BY NABILA MOHAMMED
At Trader Joe’s, the varieties of fresh orchids are ever-present, accompanying the ambient lights in the ultra-conscious, mellow super market. Labels and signs appear handwritten, and thus more personal. Above all, there is an appeal to an organic culture and all things fresh and natural.
These symptoms are signs of a craze sweeping the country since the 1980’s. With greater emphasis being placed on health and fitness, selling organic products has quickly become a billion-dollar industry. As a result, grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods are now selling organic not only as a type of food, but as an idea. But what does “organic” really mean? Are organic products healthier than the average shelf brand? And why do so many people prefer organic, despite the high cost?
A UC Irvine freshman who goes by the name of “Samantha” says, “If I see something is organic then my mind automatically thinks it is better and healthier.”
Phoebe Chen, a Senior, says she shops at Trader Joe’s because, “besides the convenience, it has affordable food, organic or not.”
Chen admits that she isn’t really into the organic craze, but chooses organic alternatives if the option is available. Knowing that organic foods tend to be pesticide free, she assumes it is healthier.
Many college students aren’t familiar with the term “organic.” A colloquial understanding of the word refers to food that is made without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and preservatives. However, a product can only truly be classified as “organic” if the techniques and ingredients used in the agricultural process are natural. This means the food should have come from an organic farm, an environment utilizing only natural products, disallowing the use of chemicals, genetic modification, or irradiation, techniques used to reduce costs or increase shelf life.
Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates at least 95% of all ingredients used in the preparation of food, cosmetics, or clothes to be organic in order to obtain the USDA organic label. What most consumers don’t know is that non-organic synthetic ingredients are needed to make their food; this can make up as much as 5% of non-organic materials, by which point, the allowable synthetic ingredients list has exceeded 200 items.
Modern, health-crazed customers are beginning to wonder whether buying organic is beneficial for consumers or just another marketing tactic. The USDA is “unclear at this point in time” whether organic foods contain more nutrients than their commercial counterparts. As long as the products were grown and produced in a natural environment, most organic consumers will continue to purchase them.
“To me, choosing organic isn’t a principle,” says Samantha, and if an organic option isn’t available, she isn’t dismayed. In fact, in her freshman year at UCI, she knew the food she ate at Middle Earth’s Pippin and Brandywine Commons wasn’t healthy; so she ate, lowering her expectations, and having no other choice. The alternative organic food on campus, Greens-to-Go, is healthier than the housing food or Panda Express, but it is also more expensive.
“College students aren’t willing to pay [more for healthier food]. My friends choose to eat $2 chicken nuggets from Wendy’s,” admits Chen.
Jack Fixa, a freshman at UCI says, “Organic food is more expensive than regular foods, but the health benefits surpass the cost in the long run.”
Chen comments that while her and many college students aren’t “health freaks,” they are conscious of healthy eating, so they choose healthier foods when they can afford it. Yet, many students are unsure if organic is always organic, regardless of the label.
For example, some milk companies aren’t following USDA organic guidelines. Though their milk production is hormone and pesticide free, instead of giving their cows access to pastures, in compliance with the USDA organic definition, cows from these companies are crammed together in “feed-lots” amidst dirt and manure. This cramming results in cows producing more milk than other naturally-bred animals.
Food companies in general want their produce to last for a long time, and in the case of milk, companies use ultra-pasteurization, which ultimately destroys natural A and D vitamins. To reverse these effects, Heritage Company adds vitamins to their milk artificially. Heritage Milk is organic, yet their milk is ultra-pasteurized.
Despite the misunderstanding of the term, in many cases, organic food has shown to be healthier. According to veganorganiced.com, because the food is coming from natural sources and production, organic food provides more nourishment than food made with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The nutrients are not being eradicated.
There will always be two sides to this story: the health benefits of buying organic and the risks of spending extra money. Yet, until USDA formally declares the benefits of organic products, consumers should educate themselves on the cost and benefits of products and companies before choosing organic.
NABILA MOHAMMED is a second year Biological Sciences major at the University of California, Irvine