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Organic - Is It Worth It?

These days, finding organic food is easier than ever. The range of organic products available today – even in supermarkets - leaves hardly anything to be desired. You can buy wholemeal flour as well as white flour, light and dark pasta, organic strawberries and organic asparagus, natural juices, organic meat, sausages, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy. Even ready or almost-ready meals such as pizza, tortellini and frozen chips have organic varieties, as do delicatessen specialities, wines, beer and spirits. Even those with a sweet tooth can get their money's worth: organic sweet cakes and biscuits sweetened with sugar or honey are readily available in most supermarkets. Note though, organic sugar (and honey) is sugar and impacts your blood sugar level in the exact same way as regular sugar.

Whether purchased from a supermarket, a health food shop or a farm shop, organic food has always been more expensive than conventional food. However, over the last few months we have seen prices skyrocket. Not only is food – any food – now more expensive than it used to be, but we also have much higher energy prices to contend with, which further reduces the money we’ve got left to spend on food. So, is organic food worth the expense?

Why Does Organic Even Matter?


Why Does Organic Even Matter?

There are many good reasons to reach for organic products. Health, sustainability, animal welfare, and the wish to support organic farming all come into the decision to buy organic. Organic food and animal feed is grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides, resulting in less chemical residue on the finished produce.

In an attempt to increase yields and resistance to pests and harsh weather conditions, the chemical industry started developing agricultural chemicals just after the WWII.

They were used liberally for decades and did, in fact, do what it said on the tin. It only gradually became apparent that they might also be harmful to both human and animal health and, what’s worse, are persistent; i.e. they are virtually indestructible and will pollute our soils for centuries to come.

Needless to say, they are in the food chain already and are here to stay. Babies are now born with hundreds of chemicals already in their bodies, and persistent pollutants have even reached polar bears. If they’re affected, what hope do we have?

Some of the offending chemicals have subsequently been banned in the US, the EU, and the UK to varying degrees, but not all of them. Moreover, those that are no longer allowed for use in the industrialised countries are instead sold to developing countries. Of course, because they are already everywhere and are persistent, those substances are found in organic as well as conventional food. However, organic farming at least puts a stop to their use, reducing future pollution, and, of course, the resulting produce and meat contains fewer harmful chemicals than conventional food. This is one reason why organic food is healthier.

What Are The Benefits of Going Organic?

Without pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers, organic produce must fend for itself, unlike conventional foods, which is mollycoddled from sprouting to harvest. Rather than being grown in huge monocultures, organic fruit and vegetables are planted alongside other plants that help protect them. Plants contain natural substances called phytonutrients that fight pests and other threats to the plant’s health and increase its resistance to varying weather conditions. As it happens, these substances are not just good for the plant, but for us too. All plants contain them, but there are more of them in organic fruit and veg because they need them for their own defence.

Organically grown food is also more likely to be allowed to grow to full ripeness on the tree or in the field, at least if it is destined for local shops rather than being shipped around the world. That way, it has more time to accumulate and develop nutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – that contribute to the nutritional value of the end product.

Animals raised to produce organic meat, dairy or eggs must be fed organic animal feed. There is also typically more space for the animal to move around, more time spent outdoors and straw covered surfaces rather than bare concrete or wire mesh to stand or lie on. Although with reference to beef and dairy, ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean ‘grass-fed’, organic cattle is fed much more grass – both fresh and hay – than conventional cows. Grass is the food cows evolved to eat, resulting in healthier animals and consequently healthier animal products. Unlike the grains or soya conventional cattle is fed on, grass and herbs have a higher omega-3 content, which, of course, affects the fatty acid composition of the resulting meat and dairy products.

As it turns out, food (whether that’s plant or meat) that is grown and raised the way it should be even tastes better.

Organic farming is not only more beneficial in terms of animal welfare, but also the environment. We all want a sustainable food system, and buying organic products supports the goal of organic farming to create closed cycles between animals, humans and plants. But this comes at a price that is harder and harder to afford.

Why is Organic Food More Expensive?

Agricultural chemicals were once introduced to increase yields – which they did. Consequently, organic farming does not result in the same amount of food for the same or even increased effort.

Natural pest control can be rather time-consuming. Ideally, you can group plants together in such a way that they protect each other, but sometimes organic farmers have to literally pluck pests off their plants or get down on the ground to pull weeds.

Obviously, allowing indoor and outdoor space for the animals also reduces the number of animals a farm can raise. Organic cheese, unlike mass-produced, cheaper cheese, has been given time to ripen and develop flavour. Organic sourdough bread is allowed to ferment and rise naturally, rather than sped up with artificial rising agents.

So, all that effort, space and time put into the production of organic food, and the reduced yield that goes with that, is, of course, reflected in the price – but also the flavour and nutritional value of the resulting food products.

Would it Help to Pick and Choose a Few Products if I Can't Buy Organic Everything?

Yes, it absolutely would. Our conventional food is polluted to varying degrees. Some plants are hardy and/or have very effective self-defence, such as onions, carrots, beetroot, parsley, chicory and more. The phytonutrients they produce protect them from pests (and are also very beneficial for us). Consequently, such plants are left to their own devices and allowed to grow without chemical interference. However, many other types of fruit and vegetables are soft and delicate and easily fall prey to pests: potatoes, berries, apples and spinach are among the most sprayed foods and should be purchased organic if at all possible.

Another aspect to consider is surface area. The smaller the plant product the larger the surface area. Grains and seeds provide a larger area for pests, bacteria and moulds to settle on, making them more vulnerable. Therefore, seeds and grains receive more treatment, just like soft fruit does. So, if you need to prioritise your spending on organic foods, consider buying organic rice, pasta and flour.

In the US, the Environmental Working Group publishes the “Dirty Dozen” (most polluted fruit and veg) and “Clean 15” (least polluted) to help customers prioritise. It must be said that, of course, the United States and Europe have vastly different laws concerning the use of agricultural chemicals. However, delicate fruit and veg remain delicate and are more likely to be treated with pesticides and/or herbicides than tougher plants, and in that respect the EWG guides are still useful.

Pan-UK are a UK-based charity and publish a UK Dirty Dozen List of their own (pictured here). It’s worth noting that although there a several citrus fruits on the list, peeling may reduce the levels of pesticides somewhat (but equally, people are increasingly using the zest of citrus fruits in cooking). Testing is also problematic as it relies on the UK Government to carry it out, and of the 12 types of fruit and vegetables on the 2019 Dirty Dozen the Government chose to test just three in 2020, ignoring three-quarters of the previous year’s produce of concern. This is why PAN-UK use the most recent 3 years of data to get a more accurate picture.

What Else Can We Do?

The unhealthiest foods on the planet right now are ultra-processed industrial products. They are high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt whilst being completely devoid of nutrients. Only the most cheaply produced agricultural products go into them, and animal welfare or the protection of the environment are not on the agenda. If you can instead opt for more home-cooked meals and snacks from conventionally produced ingredients, you can make the biggest step towards good health.

Also, not all food that doesn’t carry the label “organic” is doused in chemicals. Many farmers grow their fruit and veg and raise their animals in a sustainable way. To all intents and purposes their products are organic, but they’re not allowed to call them that for various reasons. It could be that pesticides and herbicides are used on a neighbouring farm or have been used on their property in the past, preventing them from ever obtaining the classification as organic for their own crops. It could be that the process of getting accredited is just too lengthy and expensive, so they don’t bother. As a result, they can’t sell their products for quite the same price. It is worth checking out the farm shops and farmers markets in your area. Ask questions, read websites, find out more about the food grown where you live. It might be just as good as organic.

Buying local and seasonal food also means that you will get fruit and vegetables that have been allowed to grow to full ripeness and are still fresh by the time they reach your table. A conventional carrot pulled from the ground yesterday may be a lot more nutritious (and cheaper!) than an organic avocado picked in Brazil six weeks ago. “Organic” does not mean healthier as a general rule.

‘Growing your own’ is another option – salad leaves for example are particularly quick and easy to grow, and can be done in a container if you don’t have a garden or a lot of space. It can be a great way of getting kids interested in veg too!

Organic box schemes can also be a great way of saving. There are countrywide companies (e.g. Riverfords or Abel & Cole) and they offer a range of box sizes and fruit/veg/meat combinations to suit different sized households and preferences. It’s also worth checking for local schemes in your area.

Some of the pesticide-laden foods you may not need at all. Grains are staples in the Western diet. Bread, pasta and rice grace our tables several times a day, so buying all of that in organic quality can quickly add up to a very high food bill. Such starchy carbohydrate foods however (especially the white/refined varieties) mess with our blood sugar levels (and therefore energy levels!) and are known to contribute to weight gain and obesity. At the same time, starchy foods do not contain any nutrients we couldn’t get elsewhere. A diet of vegetables, low-sugar fruit, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, dairy and eggs provides everything we need. So, if you reduce your intake of bread, rice, pasta and baked goods, buying only organic – if any – your health would even benefit.

No matter how much organic food you can afford and for all the good this might do, if you do not have the budget there is still a lot you can do – for your health, the environment, and the animals – by choosing wisely and taking an interest in how, where and by whom your food is produced. The best thing you can do is to cook from scratch. After that, prioritise and select your (organic) foods wisely.

I have only scratched the surface about various foods, their health benefits, and how they can help you feel better and more energetic. Get in touch now to book a free 30 minute call with me to find out more.


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