Is trying to eat an organic diet a waste of money?

’Organic’ is a label guaranteed to see your grocery bill spike upwards, but is it worth the extra cash? Writer Summer Ryland investigates.

It’s a late Saturday morning at the supermarket. You’ve planned the week’s shopping and you’re ready to get in, get out, and get on with your weekend. Everything’s going according to plan – until you reach the fresh produce section.

Spoiled for choice but lacking in clarity, you wonder if it’s really worth paying double the price for organic avocados. And while the regular carrots look all crisp and orange, the organic broccoli on offer today is looking worse for wear. 

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So, should you buy according to what’s available on the organic shelves, or is your healthy diet still intact if you reach for the regular – and likely less expensive – versions of your desired produce? 

According to the experts, buying what’s fresh and affordable is the key to healthy, happy living.

“Nutritionally speaking, the differences between organic and conventionally grown produce are negligible,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD of Street Smart Nutrition. “While there may be trace differences in micronutrients and antioxidants, either option will deliver the benefits associated with higher overall fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Considering that only 27% of adults in the UK are getting their five a day – a figure that drops to a dismal 12% in the US – most of us should be prioritising consumption over labelling. 

What does ‘organic’ actually mean?

“An organic label or certification is not a marker of nutritional superiority or quality. Rather, it tells you how that fruit or vegetable was produced,” Harbstreet explains. 

“Organic growers face the same pressure from pests, climate, and weeds as non-organic growers, and in my experience, they both care deeply about providing safe, high-quality and nutritious food for us to enjoy.”

Those fancy labels, by the way, don’t grow on trees. Achieving certification is a tedious process, and the entities controlling organic certification vary in both cost and criteria.

This means that smaller-scale producers, like the local growers who set up shop at weekly farmer’s markets, often can’t justify pursuing organic certification even if their farming methods meet or exceed regulatory standards. 

Not all organic food is labelled as ‘organic’

“I grow produce according to organic protocols, but I would never go through the process of certification,” says Diane Kuthy, a small-scale farmer and founder of How to Grow Everything.

For all the time and money that a grower has to spend for the privilege of certification hoop-jumping, the labels are, in essence, a marketing tool. Organic certification protocols in both the UK and the US specify that products need only be 95% organic. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for loose interpretation, but it does mean there’s a 5% gap.

“That 5% gap,” Kuthy notes, “was created to allow for the inclusion of ingredients that cannot be certified organic, such as salt or baking soda. However, it also leaves room for minor indiscretions among producers.”

In short, unless you’re growing those tomatoes yourself, it’s tough to know exactly what went into the process of growing and harvesting them – nevermind the packing and transport. The road from farm to table via supermarket is usually a winding one, and produce labels offer little in the way of direction.

“Food labelling is often unclear or poorly understood — even among professionals in the food and health space,” says Harbstreet.

That said, some labels do include sourcing information, such as the name of the farm and packing facility. The produce manager at your preferred grocer may also be able to point you in the direction of certain growers or importers. But if you really want to connect with the source of your fruits and vegetables, buy direct.

Only you can decide on your food priorities

“Shoppers will have different priorities” says Barbara Bray MBE, a food safety and nutrition consultant and the founder of Alo Solutions. “Health, the environment, animal welfare –focus on what’s important to your household. If you’re buying directly from the producer, you can ask questions about their production methods.”

Bray recommends online resources such as Eat Farm Now, the Soil Association, and LEAF to learn more about how farming methods impact the foods we eat. She also encourages curious consumers to take advantage of opportunities to visit farms, whether by enquiry or during events like Open Farm Sunday. 

There’s no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic

And in the debate between organic versus non-organic, Bray echoes earlier sentiments.

“The level of vitamins and minerals in crops can actually vary more due to vegetable type than agronomic practice – the important thing is to eat as wide a range of foods as possible. There’s not enough evidence to say that the differences between organic and conventionally produced food are all significant for human health.”

So, bottom line? Buy what you can. Buy the fruits and vegetables that fit your budget, your dietary needs and your cooking habits. The UK organic market may be growing steadily, but this seems to be tied to an increasing desire for awareness of what goes on in the supply chain at large. 

We’re more keen to understand the impact our eating habits have on the world around us –on the farmers, the pickers, the animals, the environment, and so on –which is, to be clear, a very good thing. It’s also easily conflated with feelings of “doing good” simply by reaching for organically labelled goods.

“There are other food production systems [besides organic] that help the environment and are ethical,” says Bray. “This includes food produced from regenerative farming systems, food from Fairtrade farmers, Rainforest Alliance growers, and food that is eco-labelled for its carbon footprint and impact on the planet.

“There are a range of alternatives available that may suit people’s underlying values – it’s time for shoppers to look beyond the idea of just two choices.”

For more nutrition facts, check out the Strong Women Training Club library.

Images: Getty

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