Organic food: the benefits for you

Colorful fresh organic vegetables

Greek physician Hippocrates was bang on the money when he declared: “Let food by thy medicine, and let medicine by thy food.” Diet-related ill health has escalated astronomically in recent years. According to a study in the Lancet, in 2017 poor diet has been associated with 1 in 5 deaths (11 million in total). And things are hardly likely to have improved with the advent of COVID-19. Recent research has found that more than 40% of adults put on weight during lockdown, thanks to snacking and comfort eating.

What we eat (as well as how much of it) influences how we look, how we feel and how we thrive. Which is why I’m so keen to find out more about organic food, and the benefits it brings. As regular readers will know, earlier this year I became vegetarian. I also try to use vegan skincare and toiletries. So, Organic September really appeals to me. Led by the Soil Association and the Organic Trade Board, this is a multi-faceted, month-long campaign. This initiative aims to raise awareness of the advantages of organic – and highlights the efforts organic brands and businesses make to safeguard the planet.

Healthy organic food The Soil Association
The Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic food and farming charity, campaigning tirelessly for healthy soil, people and the planet

What is organic food?

Perhaps the first question that needs asking is what exactly is organic food? The term refers to the process of the production of certain foods. According to the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. They also do not permit irradiation and the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Instead, farming methods that incorporate natural substances and agricultural practices, such as animal and plant manure, crop rotation, some hand weeding and biological pest control, produce organic food.

Colourful and fresh organic vegetables make a great choice for a healthier you and planet
Colourful and fresh organic vegetables make a great choice for a healthier you

In other words, organic food has a limited environmental impact. It encourages the responsible use of energy and natural resources. It also helps to maintain biodiversity, and enhance soil and water quality. If you’re keen to start shopping organic, look out for the right labels and logos. Some descriptions, such as ‘natural’ and even ‘free-range’ can be a bit misleading (or driven mostly by marketing). ‘Organic’, however, is a protected term, subject to legal regulation. To label a food or drink organic, at least 95% of its ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals. In turn, an independent certification body, such as the Soil Association must approve these ingredients. Theirs is considered to be the gold standard of organic labelling.

Is organic food healthier?

This is a common question, but ‘healthier’ isn’t always exact or easy to quantify. However, according to Dr Jess Braid, Co-Founder of Adio, organic food is certainly higher in essential nutrients and lower in toxic pesticides. “Organic food is up to 60% higher in antioxidants (natural compounds that boost our health, prevent disease, and help us deal with toxins) than its non-organic counterparts,” she observes. “Organic milk and meat are also 50% higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids”. The body can’t make these from scratch, but they play a key role in protecting the heart and blood vessels from disease. Dr Jess also maintains that organic milk is 40% higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a natural inflammatory.

Antibiotics – or more specifically, antibiotic resistance – is another key issue to consider. “By routinely giving animals unnecessary antibiotics, [resistance] is an increasing risk,” Dr Jess acknowledges. “Antibiotic resistance is leading to an abundance of ‘superbugs’. These do not respond to antibiotic treatment and have the potential to cause life-threatening infections.”

Dr Jess Braid from Adio
Adio Co-Founder Dr Jess Braid is a passionate advocate of organic food. She also recommends using organic shampoos and skincare, as skin is the body’s largest organ and has a large surface area for absorbing chemicals

What is it free from?

Crucially, it’s what organic food doesn’t contain that makes it such an attractive option. It’s free from GMOs, artificial hormones and antibiotics, and is lower in certain pesticides and toxic metals. Dr Jess explains: “Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal associated with kidney disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart, disease and cancer. Pollution, sewage sludge and poor faming all contribute to cadmium levels in our food. But organic food contains much lower levels than non-organic.”

As for components such as GMOs, the truth is we don’t know for sure what detrimental effects these might have in the future. “Genetically modified food is shown to be higher in herbicides – similar to pesticides and very harmful to biodiversity,” notes Dr Jess. “The long-term health effects of this are yet to be studied…As a population, our bodies have never encountered these foods, or adapted to tolerate them. Safety assessments to date have been inadequate.”

Is organic food tastier?

Taste is of course a subjective and personal consideration. Some people say they can taste the different between organic and non-organic food. Others can detect no difference. I can’t help thinking that, when you grow plants organically without pesticides, they are bound to taste better. And many food experts and professional chefs share this opinion. Well-nourished soil leads to well-nourished plants (and presumably, well-nourished animals). This in turn yields food that not only has a higher nutritional content, but an optimal flavour.

Mr Organic food recipe
Keen to experiment with some organic food? This recipe for sun-dried tomato & chickpea gnocchi would work brilliantly with Mr Organic’s new passata sauces

I’m always on the lookout for new recipes to try. In fact, I’m looking forward to experimenting with the new tomato passatas (Chilli & Garlic and Mixed Herbs) from Mr Organic. They make these vegan-friendly, gluten-free sauces 100% organically using extra virgin olive oil and sun-ripened organic tomatoes.

Mr Organic MD Valerio Simonetti
Mr Organic MD Valerio Simonetti

“Mr Organic helps people to enjoy wholesome and nutritious food, while putting the planet first,” notes Managing Director Valerio Simonetti. “Our long-lasting and fair relationships with farmers allow us to guarantee we know exactly where all of the ingredients come from, ensuring ethically sourced, carefully selected produce is exactly what customers enjoy.”

Chocolate heaven

Organic food vegan chocolate
Available in over 3,000 stores globally – and stocked on Ocado.com – PLAYin CHOC is my new go-to organic sweet treat. The collection ranges from choc bars through to toy choc boxes. The latter come with their own 3D puzzle toys and an educational fun facts card

Many people make the mistake of thinking that organic food has to be worthy and rather joyless. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m thrilled to have discovered PLAYin CHOC, a delicious organic confectionery collection. This three-ingredient chocolate contains just cacao, coconut and vanilla. Since launching in 2018, it’s won 23 awards! The PLAYin CHOC brand is plastic-free, zero waste and 100% recyclable. So its healthier for you – and better for the environment too.

Maya Simler founder of PLAYin CHOC organic food
Maya Simler founder of PLAYin CHOC organic food

“Organic chocolate is not only generally tastier with a fuller, richer flavour, but is often healthier too,” explains PLAYin CHOC founder Maya Simler. “This is due to the way organic crops are grown, avoiding harmful pesticides. Organic chocolate recipes also mostly avoid extra additives and artificial ingredients.” She adds: “Importantly, organic chocolate crops are also a more valuable crop to grow for the farmer. They are generally not grown with slave labour, particularly where South American organic cacao is concerned.”

Organic food box ideas

Riverford delivers mouth-watering organic veggie boxes, which make sustainable veg shopping easy. This concept is brilliant as they are simply delivered to your door, using as little packaging as possible. In fact, I hear they are constantly working to minimise waste. Riverford also never air-freights which helps to keep the carbon footprint low and fruit and veg boxes showcase seasonal varieties. They celebrate seasonal produce, such as UK asparagus and cherries, so I think this brand is definitely worth a try. Their produce is certified by the Soil Association, which is the UK’s largest organic certification body.

Riverford's founder Guy Singh Watson
Riverford’s founder Guy Singh Watson

I spoke to Guy Singh Watson, Riverford’s founder, who says: “Organic food is the product of organic farming; put simply, it’s a system of managing land and livestock, which works with nature and not against it. By choosing to buy organic you are choosing food that is good for the environment and animal welfare, food that is good for your health and that has more flavour, and therefore a greater pleasure in cooking it.

“I would also say, perhaps more philosophically, that trying to farm and live in partnership and harmony with nature, with a humility and acceptance of the constraints is something that we all need to get better at if 10 billion people are going to live peacefully within the ecological boundaries of our planet.

“So specifically, organic farming avoids pesticides and synthetic fertilisers and adopts balanced crop rotations, which means healthy soil, and far more biodiversity both above and below the ground. There is around 50% more wildlife found on organic farms and we see this daily at Riverford in the number of insects, birds, soil fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates.

“There is now a wealth of research that has found organic food to be nutritionally different to conventionally farmed food, organic crops have up to 68 % more antioxidants and organic meat and milk contain 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.”

Freshly harvested produce
Riverford offers an amazing selection of organic vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy and recipe boxes, to inspire you on your organic food journey

Is organic food better for the planet?

Planet earth returning to nature
There is no Planet B and if you switch to organic food, it’s far more climate-friendly when compared to intensive industrialised agriculture

The answer to this is a resounding yes. Organic farming is far more climate-friendly than intensive industrialised agriculture. And, as there is no Planet B, that’s a bonus for us too. Intense agriculture depletes nutrients from the soil and contaminates water. Then there’s the greenhouse gas emissions issue. According to the Soil Association, if half of the farms in the EU followed organic principles by 2030, Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by over a quarter. As a result, there would be much more carbon stored in the soil. In summary, eating more organic food isn’t just healthier and tastier, it just might help to save the world too.

Let’s face it, we haven’t had very good weather this season. So if, like me, you’re holding out for an Indian summer, you might be considering firing up the barbecue in September instead. If you’re vegetarian or you need to cater for someone who is, follow my top tips and recipe ideas here.

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