Herd of cows grazing in a sunny morningWe’ve all seen the word ‘organic’ on numerous food and drink labels, not to mention beauty products and even textiles – it seems almost impossible not to see an organic version of almost every product you see in a supermarket, especially when it comes to vegetables and meat.

The first thing most of us notice is the price difference – with many of us on a tight budget, cost is a major issue and rightly so, varying from a little bit more to an awful lot more depending on the product or brand.

Is it mainly marketing hype? A reason to extract even more money from our hard-earned pay packet?

Let’s start with what it means when food is labelled as organic in the UK and Europe:

For foods to be labelled as organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants and animals. Any food product sold as ‘organic’ falls under the EU regulations 834/2007 and 889/2008. This means that the product must have been produced to these regulations and inspected and certified by a registered certification body, such as Soil Association Certification.Soil Association

There are several genuine reasons why organic food is higher in price, including:

  • Avoiding chemicals and pesticides means more manual work may be needed, i.e. advanced crop rotation methods and manual removal of weeds and other pollutants or pests
  • Losses of crops can be higher as a result of not using chemicals and pesticides
  • Organic farms’ production tends to be slower as a result of avoiding chemical fertilisers
  • Higher welfare and feeding costs for livestock, as well as more land being required, can mean a significantly higher expenditure
  • The cost of the organic certification process is often high and out-of-reach of smaller businesses
  • It is reported that organic farmers tend not to get as many government subsidies as conventional farmers

Why people choose organic food, by the Soil AssociationI would not advise anyone that they must eat organic no matter what the cost – ultimately, eating healthy food (organic or not) should be the main goal of anyone’s diet. For me, it is up to the individual to take into account how much of an issue animal welfare and crop growing methods means to them, not to mention whether they can afford the extra cost and believe the health benefit is significant enough to justify it.

There is an argument that, if we truly are getting more nutrients from organic food we don’t need to eat as much food to obtain our daily nutritional needs, which would offset the price increase to some degree.

How convincing are the arguments of additional nutritional benefits from organic food and does that then justify the extra cost?

Various studies over the years has been inconclusive, however, a recent landmark study by Newcastle University (published in the British Journal of Nutrition) took into account over 300 previous studies on organic food.

The study concluded that there were significant differences between organic and non-organic crops and, most importantly, that the the organic crops were of a much higher nutritional quality.  The study’s analysis of production methods is the most extensive and reliable to date and clearly supports the view that the quality of food is influenced by the way it is produced.

The findings also showed that organically-produced crops have:

  • More antioxidants: Organic crops (cereals, fruit and vegetables) have significantly higher concentrations of antioxidants/(poly)phenolics compared with non-organic crops. This includes more phenolics (19% higher), flavanones (69% higher), stilbenes (28% higher), flavones (26% higher), and flavonols (50% higher).  A switch to consuming organic crops would allow a 20-40% increase in antioxidant/(poly)phenolics consumption without an increase in calorie intake.
  • Less pesticide residues: The frequency of occurrence of detectable pesticide residues is four times higher in non-organic crops. Non-organic fruit had the highest pesticide frequency (75%), compared to non-organic vegetables (32%) and non-organic crop based processed foods (45%). By contrast pesticide residues were found in 10% of organic crop samples.
  • Less cadmium: The analysis detected 48% lower concentrations of the toxic heavy metal cadmium in organic crops.
  • Less nitrogen: Nitrogen concentrations – linked in some studies to an increased risk of certain cancers such as stomach cancer – were found to be significantly lower in organic crops

From a health perspective, I believe it has to be better for us to be eating food that has not been exposed to so many chemicals – this would reduce load on our liver and therefore lead to a less toxic digestive system.

There is also the issue of some animals being fed on nutritionally poor feed in order to make them grow bigger and faster.  If meat has not been labelled as organic, the crops for animal feed and the grass that animals graze on is likely to have been sprayed with fertilisers meaning the animals’ food will contain chemicals that then carry through to our plate.

It is also known that drugs are commonplace and legally used for livestock that are permanently housed, particularly in poultry and pigs.  As a result I believe the effort and cost of aiming to buy free-range and organically-reared meat, dairy and eggs is justified in order to improve nutrition.

Remember, though, that while some farmers may not be certified to label their produce as organic, they may be following the principles of organic farming. If you have a local farm shop or farmers’  market talk to your local producers about the methods they use – they may match the requirements of organic labelling, just not have the ‘badge’.

Ultimately, I think the health of an animal whilst living will certainly have a bearing on not only the quality of nutrients we get from eating its meat and products such as milk and eggs, but also the taste.

Taste is very subjective and there are many articles and views that differ wildly in their conclusions. All I would say is – go and try for yourself!