When to buy organic


In my non-cooking life I am a trained scientist, and have enjoy a twenty year career working in engineering.  In this field I am often required to ensure that my products or the products that I purchase comply with certain government regulations.  These regulations are ostensibly for safety or consistency or consumer protection, but they are often vague, arbitrary, or toothless due to concessions made to the industry being regulated.  They have measurable value, but it would be foolish to expect that a product that complies with such-and-such regulation is necessarily safe or reliable.  Complying with a particular regulation does not absolve me, as the engineer, from ensuring that I am buying or selling a quality product.

I take this same measured perspective into account when choosing organic foods.  For whatever marketing mythos has been built up around it, a product labeled “organic” tells me only that the producer has complied with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  This law specifies certain practices for soil and land management, pesticide usage, and livestock living conditions.  On average, I expect that compliance with this law promotes better environmental stewardship and more thoughtful land use.   And yet it tells me very little about whether organic food is safer, healthier, or more delicious than conventional products.  I am paying a premium to purchase an organic product that no analytical chemist in the world could distinguish from a conventional product. 

When I purchase meat I am entirely unconcerned whether it is organic or not; I am more concerned with freshness, post-processing, and the proximity of the producer.  Organic beef is often ungraded, which leaves me paying a premium for a tough cut of meet.  In general I find that organic poultry is scrawny and flavorless, whole turkeys excepted.   It’s possible that whatever hormones they’re pumping into the bird will kill me someday, but those anemic little chicken thighs are downright inedible.  With poultry and pork I am occasionally willing to pay a premium for a heritage breed, which are usually organically raised, but I’m buying based on quality and flavor and not for the label itself.

Produce is a different story.  There is often a measurable difference in quality between organic and conventional produce.  This has nothing to do with the pesticides used or the land use practices employed and everything to do with the sensibilities of the producer.  I suspect that a producer willing to put in the time and resources required to achieve USDA Organic Certification is equally thoughtful in producing a quality product.   I have also found the opposite to be true, especially for produce.   This is sometimes due to particular challenges of organic farming for certain crops – organic asparagus, for example, is usually pretty awful – and sometimes due to the fact that organic produce sits on shelves longer before being sold, presumably due to the higher price.

In general, there are three occasions where I will buy organic produce:  (1) when the quality of the produce is noticeably better than the conventional alternative, (2) when the price of the organic produce is comparable to the conventional alternative, and (3) when I am purchasing a specialty or heirloom variety that is only available as an organic product.  In practice I have found that commodity produce, such as apples, carrots, onions, and potatoes are almost never worth paying the premium to “go organic”.   Frozen produce is also rarely worth the premium price.  I am routinely willing, however, to pay a higher price for fresh organic leafy greens, heirloom tomatoes, radishes, and citrus fruits.

And then there’s processed foods.  I am an occasional consumer of processed foods, and many of the recipes featured on this site are soaked in canned condensed soups and filled with long-shelf-life luncheon meats.   There are often organic alternatives available, but let’s not kid ourselves:  crap is crap.   If I’m buying a box of mac and cheese or canned soup the land use practices of the farmer are the least of my worries.  I’m digging an early grave either way.

To be clear, I am not here to tell you that organic food is some sort of conspiracy or scam.  I am telling you to temper your expectations.  Whether or not a product is organic should be one of many factors taken into account when selecting a quality product.  If you are shopping on a tight budget it is not worth breaking the bank over; the conventional alternatives are generally just as nutritious and delicious.  If you are shopping to entertain or impress choose meats and produce for quality and freshness.  If they happen to be organic bully for you, but never choose a poor quality organic product when a higher quality conventional alternative is available.