A few years ago organic food was considered a fad, which was largely only available at selected health food stores to ‘tree-hugging’ customers who were willing to pay extra for natural and environmentally friendly foods. Today, it’s considered the biggest growing sector of the UK food market with it being worth an estimated £1 billion. With most supermarkets now devoting large sections to its fresh and natural produce, it seems organic has become undeniably mainstream.
However, while the organic industry itself may be expanding, it seems our understanding of if and why we should be eating it, isn’t. Probably the biggest barrier preventing people from jumping on the organic bandwagon thus far is the hefty price tag it carries, which can cost between 10% and 100% more than food grown under conventional conditions. And why exactly is it so much more expensive? When you take pesticides and large scale chemical farming methods out of the picture, labour costs increase hugely with companies having to employ more intensive and complicated procedures. Add to the mix that organic feed for animals is more pricey resulting in higher costs of distribution and marketing, and you’ve got quite a burn on your bank balance.
While here at GTG HQ we are nothing but advocates of healthy, hearty nutrition, we also like to know that when we’re paying above the odds, we’re getting a bang for every buck. So, in order to help us de-mystify our confusion, we caught up with nutritionist and in-house expert, Amelia Freer , who’s helped shed some light on the great organic debate.
What is the difference between organic and non-organic food?
While there is no internationally agreed definition of organic, it’s largely understood to refer to foods that are grown without the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides or other chemicals - and meat taken from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Essentially, for foods to be labelled organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from naturally produced plants and animals.
On the other hand, “non-organic food is grown in ways that are harmful to the environment,” says Amelia. “They leave toxic chemicals in the food and compromise the food’s overall nutrient status.”
What are the benefits of eating organic food?
“The nutritional content of organic food is much higher than in non-organic,” says Amelia. “In particular, there are significantly more antioxidants and polyphemolics - the building blocks of optimum health, which can help prevent so many diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and more."
In the most comprehensive scientific analysis to date, research found that switching to organic fruit and vegetables could give the same benefits as adding one or two portions of the recommended "five a day" into a person's daily diet.
The team, led by Prof Carlo Leifert at Newcastle University concluded that there are "statistically significant, meaningful" differences, with a range of antioxidants being "substantially higher" – between 19% and 69% – in organic food. As a result it’s the first study of this kind to fully demonstrate clear and wide-ranging differences between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and cereals.
What are the disadvantages of eating non-organic food?
According to the Soil Association, the UK's largest organic organisation, 500 different chemicals are routinely used in conventional farming, with experts currently estimating that it can take between seven to ten years to banish toxins from our body.
“Intuitively I know eating non-organic produce is pretty bad and each new study I read seems to back my feelings up,” says Amelia. “There’s no doubt that production methods affect the quality of the food produced. Pesticide residues (four times higher in non-organic foods) is something I don’t want in my system. If they kill insects and other pests, they do the same to intestinal flora and the delicate balance of good bacteria needed for a healthy digestive system.
“Heavy metals are also more prevalent in non-organic foods including cadium, which remains in the bloodstream and has direct links with many inflammatory diseases such as cancer.”
Are there any downsides to organic food?
“Well, there’s the cost and also the assumption that all organic food is better for you. Just because a product is organic doesn’t mean it is good for us. Organic sugar is still sugar and wrecks the same havoc in our system as non-organic sugar. Similarly organic muffins and cakes – they may have less chemicals but it doesn’t mean they are good for you!”
Are there some foods that are more important than others to have organic?
“I especially eat organic animal produce – meats and eggs – this is partly because of their nutrient content but, also, as an animal lover, I want to guarantee that the life of the animal I’m eating has been as good a quality as possible. Not to mention the better quality meat always has a better flavour, which is key to healthy eating.
“In terms of fruit and vegetables, some are worse than others,” says Amelia – non-organic avocados are not too bad. On the other hand non-organic apples and most green leaves are heavily sprayed so you should always try and buy these organically. There’s a great app called the Dirty Dozen , which lists foods and their pesticide quantity, allowing you to reduce your intake - I think it’s American, but still I use it as a guideline with my clients.”
For those that do find organic food very expensive, what can they do?
“It is more expensive, but it doesn’t always have to be that way,” assures Amelia. “Farmers' markets or local box schemes which offer home deliveries save on expense, and they are generally flexible so you can cancel if you’re away and choose the vegetables and fruits you prefer. In fact, I find I waste far less when I use only the contents of my box delivery. It also prevents you going to the supermarket and spending lots of money on impulse buying. Organic produce also usually has a shorter shelf life, so at the end of the day supermarkets will often offer price reductions.”
“Ultimately however, I think any investment in our health is worth the money and I firmly believe organic food is better choice than non organic.”