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Friday, March 4, 2011

Organic food: Worth the money or a big fat con?

By Franz Winklebaum

Organic food has become increasingly popular and increasingly widespread in recent years, with middle-class shoppers in particular driving demand for what they perceive to be a better product. But are the benefits of organic food overstated or misunderstood?

Which? Gardening magazine has sparked a fierce debate about organic food after publishing the findings of a two-year trial in its March 2011 edition. According to the evidence collected by Which?, based on 3 popular garden crops, organic food doesn't have a higher nutritional value than conventionally-farmed alternatives, and it doesn't taste any better either.

This research supports the conclusions of a comprehensive report produced by the Food Standards Agency in 2009, according to the Crop Protection Association. Somewhat controversially, the FSA report found that organic food offered no significant health benefits. Which? Gardening magazine compared organically and non-organically grown plots of potatoes, Calabrese broccoli and tomatoes in its own trial. In most cases, conventionally grown crops were found to be tastier and more nutritious than the same items grown organically.

Levels of antioxidants were found to be significantly higher in non-organic Calabrese broccoli than in the organically-grown equivalents. Equally, the non-organic potatoes were had higher levels of vitamin C than the organic ones. To get a benchmark for the comparative taste of organic and non-organic food, a panel of expert tasters was deployed. They judged the non-organically grown tomatoes to have a stronger tomato flavour than the organic samples. They were also sweeter. This data was backed up by the results of a blind taste test on members of the public (at the Totally Tomato Show at West Dean Gardens). 69% of blind tasters gave the same feedback as the experts in the lab.

Consumers can't make informed choices about the food they eat unless independent research like this gets support, according Dominic Dyer, Chief Executive at the Crop Protection Association. He objected to the fact that shoppers are paying premiums for organic food in the middle of a recession and at a time when food prices are at record levels, given that the reasons people choose organic don't hold water. It is worth noting, however, that organically-grown food is still better for the planet than conventionally-farmed alternatives. This is something that environmental campaigners are keen to emphasise.

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