The End of the End of 'Organic'?

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Would an apple by another name taste as sweet, or so free of antibiotics, so nutritious and healthful? Or would it taste exactly the same, but just cost more? Such were the concerns of Stanford University doctors who researched whether organic really means what people think it's supposed to mean, and whether organic foods are actually any "better" than the old regular sort of food. Because when you think organic, your mind thinks healthy, right? But, as the Associated Press reports, organic may not be everything you hoped it was.

Debates over food-words like organic and natural and green and artisanal have been going on for quite a long time now. Ever since the words fell into common use to describe items at your grocery store of choice, it seems they've only proliferated with little regard for truth in meaning, getting slapped on a can here or a sticker there to indicate something "better" or more wholesome. Sure, there are regulations on the words, and the word organic is involved in 4.2 percent of retail food sales, according to the USDA—from an A.P. piece in the New York Post — the organization which "certifies products as organic if they meet certain requirements including being produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones." Note there's nothing about "health" there, only the implication thereof; that's an implication some people have picked up and associated with the word, regardless of the technical definition.

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Organic foods also cost more, but despite that, demand is apparently rising, with sales going from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $31.4 billion in last year, via a recent report from the Obama administration. That's a huge boost to the term organic in 15 years. But the more, and more widely, beyond the technical definition, it's used, the less we get back from it. Take poor, dearly departed Artisanal. We all have a vague idea of what the adjective is meant to imply, but does it mean anything, really?

That's the thing. Just like artisanalorganic has been generally interpreted to mean that what it describes is somehow better, made with more pure love, hand-crafted, cleaner, safer, more conscientious. But organic conveys both more and less than that, depending on who's purchasing, and who's selling, the food. Just look at the dictionary definitions, which reflect a wide range of meaning, too. Given all that difference in opinion, and what's purported versus what organic technically is, it's not too surprising that our Stanford University researchers discovered something that some organic devotees may not look happily upon. While organic fruits and vegetables often meant for less pesticide exposure to the eater, the pesticides on "conventionally grown produce" fell within safety limits, per the research—you might be better off spending less money on safely pesticide-sprayed apple, is the message. Organic foods were also not more nutritious, or healthful. The chance of bacterial contamination was the same, organic or not, though organic meat was less resistant to antibiotics, which is a good thing in this scary antiobiotic-laden germ-world, though you'd rather your meat not have any bacteria in it at all, we'd wager. Per Reuters, the Stanford researchers "found there was no difference in the amount of vitamins in plant or animal products produced organically and conventionally," though other researchers say it's too early to say that for certain.

In the meantime, new words are springing up to describe the foods and food-treatment people want to associate with. Expressions like free-range, cage-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and pesticide-free all do more to convey what they actually are than do words like organic, even if they don't quite have the same ring to them. Farms that aren't "certified organic" can sell antibiotic-free milk, and they are beginning to do so. 

As pretty as a word sounds, if it doesn't mean anything, it may have jumped the free-range shark. R.I.P., Organic?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.