Spend your money where it matters

Food24 columnist Jeanne Horak-Druiff tells us what to look for when buying organic produce.

by: Jeanne Horak-Druiff: Food 24 | 15 Jun 2009

So is everybody else feeling as credit crunched as I am? It seems you can’t open a newspaper or turn on the TV without being bombarded by news of another high-profile corporate collapse, or some expert’s dire predictions of the economic mess we’ve got ourselves into. It’s alarm and despondency for starters and depression for dessert.

One of the more interesting (if depressing!) consequences of the price increases and the shortage of cash in people’s wallets is how it is affecting food buying patterns: sales of crisps and frozen pizza have surged, while sales of fresh fruit and vegetables are down; premium-priced Fairtrade and free range product sales have slowed, and shoppers are walking past the organic aisle to grab the supermarket’s cheap own-brand products.

Organic food is always a bit problematic for me. For a start, you’d think if the producers are using fewer chemicals to grow them, they might cost less than non-organic products, or at least the same – but organic produce is almost always stratospherically priced.

Add to this the fact that tests have been unable to prove that organic produce tastes better, and you will find me to be a confirmed organo-skeptic.

Organic foods are generally defined as food produced with severely restricted use of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. If we are talking about animal products, the livestock must be reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. Organic produce may usually not be genetically modified.

The problem is that although organic food production is heavily regulated and producers need certification in order to call their products organic, there is no international set of standards. Most certification schemes do allow some use of non-organic chemicals, so it’s up to the consumer to check the standards in their own country. For South Africa, the organic certification body is Afrisco, and their website contains detailed information on what an organic label does, and does not, mean in South Africa and its neighbouring states.

So what if you, like me, don’t really want to fill up your body with freaky chemicals and hormones, but at the same time you can’t afford to buy organic everything, down to your toothpaste? One option is to pay careful attention to studies indicating which foods usually contain the highest residue of pesticides, and which ones contain the lowest.

By purchasing organic versions of those fruits and vegetable most likely to contain pesticides, you can reduce your risk of ingesting potentially harmful chemicals. And buy buying non organic versions of those fruits and vegetables least likely to contain pesticides, you can avoid feeling the hit in your grocery budget.

According to research done on pesticide residues by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group here are…

5 foods where organic really matters:

  • Peaches – their thin skin provides almost no protection against pesticides
  • Lettuce – almost the entire surface area that you eat is potentially covered in pesticides!
  • Celery – because celery has no skin as such, pesticides easily penetrate and linger in the flesh
  • Peppers – another paper thin skin providing no protection
  • Grapes – apart from a thin skin, grapes also have a far larger ratio of skin to flesh, so there is more surface area for the pesticides to linger on.

    5 foods where organic is less important:

  • Onions – because there are few pests with a taste for onions, this means they are treated with fewer pesticides
  • Avocado pears – their thick skins mean that the flesh is pretty resistant to pesticide build-up (and you don’t eat the skin!)
  • Mangoes – once again the skin protects the fruit – but you may want to wash the skin before slicing
  • Asparagus – may be that their high sulphite content deters pests
  • Watermelon – now that’s what I call a protective skin!

    So do YOU spend the extra cash to buy organic, or not?

    Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog www.cooksister.com. This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.

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