Are organic fruit and vegetables better for you?

Monday, October 30, 2006
One of the great healthy things these days is the huge variety of fresh fruit and vegies available. But people are increasingly worried that the chemicals used in growing our food might be bad for our health, so they're turning to organic products.

But are organic fruit and vegetables really better for us?

To find out, reporter Michael Slater is going to do three things — a taste test, a comparison of their pesticide levels, and then, find out which is more nutritious.

The test

First up, let's find out a bit about the difference between organic and conventional farming.

Ian Groves has a farm near Rockhampton and he works it the conventional way, using chemicals.

"I've never had any health problems whatsoever from chemicals and I've been handling them now for nearly 35 years so we must be doing something right," says Ian.

So why does he need to use pesticides?

"The insects can multiply at such a speed that the natural predators can't keep up with them, so we then have to spray for pests, otherwise we don't get a crop."

Outside Brisbane, Rob Bauer is among a growing number of farmers, who have gone organic — they've found other ways of managing pests, so their properties are pesticide-free.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to be applying poisons directly to food that we're selling to people, I'm happy to have a nice oasis to live in with no chemicals around," says Rob.

So there is a big difference in how organic food is grown, but what about by the time it reaches us in the stores? We're sending some conventionally grown and organically grown fruit and veg off to be tested for pesticide residue.

That's going to happen in the lab at George Weston Technologies, and it will take some time. So for now, we'll get on with our taste test.

Fans of organic say it tastes better, but can our taste-testers Dan, Di and Yusef pick the difference?

On one side of the plate is organic, on the other, conventional. Which do they prefer? They all choose the right side of the plate which is … organic!

Round one to organic.

The two guys prefer the non-organic tomato, while Di chooses the organic tomato.

Round two to non-organic.

They're both look red and juicy, but which one tastes better? All three choose the non-organic strawberries.

Therefore conventional wins this test.

So what have we learned today? It's obvious that organic food doesn't necessarily mean it's going to taste better. So that's our taste test, and no doubt that counts for a lot when it comes to what we buy. But of course, with organics, the big selling point is chemical residue.

Pesticide residue is what worries Jo Immig, from the National Toxics Network.

"The health effects of pesticides are really unknown, we're an experiment in the making because it's really only since the 1940s that we've been using pesticides so extensively on our food," she says.

To see how much pesticide is left on our food, we sent some samples off to a lab where they looked for 130 different compounds.

What did they find? First, the organics result: organic farmers say they're pesticide-free and our samples were.

"With the organic fruit and vegetables, we didn't detect any pesticides," says senior chemist, Brendan Coon.

Now, the conventional sample. The tomatoes, bananas and lettuce all tested clear. But our conventionally-grown apples and strawberries did carry traces of pesticide, at levels well below Australian safety standards. And then, there were the snow peas …

"We detected one pesticide which was over the limit set by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority," says Brendan.

So the snow peas we bought had traces of pesticide marginally above Australia's low recommended levels — they probably weren't washed properly. Not a great outcome, but not a reason to panic either.

Indira Naidoo, spokesperson for the Australian Consumers Association, has this advice: "There isn't really any conclusive evidence that the low levels of pesticide residue currently in our fruit and vegetables are harmful in any way, but we don't believe there's been enough scientific testing and wide enough testing of these levels to really determine whether or not we can really consider that safe or not."

If you're worried, here are a few tips on how you can reduce pesticide residue:

  • Make sure you wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly.
  • With leafy vegetables, remove the outer leaves.
  • Cooking and blanching will also bring levels down.

But we've still got one more organic claim to check out — is it more nutritious?

Rob our organic farmer's in no doubt about that: "The nutritional value in organic food, we believe it's quite high, and I believe that because the soil we grow it in is some of best in world," he says.

Jo Immig also adds: "There's been quite a lot of testing done of the nutritional content of organic food and what they're finding is that it's got much higher levels of all the vitamins and minerals."

But Indira Naidoo says there's no scientific proof they've found that demonstrates organic is nutritionally any better at all, certainly nothing that justifies a price tag up to 70 percent higher than conventional foods.

"If you do buy organics, the main reason really should be because they have a lower pesticide level, they are better, generally, for the environment, but if you're making the switch because of flavour and nutritional value, that's really the wrong reason to buy organics currently," she says.


So there you have it. If you can afford organic food, go for it — it seems there are some benefits to eating it. But remember, the produce grown conventionally in Australia falls well within safety guidelines and there's no conclusive evidence that it poses any risk to our health.

So organic or non-organic, keep up the fruit and veg — it's all good for you.

Fast facts

  • We know washing fruit is an effective way to remove pesticide residue, but does that mean we don't need to wash organically-grown fruit? Your organic fruit might be pesticide-free, but it's always a good idea to wash all produce thoroughly in clean running water. That helps get rid of bacteria and other nasties that might have been picked up in handling between the farm and the supermarket. If you're really worried, you can peel your fruit, but you'll lose a lot of nutrients like vitamin C and fibre that are found in the skin.

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