The organic industry is booming, so how do you buy organic food and is it better for you? By Caitlin Reid.
What is organic food?
Organic food is produced without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators or livestock feed additives. Organic food must meet strict criteria to be certified, however there are no labelling laws in Australia that stop the use of 'organic' on food labels.
Why choose organic?
People tend to purchase organic foods for health reasons, to support local farmers, because of animal welfare concerns and as a means of protecting the environment. The majority choose organic foods because they believe it is of superior nutritional value.
Where can I buy organics?
No longer found only in specialist health stores, you can now buy organic food in Woolworths, Coles and other supermarkets, and you can still find it in specialised stores, such as Healthy Life Natural Food Stores and Go Vita, as well as local markets and specialised organic supermarkets. You can order organic food online from www.fundies.com.au and have it home delivered Australia-wide.
How do I know it's organic?
There is a certification program for organic food. If it's certified that means it has been grown, harvested, stored and transported without the use of synthetic chemicals and irradiation. While exported organic produce must meet the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, there is no national regulation to control the labelling of organic food sold within Australia. We recommend you choose produce approved by any of these groups: Australian Certified Organic or National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), Organic Growers of Australia (OGC) or Biodynamic Research Institute (BDRI).
Why is it more expensive?
Organic food costs more than conventional food, as its production is more labour-intensive. Production yields are often smaller on organic farms because they don't use artificial fertilisers and pesticides. You can expect to pay about 20% more for organic food. If Australia follows the lead of Europe, where organic sales are booming, the cost of organically produced food will decrease as production and demand increases.
Is organic food better for the environment?
The use of chemicals and modern-farming practices have led to a decline in soil fertility and an increase in salinity and blue-green algae in waterways over many years. Organic farmers aim to minimise damage to the environment by restoring soils and regenerating the land. Organic farming methods reduce chemical run-off and residues in drinking water, waterways and coastal areas, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.
Are organic foods pesticide-free?
While organic produce may contain some pesticides (for example, there could be some left in the soil from previous farming), testing has found that the levels are consistently lower than in conventionally grown food. A recent study in the US found the levels of organophosphorous pesticides were immediately lowered in children placed on an organic diet.
Is organic better for you? What the research says...
The levels of vitamins A, B, B2 and C in organically grown fruit don't vary greatly from conventionally grown fruit. Neither is there a difference in mineral content.
Organic vegetables and potatoes have lower levels of total protein and free amino acids than conventionally grown vegies, but they have high concentrations of several essential amino acids. However, this difference is negligible, as vegetables and potatoes only make a tiny contribution to the protein in our diets. Of all the vitamins and minerals, vitamin C is the only one to occur in greater quantities in organic vegies than conventionally grow ones.
Some studies have found organically grown cereals have lower levels of total protein and free amino acids than conventionally grown cereals, but have high concentrations of several essential amino acids. More research is needed.
Milk and meat
Organic farming of livestock is relatively new, so there are few studies that compare organic and conventional animal produce - milk, eggs and meat. More research is needed.