What does organic mean, anyway?

Events editor Natasha Franks asks whether "organic" goods are worth the price difference.


Before you pay a premium, it may be worth examining what the word slapped on the front of a box or on a produce sticker actually means.  

Organic: relating to or derived from living matter.

So speaks the dictionary. From a semantic, if not legal, standpoint, the “organic” label can be stamped upon anything that originates from Mother Earth, and the term does seem to find its way onto a pricier version of all edibles: organic milk, organic vegetables, organic rice… the list goes on ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The word has become its own mantra, the rallying cry of vegans and health-conscious mums worldwide. For a few extra quid, you too can be organic, in all its diluted glory.

What can and what can’t be sold as organic in the United Kingdom is (for now) regulated by EU law. The specific regulations are lengthy, in Brussel-ese, and vary widely according to the foodstuff in question, but a set of general guidelines exist. According to Defra, which regulates organic produce in the UK, organic farming avoids “artificial fertilizers and pesticides” in favor of natural methods such as “crop rotation and other forms of husbandry.”

Artificial, however, is a key word, so “organic” doesn’t mean that your tomatoes haven’t seen pesticides or similar substances, of which farmers may choose from a pre-approved, EU-sanctioned list. Additionally, products sold as organic may consist of up to five per cent non-organic ingredients, though artificial colourants and sweeteners are verboten, according to the BBC.

Whether you’re buying “organic”, ”gluten-free”, or “low-carb,” data from market research firm Mintel suggests that consumers are growing wary of nebulously-monikered, seemingly-overpriced produce. This stinginess may be well-placed, considering the considerable markup assigned to organic goods. In 2015, Consumer Reports placed the price of organic goods at 47 per cent higher than their non-organic counterparts. For a single word of difference, this cost is astronomical.

Organic food is billed as the healthier option. Consumers pay to avoid pesticides, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives. The Consumer Reports study shows that shoppers choose organic food on the basis that it “[does] not contain unnecessary ingredients or chemicals.” Over 70 per cent go organic for health and nutrition reasons.

And yet, one third of customers view it as no more than a marketing term, an excuse to plump the price up on otherwise ordinary goods. Considering the constant barrage of diet-friendly terms within the culinary market, this is not an unreasonable assumption. The high markup further alienates potential customers, many of whom require justification for choosing Whole Foods over Aldi.

And while organic produce does contain less pesticide than its conventional counterpart, research suggests that the amount may be considered negligible. The Mayo Clinic presented evidence to support the conclusion that “organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are not significantly different in their nutrient content.”

Don’t be a lemming: “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthier,” “safer,” or “tastier.” For some, it may be worth the price for ecological or other reasons, but for the rest of us, the cheap stuff will probably do just fine.


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