Body & Fitness

The great organic debate

To go organic or not to go organic?

Here’s what you need to know so you can make the best choice …

Here’s a familiar situation: You’re standing in the fruit and vege section of the supermarket, looking at the organic food and wondering if you should be buying it instead of the produce you usually get. The trouble is, organic food is more expensive and in these days of rising prices, you just can’t afford to blow the budget. But then there’s that nagging voice in your head telling you that not only is organic food good for the environment, it’s much better for you than fruit and vegetables sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals. Isn’t it?

Debate still rages over whether organic food is healthier. on one side are organisations claiming there’s no conclusive evidence that organic food is safer or more nutritious. They say conventionally grown food doesn’t necessarily contain residues of pesticides or chemicals by the time it makes it on to our dinner plates and, if it does, the amounts are so tiny they’re not likely to affect us. But that is disputed by supporters of organic food, who say there are studies that show food grown naturally is more nutritious, and that there’s a link between chemicals in food and conditions such as cancer, decreasing male fertility, birth defects and Parkinson’s disease.

Green tipone way to know if what you are buying is organic is to look for the BioGro label, which certifies the product is grown fully organically. Uncertified organic means produce has been grown using organic methods but it has not been audited by a certifying body.

What is meant by organic food? organic food is grown or produced without the use of agricultural chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators, colour or flavour enhancers.

There’s been a move towards organic farming in recent years due to concerns about the effects these chemicals may have on soil, plants, animals, water and people. Farmers can’t just slap a label on their produce saying it is organic – it has to be certified by one of three organisations that check it has adhered to strict guidelines.

Instead of spraying plants with fertilisers to help them grow faster or using chemicals to get rid of pests or keep weeds under control, organic farmers use natural fertilisers like manure and tackle weeds by hand or with mulch. They may also use birds and harmless insects to get rid of pests.

Meanwhile, organic farmers don’t give animals antibiotics, growth hormones or medication to prevent disease or encourage growth. They provide their animals with organic feed and use measures such as a balanced diet to help prevent diseases.

Why does organic food cost more? organic food can cost around 10 to 20% more than conventionally grown food. This is because organic farming can be more labour intensive and because farmers have to pay to get their produce certified as organic. Research into, and development, of organic farming methods also contributes to the higher prices and it can be expensive to switch from conventional to organic farming.

So is organic food better for us? This is a controversial subject and the answer you get depends on who you talk to or what you read. But according to the results of a four-year study released at the end of last year, it is healthier.

The project, carried out by British scientists at Newcastle University as part of a European Union initiative, found that organic fruit and vegetables may contain up to 40% more antioxidants than the non-organic types. The results were even better when the researchers tested milk – organic varieties had up to 60% more antioxidants and healthy fatty acids than conventionally produced ones.

Foods rich in antioxidants are believed to be healthier for us because they may help reduce the risk of conditions like cancer and heart disease. The tests also showed that organic produce had higher levels of important minerals such as zinc, iron and copper.

The co-ordinator of the study, Professor Carlo Leifert, said the differences between organic and non-organic foods were so great that eating four servings of organic produce might contain as many nutrients as five-plus servings of non-organic fruit and vegetables. Therefore people might be able to eat less produce, as long as it was organic.

**Green tip

**The dirty dozen Several years ago the Safe Food Campaign compiled a list of food grown in New Zealand that has been shown in surveys to be highly contaminated with pesticide residues. If you’re not eating organic versions, they recommend avoiding or at least cutting down on these foods, dubbed the “dirty dozen”.

  • Celery

  • Wheat products

  • Tomatoes

  • Kiwifruit

  • Apples

  • Cucumber

  • Peaches

  • Strawberries

  • oranges

  • Lettuce

  • Pears

  • Potatoes

Remember, it is still crucial to get at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. oany nutritionists believe the benefits of eating vegetables and fruit, even if they’re non-organic, outweigh the possible risks of eating food that may contain pesticide residues.

Is there other evidence organic food is healthier? organisations such as the Soil Association of Britain have compiled lists of studies they say show that organics are better for us. These include:

  • A 10-year study comparing organic and non-organic tomatoes that found the organic ones have almost double the amount of an antioxidant called flavanoids, which can protect the heart.

  • A study from California that discovered organically grown kiwifruit had higher levels of vitamin C.

  • An Italian project that found organic chicken had nearly 40% more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic chicken.

  • British oedical Association research that shows a link between pesticides and birth defects, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

The New Zealand Safe Food Campaign (www.safefood.org.nz) also has details of several other surveys highlighting the benefits of organic food, including:

  • A Danish study that found lab rats raised on organic foods had stronger immune systems, slept better and were slimmer than rats fed on conventional produce.

  • An American review reported that organic food has, on average, 30% higher levels of antioxidants.

  • Another Danish study shows organic milk has 50% more vitamin E and 75% more beta-carotene than non-organic milk, as well as higher levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids.

  • Research by scientists in California who found organic tomato sauce has higher levels of lycopene, which helps prevent against breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer and may also reduce the risk of heart disease.

Are organics important if I’m pregnant or…? A US study that looked at the umbilical-cord blood of newborn babies found the blood contained 287 chemicals out of 400 it tested for. of these, 180 are linked to cancer, 217 may be toxic to the brain or nervous system and 208 have been shown to cause birth defects or abnormal development in animals.

While scientists don’t know if having these chemicals in your blood will affect health later in life, the study suggests eating organic food during pregnancy may be a good idea.

When Dutch scientists tested the breast milk of mums who ate organic meat and dairy, they found it had higher levels of beneficial fatty acids than that of women who ate non-organic versions.

Studies suggest two of these fatty acids could reduce cancer, heart disease and diabetes, while helping maintain healthy levels of body fat.

But I can’t afford to buy organics If you want to avoid the possibility of eating food contaminated with chemicals but can’t afford to buy organic, try the following:

  • Peel your fruit and veges and trim off outer leaves. Wash them all thoroughly

  • Remove fat from meat and the skin from poultry and fish – pesticide residue can also collect in fat.

  • Splash out on organic versions of foods you eat with the skin on – such as tomatoes, celery and strawberries.

**What about the other side of the argument?

**our government regularly tests levels of pesticide residues in food. While residues are often found in the food tested because the New Zealand Food Safety Authority targets foods it suspects may have problems, the levels of residue found here are among the lowest in the world.

In the most recent survey carried out under the annual Food Residue Surveillance Programme, capsicum, strawberries, lettuce, mushrooms and courgettes went under the microscope.

Although a small number of samples showed residues slightly over the permitted level, the NZFSA says none of them posed a health risk. Levels were still “well below that needed to produce any human health effects.”

However, although those samples were not a risk, the NZFSA said it would work with growers to try to reduce the number of samples that exceed permitted levels.

The NZFSA maintains there’s no scientific evidence conventionally produced food is any less safe than organic in this country. Visit www.nzfsa.govt.nz for more info.

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