The truth about organic food shopping

    Organic food

    Whether you’re confused about the ‘Dirty Dozen’ or curious about the nutritional benefits of going organic, dietician Jo Travers shares her advice for creating your next shopping list

    With the reported benefits of buying organic including higher levels of nutrients, the organic market is seeing year on year growth – with 39% of shoppers now buying organic on a weekly basis. But with so many conflicting studies, is it really worth the added expense?

    What’s different about organic food?

    Organic food is farmed under a strict set of rules that bans the use of man-made chemicals for crops; additives to animal feed and genetically modified organisms. Instead, naturally occurring pesticides and fertilisers are used. Some organic regulators such as the Soil Association also demand high standards of animal welfare.

    Are there any health benefits to buying organic produce?

    A study published in the Food and Nutrition Research journal this year found there were often – though not always – more nutrients in organic versus conventional food. Organic meat and milk were found to have more omega 3s, while fruit and vegetables had more antioxidants and minerals such as iron and potassium. This is because different farming methods and the use of natural fertilisers put nutrients back in the soil.

    However, according to the Annual Public Health Review, iodine levels were lower in organic milk and protein was lower in organic grains.

    Is there any scientific evidence to support the ‘Dirty Dozen’?

    The ‘Dirty Dozen’ are the top 12 foods on the Environmental Working Group’s list, showing foods with the most pesticide residues. Strawberries and spinach top this list – but they were still found to have levels far below the safety threshold, so there should be no risk to eating them. In fact, the risk to health is greater from avoiding eating fruit and vegetables altogether.

    Is organic meat as important as organic vegetables?

    One of the biggest issues facing us today is antibiotic resistance (this is when bacteria develops a resistance to regular antibiotics and continues to grow). While over-prescription from GPs is partly to blame, around 70% of all human antibiotics are given to animals routinely to stop diseases spreading. So, from this point of view, organic meat could be beneficial because organically farmed animals aren’t ever given antibiotics. Instead, farmers aim to give them higher quality living to prevent problems occurring in the first place.

    Does organic food go off faster?

    Some organic food can perish more quickly, especially fruit and vegetables, because organic farming bans irradiation, which preserves food by killing bacteria.

    What should we look out for when buying organic food?

    A food can only be labelled as organic if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. The label will also tell you where any of the product’s ingredients were produced and the control body’s code number. The EU organic leaf and the Soil Association stamp give you quality assurances at a glance.

    What else should I consider when going to the shops?

    There isn’t a list of ‘top organic foods to buy’ and it needn’t be an all-or-nothing situation. If you’re concerned with nutrient content, I’d recommend focusing on buying a range of foods rather than strictly organic. All foods contain nutrients and as long as you get a variety you are likely to get all the nutrients you need.

    As we become more interested in where our food comes from, our shopping lists can also depend on what’s important to you. If animal welfare is your top priority, then look out for the RSPCA Red Tractor logo. Free-range eggs are also better than battery or barn chickens.

    If the environment is a concern, then look at where the food was produced – this can help you figure out the impact of your ‘food miles’. This is how far a food has travelled to get to your plate. However, this isn’t always straightforward. For example, the environmental cost of growing tomatoes in winter in England far outweighs the cost of importing them from Spain. Eating seasonal food is a good way to keep food miles low. Amazing carrots, courgettes, fennel, peaches and raspberries are all currently in season in the UK.

    If you have a local farmer’s market, go along and meet the people that produce your food and ask them about their practices. Having a conversation is the best way to learn more about the food you’re eating.

    Feeling inspired to grow your own? Check out our 8 reasons gardening is the new hobby you need in your life.