Organic foods: are they worth it?

| Post published on May 1, 2021
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box of organic produce

The ‘organic’ label means better quality food but it comes at a price – it pays to know when to splash out and when to scrimp!

What is organic?

Organic food is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetic modification (GM) and ionizing radiation. While British products usually carry the Soil Association logo, imported foods may simply state Organic or carry a Bio label.

Organic farming has multiple benefits – plant foods grown this way contain no, or only minimal, chemical residues, they have more antioxidants, richer flavours, are safer for people with food sensitivities (because often, these are caused by chemicals in foods) and tend to be fresher because the lack of preservatives makes their shelf-life shorter.

Organic farming is great for the environment, too, because it doesn’t pollute, it increases soil fertility, reduces soil erosion and protects animals as well as bees that pollinate the flowers. It follows that it’s also better for farm workers and people living in the area.

The only downside is that organic farming is more labour intensive and as a result, organic products are more expensive.

What to splash on

Some fruit and vegetables absorb more pesticides than others so it’s best to buy these organic when possible. It’s all to do with their having thin skin, high water content and that we don’t peel them before eating: strawberries, apples, grapes, nectarines, peaches, cherries, spinach, kale, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and peppers.

If organic prices are beyond you, don’t give up on them completely but buy occasionally and if you stumble upon them at reduced prices, buy more and freeze!

There’s an interesting conundrum with tomatoes grown hydroponically in big greenhouses where there’s no soil but their roots are submerged in nutrient-rich water. This method isn’t classified as organic in the UK or Europe but it is allowed under organic standards in the US. Hydroponic tomato growing allows for pesticide-free farming yet the plants may well be receiving fertilizers in the water. This method of tomato production allows year-round harvesting and reduces the amount of space and water the crop requires. Opponents highlight that it’s not natural as the plants receive no sunlight and don’t contribute to the ecosystem in any way. Whichever side you lean towards, if we can’t always afford organic tomatoes, hydroponic ones may be the next best thing. However, when shopping, you can’t tell how a tomato was grown if it doesn’t carry the organic label – hydroponic or grown in the soil are not recognised distinctions – yet.

Where to save

If you’re lucky enough that you can splash out when shopping, by all means buy only organic because it’s better for everyone. But if you’re on a budget, there are crops that don’t absorb pesticides that much or we peel them so non-organic are okay. These include avocados, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, aubergines, onions, peas, sweet corn, kiwi fruit, melons, papaya, pineapple, mango and sweet potatoes.

Soya

Soya growing does present a number of issues but there are two radically different approaches. Mass production of soya for animal feed is responsible for deforestation and environmental destruction in South America and elsewhere and most of it is genetically modified. Up to 90 per cent of world’s soya production is fed to livestock!

On the other hand, only about six per cent of global soya production is eaten by people in the form of tofu, soya milk, soya oils, tempeh, edamame, soya sauce, etc. Many of the soya foods consumed in the UK are made with organic beans sourced from Europe. Their organic label also means no GM and many food manufacturers declare where their soya comes from to show they are a part of the solution, not the problem. Choosing organic soya products is a wise choice and the price tag is usually affordable, too.

Citrus fruit

Most conventionally produced citrus fruit is sprayed with pesticides but because we peel them, we discard the main pesticide dose with the rind. Citruses are usually also waxed – a thin layer of wax is applied on the surface to help prolong their shelf life and make them look pretty. There are many waxing mixtures and they usually contain some edible wax of plant or insect origin but can also contain petroleum-based wax. There’s no way of knowing what kind was used on the fruit – it may not be vegan or it may not be very good for you. The solution is to buy organic whenever possible. While not all unwaxed fruit is organic, all organic fruit is unwaxed.
If you want to use orange or lemon zest in cooking, always go for organic fruit to avoid lacing your food with pesticides.

Solutions

It’s not always easy to shop around for organic fruit and vegetables so the best solution might be to take out an organic fruit and veg box subscription. Each area has different suppliers so do a little research to see what’s available where you live. And it has another advantage – by opting for one of these, you’re also supporting a local farm and the food hasn’t travelled far to get to you!

When shopping, check what organic products are available and if there’s a special offer. As fresh produce is seasonal, chances are that you may happen on some decent prices and may be able to stock up – strawberries, peaches or nectarines freeze well.

Other products, such as wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, are a different story. They have their outer layers removed before sale and that gets rid of many chemical residues. However, it’s still good to choose organic when possible – for your health, the health of the farm workers and the environment.

About the author
Veronika Charvátová
Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

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