Don’t wrestle with whether to buy organic or conventionally grown foods, says dietitian Lisa Yates – you can have both.
The Australian organic food industry is growing about 20 per cent a year – not surprising, considering organic food is said to be tastier, healthier, safer and better for the environment. But in many cases, it’s also much more expensive. So is organic food really worth it?
What does ‘organic’ mean?
Organic farming restricts, and in most cases, avoids the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, feed additives and veterinary drugs. Farming practices involve respecting natural animal and plant behaviour, so produce is grown only during its natural season. Organic farmers also aim to maintain the environment, utilise renewable resources and conserve energy, soil and water. Strict regulations regarding farming ensure food grown organically meets certification and legitimately carries the organic label.
Organic fruit and vegetables
Recent research comparing the nutrient content of organic with conventionally grown fruits and vegetables has shown mixed results. German research found organic carrots and apples to be nutritionally no different to conventional, but organic grape juice in Brazil had higher levels of antioxidants, as did organic strawberries in the US.
Studies on organic tomatoes go either way. An Italian study showed less vitamin C and lycopene in organic tomatoes, while researchers in the US showed more antioxidants and vitamin C. Longer term studies paint a different picture altogether: a 10-year US study of organic tomatoes saw antioxidant levels nearly double those of regular tomatoes. Researchers explain that this is because soil quality gets better over time and organic produce also contains less water, so nutrients are concentrated. These natural antioxidants protect the plant against pests, and can protect us from heart disease, but they can produce more bitter flavours. That being said, many will swear organic food tastes better.
The verdict? Organic food quality can vary, but it’s best to buy any fruit and vegies in season.
Organic meat and chicken
If you’re trying to avoid growth hormones in your chicken, you can stick with conventionally raised chicken (growth hormones are not used in any chickens in Australia) but if it’s extra nutritional benefits you’re after, organic may be the way forward.
According to US researchers, organic chicken meat has higher protein and polyunsaturated fat levels and lower levels of unhealthy saturated fat. Certified organic chicken is, however, nearly twice as expensive as regular chicken in Australia, as are organic eggs. Save money by choosing organic whole chickens rather than specific organic cuts, and free-range eggs.
Organic beef is free from hormones and antibiotics and their feed must be free of pesticides or herbicides. Most Australian cattle is already pasture-fed, which means the omega-3 fat content of the meat is higher than conventionally raised cattle fed on grains, but there is one considerable difference between the two – conventionally raised cattle may still be treated with growth hormones.
Research shows that organic milk may also be richer in omega-3s compared to conventional milk, but apart from that, there may be no difference in the vitamin content of milk produced by either method. Organic animals can have lower yields than conventionally fed animals too, which can mean more land is required for grazing more animals – not so positive for the environment.
Certified organic food
The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) is responsible for organic inspection and certification along with seven approved certifying organisations. Look for these organisations' logos on labels when shopping to ensure your choices have been produced and certified to recognised standards:
- Australian Certified Organic
- Bio-Dynamic Research Institute
- Organic Food Chain
- Organic Growers of Australia
- National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA)
- Safe Food Production Queensland
- Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers
When only 16 per cent of females and 11 per cent of males aged 12 years and over get the recommended five serves of vegetables daily, it’s far more important that we all eat more fruit and vegetables – regardless if they are organic or not. However, if you can afford organic, there may be extra health benefits.
Use organic chicken, meat and dairy when you can, and counter the cost by increasing your intake of healthy plant protein foods such as nuts and legumes. Ensure that what you’re buying is certified (see above). Some supermarkets have a certified organic range with prices comparable to regular brands.
Research is inconclusive and organic food production has a way to go, but if foods that are potentially better for the environment is your philosophy, then go for it.
Did you know? Organic food is not guaranteed to be free of chemical residue. Queensland Health commissioned a survey to sample food represented as ‘organic’. Pesticide residues were found in 15 per cent of samples and three-quarters of these products were certified ‘organic’.
NASAA Organic Standards aims to reduce the risk of residue contamination from air, water and soil.Looking for organic food suppliers in Australia? Search the extensive database at www.organicfooddirectory.com.au.