Organic food – is it worth the extra spend?

Over the last two decades, the organic food industry has grown dramatically. But is organic food healthier than conventional food, and therefore worth the extra cost? Moneybags investigates.

What is organic food?
Organic food is farmed without the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering or sewage sludge as a means to enhance or maintain soil fertility. In the case of livestock, organic farmers generally ensure the animals are consuming good quality feed in low stress environments, and avoiding the intake of chemical drugs such as antibiotics.
Who sets the health and safety standard for organic farming?

“Currently, South Africa has a number of certifying bodies with differing standards,” says Discovery Vitality dietician, Candice Smith, RD (SA). “However, all organic products must adhere to the ‘Food Safety Control Legislation of South Africa’ set by the Department of Health.”

This means that organic and conventional foods both need to meet the same safety and quality standards for human consumption.

What are the health benefits of organic food?
Conventional food may contain more pesticide residue than organic food, as well as flavouring chemicals used in the factory and preservatives to prevent the foods from going off. Organic foods are generally not exposed to these toxins. “By eating organic foods you will be taking in fewer chemicals that can harm your body and contribute to illness,” says nutritional therapist, Sara Bible.

On the other hand, some research shows that not using pesticides and fungicides may result in greater contamination with micro-organisms or microbial products. However, organically grown food bought at the supermarket should be microbiologically safe for humans. “Observing good food hygiene practices (washing and rinsing with clean water or Milton before eating) with non-organic foods is generally safe,” says Dr Lauren Hill PhD RD (SA) at the division of human nutrition, department of human biology, University of Cape Town.

Some research suggests that fruits such as apples, grapes and pears (with thin skin which is eaten) may be healthier if organic, as the pesticides are more likely to penetrate the skin. Vegetables and fruit which are peeled before eating may in fact be the equivalent to non-organic.

Is organic food more nutritious?
“There is not sufficient scientific evidence that shows that organically grown foods are more nutritious than non-organically (conventionally) grown foods,” says Professor Marjanne Senekal from the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Cape Town.

The most important thing to remember is that you need to meet the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables (five servings a day).  “Eating organic produce over non-organic while not meeting the recommended daily intake for fruit and veg is not healthier or more beneficial in any way,” advises Dr Hill.

Is there a real difference in nutritional content?
There are a wide variety of factors affecting the nutritional value of mass-produced food, including climate, soil stewardship techniques, storage and transport of produce. It is therefore difficult to make clear comparisons between organic and conventional food when so many other factors need to be taken into account.

“Some organic fruit and vegetables might be slightly richer sources of antioxidant nutrients, although this is not completely a given,” says Dr Hill. “Similarly, some organic dairy products might provide more omega-3 and other healthy fats compared to conventional dairy.”

Some studies have shown that organic crops have higher nutrient levels, but the results are not yet conclusive. “More research of good quality studies is needed to determine whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods,” says Smith.

If organic food is healthier, why don’t we get extra points for it on our Discovery Vitality HealthyFood benefit programme?
“The selection criteria for foods to be included in the HealthyFood benefit are currently based on local and internationally accepted dietary guidelines for whole population groups,” says Discovery’s Smith. “Presently there are no population guidelines which recommend organic food as more superior to conventional food and for this reason this has not been considered as part of the criteria used for product selection for the HealthyFood benefit.”

So where to from here?
This depends on your budget. If you have the extra money to spend on organic produce, then go ahead. Organic options often taste better and have more flavour than their conventional counterparts. “Most people complain about the cost of organic food, but you need to look at it as an investment. You are investing in your long term health and a healthier environment as organic farming works to restore and maintain good soil and clean air,” says De Beer. Save by buying conventional fruits and veg with thicker skins (bananas, butternut etc).

However, if buying organic over conventional food is cost-prohibitive, then you need not eliminate other foods from your diet.  “At this stage, there are no well-designed intervention studies that report on the effect of organic vs. non-organic foods on long-term health outcomes. This is definitely not a priority to ensure health,” says Dr Senekal.

Rather ensure you reach your recommended daily intake of five servings of fruit and veg, as well as nutrient-rich food that is low in saturated fat, added sugars, sodium, and cholesterol. Focus on health and variety first.

Moneybags’ verdict:
Concentrate on eating right rather than stretching your budget for organic produce. If you’re looking to cut your monthly grocery cost, buy conventional food. Always wash your food carefully before eating it. Grow what you can yourself and make the best diet and lifestyle choices for your particular circumstance.

To keep up to date with the latest views on spending and saving, subscribe to the Moneybags newsletter here.

All information correct at time of publication and subject to change thereafter.