ATLANTA >> Lisa Todd’s grocery cart reflects the ambivalence of many U.S. shoppers.
Todd, 31, prowled the aisles of a busy Kroger store here last week. Her cart was a tumble of contradictions: organic cabbage and jar of Skippy peanut butter. A bag of kale and a four-pack of inexpensive white wine. Pineapples for juicing and processed deli meat.
The chicken, perhaps, summed it up best. A package of fryer parts from Tyson, the world’s largest poultry producer, sat next to a foam tray of organic chicken legs.
The conventional food was for her boyfriend, the more natural ingredients for her.
“We’re not 100 percent organic, obviously, but I try to be,” she said. “He doesn’t care, so I’m trying to maintain happiness in the relationship.”
Like many people who are seeking better-tasting, healthier food, Todd had heard about a recent study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy.
Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food.
But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer.
For Todd and countless other shoppers, the study just added to the stress of figuring out what to eat. And it underscored the deep divisions at the nation’s dinner table, along with concerns among even food purists about the importance of federal organic standards.
“There’s complete confusion,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior food analyst for Mintel, a global marketing firm. “Most people have a randomly arranged set of diet principles. They buy organics sometimes. They buy based on price sometimes. Very few people are completely committed to any one cause.”
For some, the report gave credence to what many already believe: that organic food is not worth the price. Only 26 percent of Americans regularly buy organic food, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll. Price is usually why they do not. But it is a difficult choice for people who are trying to eat better.
JoAnne Grossman, 66, lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she spent a day last week working to turn a bumper crop of garden squash into zucchini bread. She and her husband, Steven, have been eating more organic food over the past year.
Her son has something to do with it. He is a high school teacher in the Washington area who also runs an organic farm. Still, the Stanford study made Grossman feel a bit better about not always going organic.
“It’s not cheap,” she said. “But the big thing for me is that I don’t like the pesticides and the chemicals they use to grow things like those monster red peppers. They’re too perfect.”
For the crowd that spends weekends at the farmers’ market and knows that Humboldt Fog is a type of cheese, the study was, at best, misunderstood and misinterpreted and, at worst, an indication of a conspiracy driven by large-scale, conventional agriculture.
“I was like, ‘Are you absolutely joking?”’ asked Jeremy Bethel, 30, an owner of the Capra Gia Cheese Co. A constant at more than a dozen farmers’ markets in the Atlanta area, his company sells milk and cheese from 350 goats raised in Carrollton, Ga., and eggs from 400 chickens in Rome, Ga.
“They want to make organics sound bad because they see such a movement of people moving away from big agriculture,” Bethel said.
Yet among some farmers who reject conventional growing methods and customers who seek out their products, organic food — at least as it is defined by federal legislation signed in 2002 — is losing its luster even as the interest in healthier, more natural food continues to rise.
“You’re just paying $3,000 to the government to use the name organic,” said Bethel, citing what it might cost to certify an operation of his scale.
People have moved beyond organics, those on the forefront of the local food movement say. Over the last couple of decades, food has become a platform for social issues and environmental causes, a rallying point for improving schools and a marker of cultural status. Farmers’ markets are seen as an indicator of community revitalization, and visiting them is a regular weekend activity for families. The Agriculture Department has counted 7,864 of them this year, an increase of 174 percent from 2000.
But organic food, especially products processed by large corporations, has become less a player in the front lines of the movement.
Though organic food has long been a rising star in the food industry, growing almost 8 percent from 2009 to 2010, certified organic food still makes up less than 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Farmland certified organic under the federal guidelines makes up less than 1 percent of all land used for crops and livestock, according to the Agriculture Department.
And increasingly, small-scale farmers like Greg Brown, who for six years has been growing okra, green beans and other vegetables on a few acres in Barnesville, Ga., are opting not to apply for federal organic certification.
He thought about going for an organic label, but the packet of requirements was more than an inch thick and the cost to get certified too high in proportion to his profit. Instead he farms under the less expensive certified naturally grown label, a national program that has sprung up as an alternative to the federal organic program and that has nearly 800 farms as members.
The program, which relies on farmers to inspect one another’s farms, does not certify processed foods like cereal. It requires that farmers use most of the same techniques as the federal organic program, but without the paperwork.
Customers seeking out Brown’s Greenleaf Farms okra and green beans are not really looking for a label, anyway, he said.
“They want food from healthy soil, and they want a direct line between the grower and their food,” he said. “Taste is up there, too.”
That, in many ways, was the idea behind the organic movement, which began as a postwar response to the effects of chemical fertilizer and the rise of industrial-scale farming. In the 1970s, Alice Waters and some other West Coast cooks started looking for produce that tasted better than what most restaurant supply companies were offering.
They found a small community of environmentally minded organic farmers who were picking their fruits and vegetables when they were ripe and were growing varieties designed for flavor, not shipping and storage.
From that relationship came California’s organic laws, which in turn became the basis for the national organic standards.
“I didn’t intend to seek out organic local food, Waters said in an interview. “I was looking for taste.”
Like others, she thought the Stanford study was too narrowly focused on nutrients and had been largely misinterpreted.
“Taste is what’s going to get us to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day,” she said. “To not consider taste and quality in this whole discussion is to completely miss the point about food.”