Recently, I hopped on Amazon to leave a review for a “healthy eating” book I’d just read. Or, more accurately, just thrown across the room because it frustrated me to no end.
Okay, I didn’t literally throw it across the room – I generally have better manners than that. But I did evict it, unfinished, from my reading pile because of some serious problems in the author’s science and approach.
As I scrolled down to click the “review” button, another low-star review caught my eye. Paraphrased, it went like this: “the author insists on the necessity of an all-organic diet – as if that wasn’t prohibitively expensive and unrealistic for most households.”
That wasn’t my primary complaint, but it struck a deep chord with me because I’ve been there. Few things put the complex food choices we all need to make every day in stark relief like staring at two piles of seemingly identical produce – one bearing the little green “USDA organic” sticker, the other without – and feeling the crushing weight of all the conflicting things wrapped up in that small but meaningful difference between their price tags settle on your shoulders.
Elbow deep in the next book on my list, I’m still thinking about that review and the mess of feelings and confusion that it reflects. So in the next couple posts, we’re to break down what organic food actually is, why it matters (or doesn’t) and how you can diffuse the stress and frustration around the topic and make choices that are right for your life and that you can feel good about.
Ready? Let’s start with the uber-basics.
Q: What is organic food?
A: Organic food is any food or food product (that difference will be important later!) that meets the specific legal standards established under the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and has passed inspection by the authorities charged with monitoring and enforcing those standards.
In general, these standards cover what kinds of plants can be cultivated and how (e.g. no GMO crops and limits on the types of pesticides that can be used) and how animals can be raised (e.g. no antibiotics).
Q: Why is organic food a Thing?
A: The short answer is that the Organic designation was initially designed to do three things.
- Create uniform standards for clean, healthy, and sustainable food production.
- Help producers of foods grown or raised within those standards effectively market their products to interested consumers.
- Empower consumers to easily identify and select foods produced in ways that aligned with their values and priorities.
Q: Why is organic food so controversial?
A: This is a massive topic, but the bare bones version looks something like this:
- Real life is necessarily imperfect and, over time, the USDA Organic program has had unintended consequences. For example, some producers doing everything right are being shut out of the designation because they cannot afford the costly, multi-year certification process. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, massive industrial corporations are creating unhealthy food-like products that get stamped with the organic logo because they follow the letter of the law while utterly contravening its original intent.
- As science began to document the benefits of organic foods, opponents started viciously fighting back. With conflicting information flooding the media at regular intervals, consumers often find it difficult to know what to believe – let alone how to quantify the pros and cons in any way that lets them make confident and informed decisions.
- All sides of the organic debate have engaged in guilt-laden marketing and promotional efforts that hit extra hard in this era in which so many people are struggling not only financially, but also with both their personal health and a larger, less defined (but no less serious) sense of social responsibility.
- In response to all of the above challenges, numerous competing and overlapping designations have sprung up, muddying the waters and making it difficult for consumers to clearly understand what they’re buying. For many people, this throws the value of products marked “organic” even further into uncertain territory than it already was.
Did you follow all that? Good job! It’s a lot, I know. We’ll dig deeper into this topic next time, but for now, the key takeaway is this:
Seeing the USDA Organic logo on something is an indicator. It tells you SOME key facts about the product, but not ALL the facts you probably need or want to know to make choices you feel good about.
Most importantly, the decision to buy organic does not have to be – and should not be! – as mentally and emotionally fraught as it usually is for most of us. Rounding out your understanding of the larger issues involved (which we will do in the next few posts!) can take buying organic from stressful to a non-issue, no matter what you decide.