WHY do you reach for organic products in the grocery store? Do you choose them
because they are grown without pesticides and have strict production standards? Or
does the label make you think they are more nutritious? This is a blurry line that has
developed between food safety and food as a commodity. Organic and healthy foods
have become trendy. Photos, recipes and inspiration are plastered throughout social
media. While this movement toward healthier diets is wonderful, it is important for
you to know what you are buying, why you make the choice you do and what
organic labeling schemes mean.
What do Organic Labels Stand For?
In the 1990’s the Organic Food Production Act was implemented and demanded
that the USDA develop national standards for production and certification. Final
standards went into place in 2002.1
• Organic labels place a stamp of approval and certify that food and food
products are grown under a set of strict standards eliminating chemical use
and protecting soil and animal integrity.1
• The labels are designed to denote growing practices, production standards
and food safety with consumers. There are a range of different labels
indicating different levels of certification ranging from 100% organic to
“made with organic”.2
• Organic labels DO NOT provide any information about the nutritional value
and healthfulness of food.1,2
What We Think About Organic Food; Explained
Despite the true purpose of organic labels, consumers shop under the guise that
organic foods packed with more nutrients and are superior to their conventional
counterparts. This is not entirely the fault of the consumer. Psychology and human
behavior play a role. Psychologists have described a phenomenon called the “halo
effect”.3 Organic foods have a halo of “goodness” shining around them. This
“goodness” glow casts a bias and shadow upon all characteristics of an organic food.
This bias leads consumers to assume that organic foods are not only grown safely,
but are better tasting, have fewer calories and have super nutrient powers. These
assumptions also increase the likelihood that consumers will reach for organic
foods, even if they cost more than conventional foods.3,4
Scientific studies have been conducted to test the “halo effect” and perceptions of
superior nutrition. A 2005 study reported that 66% of it participants chose organic
items because they believed they were more nutritious and therefore willing to pay
premium prices.4 If you need more convincing evidence, brain imaging studies have
revealed that people show increased brain activity in response to evaluating organic
foods and their choice to buy them.4
If scientific research isn’t your thing, take a look at some organic food packages on
the shelf next time you stroll the aisles of the grocery store. Let’s take Lay’s potato
chips as an example. Lay’s now makes organic chips. Comparing the nutritional
labels on the back of the bags, you can see that Lay’s Classic and Lay’s Organic are
identical with the exception of sodium levels (30mg higher in organic).5 Still not
enough? How about breakfast cereals? NuVal scores provide an additional nutrition
assessment and show no significant difference between organic and conventional
boxed cereals.6 Both chips and cereals are processed and are widely accepted as
junk food and not nutritious to begin with. Therefore the idea that all organic foods
are nutritiously better is debunked.
“Traditionally” organic foods, such as plants and animals do show small differences
with greater nutrition and health values than their conventionally grown varieties.
Organic dairy products have higher vitamin levels, more protein and omega fatty
acids. These positive values are likely due to healthy cows that eat organic food
too.12 Additionally, some organic vegetables tested, have 5.7% higher micronutrient
values than conventionally grown items.7 These values combined with healthy
growing practices without chemicals, make organic dairy and vegetables a better
choice if they fit within your budget. If organic foods stretch your budget, keep
eating conventional vegetables; they will always be a healthier choice than
processed foods or no vegetables at all.
The Business of the Organic Food Industry
The organic food market is a 25 billion dollar industry, increasing every year at a rate of 5%, with further growth potential.8 Organic items are popping up all over the place Organic foods used to be limited to local farms, small natural grocers and stores like Whole Foods. Now you see stores like Kroger, Safeway and Target carrying organic foods and producing their own generic labeled organic products. Organic foods are now available to a whole new market and present retailers with a an opportunity to make considerable profits. Retailers utilize particular patterns of human behavior and utilize aspects of branding, physical placement of items and displays to alter people’s behavior and “nudge” them to purchase organic products. Additionally, stores arrange conventional and organic products for side-by-side comparison or build a designated organic section.8 Next time you shop, take a look around and see how the store displays food and if it convinces you to make a purchase.
Shop Smart, Eat Healthy
Regardless of why you purchase organic foods; be it for food safety, environmental concerns or assumption of nutrition, organic practices and certifications are providing safer, chemical free products to consumers. It instills hope that historic farming practices will be revived and sustainable agriculture will help the environment. Next time you place an organic item in your shopping cart, think about the product and your assessments of it. Remember that organic labels are a processing claim and not a claim of nutrition. Above all make smart and healthy choices.
1. Watnick VJ. The Organic Foods Production Act, the process/product
distinction, and a case for more end product regulation in the organic foods
market. UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. 2014;32(1):40–79.
2. Cohrssen JJ, Miller HI. The USDA’s Meaningless Organic Label. Regulation.
3. &NA; The Health Halo Effect: Don’t Judge a Food by Its Organic Label.
Nutrition Today. 2011;46(3, pt Nutrition Gazette):104.
4. Linder NS, Uhl G, Fliessbach K, Trautner P, Elger CE, Weber B. Organic
labeling influences food valuation and choice. Neurolmage. 2010;53(1):215-
5. America F-LN. Frito-Lay-good fun! fritolay.com.
http://www.fritolay.com/snacks/product-pages/lays/. Accessed January 27,
6. Woodbury NJ, George VA. A comparison of the nutritional quality of organic
and conventional ready-to-eat breakfast cereals based on NuVal scores.
Public Health Nutrition. 2013;(7):1454-1458.
7. Johnson RK. Front-of-pack labeling – healthier diets and better health or
confused consumers? Nutrition Bulletin. 2014;39(3):235-237.
8. Scrinis G, Parker C. Front-of-pack food labeling and the politics of nutritional
nudges. Law & Policy. 2016;38(3):234-249. doi:10.1111/lapo.12058.