To eat organic or not, that is the question.
It’s a constant hot button topic: is it actually worth forking out all that money for organic foods? While they’re purportedly healthier, and better for the environment, “organic” is often heavy on your wallet. Here’s a rundown on the pros and cons.
Organic Food Has Not Been Proven Better for Health
Let’s start by tackling the biggest claim for going organic – it’s better for your health.
Although that’s a powerful statement, the reality is organic food has not been proven to be superior in this aspect.
Most studies haven’t managed to prove the link between organic foods, and better health. But it’s important to have some clarity here, as the issue is often confused.
It is not true that organic foods are “the same” as non-organic foods. Studies show, for instance, that some organic foods do have higher levels of antioxidants than non-organic counterparts.
The dispute raised against organic foods involves the degree of difference. Organic foods have a few trace amounts of vitamins, antioxidants, and other helpful substances; but the difference may not be significant enough to impact your health.
A close equivalent would be the vitamin supplement issue: while there’s no doubt most vitamin supplements contain what they claim, there’s little evidence to show that the extra vitamins affect your health at all.
This is more or less the same issue with organic foods – even with fewer chemicals and more nutrients, the difference may be so miniscule, the price difference isn’t justified.
This ultimately comes down to psychology and personal comfort – ask yourself if it’s worth paying that much more to feel healthier. Afterall, it’s “only in your head.”
However, just because the effect is psychological doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. Ultimately, if you’re going to spend, it’s better to spend on something that makes you happy.
Organic Foods are Better for the Environment…Or are They?
The second key reason to buy organic is that it’s environmentally friendly. Organic foods supposedly rely less on pesticides, and are therefore less damaging to the environment.
This is untrue – organic farms actually require more pesticides, not less, because they don’t have (genetically modified) pest resistant crops. Most organic farms have never denied this. Their actual argument, which is often lost in garbled news clippings, isn’t that they use less pesticides – their argument is that they use organic pesticides.
Because organic pesticides are more “natural”, they are supposed to be less toxic than synthetic ones used for regular foods. Unfortunately, this is a subject of heavy debate, with organic pesticides like Rotenone proving to also be toxic.
Another argument, that organic farms have a lower carbon footprint, has been debunked. Organic farms often end up needing just as much as space and equipment as regular farms; sometimes more, as their crops grow more slowly, and are less resistant to pests and weather issues.
Also, because organic farms can only be in certain special locations (the water and soil conditions must be verified to be organic), it often means a longer journey from the farm to your dinner table. Trucks need to drive further, and planes are more necessary. These could end up creating a carbon foot print that matches or exceeds conventional farms.
If you want to spend money on making the earth better, buying organic may not be the most definitive way to do it. You may be better off donating that money to a cause that you believe in.
Some Foods are Just Not Worth Buying Organic
It’s well known, even among organic food enthusiasts, that quinoa is not worth buying as organic.
That’s because organic and non-organic quinoa are grown in more or less the same way – with almost no pesticides. That’s because quinoa contains saponin, which drives insects away.
Similarly, some other foods, where the organic/conventional divide is too small to be justified, include:
Some conventional foods are grown in the same places as their organic counterparts, and come from the same soil conditions; otherwise, they are naturally resistant to the weather or insects, so their normal mode of farming is practically organic anyway.
Ultimately, it’s About Personal Values
How do you feel when you eat your food?
If you feel bad because you worry the food isn’t healthy, then it’s probably better to buy organic than to lose sleep at night. Never mind if people complain that you’re “falling for a marketing gimmick” – as long as you maintain prudent finances, go ahead and use your money to buy what makes you happy.
However, if you want to go by hard numbers and facts, there are insufficient studies and/or proof to show organic justifies the added cost. You may want to save money by just buying conventional, and keep yourself healthy with active lifestyle choices instead.
A version of this article originally appeared on www.singsaver.com.sg, a personal finance comparison site with useful tips and guides to empower everyone in Singapore to make sound financial decisions.