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Is Buying Organic Really Worth It?

For those interested in organic food yet confused about benefits, this is a great article. Originally published on Huffington Post.

Buying organic food typically involves shelling out a premium. But is the extra pinch to the pocket actually worth it?

Last week, a Department of Agriculture report revealed just how much it really costs to shop organic.

Organic eggs, milk and salad greens can cost upwards of 60 percent more than conventional alternatives, while items like apples, carrots, granola and spinach carry premiums of between 7 and 30 percent, the study said.

Producing organic food tends to be costlier along every part of the supply chain — including farming practices that usually require greater labor inputs and segregating organic ingredients from conventional ones.

Though there may be logical reasons for the heftier price tag, does it really make sense as a consumer to pay more for organic food?

The answer, it turns out, is anything but straightforward. Here, we explore this hotly contested issue.

What the heck does organic mean anyway?

Organic produce, according to the USDA, must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Organic meat has to come from animals that were raised in a natural setting, didn’t receive any antibiotics or hormones, and were fed 100 percent organic feed.

“By this general definition, [organic food] should be friendlier to the planet and pose less harm to human health,” Chensheng Lu, an associate professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard University, told The Huffington Post over email.

When it comes to packaged foods, only a label that says “100 percent organic” indicates a product made solely with organic ingredients. “Organic,” on the other hand, means 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, while “made with organic ingredients” is reserved for products with at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients.

There’s skepticism among consumers, however, about the trustworthiness of organic labels. Last year, a study by market research firm Mintel found that a majority of American consumers think organic labeling is merely an “excuse to charge more.”

Indeed, there’s some evidence that organic labels may not always be reliable. A major issue, experts say, is a lack of a robust monitoring system to keep track of whether products that say they’re organic really are.

Still, despite a flawed system, there do appear to be measurable differences between foods labeled organic and those that are not.

A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing organic and conventional foods, for example, found that exposure to pesticide residue was more than five times higher in conventional produce. A 2014 study found that organic foods had significantly lower levels of toxic metals compared to conventional alternatives, and “substantially higher” levels of antioxidants.

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