Organic food

In 2005 the European organic food market was estimated at €15 billion. It is forecast to reach €18 billion in 2010. Some even say this is a conservative figure. Throughout the Western world the market for organic food and drink is enjoying strong and sustained growth. What started as a flower power trend in the mid-80s, twenty years down the line is rapidly becoming mainstream.

In the UK this trend is particularly prominent. The UK organic food market was estimated at a mere £8 million in 1985; by 2005 it had grown to approximately £1.6 billion – an annual double-digit growth rate year on year for 20 years. If you bought organic food in the early 90s, you were either an aging hippy, a serious ‘early adopter’ or a member of the wholemeal-sandalled, knit-your-own-muesli community. These days, with 2 in 3 British consumers purchasing some organic produce, you’d be odd not to buy organic. Whereas in recent years organic food buying was limited to the so called ‘healthy wealthy’, nowadays it is purchased even by the more cost-conscious – proof that the message “Organic is Better For You” has crossed previous socio-economic barriers.

Is the hype justified? Is organic truly better for you? Why should we buy organic? And should we buy it at any cost? Here are some answers to your questions.

Why should I buy organic?

If you care about the nutritional quality of your food, then organic is definitely for you. It is produced to the highest standards with minimal (chemical) intervention, and to qualify as organic, must withstand stringent quality controls. Organic food is free from harmful non-organic pesticides and additives as well as antibiotic residues. These toxic substances accumulate in the body over time, creating a breeding pool for chronic diseases. There is no question that avoiding these makes plenty of health sense.

Even if the food is processed, you can avoid a wide range of potentially allergenic or harmful additives if you eat organic. Of the 290 food additives approved for use across the EU only 32 are permitted in organic food. Controversial additives such as aspartame, tartrazine and hydrogenated fats are banned in organic food. A definite thumbs up for organic.

Simply put, organic food is purer and more natural. This is an ethic which has remained the backbone of the organic movement since its conception. Organic produce is closest to the way food should be – less adulterated, less manipulated, less chemicalised.

Does that make it better for me?

Yes, it certainly does. Not only is organic food less harmful than conventionally produced food, it is positively more beneficial. In 2005 a widely publicised Danish study showed for the first time higher levels of several key nutrients in organic milk. These findings have since been replicated in further studies. A recent American study found higher levels of vitamin C and antioxidants in organic kiwis when compared to conventionally grown fruit. There is an increasing body of evidence all supporting the same conclusion. As you might imagine, this is a hotly debated issue between conventional and organic food growers, with claims and counter-claims from both sides. From a natural nutrition point of view, scientific proof is welcome but not necessary. If you think along natural lines, you’ll know that the less your food is messed with, the better it is for you. Yes, it’s as simple as that.

Any other reasons for eating organic?

Are you concerned about food safety? Then organic is again your answer. Due to the strict standards and controls of the organic certifying bodies, organic farming practices can actually reduce the risk of pathogens in food as well as food poisoning. Think about it – salmonella, listeria, e-coli, foot and mouth, mad cow disease (to name but a few) resulted in large part due to the highly processed nature of current mass food production. Organic farmers shun battery hen rearing or dead sheep brains as a food source. If you are keen to ensure that the food we put in our mouth does not transform into some nasty bowel infection, or worse, then organic produce offers a traceable source and a credible, controlled story.

The same applies to GM (genetically modified) food, a dangerous step further down the food processing route. We are told by interested parties that GM food is great for our pockets, for feeding the hungry, for out-doing nature. To me it sounds as convincing as turkeys voting for Christmas. If you are keen to keep your food the way nature intended, then buying organic will grant you automatic protection from genetic modification. In fact, it’s the only way you can be sure of avoiding GM, as organic growers and control bodies are some of the most vociferous opponents to this (mal)practice.

What about the environment?

Care for the environment has been catapulted into the main headline position in the last few years, and with good reason. Global warming is no longer a warning; it’s here, and its potential consequences are mind blowing. All around us is proof that the damage boomerang we have been throwing out is taking a fast turn in our direction. If you care about environmental degradation and the fate of future generations, then you’d want to buy food grown with the minimum impact on natural resources; food that does good – not just to you, but to the earth in which it grows. Organic farming is better for wildlife, causes less pollution from sprays and produces less carbon dioxide and dangerous waste. It is sustainable farming, exercised with care for the environment, not just for the profit margin. It’s our duty to support it.

Talking of ethics…

Yes, think animal welfare, for instance. Factory farms, battery hens, pen-kept pigs, hormone-injected cows and cattle that never see a field, all are anathema to the organic food farmer. Animal welfare is central to organic livestock standards. From its conception, organic farming has been based on the belief that the wellbeing of animals, plants and human beings is linked; this belief has not changed.

What if cost is an issue?

That organic is better for you and for the planet is undoubted. Nevertheless, you should not feel you are failing yourself or your family if you cannot afford to feed them an entirely organic diet. If you want to eat organic on a budget, here are some ideas:

  • Go for the basics – carrots, potatoes, apples, pears, milk and bread are generally not that much more expensive than their conventional counterpart.
  • Buy more expensive organic produce, such as meat, as an occasional treat.
  • Cook from scratch. A home-made, organic dish will always cost less than its organic, ready-made, shop-bought equivalent.
  • Buy organic fruit and vegetables in season, when they are cheaper.
  • Buy directly from an organic farm shop or market.
  • Buy little and often; your food bill will be smaller and you will waste less.

In an ideal world, we’d all be eating organic all the time. Until that happens, settle for the best you can. As demand grows, prices will go down and organic food will become cheaper.

What should I buy in preference – organic kiwis from New Zealand or non-organic apples from my local farm?

This is a tricky question. Organic farming practices benefit you and the environment wherever they are practiced. However, flying just a small pack of kiwis from New Zealand to England costs, in CO2 emissions alone, the equivalent of 11 school runs. This flies in the face of any environmental benefit the kiwis might have contributed back in New Zealand. You’d still get the personal benefit of eating organic, but if we all think this way, we’ll be full of health benefits with no earth to live on. Would a locally and conventionally grown apple cause less environmental and health damage? No one has a precise answer to that, but common sense says that your best option would be to source, as far as possible, local, organic produce in season.

Are there any cases when organic is not always best?

Yes, when it comes to processed foods. The mere title ‘organic’ does not turn a highly processed product into a healthy one. It might be less harmful than its conventional alternative, but organic or not, highly processed food should not feature highly in your diet if health is what you’re after.

Last comment?

With organic food now widely available even in mainstream supermarkets, buying organic has never been easier. The more we demand it, the more of it we will get. Vote with your purse; buying organic is a small premium you pay towards your health.

© Vardit Kohn, Natural Nutritionist, April 2007.  No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent.

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