Going organic – nutritional cure-all or expensive con?

Organic Food

Is organic food really any healthier than conventional produce and is it worth paying extra for? Andrew Hamilton looks at the arguments for and against…

Once upon a time, all of our food was ‘organic’ but in the last century, the perpetual drive for cheaper, more efficient food production from a limited land mass made the use of chemicals such as artificial fertilisers, pesticide and herbicides almost inevitable. More recently however, consumers have begun demanding foods that are healthier and kinder to the environment, fuelling a dramatic upsurge in organic food sales. But just how much healthier is organic food and what (if any) drawbacks are there when switching to an organic diet?

Understanding ‘organic’

Organic farming involves the production of food produce without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Pesticides are synthetic chemical agents which kill or interfere with weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides) or fungi (fungicides). Artificial fertilisers are man-made chemicals, which are added to the soil or crop to enhance growth.

To qualify as ‘organic’, produce must be also produced on soils with no detectable residue of pesticides from earlier intensive chemical farming. This generally requires a period of three to five years between the cessation of intensive practices and the start of organic production to allow sufficient time for degradation of any chemical residues to occur. Needless to say, genetically modified foods do not qualify as organic, even if they meet all the other criteria above.

To ensure that organic standards have actually been met, many organic food producers are registered with organisations such as the Soil Association (soilassociation.org), which set strict standards of compliance and verification procedures. It’s important to remember that organic food doesn’t have to come from organic farms; wild fruits and vegetables, deep sea fish or wild game, produce grown in your own back garden – all of these are organic is the true sense of the word!

Arguments for organic food

There are a number of reasons why you might want to eat organic foods, including:

1. Freedom from chemical residues –organic food is free from the chemical residues that inevitably remain in food produce when it’s been dosed with herbicides/pesticides/growth hormones/antibiotics etc. For example, in its short life from a blossom to the greengrocer’s shelf, an apple can be dosed up to 40 times with any one of a hundred chemical products! Although the government sets strict criteria for maximum limits of residues in food, the uncomfortable truth is that these are powerful chemicals capable of disrupting a number of biochemical pathways in the body and which have been linked at higher intakes to a number of conditions including cancers and neurological disorders.

2. Higher nutrient levels – using artificial fertilisers certainly helps conventionally cultivated plants to grow rapidly, but this very rapid growth can mean that the plant has less time to absorb and accumulate other minerals from the soil as well as synthesise important nutrients such as vitamins. Organically cultivated produce on the other hand does not face this challenge.

3. Better for the environment – pesticides, nitrates and phosphates used in conventional farming can all leach off the land into the local water table where they can interfere with the local eco-system. Some of these compounds are very persistent to breakdown (taking years to degrade) and are therefore prone to biomagnification, a process where they are taken into the food chain and subsequently concentrated by animals higher up that chain.

4. More taste – organic produce tends to grow more slowly (because of the lack of growth promoting artificial fertilisers), and some people claim that this leads to tastier produce because the complex compounds that give rise to flavours and aromas have more time to develop and mature and become more concentrated in the plant.  

Arguments against

You might think that eating organic is a no-brainer, but there are a number of valid reasons why eating organic may not always be the preferred option:

1. Higher cost – organic food, especially fruits and vegetables costs significantly more than conventionally produced produce. For those on a budget, this poses a real conundrum; should you cut back on the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables you consume in order to go organic? The latest research continues to indicate that not only are high intakes of fresh fruits and vegetables the very best way to protect the body against a number of degenerative diseases, but also that most people in the UK continue to consume far less than required for optimum health. Choosing organic fruits and vegetables but eating less of them is almost certainly a step backwards in terms of eating for health!

2. Slower retail turnover – Organic produce is all too often just not as fresh as its conventional counterpart. Lower volumes and turnover means that (especially fruits and vegetables) tend to sit around in storage and on display for longer. Not only can this lead to a poorer appearance, taste and texture, important nutrients in the product can gradually degrade over time, leading to a less nutritious product by the time it’s consumed.

3. High food miles – The UK produces only a small amount of organic produce. The chances are that much of the fresh organic produce you buy will have been shipped or flown in from afar, racking up large numbers of transport miles in the process, adding to the cost – both to your wallet and to the environment!

4. E-Coli contamination – Although the risk is very low, some studies have shown that the practice of using manure to fertilise organically produced crops can lead to accumulations of harmful bacteria such as E-Coli, both in the soil and on the crop itself. Moreover, even careful washing of the crop might not remove these bacteria, which can be taken up into deep and inaccessible crevices.

5. Organic utopia – for many people, the mere mention of the word ‘organic’ conjures up healthy connotations. So when you see that organic fruit yoghurt or breakfast cereal on the supermarket shelf, it’s easy to assume that it’s healthy. However, many organic products may contain high levels of (organic!) sugar and or fat, which are associated with a number of health problems. The fact is, your body doesn’t know or care if these ingredients are organic or chemically treated. High intakes of any unhealthy ingredient such as sugar or fat can wreak havoc in the body – period! 

Organic Food

The verdict

In a perfect world, where time and money are unlimited, going organic makes sense; eating food free from chemical or hormonal residues the way Nature intended has to be the best choice for anyone who cares about their health. But eating 100% organic is considerably more expensive, particularly when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables. And even if you have the money, getting hold of fresh organic produce is not always easy. So in this imperfect world we live in, what should consumers do? The best advice is to try and maximise your intake of fresh organic produce where you can do this without exorbitant cost, sticking with conventional produce where this is not possible. For ideas on how to go about this, see box out below. But don’t forget too that organic or not, all the other principles of healthy eating still apply!

A real-world organic strategy

  • Choose organic grains such as rice, bread, wheat, pasta, cereals, oats etc, which carry only a small price premium over conventional grains.
  • Organic root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes tend to carry a lower price premium compared to other organic fruit and vegetables – worth remembering for those on a budget.
  • If you have a garden or allotment space, grow as much of your own fruit and vegetable produce as possible – organic, fresh and cheap!
  • Check out your locals farms to see whether they supply direct to the public – many organic growers do this to maintain their profitability, yet it will almost certainly be cheaper than supermarket sold organic produce.
  • Remember that deep sea fish (not farmed fish) are by their very nature organic – apart from being healthy in their own right, you can use them to replace conventionally farmed meat and poultry.
  • Take care to read labels carefully – terms such as ‘farm fresh’ and natural produce’ are meaningless. Genuine free range produce does involve higher standards of animal welfare but will generally still entail the use of antibiotics/hormones etc. Conservation grade produce can be considered as an interim between intensively farmed produced and true organic produce.

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