The question of health

Is organic food better for you than conventionally farmed produce? Catherine Quinn enters the debate
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For many consumers, the motivation for buying organic is a perception that the product is beneficial for health. Although taste features highly as a reason for sales, 42 per cent of consumers in a recent Mori poll said they buy organic because they believe it to be healthier. And if sales of organic baby food are anything to go by, it seems many parents see organic produce as the preferred option for young children.

For many consumers, the motivation for buying organic is a perception that the product is beneficial for health. Although taste features highly as a reason for sales, 42 per cent of consumers in a recent Mori poll said they buy organic because they believe it to be healthier. And if sales of organic baby food are anything to go by, it seems many parents see organic produce as the preferred option for young children.

But while consumers see health as an important element when choosing organic produce, immediate evidence doesn't necessarily support this view. At least not according to the Government. Their official line is that there are no significant differences between organic food and any other conventionally farmed products. In fact, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued an unequivocal statement, denying any nutritional superiority of organic produce and refuting evidence to the contrary as "unconvincing". Organic producers are even banned from putting health claims on their packaging.

So is the Government simply dragging its feet regarding the benefits of organics? Or have consumers been duped into believing in health benefits which don't exist?

"On the basis of current evidence, the Agency's assessment is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally," says a spokesperson for the FSA. "The general position of the Food Standards Agency is that it does not object to the use of pesticides, provided any residues are kept as low as practically possible. Toxicity lies not in the presence or absence of any particular substance, but in the dose consumed." And while the FSA encourages discussions concerning methods to lower pesticides levels, they are adamant this is purely with regard to promoting consumer choice.

In addition to refuting the claim that the small residues of pesticides on conventionally farmed foods could be harmful, the agency also takes a strong stance on claims to organic nutritional benefits. "A varied and balanced diet which includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods should provide all of the nutrients that a healthy individual requires, regardless of whether the individual components are produced by organic or conventional methods. It has been suggested that organic food is nutritionally superior to that produced conventionally. The Agency view is that this assertion is not supported by the available evidence."

The buzzword is consumer choice, and it seems that this is the only cause which the Government will admit to feeling passionate about in relation to organics. Arguably, the more honest avowal is that research has not been carried extensively enough to prove what for many seems common sense. But emerging studies are beginning to highlight the benefits of organic food from opposite ends of the spectrum - both that these foods may be nutritionally superior, and that pesticides used on conventionally farmed products are harmful.

Despite the Government standpoint regarding the safety of pesticide levels, there has been surprisingly little research as to the combined effects of mixed chemicals on food. Toxicopathologist Dr Vyvyan Howard draws attention to recent studies in the Netherlands on the so-called "cocktail effect" of the chemicals used on conventional farms. As he explains: "What we don't know much about is the effect of mixtures of chemicals used for production in conventional farming. It is certainly the case that you get some unexpected interactions. The Government has done some research on this and its response was to agree that we don't know enough about it. My opinion is that this simply isn't good enough in relation to the effect these things may have on children and their neurological development. And there is quite a lot of material building up to support the view that we should be exercising caution in this area."

Exponents of organic food also claim that nutritional content is far higher in organic produce. They say that the chemicals used on conventionally farmed fruit and vegetables tend to force water into the food, lessening the percentage of "dry matter" in the farmed produce. Put simply, you get around 26 per cent more carrot in an organic carrot, accounting to some extent for what some perceive as a superior taste.

There are some practical reasons and studies which show organic food to be nutritionally superior. Organic food is likely to be higher in antioxidants, a valuable nutritional component associated with soaking up harmful free radicals, preventing coronary heart disease and some cancers. "Antioxidants include certain vitamins known as phenolics," explains James Cleeton of the Soil Association. "One of the ways in which plants produce phenolics is when they are attacked by pests. Generally, organic crops are not protected by pesticides and research has shown that organically produced fruit contains more phenolics than conventionally produced fruit. Dutch researchers have found that organic crops contain 10-50 per cent more antioxidants than conventional crops."

Some studies are also coming to light concerning the quantities of Omega 3 found in organic products. Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial to health and are the subject of a great number of positive recommendations by the Food and Behavioural Research Council - from reducing heart disease to treating depression.

However, findings in this area in relation to organic foods are mixed. A well-received study of Greek diets by Professor Artemis Simopoulis (author of The Omega Diet) suggests that the free-range grazing of chickens leads to higher quantities of Omega 3 in the eggs they produce. However, Yiqun Wang of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition found that organic eggs had variable quantities of Omega 3 - sometimes less than conventionally farmed eggs.

A strong case for higher Omega 3 content is presented by the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, who have found that the milk from their organic cows contains more Omega 3 than milk from non-organic cows. This is because organic-farmed animals are fed higher levels of silage (such as grass), and red clover silage specifically, which increases Omega 3 in the milk they produce.

They have also found that milk from organic cows is higher in CLAs (or Conjugated Linoleic Acids). The current thinking on these acids is that they give the immune system a boost and there is research taking place at the University of Southampton as to whether they might be beneficial for cancer sufferers.

With this mass of conflicting and inconclusive evidence, the debate on the nutritional superiority of organic food is unlikely to reach a conclusion soon. Certainly, as far as "consumer choice" is concerned, there are a wide range of views to choose from.

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