Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
From the choice of natural fruit and veg to tastier, healthier meat, and milk which is free from hormones and antibiotics, there’s plenty to be said for going organic.
More and more, we are being urged to go greener and organic. For starters, we’re told it’s healthier, that it improves animal welfare and helps towards caring for the environment.
As we start to become more aware of the truth behind the food manufacturing industry (the pesticides, the antibiotics, the cramped living spaces for animals), organic produce has seen something of a boom.
As our appetite for healthier living grows and grows, the organic market has soared by almost five per cent1 to £1.95bn in 2015, and there has been a a fivefold increase in sales over the past 15 years. Although, to put this into perspective, just one per cent of our global crops are currently organic2. A pinch of salt may still be needed before we call it a global phenomenon!
Yet, for all of us who want to eat as healthily as possible, do we really need to jump on the organic bandwagon? What’s the truth? Is eating organic food necessary for a healthy lifestyle, or is it an expensive con and a clever marketing ploy?
If you’ve always wondered whether or not you should be buying organic, or which organic foods you really need to buy (should your whole shopping trolley be organically grown?), then we have some guidance here……
First up: what does it actually mean when we’re tossing a bag of organic braeburns into our shopping basket, or adding organic kale to our green smoothies? What, exactly, is organic?
Well, in its simplest form, organic farming tries to work as closely with nature as possible. Whether you’re buying strawberries or shallots, when you buy organic foods and drink (even clothes and beauty products), the idea is that you’re buying products that promote a healthier planet.
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And, on the surface, it really is.
We're fans of organic fruit and vegetables
For starters, organic foods mean fewer chemicals (and a blanket ban on artificial fertilisers and pesticides), as well as less hydrogenated fats, no controversial artificial food colourings, and we can wave goodbye to many preservatives, too.
As well as this, there can be no preventative antibiotics pumped into livestock; no genetically modified food; and measures are put in place to ensure more wildlife and biodiversity, too. A lot of organic foods will also be better for animal welfare, since any animals sold under organic labels must be reared in more natural, freer conditions.
Organic produce is also fully traceable from farm to fork, so you know exactly what you’re eating – and where it came from. When you put it like that, it sounds pretty idealistic, doesn’t it?
Here in the UK, organic standards are certified by the Organic Food Federation; The Soil Association; Organic Farmer and Growers Ltd.; Biodynamic Agricultural Association; Quality Welsh Food Certification Ltd.; and OF&G (Scotland) Ltd. and these are also upheld by strict European laws. In fact, to be labelled as organic, at least 95 per cent of the farm-grown ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals.
If you want the official definition of organic, then here’s what Defra3 has to say:
“Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.
“Organic agriculture is a systems approach to production that is working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable production. Instead, the agricultural systems rely on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control.”
Whether you want to lose weight, enjoy tastier, fresher food, or save the planet, going organic can often seem like the answer. In fact, the Soil Association4 has revealed that healthy eating and avoiding chemical residues are the main reasons we tend to switch to organic – caring for the environment and animal welfare come third and fourth on the priority list.
Yet are there really such myriad benefits to eating organic foods? And, if so, should we all make the switch?
Let’s take a look…
We all know that we should eat rainbows of fruit and veg every single day to stay as healthy as possible. However, is eating five organic fruit and veg a day even better for you than eating five non-organic fruits and veg?
Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but…no one can really agree!
On the plus side, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that organic foods contain more vitamins, minerals and omega-3s. For example5, there are thought to be more flavonoids (a wonderful, body-boosting phytonutrient) in organic tomatoes, while organic milk has been found to contain nearly 70% more heart-healthy, body-loving omega-3s than non-organic milk.
Meanwhile, non-organic apples can be treated with 36 different chemicals, many of which we can’t simply scrub or peel off. And then, for meat lovers, there’s the fact that organic meat has been found to have more healthy omega-3 fatty acids6.
Further studies have found that organic fruits7 and veg contain 27 per cent more vitamin C, nearly a third more magnesium, 21.1 per cent more iron, and 18 per cent more polyphenols. And there was even one, carried out at Newcastle University back in 2014, that stated there were "statistically significant, meaningful" differences to organic foods, carrying between 19% and 69% more antioxidants8.
In fact, these researchers were so convinced by the goodness of going organic that they said we should eat at least one or two portions of organic fruits and veg each day.
There’s even been some studies that suggest going organic can see benefits to our health in other ways - a reduced risk of eczema in new-born boys, and even a lower risk of preeclampsia during pregnancy9. A further study9 in Holland seems to back this up, where scientists discovered that young children (below the age of two) had a lower risk of eczema when they drank a glass of organic milk, perhaps because of the higher amounts of healthy fatty acids in organic dairy.
While this might sound great and have you leaping across the shopping aisle for that bag of organic kale, on the flip side, there are plenty of studies which show that there may not always be that much difference…
In 2009, a huge review into organic foods10, published by the Food Standards Agency, looked into previous studies on the nutritional benefits of going organic. While they found that certain foods did have higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, there were not “significant” benefits when compared to their cheaper, non-organic friends.
Similar news came following another review, which looked at 223 studies11 in 2012. This also found little evidence for our growing love for organic food. Researchers said: “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
In other words: while there are benefits to certain organic foods, not all of it is necessarily as healthy as some people claim.
Let’s face it, we all like to picture the animals we feed on as healthy and happy. From cute, fluffy lambs leaping about the fields to pigs wrestling in mud and cows flocking beneath leafy trees, it’s a nice thought that they were treated well before they ended up on our plates but is this is always the case?
Very often, meat will have been reared on intensive farms and as well as this, the animals can be pumped full of antibiotics to prevent illness and disease and even steroids, to ensure they’re as big and as juicy as we like.
A lot of intensively-reared chickens have also been found to be contaminated with salmonella12. And, when you consider just how poorly they are often treated – bred in cramped, tiny cages, and left to sleep in their own fecal matter – there’s a lot of animal welfare and hygiene issues, too.
Roaming free in the Lucy Bee vegetable patch
If this is something that does concern you, then you’ll be happy to know that organic meat has to be reared to much higher standards. Organically-reared, free range animals have the healthiest and happiest living conditions of all. They also cannot be fed growth regulators and feed additives, GM crops nor antibiotics, and, instead, must be given organic food.
They are also given plenty more space to roam around (for example, under EU law, organic chicken farmers can only keep 21kg of birds per square metre and have a maximum flock size of 4,800), and they must be given access to the outdoors for at least a third of their life.
Moving onto organic dairy and this too must be free from antibiotics, as well as hormones pumped into some other milk-producing cows. There are also lots of studies to suggest that organically-reared animals contain higher levels of healthy omega-3 fats, (this is thanks to their diet, especially when it comes to grass-fed beef). The same is true of hens and their eggs.
Despite this, there are many who say there is very little difference between the health benefits of organic meat and eggs and their poorer relatives13.
For starters, organic farming is better for biodiversity and the UK government argues that it’s better for the wildlife, causes less pollution, and less carbon dioxide (the gas that’s the main culprit for global warming).
Love the world we live in
On the surface level, this is of course true: organic farms need less energy, release fewer greenhouse gasses, and also emit less ammonia than your typical farms and fields.
However, the problem is with the bigger picture. In reality, organic crops yield less for our farmers. So, for them to make enough money to survive, they need much more land to yield the same amount of strawberries, or potatoes. To take America as an example, to produce the same amount of food organically, would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms2.
Let’s take your humble pint of milk2. A litre of organic milk needs 80 per cent more land than non-organic conventional milk to be produced, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, and releases more acid rain. Similarly, tomatoes produced in organic, yet heated, greenhouses in Britain require more energy than those grown in fields in Africa, while organic cows release twice as much methane as conventionally-reared animals14.
As a result, many believe that organic produce results in just as many greenhouse gases as non-organic foods, and even more (around 10 per cent) nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification.
Many foodies who have made the switch to organic often argue that it produces juicier, tastier apples, plumper, firmer tomatoes, and more mouth-watering, leaner meat.
Many, including The Soil Association, believe that this tastier food is all thanks to the fact that organic produce cannot be treated with man-made pesticides.
However, the taste test is all just a matter of opinion. While most swear by delicious organic foods, others say that they cannot notice a difference during blindfold tests.
Of course, the lack of pesticides is only going to be a welcome one.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that it is only man-made pesticides and fertilisers that are banned from organic farming. For instance, farmers who work under the organic labels can treat fungal diseases by using copper solution. This same copper solution can stay toxic in the soil for the rest of our lifetime. Meanwhile, the organic insecticide rotenone15, is believed to be toxic to us humans, with some linking it to Parkinson's disease.
Well, sorry if we’ve left you scratching your heads and have added to your organic confusion!
The fact is, while there are certain foods that are definitely healthier to buy organic (see Part Two of this article for our shopping list by clicking here), much more research needs to be done into whether or not we should enjoy a completely organic lifestyle.
Whether or not you choose to shop organic is entirely up to you – just try to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.
About Lucy Bee Limited
Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.