Regardless of whether a food is organic or non-organic, there are many positive effects in eating healthy produce.
SOME people are more vigilant when it comes to healthy eating. It may not be enough that their diet is lowfat or low-calorie, the origin of the food is also important.
They want food that’s grown naturally without the use of pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics and processed without using synthetic food additives. In other words, they want food that’s organic, which they believe offers the ultimate health benefit.
Organic food is not a new concept, as according to history, awareness on nonchemical farming started in the 1940s although it was not called organic farming then.
Today, the term “organic” is used in agricultural marketing to indicate that a food or agricultural product has been farmed through specific requirements that match the standards of accredited certifying agents such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Over the decades, interest and demand for organic food has grown as people have become more aware of environmentalfriendly products.
According to the US Institute of Food Technologists, the rapid growth is due to increased consumer confidence in organic food as well as concerns about the possible health risks and environmental impact of conventional food production methods.
The demand is further increased with the rise of diseases linked to conventional food production. Surveys indicate that many consumers purchase organic food because of its perceived health and nutritional benefits. Globally, sales of organic
food amounted to US$90 billion (RM350 billion) in 2016. By 2025, it is expected to reach US$320.5 billion.
As for the health benefits, there are various versions to this claim.
There are those who are convinced that organic food is healthier and contains higher levels of nutrients than non-organic food.
They believe that organic food has higher antioxidants that can prevent heart disease, cancer, premature ageing and cognitive malfunction as well as boost the immune system, among others.
On the flip side, despite studies looking into these claims, no conclusion has been made as of yet.
The latest study by Danish researchers states that the health benefits of consuming organic food cannot be proven with certainty.
While there are healthy substances in organic food, the researchers say it is difficult to document these health benefits.
Organic food does contain fewer pesticides and additives, and even antibiotics. It also has more minerals and antioxidants than its non-organic counterparts, say the researchers.
Dietitian Edna Loh says findings on the health benefits of organic food are not consistent because all crops grown naturally would have slight variations in their nutritional composition.
This is due to growing conditions such as fertiliser regimen, season and environment. Furthermore, the nutrients in crops could be affected during storage, transportation and preparation of dishes.
She says the belief that organic food is healthier is based on consumers’ increasing awareness of chemicals present in food products. A study which looked at consumers’ intentions when choosing organic food, for example, came to the conclusion that people choose organic food based on the belief that the process is better than non-organic food, says Loh.
Consumers may choose organic food because they believe it has less impact on the environment and increased benefits in terms of product quality.
They may also want to minimise pesticide exposure in “Whether this translates to better health outcomes is unknown because there are a multitude of other toxins that children could be exposed to such as lead-laden toys and food and drink packaging that contains Bisphenol A,” says Loh. “But although the nutritional value of organic and non-organic produce do not differ significantly, the environmental health benefits of organically produced crops are still significant.”
As for the claim that organic food contains disease-fighting benefits including reducing the risk of cancer, Loh says there is no evidence to support the claim.
She says according to the World Cancer Report 2014, risk factors for cancer are linked to a combination of diet, obesity and physical inactivity. Well-documented carcinogens that are linked to cancer include tobacco products, consumption of processed meat, and excessive alcohol consumption.
“There is no scientific evidence that pesticides from farm produce can increase our overall cancer risk. In fact, to lower our cancer risk we are advised to increase our intake of fruit and vegetables, regardless of whether they’re organic or non-organic.”
Loh says there are ways to reduce pesticide in fresh produce. Experts have recommended rinsing and scrubbing fruit and vegetables to remove residual pesticide.
They can also be soaked in baking soda for a period of time, according to a study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts.
“And not all imported fruit and vegetables are organic. In fact, some may contain even higher amounts of synthetic chemicals to preserve freshness during transportation, she adds.”
For those who want to turn to organic food, Loh says it is important to do research on its advantages and disadvantages. This includes looking at claims that companies make about organic food such as being pesticide-free.
“Synthetic pesticides are allowed in farming. And when experts looked at natural pesticides used by farmers, it was found that when these were used in similar doses to synthetic pesticides, it could harm the body. So it is actually the dose that makes the poison.”
Loh says consumers should also look at the nutrition label. Some products may claim to contain organic ingredients, but they also include excessive trans fat, sodium and sugar.
If you want to eat organic, it does not mean you have to completely change your diet, she says. Being aware of eating habits and changing your lifestyle are also important.
Loh, who advocates eating for a healthier weight, encourages people to increase their intake of fresh produce. Generally fresh produce such as meat, grains, fruit and vegetables contain an array of macro and micro nutrients that are essential for health.
“When it comes to healthy eating to achieve specific health goals, individualised dietary recommendations should be tailored to meet the person’s nutritional requirements.”
Regardless of whether the food is organic or non-organic, there are many positive effects to eating healthy food, she says. This includes better weight management as eating healthier food in the right amounts can definitely encourage healthy weight loss, and better bone and joint health.
Loh says eating the right balance of carbohydrates, protein and vitamins boosts energy and helps one achieve better mental health too.
“Another positive factor is that the energy boosting effect from good nutrition is longer-lasting and can help increase muscle strength and endurance when coupled with regular exercise. This can indirectly promote better sleep, and allow our bodies to rejuvenate better.
“Choosing the right food products can also lead to effective management of important biomarkers to prevent the onset of chronic diseases.”
NO REGRETS GOING ORGANIC
WHEN he started his organic food business in 2012, Edward Yap also decided to change his diet. He felt having first-hand experience was important to answer any questions customers may have regarding organic food.
He says initially it was not easy as he felt uncomfortable and was always hungry. “My diet is not fully organic but focuses more on pesticide-free vegetables.
It was tough at first because I did not like to eat vegetables. But I did it not only because of my business but also because I was overweight at 108kg and suffering from fatty liver.”
Yap’s organic meals are mainly for breakfast and dinner. He has rolled oats with chia seed and coconut oil for breakfast. For dinner, it’s quinoa rice with spinach.
To him, organic food is healthier compared to non-organic food. Ever since he made the switch, Yap says he is more energetic and focused and his skin has improved. He believes that these changes are because his body is no longer full of toxins from chemicals or additives.
As for the complaint that organic food is more expensive, Yap says not all the products are costly. The price depends on the quality as well as the handling process and protection of the food, which can be costly.
“When you get good quality food with good nutrition, I think it is worth it,” he adds.
Yap says awareness among Malaysians about organic food has changed over the last five years. There are now more people who are into healthy food, which has increased the popularity of organic products.
“Previously, it was difficult to find organic food as supermarkets would only carry a limited selection. Now it is easy to find and there are more choices. For those who want to eat organic food, I would advice them to start with vegetables or easy-to-cook grains such as oats, buckwheat and quinoa.”