A couple of years ago, I spent some time working in an organic led catering environment; restaurant, cookery school- you get the idea. It’s a high profile place with exacting standards of customer care, and within its management there is an almost cult like belief that organic was best in every way. I was keen to explore this further during my stay and had regular chats with senior staff. I’ll be honest, I was immersed in the culture and surroundings and it was easy to get sucked in.
The perception of organic food has been, and in some parts still is, that it is the preserve of the middle & upper classes. There were stories & prosecutions in the mid 2000s, when organics really made their mark, with unscrupulous suppliers trying to cash in. But why the need for organic food at all? There are several trains of thought: it tastes better; it’s more nutritious; it’s better for the environment and so on.
Firstly I’d like to break this rather large subject down.
“Organic food tastes better”
Despite the hundreds of studies that have been performed globally, there is no conclusive evidence to support that organic food tastes better than its conventional counter part. The fact of the matter is this- having read widely around this subject, there is substantial evidence which suggests that there are just too many variables (planting, harvesting, handling, transport etc) to confirm that organic food tastes better, purely because no chemicals are used.
“The Halo effect”
This is the ‘well being’ feeling that consumers have when they perceive that they have made an ethical or an environmental choice. Organic food was recently studied for this effect and the results were published in PLoS ONE . Researchers noted:
An increasingly large number of products are marked with morally loaded labels such as fair-trade and organically produced — labels associated with social or environmental responsibility that speak to our conscience.
In the case of crop products, like coffee, consumers could quite easily imagine production differences that could influence taste, such as crop spraying.
Although the sample size was only 44, it does build on the research groups’ previous work, that some of the public believe that organic foods are healthier & contain fewer calories. The organic ‘Halo effect’ is tested further by a group from Oxford University, which found that organic products such as milk, cereals and pork, generate higher greenhouse gas emissions than their conventional counterparts. However, organic beef produced lower emissions. Unfortunately, the study failed to take into account what impact pesticides etc were having on the local ecology & environment.
“It’s more nutritious”
There may be something in this claim. A study published in Science Daily magazine discovered that organic oranges contained 30% more vitamin C than those grown conventionally, despite being on average, smaller. The study concluded by saying that the conventional fruit had been grown using nitrogen based fertilisers, which causes a greater uptake in water, thus diluting the nutritional value of the fruit.
Having said this, various other studies concluded the opposite. What was interesting, was that the public view ‘nutritious’ as meaning ‘healthy’. This clearly isn’t the case, hence the reason to read on about ‘The Dirty dozen’
“The Dirty dozen”
It is ‘The Dirty dozen’ that really captured my interest whilst working at the afore mentioned organic establishment. The cookery school director explained about the impact pesticides & fertilisers had on fruit and vegetables, along with what residues remained. He pointed out ‘The Dirty dozen’ to me, saying:
Do it, write about it, people should know about this.
I researched it, but thought, really? If it was that important surely the Food Standards Agency (FSA) would have brought it to a wider audience by now? But clearly not. Thankfully there is the Environment Working Group (EWG) in America, which produces the list, based on pesticide residue testing data from the US Department of Food (DoF) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Whilst this list is US based, it could be used as a rough guide in the UK & Europe. The worse offending foods are:
- Nectarines (imported into the US)
- Cherry tomatoes
The list originally started out at a dozen, now it reaches in excess of 50, which can be downloaded in PDF form:
What did raise my interest, was that I had to go to US websites to gain access to easy to read & manage data. The UK just doesn’t have anything which can match it. I trawled for hours over the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) websites & data sheets, trying to make sense of it. Maybe this is the point; is HM Government so in the pocket of ‘Big Food’, as it is often called, that makes deciphering this type of data so hard, that people give up?
I’m not for or against organic food either way, but what I am in favour of, is the freedom of choice, and an informed one at that. Will this post make me think next time I’m at the vegetable counter? No, probably not, but at least I’ll be making an informed decision. And this is the point; after so many food scandals why isn’t the FSA making lists like ‘The Dirty dozen’ for the UK public? Surely we deserve to know.