Health

Is Paying More For Organic Actually Worth The Extra Cost?

By Andrea Mew··  11 min read
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Your chain grocery store has a dedicated organic section, the tags in your cotton dresses tell you just how much of the garment is organic, and your favorite cosmetic brands are now cashing in on the green beauty trends with promises of organic ingredients.

It doesn’t help that influencers and celebs fill up your Instagram feed with squeaky “clean” skincare routines or aesthetically pleasing, “healthy” recipes featuring wide varieties of colorful organic veggies. But is it all too good to be true? 

What’s a gal supposed to do to figure out what’s even organic anyway, and how does the hidden bureaucracy behind the process actually make it harder for you to discern what you should and shouldn’t buy?

What was once a niche lifestyle is now mainstream, and there’s a lot that needs to get unpacked before you should insist on exclusively shopping organic.

Let’s Take a Look at the Certification and Labeling Process

An organic food product is federally governed by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under their National Organic Program. Ingredients are vetted through this program and put on a “National List” where some will make the cut and some will get cut.

Having a nationwide set of standards was deemed necessary on the off-chance that one state or even just another part of that same state felt that one ingredient should be allowed while others felt that it should be forbidden. Imagine one state over from you selling “organic” products that in your state would never pass the test. 

Being organic was once just based on trust, but now it’s certified through paperwork. Your favorite certified organic farms had to hire an independent organization accredited by the USDA. Routine inspections had to be made, and if the land had previously been treated with non-organic treatments, then it would undergo a three-year transition period.

So what standards are they held to? 

They don’t use pesticides, right? Unfortunately, if you’re looking for pesticide-free products, organic farms do use both insecticides and fungicides. The USDA standard allows for over 20 chemicals in organic pesticides that may actually be more toxic than your ordinary farm’s synthetic ones.

My organic product is not genetically modified, right? Unfortunately, almost all crops have been genetically improved in one way or another, whether that’s a more basic technique or a technique targeting the molecules of the crop.

Well, at least my organic product is 100% organic…right? Unfortunately, just because one crop of a specific fruit or vegetable was treated with organic products doesn’t mean that there was no cross-contamination from a neighboring crop that the USDA turns a blind eye to.

Organic farms still use insecticides and fungicides, and they actually apply them more often.

But it’s more eco-friendly to shop organic, right? Unfortunately, organic products have been found to be worse for the climate! They have lower productivity, require more land use, increase CO2 emissions, and can contribute to deforestation. The organic treatments are less effective and require more manpower than regular pesticides to reapply more frequently.

Groceries aside, here’s the kicker for cosmetics: the FDA doesn’t even certify if your cosmetics are truly organic or not, even if you see an organic seal on the packaging. There is no federal regulation for organic cosmetics, full stop.

And in similar levels of faith as organic produce, the “NSF seal” which you may see on your cosmetics only indicates that 70% of the product has passed the test as organic. In other words, your organic foundation or blush might actually be 30% not organic.

Wait, but I saw a USDA-labeled organic makeup product! That one only has to be 95% organic to get that label slapped on.

Hate To Break It to You, but It’s Mostly a Marketing Tool

Shopping organic could provide you with higher-quality products, but it’s mainly just promises of higher quality. As mentioned before, crops could have been exposed to toxic pesticides, but they also might not have been. As long as the initial certification went through, your organic product is likely not being tested routinely for chemical residues.

This begs the question: why is there so much effort put into creating “organic” products and selling them?

Quips from both the certification experts themselves as well as independent lobbyists like the Organic Consumers Association have exposed the agenda of the organic industry. 

Back in 1990, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was quoted saying: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” Words from their own mouths.

Using the organic label as a way to move product impacts more than the consumer (you’re willing to pay more for a “premium” product) – it also impacts the labeling laws. 

The former director of the Organic Consumers Association once eloquently said: “The burning question for us all then becomes how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.”

The independent organizations have their own interests, but then the certification experts and government agencies actually back them up. USDA agencies have historically pumped over $160 million dollars annually into resources to fast-track the organic certification process or to get involved in between organic producers and vendors. Meanwhile, the products themselves may not genuinely be farmed sustainably or produced at a higher quality.

Another flaw in the process that should raise red flags is that the organizations certifying the product could have conflicts of interest and not want to oust a company for fraudulent practices. The farmers pay the certifiers high fees, and the certifiers want to make money to put food (organic or not) on their families’ tables.

So was your organic produce grown organically? Is the organic silk in your blouse the real deal? It’s more similar to buying what you were told was an authentic painting, seeing the artist’s signature, and then learning that it could be a forgery.

I don’t blame you if you find it all hard to believe.

You’re Not Naive for Not Picking Up on the Fraud

Back in 2007, the USDA was about to pull the plug on Aurora Dairy’s organic certification. It was the largest dairy supplier in the U.S. at the time, and if you’re not familiar with the name then I’m sure you’ve bought organic products from their more commonly known name Horizon Organic. 

Turns out, they had been selling milk with the organic promise for four years when in reality it was non-organic milk!

A few years later, another milk scandal made headlines when Target was found to have been falsely labeling their soymilk as organic. 

One of the most infamous scandals revolved around Randy Constant, a man who worked for the company Pfister and represented Organic Land Management. Constant scammed customers by falsely labeling non-organic grains as organic. The financial damage? Over a quarter of a billion dollars' worth in fraudulent products.

Horizon Organic sold non-organic milk as organic for four years before they were caught.

But even if a product passes the organic test, its enticing label doesn’t guarantee quality. This is especially true for imported products, especially those with additives.

American culture is rooted in farm-to-table. That being said, it’s no secret that we’re becoming increasingly reliant on imported products, whether that’s produce, textiles, or cosmetic ingredients.

We commonly import organic spices from India, organic dried fruits from Turkey, and organic soybeans from China, for example. It’s easy to feel a bit skeptical about the veracity of an organic label from countries that aren’t constitutionally rooted in the same principles or may be more likely to make lofty, but untrue, claims to sell their goods. 

Our American ideas of organic farming aren’t global standards. Whether our practices have made it to each country around the world is impossible to know. It’s not problematic to feel a bit of distrust over label claims from countries that are known for varying levels of corruption. Of course, you shouldn’t write off all international organic goods because of that, but suspicion is warranted.

So maybe you get some organically grown soybeans imported from China, but in its processing, the beans were treated with oils or natural flavors that were genetically modified. This was what happened in the case of a product manufacturer that was working with Randy Constant – organic soybeans had come in from China but then things got iffy in the processing procedures prior to packaging.

The oils in question could be non-GMO canola oils – but canola oil itself has been found to be unhealthy regardless because of causing vitamin E deficiencies or even shortened lifespans.

Is There a Better Way To Shop?

Research has found that both non-organic and organic foods are nutritionally comparable. It could be safe to apply that logic to the materials in your clothing or the ingredients in your cosmetics.

As mentioned before, the organic label is often taken advantage of as a marketing tactic to make more money off a consumer. Being able to afford higher price points on skincare, produce, or bedsheets is basically a mental flex: they’re your societal and moral status symbol. Organic is a more acceptable luxury than your typical luxury good.

With the cost of living on the rise, it could be hard to justify organic food when it averages a premium of 47% over regularly priced products.

Become Label-Smart

The old adage “less is more” can often be true for products. Sometimes the cleanest packaged goods have the shortest ingredient labels, but that’s not always the case so don’t let it restrict you!

Becoming a label-smart lady can be understanding what chicken prepared without antibiotics means, preservative-free peanut butter means, or what unpasteurized milk means. It can also be understanding that a label based on whatever diet trend is big at the moment – think paleo, keto, or vegan – also doesn’t equal a healthier product.

Let me give you a quick example. I’m shopping for butter, and my options are an organic brand with the ingredient list “pasteurized cream (milk), salt” or a non-organic brand with the ingredient list “butter (cream, salt), buttermilk, contains less than 2% of food starch, modified tapioca maltodextrin, salt, mono and diglycerides, emulsifiers, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, xantham gum.” 

Sometimes the cleanest packaged goods have the shortest ingredient lists.

Obviously, I’d pick the organic one because I try to practice being label-smart to avoid unnecessary additives when possible, but not just because the product itself is organic. Maybe your organic ketchup option is the one sans high fructose corn syrup or added sugars, so you might find that more appealing even if the cost is a few cents more.

Buy Local

Shopping for local produce can actually be similar in cost to your typical supermarket! The items you buy will likely be fresher and you might actually get to know the people who grew the products.

Your local farmers might already use organic methods and since they have a smaller production, they might even be more effective at keeping the products organic. When it’s a small, family operation, they might be more inclined to take their work seriously and hold themselves to higher standards to keep themselves in business. Local farms also have a better environmental impact than big-scale organic farms.

While our country grows increasingly reliant on imported products, it’s so important to take advantage of any way that you can promote your local economy. Buy organic produce, cosmetics, or clothing items and you help boost your neighbor's business – it’s a win-win!

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, does it actually matter? If you like the look of a piece of organic clothing, the feeling that a certain organic cosmetic has, or prefer the taste of an organic food product then you shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to buy organic.

That being said, it’s important to take some time to think about why there might be a societal push for a particular product, who could benefit from it, and be intelligently skeptical of claims that may not be the gospel truth.

As I have mentioned before in previous musings on similar topics, the push for organic and the shaming of non-organic products is a self-righteous trend that can border on orthorexia nervosa levels. It’s centered around fashionable marketing to make top dollar. 

While there are lots of companies that are in the organic business with good intentions, many appear to be in it for the money. Dishonest producers and farmers could take advantage of the high-quality status created by honest producers and farmers, and as a result, the honest ones can’t compete because of the hard work and extra expenses needed to sustain an organic certification.

So when you’re not even sure what organic is anyway, why stress? Most of what we get told by marketers is not scientific fact. A thoughtful individual keeps it in mind that narratives are constantly changing with new evidence and facts. Stay happy and healthy, but also stay analytical and aware!

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