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Choosing organic food can be part of a healthy lifestyle. You may have heard about and seen organic food before, but nowadays it seems to be everywhere. With all the new organic food labels, stores, and restaurant, you may be wondering what it's all really about. As with anything, knowledge is key, so before you decide to go organic with your next batch of groceries, we answer all your questions concerning what to eat, where to buy, and what it all means. Read on to learn more about eating and buying organic food.
The Ultimate Guide to Organic Food
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If you're either a foodie, careful with your diet, or basically anyone who enjoys eating - we are sure you've heard the term “organic food” before. Better yet, we are sure you've read it somewhere during your last trip to the supermarket.
In Australia, the organic food market is valued at $1.72bn, and our country is also one of the organic agriculture leaders, currently dedicating around 17.2 million hectares to the practice. So, it is pretty safe to say that the organic food trend is here to stay.
But first and foremost, let's answer the big question. What exactly is organic food? Does it mean more than just naturally grown?
In actuality organic food is produced based on specifically defined guidelines for farms and products, requirements established by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), a bi-national governmental agency that regulates food safety and labelling in the two countries. Optimizing the health and productivity of soil, plants, animals and humans are paramount in the cultivation and manufacturing of organic food. In addition, organic crops grow almost entirely without pesticides, chemicals or any genetic engineering.
Even though the FSANZ does not enforce its regulations on farmers and restaurants directly, there are several specialized companies, such as the NASAA Certified Organic that give out certifications to organic food companies that follow all the necessary requirements. That way, you too, as the consumer, have access to all the information about how your food is handled from farming to production.
Where does organic food come from?
It is a common questions to wonder about the source of organic food, while it is possible that organic food can be imported from areas such as China, more organic food is now being locally produced.
As mentioned before, Australia is one of the main producers of biological food worldwide. With 22 million hectares, Australia has the most organic land in the world. The organic food industry in Australia is growing with an annual increase of 15%.
While organic food can come from abroad, Australia also doubled their exports from 2012 to 2014, whereas the import of biological food decreased by 4% showing that more organic food is in fact being produced right here in Australia. Even with this huge growth in Australia, it is necessary to import some organic food, as the demand is still higher than the supply. Having some of these imports is a part of lowering the prices.
Even Imported products have to fulfill the same standards as the certificated products produced in Australia. Imports must still be proofed by one of the certification organisations.
Benefits of organic food
In addition to understanding how something is classified as organic, understanding the medical and environmental impact of organic food is also important.
Is Organic Food good for your health?
You may have seen the abbreviation GMO before. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. In other words: plants, vegetable, fruits, and even animals that have had their DNA modified in any way - a complex process done by scientist and other specialists, of course. When it comes to agriculture, the reasons for such alterations are many: facilitating transportation, adding vitamins, building resistance against insects and other parasites, etc.
Nowadays, it is hard to completely avoid the consumption of GMOs – most processed products include GMOs as ingredients nowadays. Modified corn, potato and canola are some of the GMOs commonly used in Australia.
When it comes to GMOs’ safety, the topic still raises a lot of controversy. While several activists affirm that GMOs can cause deep harm to human health, doctors and researchers believe otherwise. According to a study conducted by the California-Davis and published on the Journal of Animal Science, GMO produce is just as safe as non-GMOs - the study observed animals fed almost exclusively with GMOs for 26 years and found no unusual health issues caused by their diets. This led to the conclusion that there is no reason to fear GMOs, but many still prefer to stay away from genetically modified food. To avoid such products, the solution is to go organic. Organically produced food does not carry any form of DNA alteration.
There are many specialists who defend that organic food and non-organic food have no relevant differences in terms of nutritious value. A recent study by the Newcastle University, however, believes that consuming organic food does have a few advantages. According to their findings, organic food has a higher level of antioxidants – substance that can help prevent chronic illnesses, such as neurodegenerative diseases and even certain types of cancer.
Organic food is usually produced with little or no chemical intervention at all. Both organic, and non-organic foods often use substances to protect the crops and fertilize them – the difference is that organic foods are grown with the help of mostly natural substances, while regular agriculture often uses artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Because such substances are difficult to be washed off, we can end up consuming traces of the chemicals used in the agricultural process along with the food.
If the consumption of such substances is detrimental to our health is another debate. While not all pesticides and chemical substance are dangerous, some can be harmful to our health and even cause cancerous tumours and other health issues. So the best solution is to be highly informed on what kind of substances are being used in the production of the food you plan to buy, or opt for organic foods, that are chemicals free.
As we mentioned above, to be considered organic, food must conform to high standards. These strict regulations placed on certified organic food means that you can always be sure as to the way in which the food was treated and grow
How organic food benefits the environment
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have done extensive research on the environmental impact of organic agriculture, and their findings show that this type of agriculture is much more eco-friendly than regular methods. As a way of respecting the environment, organic farms opt for less-aggressive and more sustainable methods of plantation, such as crop-rotation. This technique, which means constantly changing the crop groups that are grown in the same farming space, acts as a way of naturally fertilizing the soil and avoiding pests and other diseases without using artificial substances.
The fact that they also avoid heavy chemicals lessens the risk of groundwater pollution and using renewable energy promotes an eco-friendly production - some of the aspects that make organic farming better for the environment and more sustainable in the long-term
Another point about the sustainable aspect of organic agriculture is the fact that this type of farming also helps to maintain the natural biodiversity. By not using chemicals, the natural balance within the ecosystem can continue to exist.
In addition, since they are not using chemical pesticides, the air does not contain these chemicals, creating a better environment for animals and people in the surrounding areas.
In addition to regulations and practices concerning produce, another principle of organic farming is related to the health and welfare of the animals, which are raised free to pasture, able to relate to nature in a more natural way than regular farmed animals.
Is organic food much more expensive?
With the benefits that come from organic food, price is also a major factor. While you might immediately think organic food is much more expensive, this isn’t always the case.These days, sustainable food is much more widely available. From local shops to large grocery stores, many outlets now provide a selection of organic foods.
Additionally, Online platforms such as ShopWings, Online Organic Market and Honest to Goodness also provide you with the possibility to order organic food online for a competitive price. In some instances there is a price difference between organic food and its non-organic counterparts. There are many reasons for this, including:
Costs of production
Not using chemicals in organic farming has a big influence on the costs. Because organic agriculture does not use heavy chemicals, much of the work done by artificial substances - that can quickly be spread out to the whole field by automated machines – has to be done manually. Which means that an organic farm needs to have a bigger workforce: hand-weeding, contamination control, cleaning polluted water, all of those manual activities are necessary to allow the production of organic foods.
To cut costs, regular farms often use sewage sludge or artificial substances as fertilizers, because they are cheaper and easier to find in the market. Organic farms, however, fertilize their crops with animal manure and compost, products that are more expensive, and have higher transportation costs
When compared with the natural alternatives, chemical fertilizers are much more powerful when it comes to speeding up nature: chemically fertilized crops produce vegetables and fruits at a higher speed. Natural agricultural methods also mean natural growth speed – and less productivity levels as well.
Costs of crop deficit
The loss of crops for organic farms is much higher because they are growing without using chemicals. In these situations the chance of a crop getting diseases or other pests is much higher. For that reason consumers sometimes see a price difference.
Costs of certification
To obtain a certificate from one of seven organisations that assure that your food is organic, the farmers must pay an annual fee. Exact figures depend on the different organisation.
Organic farming accounts to only 0.9% of total worldwide farmland. And most of those producers are much smaller than traditional farms. The reason why big organic food producers are rarer relates back to the high investments and bigger workforce necessary for such method of production. Manually weeding a traditional farm would be quite a task. Because of this, it can be much more difficult for them to be cost-effective. The number of small farms influences the supply organic food. And if the demand is high, farms sometimes increase prices.
6 tips on how to buy organic food on a budget
As we mentioned before, natural food can be more expensive but investing a lot of money is not an essential part of going organic. In fact, there are some simple tips and tricks to keep the costs of organic food down, and well within your budget.
1. Prioritize your purchased
While you may want to buy all the best, this doesn’t mean you have to buy exclusively organic. Concentrate on those foods that you eat often and those with the highest pesticide residue.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of fruits, vegetables and meat products ranked according to their pesticide residue levels. Taking into consideration the growth methods and consumption habits, they analyze more than 28.000 products
To know more about the pesticide residue of the food you consume on a regular basis, take a look at our chart of the traditionally farmed foods with the highest and lowest pesticides levels.
Foods to buy organic/ Foods with high residue of pesticides
Butter and Milk
Foods with other options/ Foods with low residue of pesticides
Mangos, kiwi, papayas
Pesticides and other chemicals are found on the skin of fruits and vegetables. Therefore, products that are consumed without the skin are safer from pesticide residue – avocado, pineapples, kiwi, etc. Fruits and vegetables with a thicker skin are also safer, as the part that we eat ends up being protected from the chemicals by the product itself.
The way the vegetable is grown also influences the remaining levels of pesticide residue. Celery, which is grown directly on the ground, absorbs much more chemicals present in the soil than produce that grows away from the soil, like sweet corn, for example.
When it comes to meat and dairy, we indirectly consume the hormones and growth chemicals the animals were being fed with as well. For this reason, it is better to buy organic meat and dairy – they come hormone and chemicals free.
2. Shop store brands
Organic food standards are the same for every brand. This means that you can buy a less expensive, or generic home branded organic product rather than expensive brand and the nutritional benefits will still be the same.
3. Compare prices directly via internet
There are many good platforms where you can see all products in one view and order the food directly online. For example, ShopWings has a wide range of organic food products from markets such as Coles & Harris Farm.
4. Do it yourself
Create your own organic food recipes using organic ingredients - natural smoothies, granola bars or jams. Preparing certain foods on your own will save you a lot of money and you have a better overview of the ingredients and what you are eating.
5. Use your freezer
You can buy organic foods in bulk when there is a sale or an item is in season, and freeze them. Another option is to cook them first and freeze the leftovers.
6. Grow your own food
You don’t need a large garden to practice natural farming. Start with planting some herbs in a pot in your kitchen. If you have a balcony you can even start planting some vegetables like tomatoes as well. With a little investment you can save a lot of money.
Understanding the different labels
In deciding to buy organic food, another important question is: how do you know if it’s organic?
In order to determine which products are certified organic, check the label. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) has determined seven organisations to certify organic products. These private organisations are responsible for ensuring that products labelled as organic fulfill specific standards.
The national standards refer to production, preparation, transportation, marketing and labelling of biological food. While they all have a common standard, there is a huge diversity between them.
The independent Australian Organic Market Report from 2014 shows how consumers replied to the question: How do you know/check what you’re buying is organic?
In the report over 1000 Australians aged 18 to 69 were interviewed.
Having the word “organic” written on the label does not mean that the product actually is organic – as mentioned before, to be recognized as an organic producer, companies need to be analyzed and certified by official institutions in charge of making sure that organic farming regulations are being followed by the producer.
However, as shown in the graph, 64% of the people asked trust product just because it advertises to be organic – and only 34% of the people actually looked for the official labels.
Here is an overview of the main certification institutions and their labels, so you know what to look for next time you decide to buy organic food.
National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia
Founded in 1986 as one of the first organic certification organisations. Today they operate globally in 10 different countries including, Australia, Malaysia and the USA. NASAA take responsibility for the whole process of the organic supply chain from producer to retailer.
Australian certified organic (ACO)
The ACO have over 1500 operators in their system. The seal informs customers that the product is 100% organic. This means that the whole supply chain is organic. Since April 2015 the Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers Inc, previously its own organic certifying body, has merged with the ACO.
The AUS-Qual is responsible for quality management, food safety and product certification systems. It is a subsidiary company of AUS-MEAT Limited founded in 1987. AUS-MEAT take care of the meat and livestock industry.
Safe food production Queensland
The SFQ are responsible for food safety in primary production and the processing sectors. They are only active in Queensland.
Bio-Dynamic Research Institute Demeter
The Demeter Institute was founded in the early 1920s in Austria and came to Australia in 1953.The Demeter seal certifies biological farming practices regarding soil, plants and animals.
Organic food chain (OFC)
The Organic Food Chain has a fast service regarding certification in addition to helping clients in marketing, environmental management and other organisational areas. Their logo is valid in Australia, Europe and North America and certifies skin care products as well as food.
When did organic food start?
Between 1900 and 1920, most of the vegetables and fruits produced in Australia were grown by Chinese farmers. Managing small farms, they did not rely on the use of machinery – their production techniques was very manual, inspired by traditional Chinese methods.
Early 19th century: organic movement began as a reaction to the industrial agriculture and the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides
The first groups such as the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society were founded
Middle of 20th century organic farming techniques came from Europe to Australia
1980 organic certifications developed their own standards to verify organic food and to protect consumers
Since 1990s organic food has also been available in supermarkets
1992 national standards were implemented for certifying food as organic
Last 4 years organic food has became more and more popular in Australia with a steadily growing organic food industry
Where to buy organic food?
If you decide to go organic you may wonder about the best places to buy organic and quality food.
The answer is quite simple - everywhere. Since the 1990s natural food can be bought in supermarkets, not only in specific organic food markets. Today it’s getting easier - you can even order organic food online and get your fresh food delivered to your doorstep.
Local Food vs. Organic
An interesting topic inseparable from organic food is the idea of buying local produce and local products. If you decide to buy organic food to save the environment for example, it is also important to think about where the food is produced. If the food is imported and has to travel a long distance, known as food miles, it also contributes to pollution. Local organic grown products on the other hand, only have to travel a short distance. Buying local product can also support the local economy by helping to generate and keep jobs in your area.
Local farms often grow their food naturally without getting a certificate, they are therefore not labelled or certified as organic, those farms can sell the products for less money, because they don’t have the same costs as organic certificated farms. Because these farms are local, you may have the opportunity to go directly to the farmer to enquire about any organic practices.
In addition, there are some interesting trends concerning local food. One example is the 100-mile diet. Here, you only eat food which is grown within a 100 miles of where you live.
In order to save money, it is beneficial to buy seasonable fruits and vegetables that are local. The following chart gives you an overview about all seasonable fruits and vegetables in Australia. Shopping when your favourite foods are in season can help you buy organic and save a lot of money.
How to store your fruits
Making the most of your organic produce by keeping it fresh.
As a general rule, you should not store vegetables and fruits together - fruits emanate a substance, called ethylene, that can accelerate ripening. Vegetables, on the other hand, take longer to ripen, so by storing fruits and vegetables together, you run the risk of ruining your vegetables.
It is also better if you can store your veggies still inside the package, or wrapped in a plastic bag. Also avoid washing them before putting them in the refrigerator - only if they are a bit dirty, but then protect them with a paper towel and a plastic bag before putting them in the fridge.
For fruits, storing them inside a bag has the opposite effect - all of the ethylene, substance that causes ripening, gets trapped inside the bag and it helps the produce to ripen faster than when loose on the countertop.
Fruit and vegetables that can be left on the countertop do not need to be wrapped in plastic or paper.
even though you can keep apples in the refrigerator for a while, as they stop ripening as soon as they are picked, we advise that you hunt freshly picked ones and eat them right away.
refrigeration stops the ripening process. So store it in the fridge and then leave it on the countertop for a few hours before eating, so that it re-starts to ripen.
countertop, 5 days. You can also freeze bananas. The skin will go black, and even though it won’t be good for immediate consumption, it will still be good for cooking.
wash the berries in a vinegar bath (1 cup vinegar + 3 cups water), dry them and put them in a sealable container - but leave the lid slightly open to avoid excessive moisture
throw away any damaged berries and store them in the fridge for up to 1 week
keep them inside the original packaging or in a plastic bag and always refrigerate them. They should last for up to 1 week there, some say even 2 weeks
store them in the refrigerator, there they can last for up to 4 days
Lemons & limes
keep them sealed plastic bag in refrigerator, that way they can last for up around 3 weeks
always follow the expiration date determined by the producer. Even if the leaves look fresh, after a while in the fridge, they could have been developing bacteria
store them in the refrigerator, there they can last for up to 5 days. Whenever you are ready to eat them, put them inside a paper bag and leave them on the countertop, to accelerate the ripening process
countertop, 2 or 3 days. If you’d like to accelerate the ripening process, just put them inside a plastic bag for a few hours
austorganic.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/AO_Report_2014_web.pdf - Australian Organic Market Report