Is organic food best for you?

Do organic markets really sell organic produce? Where does their food come from and what makes it healthier? Nicolette Dirk chats to Vanessa Ascencao, Litha Pharma nutritional consultant and nutritionist, Megan Bosman, from Simply Nutrition to find if you should believe in the hype around organic food.

What does it mean when a product is organic?
Ascencao says organic products meet stringent standards. Organic certification is the public’s assurance that products have been grown and handled according to strict procedures without persistent toxic chemical inputs.

“Organic refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution,” she says.

How will I know if a product is organic?
If a product bears the organic seal or is labelled certified organic, the ingredients and subsequent crops have been grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilisers, and were processed without chemical preservatives. Ascencao says animals on organic farms eat organically grown feed and are raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

She adds that identifying authentic free-range and organic produce in South Africa can be tricky for consumers, as there is no official legislation in place for free-range or organic farming in South Africa. Organic products must be at least 95 % organic to use this term.
Products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label, but may not use the seal. Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can’t use the seal or the word “organic” on their labels. They may include the organic items in their ingredient list, however.

Bosman believes not all organic markets sell 100% organic produce. This is not necessarily because they are trying to dupe you, but because the laws around organic classification are unclear to some people and there are many grey areas. She adds that the regulations around food sold as organic are a bit too lenient.

Is organic food better for you?
Ascencao says that by consuming organic produce, we are putting fewer chemicals into our bodies and more nutrients.
She says animals used for conventional meat are fed antibiotics, growth hormones and medication to prevent disease and spur growth.
“Animals used for organic meat are given organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They use preventive measures such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing to help minimise disease,” says Ascencao.

She adds that when we eat organic protein, like meat or chicken, we are not loading our bodies with hormones, which in turn cause major havoc with our endocrine system. “By choosing organic we also support local farming and the environment,” says Ascencao.
Bosman adds that produce sprayed with pesticides have been linked to cancer and can have other negative effects on your health.
“Organic produce is not supposed to be sprayed with chemical pesticides. Food grown in nutrient depleted soil will have a lower nutrient value than that of produce grown in organic, nutrient rich soil,” she says.

Organic in South Africa:
In 1991, Woolworths became the first SA retailer to stock various organic fruit and vegetable ranges. Soon after this, they introduced organic meat (such as various beef and lamb cuts) and a range of organic dairy products. Last month they also became the first African retailer to receive the “Good Egg Award” for their commitment to leading the free range industry in South Africa.

The Good Egg Award recognises organisations that have a written policy to source only cage-free eggs or egg products.
According to Woolworths, over 75% of their food products, containing egg as an ingredient, are made with free range eggs.

“Animal welfare remains a key area of concern for both Woolworths and our customers and we are committed to constantly improving all aspects of animal health and welfare including livestock management and husbandry, housing, animal feed, farm hygiene, environment and transport,” says Rylands Zyda, Woolworths managing director of food.

Other major food retailers such as Pick n Pay and Checkers also sell organic produce.

Fruits and veggies you should buy organic:
Ascencao says you’ll probably want to buy organic when it comes to these foods as conventional ones contain the most pesticides:

• Peaches
• Apples
• Sweet bell peppers
• Celery
• Nectarines
• Strawberries
• Cherries
• Lettuce
• Grapes
• Pears
• Spinach
• Potatoes

The benefits of going organic are many. But there is more to good health than just buying organic. If you are still unsure about what’s healthy check out our story on nutrition rules to live by.

If you are a busy mom you may be cutting back on making fresh meals yourself and to save time. But ready heated meals are not always the answer.

If in doubt always check the ingredients printed on the labels to be sure of what you are eating, otherwise contact a dietician to advise you on what’s right for your body.

Extra resources:
Shop organic
Go organic
Pick n Pay