Monday, 13 October 2014

Organic foods - are they worth the premium?

This post has been brewing in my head for a while. I'm probably going to upset someone by posting it but I always try to be honest on this blog. It's about organic food.

I used to buy organic. I still do occasionally but only when it fits into my pocket. The simple truth is I can't afford it these days and so I've had to be pragmatic.Occasionally, organic is the same price or cheaper than non-organic products so it's a no-brainer.

My pragmatism has altered over time into a faint cynicism. The aims of the organic movement are laudable but the fact is, getting certified organic is expensive for small independent producers. I'm guessing there are a lot who follow organic principles but can't sell it as such.

This came about because Waitrose asked me to provide some recipes for their Organic Month in September and sent me a giftcard to go shopping for organic products. Unfortunately, my shopping trip was a bit of a disaster. But that is not relevant to the thrust of my post. And I do want to say that I LOVE Waitrose - I shop there a lot, although mostly for particular things I can't get elsewhere and top up shops.

What shocked me most was the variation in price - some things, like yogurt, were only a little more but milk was double the price for the same size bottle. Ostensibly, they are very similar products. Why?

The organic food industry is huge and we are sold the benefits of it. Meat production has better welfare standards.Everyone goes on about fewer pesticides. I used to be convinced that carrots tasted better, but what I bought was grown locally and delivered fresh to me by the grower. I fully accept now that it might not be the fact it was organic that made them taste better.

The health benefits are to me, not clear. I'm a big fan of Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame (I heard him speak recently, he was great) and he's written a whole post on organic food and the FSA's findings that there are no measurable health benefits which you can find here. This echoes = and has informed - my own feelings on the subject.

One of the items I did buy on my shopping trip was an organic lamb joint as it was on special offer. When I cooked it, its texture was lovely but in terms of the taste, we didn't feel it tasted any better, but then it had been a few weeks since we last had roast lamb. Maybe that's the thing - the premium tricks us into thinking because it cost more, it tasted better.

If you are going to buy organic, I would recommend saving it for key ingredients like meat, poultry and eggs as they are a more ethical choice. Some things will never be organic - think seafood, think fish that is not farmed, think foraged items - so there is no point in looking for them. No-one will ever be able to eat 100% organically unless they restrict their diet. Waitrose has one of the most extensive ranges of organic items in a UK supermarket. A quick search of their online shop suggests they have over 800 items (including cat food?!) but that is still a drop in the ocean; supermarkets stock thousands of products.

The conclusion I have come to is this - organic food is a lifestyle choice and it makes money, a lot of money. If you want to buy organic, and you can afford it, by all means go for it. But if you can't afford it, then you will be fine and nothing bad will happen. It's more important to be able to feed your family.

(This post was inspired by an approach by Waitrose, who have a big range of organic products. They sent me a giftcard to buy organic ingredients. They also sent me a box of some organic products.)
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