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The Organic Food Frenzy, Debunked

By Danielle Leng

On any given Saturday in Princeton, NJ, the aisles of Trader Joe’s are jam-packed with customers. It’s hard to tell where the register lines start and end as shoppers try to maneuver their red carts around the store. The chain food retailer expects to open stores in Gainesville, Salt Lake City and Houston as well as in 30 other locations in the next year. Once a convenience store founded in California back in 1967, Trader Joe’s has been a leading market in organic foods and currently has 375 stores in the United States. Although these foods have been historically pricier, Trader Joe’s has been able to maintain relatively low costs and maintain a strong consumer base.

According to the Organic Trade Association survey, there was a 9.5% increase in organic purchases in 2011 and $31.5 billion in organic sales at the end of the year in North America (This includes organic food, beverages and non-food products). Prices of organic food are the main deterrent of food shoppers choosing organic, and because non-organic products are more readily available and cheaper than their organic counterparts, people often choose the cheaper, non-organic route.

Prices of organic food correlate to more intricate farming methods , the increase in labor to tend to crops and animals, and environmental management. Organic farmers fertilize fields with animal and compost manure which is expensive to ship. They also utilize crop rotation, the method of planting different crops each season in the same plot of land to promote healthy soil conditions since different crops require a different set of nutrients; this allows the soil to regenerate its nutrients as well as prevent any disease or pest outbreaks. In the future, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) believe that as demand for organic food increases and technology advances, costs should reduce.

For consumers, there is always the question: Is buying organic products worth paying a little more? It seems in many stores, the higher priced organic produce has not deterred sales and stores have therefore expanded.

Tina Trzaska, a student at New Jersey Institute of Technology, believes better health and supporting organic farmers outweighs paying higher prices. She purchases her organic food in Trader Joe’s as well as Whole Foods and in her local grocery store.

Each Trader Joe’s sells National Organic Program’s standard products at a low cost compared to other organic supermarkets such as Whole Foods. The National Organic Program is an organization under the United States Department of Agriculture that created and enforced a set of guidelines that must be implemented in order for the food items to be considered organic. From growing on a farm to being shipped, if the product meets all the standards, it is recognized as organic by the National Organic Program. Packaged products with the USDA’s Organic seal is certified with at least 95% of its ingredients being organic.

To maintain the low costs, Trader Joe’s buys directly from and bargains with suppliers, buys in volume and does not charge suppliers fees for putting their item in their stores. According to their website, these are some ways the private business has provided reasonable prices for their customers, a business strategy that has allowed the company to thrive and grow.

Trzaska and her family will often scope out the best deal for their food and cut corners with fruit and vegetables that do not absorb and hold pesticides. The exception they make is for “thick-skinned fruit because we can just peel them, and save money. For meats, the hormones they give non-organic animals aren’t, well, natural.”

According to Eating Well magazine, corn, onions and avocadoes are examples of foods that do not need to be bought organic due to the low pesticide build-up and the fact that humans do not consume their skins.

In a recent study this year, Stanford University found that the nutrient levels do not differ in organic versus non-organic foods. The study concluded that there was no significant differences in vitamin or mineral content. However, Dena Bravata, the senior author and leader of the study, states, “this is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget, and other considerations.”

In addition to the study, Bravata adds that organic produce have been found to have a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination than non-organic fruits and vegetables. However, organic produce is not 100% pesticide-contamination free.  There is a misconception that organic food means pesticide-free. Some organic farmers do use pesticides, but these are natural pesticides as opposed to synthetic ones made in a lab. Synthetic pesticides are linked to cancer and other health hazards, leading people like Trzaska to buy organic in order to avoid such dangers.

“But the natural pesticides that replace them [synthetic pesticides] can also have harmful effects” says Sophie Bushwick on Discover magazine’s 80beats blog. She says copper sulfate is an example of a commonly used organic pesticide that can cause genetic mutations, cancer, liver disease and anemia. However, there is no immediate danger present with pesticide presence in either organic or non-organic food due to very low exposure levels, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lisa Leake started her blog called 100 Days of Real Food and another called 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget. Her blogs focus on how to buy organic food. For 100 days, Leake was able to spend $125/week on groceries for her family of four, including her husband and two young children, by shopping at local farmer’s markets, Trader Joe’s, and Earth Fare, a healthy, natural food store. She stresses that this practice of buying organic doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor. Leake encourages her audience to focus on what they are putting into their bodies.

“Every time we food shop or eat a meal, we are voting for either processed food-like substances or real food,” she says.

For Jason Hammer and his family, money is the priority, especially with Hammer in college and his younger brother heading to college.  In buying organic food, Hammer said, “We really don’t [buy it] all that often because of prices and the availability of it in our area. Like, we don’t have Whole Foods. We just have those little sections in ShopRite.” Purchasing organic groceries is not in the front of their minds, but if it is available and reasonably priced, they might.

The decision to buy organic or not is solely an individual’s choice, depending on what they value the most—environmental, economical or health reasons. As people learn more about the food industry and what they consume, they can decide whether buying organic is worth the purchase over non-organic.

Hammer cites Max Weber’s social theory of differing ranked values as a good explanation for the rationalization to buy organic or not. “Everyone has different ranked values, like my parents value prices, and other people value quality.”

Perhaps pricey organic food is not the ticket to a healthier and safer diet. Nonetheless, people are still willing to spend the extra dollar. In response, organic farming and markets are growing and rooting themselves in America’s soil. If the FAO’s prediction is correct, then businesses such as Trader Joe’s will eventually appear in every town in the country, and organic food may become a norm.

Will you be on board?