When I walked into the grocery store the other day I was overwhelmed by how much the organic food section had grown since last time I had noticed it. What used to be a section or an aisle or food is now taking up almost a third of the store. When it comes to choosing something as simple as milk and eggs you now have organic and cage-free varieties selling right next to the competitors. All of hype over organic foods got me wondering, do consumers really know what they are purchasing or are they so taken by the idea of organic that they will buy anything that claims to be natural or organic?
Organic foods have been one of the hot new trends in the food industry over the past several years. Despite the ailing economy, and the fact that organic foods can carry a price tag equal to double that of its conventional competitor, the organic industry is continuing to grow. But when it comes to the decision of organic or not, consumers must ask themselves, what am I paying twice the amount of money for and is it really worth the hefty price tag?
For a product to be labeled organic does not just mean that it has not been treated with growth hormones but it also means that it hasn’t been genetically modified or irradiated. Irradiation is a process in which food is exposed to radiation to remove viruses and bacteria. Organic labeling when it comes to animal products means that they have not been given antibiotics or feed that has been made from animal byproducts. In addition, they must have been fed organic feed for at least a year and have access to the outdoors. Their fertilizer cannot contain sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients.
The United States Department of Agriculture noticed the boost in both purchases and demand of organic foods and in 2003 they created an “organic” seal. But what does this seal mean? What is the difference in their regulations and the manufacturer saying that something is organic? The USDA’s organic seal guarantees that the food was grown free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth-hormones, and genetically-engineered substances. Since the creation of the seal, no studies have been conclusive that organic foods are in anyway healthier or more nutritious for consumers. But generally speaking, consumers say that organic is a “healthier” lifestyle.
I think one of the most confusing parts of deciding to buy organic foods is interpreting the labels. Labels can be misleading, even though this is a push toward more natural food, it is still marketing to make a profit. Only products that are labeled as “100% Organic” must contain products that are all organic. Products labeled as “Organic” must contain only 95% of products that are organically produced; the other 5% are not regulated by the USDA. When the product states that it is “Made with Organic Ingredients,” this means that only 70% of the products are required to be organic in these products. “Free-Range” products include chicken, eggs, and other meats. The only rule on these products says that at some point during the day the animal was given access to outdoors. The USDA regulations are very weak, if not unsubstantial, in this area. “Natural” or “All Natural” is the most misleading label to consumers. If a product says that it is natural it does not mean that the products are organic.
MSNBC reported that over two-thirds of Americans regularly purchase organic food and/or drinks. On these products, they spend anywhere from 50-200% more than they would have if they would have chose the conventional product. Stores like Good Foods Co-op, which is popular here in Lexington, sell natural and organic foods to consumers. This particular store even has a cafe where they readily have a buffet of hot and cold food available all day, that is organic, and made from locally grown products. Sure these products come with a higher price tag, but having the choice of knowing what goes into your mouth, and where it comes from is a liberating choice that many Americans are making.
Researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington DC based research organization, came up with a list of fruits and vegetables that they have termed the “dirty dozen.” They feel that consumers should buy the organic variety of these fruits and vegetables whenever they can. Some of the fruits and vegetables on the list include: strawberries, grapes, potatoes, and spinach. These fruits and vegetables contain a significantly smaller amount of pesticide when compared to its conventional partner. They also cost on the lower end at about 50% more. On the other hand, some products, like bananas, aren’t worth purchasing organic because they don’t contain high levels of pesticides at all.
The high cost and growing demand of organic food has been a positive thing for the economy in some places around the country. Earlier this month, California-based organic frozen food producer Amy’s Kitchen announced that they were building a $63 million dollar plant in Greenville, South Carolina that will create 700 jobs in the next 6 years. South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley spoke out about the announcement, calling it an economic boom for the region and state.
So why the recent push towards natural and organic foods? Consumers have became so obsessed with knowing where their food is coming from- how it was raised, where it was raised, and what kind of life the animal was given. Consumers want to picture that the animal they are eating had a perfect life up until the moment it was slaughtered for them to eat. Our lives have become so complex that we want to get back to the simple, natural way of life. We want to live a more pastoral life, full of relaxation, simplicity, safety, and openness. Organic foods are a way of getting rid of the complexities in our lives- like the pesticides, the growth hormones, and the genetic modifications that we no longer need. As Americans we see natural as better.
Even food labels depict pastoral scenes of meadows, green pastures, and flowers. I think that the main reasoning behind these labels is that they satisfy the consumers want to get back to nature, to something simple. When they consumer sees these natural scenes, they associate the product as “wholesome.”
I don’t think that we will ever be able to go back to a simple, country life. We love our Blackberries and iPods too much for that. I think that we can choose the aspects of life that we want to simplify and food is a good place to start.