FOOD is a bit of a mystery. Most of us don’t know where it comes from or how it works, not really. It’s taken for granted because, in the first world at least, it is always available.
Recently, thanks to a wave of food documentaries, books and culinary scandals like the horse-meat debacle, the length and complexity of the food chain has entered the spotlight. Beyond the basic nutrients, we are starting to want to know more about the origins and the life of our food. We are starting to care as much about the labels inside our clothes as the ones on our food.
As a result, there are a lot of buzzwords being thrown around. Fresh. Natural. Artisan. Heirloom. Authentic. Organic is one of the most commonly heard of this group. The word holds within it so many connotations, and importantly, significant marketing potential. But what does it tell us about our food, and is it worth the extra money?
In the UK, for food to be certified ‘Organic’ it must adhere to standards set by the Soil Association, a regulatory body who monitors producers and retailers. All aspects of the food chain are inspected yearly; from production and packaging, to animal welfare, sustainability and pesticide use. Despite popular belief, organic food is still grown with the use of chemicals, but this is minimal and restricted to those on a Soil-approved list.
Is it healthier? It is still up for debate whether organic food is more nutritious, but there are other benefits to take into consideration. Organic food is safer for farm workers and nearby farms, which are exposed to fewer chemicals, and in turn is usually more environmentally friendly. And if you buy through farmer’s markets you’re also supporting your local economy.
Why is it more expensive? It generally has higher labour and feed costs, and lower yields. Organic food can cost between 10-100% more than conventional food by the time it reaches the shops.
So is organic food all created equally? Some foods are more important to buy organic than others. Every year the Environmental Working Group release their ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, comprised of foods that have the highest levels of pesticide-residue. The list changes yearly, depending on weather conditions and farming policies, but some items crop up year after year. Keep these in mind and choosing organic becomes simpler, and much more accessible.
Dirty Dozen – choose organic: Leafy greens (think kale, spinach, collard), berries, tree fruits (apples, peaches, nectarines), celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, grapes, potatoes, fatty meats and milk.
Clean 15 – conventional is fine: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi fruit, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon, mushrooms, papaya.
Where to buy? The best places in London are farmer’s markets, in particular the Growing Communities market in Stoke Newington where all produce is certified organic. Local wholefood stores will be able to put you in touch with community box schemes or neighbourhood allotments where you can grow your own and have a truly transparent food chain. If all else fails, most local grocers and supermarkets are now offering organic options.