and opened to enjoy on a cold mid-winter evening.  You'll never buy the cardboard variety in January again! 4) Finally, as often as possible prepare your meals from scratch.  Pre-packaged, processed foods are not only much more costly but, of necessity, very high in sodium and other chemical preservatives, are often packaged in phthalate-lined containers, a known hormone disruptor that leaches into the food,  and are generally insipid in flavor and unsatisfying.  If, like many, you are tight on time, consider investing in a slow cooker:  prepares food beautifully and can be started and forgotten while you're away at work or on other errands.

When shopping, always read ingredient labels and, if buying organic, look for the "Certified Organic Seal".

Whatever your dietary preferences or decisions, send me any comments, concerns, or questions in the comment section, below, or email me at drbrimhall@dramandabrimhall.com.  I will be happy to answer!

Dr. Amanda