Is Organic Food A Ripoff?
There’s an interesting report that recently examined why people buy organic food.
It compared the computed health values of the benefits of eating organic food vs. the price premium typically charged for organic products.
The result? (Emphasis added by me)
our estimates of the value of health benefits derived from substituting an organic diet for a conventionally produced diet approach zero. For a common organic product, apple juice, we estimated the cost of reducing risks by buying the organic characteristic. The cost of averting each adverse health outcome is 27 to 461 times as large as the value of benefits.
The premise is interesting, but the results are hard to judge. Why? Because studies like these use opaque mathematical models that make a lot of assumptions and don’t always follow reality very well. Life doesn’t always present itself as an answer to a calculus proof.
Eating Organic, Self-Expression, And Food Perceptions
The implied message is that organic food is very, very overpriced. From this study alone, you could go in a few directions:
1). Tidy theorems do a lousy job of capturing the long-term monetary value of pesticide and preservative avoidance, particularly since individual outcomes may vary a lot.
2). People who eat organic are overly sensitive to the perceived health risks of eating non-organic food, and would do better for themselves by using different proxies for food quality.
3). Eating organic is an act of self-expression moreso than an act of health.
I think parts of all three are correct. The residual effects of eating contaminated food can take decades to flesh themselves out, and genetic pre-dispositions can mean very high levels of variance to different toxins in the food supply, making the decision to eat organic wiser than it appears in this paper.
Regarding point #2, there’s a well documented “halo effect” for organic food. Other studies have demonstrated that people regularly underestimate the caloric content for organic food and will mistakenly excuse themselves from more important health activities because they feel the health benefits of organic can compensate for other behavior. See this paper by Jonathon Schuldt for more information.
Regarding point #3, I struggle to see how it’s not true to some degree. In political science the concept of “expressive voting” is accepted as a main tenet of the field. It’s not a stretch to think that going organic is “expressive eating.” This would explain why so many health food companies make alliances with third parties that have nothing to do with food. It lets people know who’s side they’e on.
I think the take home point is that if health is all you’re worried about, it’s best to distinguish between high-quality food and other descriptions, which advertisers can manipulate because they figure consumers will make unwise decisions due to the halo effects given to certain labels.