Imagine a new gasoline that claims to reduce future repair costs and lengthen the life of your car. Not only that, but this new gas will also improve mileage and reduce your car's exhaust pollutants.
If the gasoline cost an extra $2 to $3 dollars per gallon than your usual gasoline, would you buy it? Would you wonder if it's really as good as they say. Perhaps you'd ask to see the data that backs up the claims. What if you were told, "We know it's better because of the way we make the gas." What if a competitor markets a completely different "greener gas" but makes exactly the same claims about its advantages. Could you tell which one is best? Or, would you go back to your usual gas until you had more information? What if it were just 5 cents more per gallon? What if it were $5 more per gallon?
In my view, this scenario is similar to what consumers now face with organic foods. Although producers of organic foods are not allowed to claim health benefits, plenty of advocates endorse the idea that organic foods are healthier. And much of the appeal is intuitive: They have no synthetic fertilizers, growth stimulants, and so on.
So, are organic foods truly better? Are they worth the added cost? The answers may not be as clear as you think.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying organic foods are bad. In fact, they may be better for you and safer than conventional foods, and well worth their higher prices.
But, the issue is not straightforward. Before we all feel compelled to plunk down the extra cash required to purchase foods that carry the "organic" label, there are several reasons not to accept the "organic advantage" at face value. Any benefits they offer depend on:
Although the word "organic" has a number of meanings, when it comes to food, it refers to production using only feed and fertilizer that are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, synthetic ingredients, bioengineering or radiation.
That may sound simple, but what about a fertilizer that is "chemically created" but is identical to fertilizer of animal origin? What about food that is mostly organic but has traces of food from a non-organic farm? How can the consumer know what the term "organic" means when they see it on a food label?
The U.S. government has taken some fairly recent actions to address these questions. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. This led the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create the National Organic Program that took effect in late 2002. This program created regulations for food producers who label their foods "organic," including the use of the "USDA Organic" seal. Anyone who violates the program's regulations can face a fine of up to $11,000.
According to the regulations:
These labeling regulations are not about food safety or quality. They are about food production — the process of how the food is produced. Inspectors are supposed to certify food producers' methods to decide which label is most appropriate. They do not test the food for purity or any other measure of "organic-ness."
When people talk about the "organic advantage," what do they mean? Here are three ways that organic foods might be better than "conventional" foods:
There may be other reasons people are willing to pay a premium for organic foods: Protecting the environment, humane treatment of animals, and even cultural or religious influences. But it seems to me that many people are paying more for organic foods based on assumptions and promises that are not backed up by real evidence.
Putting aside concerns about how to define "organic-ness," and even if studies eventually prove that eating organic foods has significant health advantages, there's still the issue of price.
For example, if a single organic apple cost $8, would you buy it? What if the health advantage was small? Each person would still have to weigh the health advantage against the difference in price. Perhaps it would be an easy choice for some (especially the wealthy), a tougher one for others, much like the expensive car with the highest safety rating. Even for those who could afford it, some would choose to spend the money while others would not.
The organic food industry is a multibillion dollar enterprise. And it's growing. Sales of organic foods in the United States was about $3.6 billion in 1997. By 2010, annual sales of organic foods was more than $26 billion. It's remarkable how much we are willing to pay for these products despite the absence of a proven health advantage.
Maybe the lack of scientific evidence is not a big deal to you. After all, we make plenty of decisions every day – health-related and otherwise — without scientific scrutiny to back them up.
My favorite example is the "parachute assumption." No one has performed a highly scientific study of whether using a parachute when jumping out of a plane is a good idea. We simply accept the idea at face value because the experience of skydivers using parachutes is compelling. (Of course, the occasional tragic parachute malfunction is also compelling.) We don't need to actually do the experiment comparing outcomes of 100 skydivers using parachutes with the experience of 100 skydivers not using parachutes. We can guess the results and have confidence that choosing to use a parachute is the right call.
In my view, the organic food advantage is not nearly so clear. Many years from now, we may have data that organic foods offer no measurable health or environmental benefits. At that point, many will have wasted considerable resources buying these foods based on the false expectation — a health myth — that the added cost was providing something positive.
Then again, if the data go the other way and it turns out that organic foods provide major health benefits, those who had chosen organic foods will be healthier and, perhaps, live longer than the "econonomizers" who were waiting for proof.
So, do we pay more now for possible benefit or wait for proof and save our hard-earned cash? I've made my decision. Regardless of what your decision is, know that neither of us can know at this time if we are right.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.