NICBC student EJ Johnson compares organic and conventional snack foods and breaks down the differences (and lack thereof) between the composition and processing of these two types of foods.
You’re gliding down the aisles of your local Whole Foods Market, breathing in the fresh scent of health and moral superiority pumping through the vents, feeling pleased with yourself for getting your grocery shopping done on time for once. So pleased, in fact, that you decide you deserve a little treat. You land on a package of off-brand Oreos, and as you pluck the package from the shelf, you realize- score! They’re organic! At least your treat isn’t that bad a choice from a health standpoint. After all, they’re organic, meaning healthier than the regular kind, right…?
If you’ve ever fallen victim to this “organic trap,” thinking organic foods are healthier than non-organic foods, you’re not alone. According to one market research study, over 50% of adults report seeking out organic foods when grocery shopping, due to the belief that organic foods are inherently nutritious. A study from Cornell University corroborated this evidence, finding that consumers perceive organic food to be healthier and lower in fat than their non-organic counterparts. One can hardly blame consumers for this conflating of the term “organic” with “health.” There is not a lot of clear public health messaging directed at helping the average consumer navigate the choppy waters of understanding food labels. And really, why would the heavy hitters of organic snack foods want to correct the confusion? Sales of organic snacks are on the rise, with no signs of slowing. A recent report by Allied Market Research showed that the global organic snacks market generated $8.78 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach $24 billion by 2025. It’s no wonder so many Americans are eluded by the true meaning of terms like “natural”, “clean ingredients”, and “organic” when it comes to the production of their food.
So what is the difference between organic snack foods and regular snack foods? Nutritionally speaking, not much. A systematic review incorporating 223 studies examining human diets and nutrient/contaminant levels in foods found a dearth of evidence to support the idea that organic products are more nutritious than non-organic products. The review found no statistically significant difference between the levels of nutrients and vitamins found in organic products compared to those found in conventional products. The macronutrient content of organic snacks and regular snacks are generally the same, meaning that if the regular product uses plain white sugar, for example, and the organic product uses organic cane syrup (or something of the like), the bodily response to ingesting sugar in either form is equivalent. Any nutritional advantages that an organic snack may have are lost, in large part, to processing. Food processing can break down the nutritional content of food items in their original form, stripping them of important vitamins and minerals. This ultra-processing of snack food is the reason it doesn’t really make a difference that the organic Oreos are made with organic wheat flour and the conventional brand are not- they both get reduced to the same empty calories. And speaking of calories, organic snack foods and conventional snack foods are about identical when comparing the caloric value of similar products (i.e., regular vs. organic Oreos), although the organic version will, almost without exception, be higher in cost than the conventional.
What is the point, then, of organic snack foods? Are they just some clever mechanism for siphoning away your hard-earned paycheck? An attempt at tricking you into settling for a crude facsimile of your favorite junk food in the name of health? Maybe a little bit of those things, sure. But more so, we need to remember what “organic” refers to in the context of food labels, which is simply how the food was grown and produced. Studies have shown that buying organic foods can reduce your exposure to pesticides and other contaminants, and organic foods have shown to be higher in antioxidants, which are important for fighting inflammation and protecting against chronic disease. Organic animal products have higher restrictions when it comes to antibiotic use in animals and their feed, which is a good thing when it comes to preventing the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic methods of production have also been seen to reduce carbon emissions, combat soil erosion, and bolster biodiversity. Purchasing food that is labelled as “organic” is more of an acknowledgement of the importance of sustainability and environmental preservation as opposed to an investment in personal health and nutrition.
Ultimately, if you want to incorporate organic food into your diet, that’s great. You can give yourself a pat on the back for choosing foods that are produced under more sustainable conditions, and have less exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. However, if organic food doesn’t fit into your budget, that’s fine too. You can still adhere to a healthful dietary pattern by filling up your shopping cart with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables in the produce section, choosing whole grains over refined, and sticking to lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds for healthy fats and protein. When it comes to treats, you’re better off with a moderate and occasional indulgence in the real deal rather than favoring the organic version. Neither organic nor regular Oreos are superior to one another when it comes to health, so you might as well enjoy the clear victor when it comes to taste.
EJ Johnson is a second-year NICBC student and is the co-editor of the Friedman Sprout. She loves to talk and eat, so she ended up in nutrition communications. At Friedman, she is a research assistant at the Global Dietary Database and is a teaching assistant for “The Scientific Basis of Nutrition: Micronutrients.” In her spare time loves to read fiction and travel, although lately less travel due to the whole “broke grad student” thing.