Strolling down the supermarket aisle, we’re bombarded with slogans such as ‘all-natural’ and ‘organically certified’; labels that seem to confer a wealth of health benefits and pictures of animals grazing in open paddocks. But are these ‘organic’ products any better than their ‘non-organic’ cousins? Or are they simply stuffed full of false claims and marketing hype?
It’s a question that has divided foodies over the last decade. Some believe the organic label confers real value while others just scoff at the higher prices. Nutritionist Emma Sgourakis (www.thenutritioncoach.com.au) says ‘If you’re talking about fresh produce, organic is valid and important. My only qualm with the organic tag is that it doesn’t always mean it’s healthy. You can get low-fat sugared-up organic yoghurt, organic white bread, organic canola oil and organic cola for goodness’ sake!’
‘It’s just as important that the produce is fresh, seasonal and local,’ adds Sgourakis. ‘It can be a lengthy and expensive process for farmers to obtain organic certification, meaning many don’t do it but this doesn’t mean their product isn’t as good as, if not better, than ‘certified’ organic.’
In an age of agave syrups, coconut water and acai berries, it seems it’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding certain foods. But organic isn’t just a food, it’s a movement, and one which means big business. And one that is booming. Despite there being nothing new about organically grown products, the demand for them has seen this market increase by 20–30 per cent per year in the last decade.
But are they any different to their non-organic cousins? Are they actually healthier for you? It seems it depends who you ask.
A review by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009) says there’s no evidence to show that organic foods have more vitamins and minerals. Report author, Dr Alan Dangour, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance.’
Sgourakis, on the other hand, says the answer is a clear cut yes. ‘It’s well proven that organic produce contains higher concentrations of 11 vital nutrients including folate, potassium, vitamin C, total protein and a far superior antioxidant capacity overall. Then there’s the benefit of the absence of [synthetic] chemicals – many of which have been shown to be linked to ADHD in children.’
Whatever the case, one thing that’s certain is the higher price tag of organic foods. Producing organic food is labour-intensive, with higher transportation costs due to the need to separate it from conventional produce. The crops tend to yield less fruit and are only available seasonally, which explains the price tag on your wax-tipped bananas.
‘Without the use of chemical fertilisers, things naturally take longer to grow,’ adds Sgourakis. ‘Similarly, organic chickens take more than twice as long to mature than the typical factory-farmed birds that have been administered with growth-promoters, fed on pellets and crammed in unsanitary, sunlight-devoid factories.’
A lack of uniform guidelines (and loosely enforced standards) has compromised the credibility of the industry and left consumers confused and overwhelmed with the plethora of products on the market.
Sgourakis suggests ‘Be aware that any processed, packaged food product, whether the label says 100%, 70% or 0% organic, should only be eaten in moderation. The foods that should make up the bulk (or better still, the whole) of our diet don’t have ingredients lists to begin with! They’re whole, natural, primary plant and animal produce.’
Enthusiasts claim organic food tastes better. Foods that are grown during their peak season (and almost all organic food is grown at this time) pack in the most nutrients, resulting in a fresher flavour. Sgourakis adds ‘If it’s fresh and in season, then I believe yes. But taste is also dependent on other factors too: was the tomato vine-ripened? Was it kept out of cold-storage? Was it good tomato-growing weather this season? And so on.’
And although science is also unable to measure the sense of wellbeing we get from eating organic food, it’s about feeling connected to our food and Mother Nature. Whether that’s worth the extra dollars is very much a matter of personal taste.
What’s worth the extra coin?
The great people at Environmental Working Group (EWG) have created two lists, dividing common conventional foods into those that are heavily sprayed with chemicals (The Dirty Dozen) and those that receive minimal toxic sprays (The Clean 15).
The Dirty Dozen (from worst to best)
12. Grapes (Imported)
The Clean 15 (from best to worst)
3. Sweet Corn
6. Sweet Peas
14. Sweet Potato
15. Honeydew Melon