The Truth Behind Organic Labels

A recent meta-study questioning whether organic foods are better resulted in headlines declaring that organic foods are not 'healthier'. By now you probably have read about the shortcomings of this conclusion: none of the studies evaluated ran longer than two years, and the majority of studies looked only at traditional nutritional composition.

Savvy organic fans realize that the sustainable and natural methods favored by organic farmers do not significantly affect vitamin, fat, or protein composition. Organic products contribute to human health by reducing pesticide, antibiotic, and other foreign substance exposure; by improving overall ecological health which can benefit humans through cleaner air and water; and by influencing the nutritional quality (i.e. not the overall fat percentage in meat but the types of heart-healthy versus artery clogging fats contained in the meat). People also often prefer organically labelled foodstuffs for non-health related reasons, like animal welfare.

But are the higher priced foods with organic labels really delivering on these more subtle levels? The German newspaper Die Welt features a look behind the curtain of the organic "myth".

Better Butter

Butter surfaced as a most interesting case study. Simple tests of the types of fatty acids contained in butter can reveal whether the cows that produced the raw material for the butter were grass fed or stall fed. Tests of butter on the German market indicated that normal and organic butter can hardly be differentiated, with one exception: Irish butter. Although the Irish butter is not marketed as "organic", the good life cows enjoy on the green fields of the Emerald Isle clearly show up in the quality of the butterfats.

The lesson from this case study is revealing: the organic label alone does not clarify what the consumer can expect for their money. The organic label on butter may indicate a lower risk from synthetic chemicals, since cows must be fed organically themselves, but it does not ensure the animal welfare which is an important priority for many consumers.

Naturally Harmful

Another controversial aspect of organic standards is the "natural" substances that can be used by organic farmers. One example is the use of copper-based plant protection products for organic grapes/organic wine. Copper may be considered "organic" in the sense that it is a natural component of the earth's soils; but copper can accumulate and is not free of health concerns.

The Die Welt article points out that in this instance, the actual practices employed are far more important than the standard for the organic label. If grapes are grown in the right climate, the use of potentially harmful preparations can be avoided. Local conditions and practices, probably in no way transparent to the end consumer, are more important than the organic label in the evaluation of the sustainability and healthiness of the products.

Other Conclusions

The article examines a number of other foods, noting that
  • an organic label has little relationship to the tastiness of tomatoes or whether organic ingredients brew a better beer
  • .
  • Fish that swim free in natural waters cannot be labelled as organic; like butter the animal welfare, sustainability, and health questions are not well sorted by the organic standards.
  • Studies have shown that imported apples, even those that come great distances, have smaller environmental footprint than local applies, regardless of the organic question.

One food close to the Germans' hearts did come up with a strong "buy" recommendation for the organic label: the standards for pork to be sold under the organic category do ensure a better life for the animal, which in turn ensures a meat free of antibiotics which is well marbled with healthier fats -- resulting in a better taste.

The Truth Behind Organic Labels
In the wake of the debate about whether organic products are better, a German newspaper puts the "organic myth" to test.

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