Is organic food all that it’s hyped up to be? Well, here’s what an expert has to say…
When you see the words ‘organic food’, what comes to your mind? That it’s healthy? Pesticide-free and more nutritious? Environment friendly?
It seems like there is a growing demand for organic food on our local shores. Stores selling these foods are sprouting like flowers during spring and organic products on supermarket shelves are selling like hotcakes.
However the question is: are foods labelled ‘organic’ truly organic? Do they really do wonders for your health or is it all just a marketing gimmick?
Senior Dietitian at Sunway Medical Centre, Rama Parahakaran shares important facts about organic food.
The word ‘organic’ generally refers to the way agricultural products are produced. “Organic products are produced by farmers that conserve the quality of the soil, the environment and reduce pollution by using natural methods of farming such as natural fertilisers and crop rotation to manage the growth of weeds,” says Rama.
Organic food products are produced based on strict government standards which have been set by the respective government of the product’s origins. In Malaysia, all organic foods are regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture. “An organic accreditation called Sijil Organik Malaysia (SOM) or also known as the Malaysian Organic Certificate, was developed and is monitored by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that organic farms adhere to the criteria and procedures set,” explains Rama.
It all started in 1998 when the Malaysian government decided to introduce a policy on organic agriculture. Hence, a formal guideline for organic farming was introduced. “The aim was to protect the consumers and producers against deception and fraud in the marketplace, ensure all stages of production, preparation, transportation and food labeling adhere to the standards and at the same time, be at par with international standards for the export of food products.”
In 2014, the accreditation standards set by the government were revised and updated. A year later, the government decided to change the SOM logo to My Organic.
Organic = healthy?
Organic foods are often seen as the healthier choice. However, there are a few points which you should take into account when buying organic food as not all of them may be as ‘healthy’ as you might imagine. Rama provides insights on three important questions regarding organic food.
All 100 percent organic?
Not all organic products found on shelves are 100 percent organic. Rama defines the different levels of ‘organic’. She explains that, “A product can only be labeled as ‘100 percent organic’ if no pesticides, synthetic fertilisers or genetically modified organisms are involved in during growth process.”
While there are no accreditation standards to certify the different standards of organic produce in Malaysia, Rama shares some important information about accreditation as stated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Most of the organic products are produced overseas as Malaysia produces very limited organic food,” reveals Rama.“The USDA seal guarantees that the foods are at least 95 percent organic and the department has defined three ways of labelling organic food”
- 100 percent organic: Products made with 100 percent organic ingredients
- Organic foods: Foods that consist of 95 percent organic ingredients
- Made with organic ingredients: Products made with 75 percent organic ingredients and the rest are with genetically modified organisms.
Is organic food healthier?
Rama reveals the answer to this million dollar question. Firstly, the American Dietetic Association or now known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics claims that vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are no differen,t in terms of nutritional levels, compared to conventional food.
She says, “A recent study examined articles published in the past 50 years. The study concluded that organically and conventionally produced food products do not show a significant difference in nutrients. However, many people opt to purchase organic food to limit their exposure to residues through the usage of pesticides and food additives.”
A clinical review, Rama shares, yielded the same results. “The review which was published in the American Journal of Nutrition also did not find sufficient evidence that organic food is healthier than conventional food,” she says. “More studies and research has to be conducted to identify the difference in terms of quality or nutrients, between organic and conventional food.”
She concludes that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic food is more nutritious or healthier compared to conventional produce.
Rama warns that, if you’re planning to buy organic products, it is important that you read the label carefully. She says that, “Food labels have to be read carefully because while the label states ‘organic’, the food may still be high in sugar, salt and fat content.”
However, one vast difference between organic and non-organic produce is the price. Rama says that, “According to consumer reports, organic food have their prices marked up at 47 percent or higher, than conventional alternatives.” Hence, choosing organic food is a luxury to some. Rama says that it is not clear why such a high price is imposed on organic products. “Perhaps, people who opt for organic food are actually buying the emotional satisfaction that they get because they are taking steps to eating healthy and improving the environment at the same time,” she says.
The answer is balance
No matter which path you choose – to go organic or not — Rama assures that, “Both organic and conventional farmers do not exceed safety threshold measures of pesticides and food additives.This means that pesticide residues can be removed by washing the food thoroughly.”
Rama believes that consumers should choose organic food if it is being sold at a reasonable price. “To stay healthy, you should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables whether it is organic or not as currently, there is inconclusive evidence to prove that organic food is healthier and nutritious compared to conventional alternatives.”