It occurred to me after a recent grocery shopping trip that I really have no idea what it actually means when produce or dairy products are labeled “organic”—beyond the fact that they’re usually a lot more expensive.

Writing for the Ethical Corporation, George Mason University’s Jon Entine recently explained what’s behind all those organic labels. Think organic means all natural? Nope.

In the US, the Department of Agriculture label has numerous levels – headed by the 100% designation USDA Organic seal. The US government also allows the word “organic” on products that contain 95% organic ingredients. But they could contain monosodium glutamate, a flavour-enhancing natural ingredient, or carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food. Both ingredients are an anathema to organic-favouring foodies, who believe that they pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless.

A third category designates products with a minimum 70% organic ingredients. They can be labelled “made with organic ingredients”. But such a label carries no guarantees about what else might be in the product. For example, consumers who buy a bag of popcorn  labelled “made with organic corn” might be surprised to learn that their treat could have been processed using genetically modified canola or soybean oil

Surely, though, organic foods are healthier. Wrong again:

The US-based Organic Trade Association boasts: “Families continue to cite their desire for healthful options, especially for their children, in choosing organic foods.” That’s edging towards green-washing; study after study, going back to the 1960s, has found organic foods are neither safer nor more nutritious than conventionally grown crops.

The most recent mega-study, examining 237 scientific reports over the past 50 years, evaluated the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. Researchers at Stanford University concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are nutritionally comparable.

Fine, but isn’t organic farming better for the environment? No, not in terms of sustainability, that is:

Although organic farming may be environmentally benign when producing small quantities for regional markets, it is precarious on a large scale.

In 2008, the USDA conducted the Organic Production Survey, the largest ever study of organic farming yields. In line with previous research, the survey found that it takes one and a half to two times as much land in the US to grow food organically as it does to grow food by conventional methods. 

But there has to be something good about organic food? As Entine concludes:

Organic farming and products certainly address the expectations of a small but rapidly growing number of consumers. But there are unintended consequences. Many of us cannot afford the price premiums charged by the organic industry for what is, in environmental and nutritional terms, mostly a “feel good” purchase.

Fair enough. People are free to pay more to feel better if they want. As long as they don't try to portray those decisions as something they're not–then impose a whole host of mandates on the rest of us.