When you load up your shopping cart with organic leafy greens, are you getting more nutritional benefits than consumers on the other side of the produce aisle? More than half of Americans now believe organic food is healthier than conventionally-grown produce, even though there is no evidence to prove it.
Fifty-five percent of Americans said they believed organic food to be more nutritional, a recent Pew Research Center study found — and of the 40% of Americans who say that “some” of the food they buy is organic, 75% do so because they believe it is healthier.
“That is what 20 years of intensive marketing will do,” said Steve Savage, an agriculture expert and writer on farming and sustainability. Organic farming sales hit record highs in 2015, up 11% from the previous year at $43.3 billion, and is now more profitable than traditional farming. Despite the craze for organic food, Savage says there is no proven scientific reason to believe there are health benefits to opting for it. One 2012 study from Stanford University reviewed 237 top papers on the topic and found no evidence of a significant difference in health benefits between produce grown organically versus conventionally grown food.
“Many people believe organic is safer, but that belief is not based on any facts,” he said. “For the most part, if people saved their money and bought more fruits and veggies they would be better off nutritionally.”
In this particular survey, nutritional value was cited as the main reason to purchase organic, but consumers also do so because they believe it has fewer pesticides. Savage said this is not necessarily true. Although organic farmers are required to steer clear of synthetic fertilizers, they are allowed to use other tools that could be relatively toxic, despite being considered organic — copper sulfate, for example, is USDA-approved to be used as fungicide. Organic farming is also not necessarily better for the environment than traditional farming, according to Scientific American magazine, which has studied science discoveries and technology innovations since 1845. And organic farming methods are more resource-intensive and don’t work well with no-till farming methods, which minimize long-term effects on soil quality. Many organic products are also imported from abroad, leading to additional safety and regulation concerns.
Savage said he worries the growing consumer doubt in non-organic food systems can lead to poor dietary choices. One study showed low-income families in Chicago actually avoided buying produce at all because they could not afford organic food and and believed non-organic varieties were unhealthy.
“People are doubting the food supply — and that is one thing for people who can afford to spend money on something that isn’t true — but low-income people now either hesitate to buy produce or buy less than they might otherwise buy because this image that has been created that it is not safe.”
However, Cary Funk, an associate research director at Pew Research Center and author on the study, said although the majority of Americans now think organic food is healthier, that doesn’t necessarily mean those people are buying organic produce. Millennials, for example, were more inclined than older adults to consider organic food better for one’s health but were no more likely to purchase it.
Unlike many studies in the past, this survey found attitudes toward organic food are not split by political views or other demographics, but based largely on beliefs about health and the food system in general — 81% of people who care a great deal about genetically modified food think organics are healthier than traditionally grown produce, for example.
“These divisions in how people think about food and well-being seem to reflect more personalized concerns about the role of food in people’s health and well being rather than politics or other divides,” Funk said.
This article was originally published on Marketwatch.