With more emphasis on where our food comes from and consumers more conscious about food-miles and the origins of what they’re eating, organic produce is at a premium and commanding higher prices than its conventional counterparts. But is it any better for us, and what are the benefits of buying organic?
There has long been a debate on whether organic foods are more nutritious than more mass produced foods, and the latest and most comprehensive study so far would suggest that there is little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than other foods.
Despite new findings showing a lack of nutritional benefit, the upside of eating organic produce includes the reduced likelihood of consuming chemical nasties such as pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In the latest study of organic foods a team of researchers looked at 240 studies of the nutrient and contaminant levels of both organic and conventionally grown foods, as well as studies of humans consuming both types.
The researchers reviewed 17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. The duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.
From these studies the researchers found no consistent differences in the vitamin content between the two types of produce or that conventional foods posed any greater health risk than organic foods.
Their studies did however find that conventional produce carries a 30 per cent higher chance of pesticide contamination when compared with organic foods.
Also a 33 per cent increase in the risk of consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria in conventionally raised chicken or pork compared with their organic counterparts was also reported.
This research supports the findings by the Food Standards Agency in 2009, which also concluded that there are no important differences in the nutritional value or additional health benefits of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.
But it’s not just the nutritional benefits that consumers are buying into when it comes to organic food. More often than not the flavour of organic food is much better than that of force-grown, or GM foods – generally because the food has been given time to grow and take up nutrients from the soil. Consumers also look at the issues of welfare when it comes to their meat products, and buying organic gives them a more ethical product and the knowledge that an animal has lived a happier and more full life than those bred solely for mass meat-production. Now the issue of caged battery hens and the plight of cattle reared just for meat has made the headlines, consumers are becoming more aware of a social and ethical responsibility.
There has become an increasing fashion for homegrown produce and a more healthy attitude to food – steering away from a culture of fast food and quick-fix meals. While the market for mass-produced food continues to grow -and will do with an ever-growing population to feed - there is also the market for what has been given the image of a more healthy and ethical type of produce – that of organic.
Just as people are saying no to unnecessary plastic bags when they do their weekly shop, they are also starting to resent the fact their fruit and veg are being presented in uniform rows of the same size, same shape and lacking in flavour. An interest in food and home cooking has led to a demand in quality and flavour and this is where the organic produce market leads the way.
Many cookery programmes and high profile chefs have championed the use of both organic and free-range produce and this seems to have caught on widely. Locally-sourced organic produce is what you’d expect from a top restaurant and now ordinary people want to be able to re-create those flavours in their own kitchens.
One of the down sides of organic food continues to be its price when compared to its regular counterparts in the supermarket. With more people strapped for cash in these tough times, to buy organic means you have to make sacrifices elsewhere. But what could be said of this is that people who are prepared to pay more for organic are replacing other unnecessary consumables with more healthy organic fruit and veg, which could be said to be a more healthy choice overall.
It may not have proven nutritional value above and beyond conventional produce, but the philosophy behind buying organic often transcends that and leads to healthier eating, cooking, and living overall. If you are prepared to pay a little more for organic produce, then you are more likely to cook healthy meals incorporating more flavoursome ingredients, and enjoy your mealtimes a little more than you otherwise might.
by Jessica Ward
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