Organic: A brand you can trust?

How much of it is healthful good sense and what's just hype?

Whether you live in Haines Juction, YT, or the Big Smoke, Toronto, finding organic food to feed your family has never been easier. Mainstream corporations, including Kraft, Heinz, Dole, General Mills and retail giant Wal-Mart, are now hawking organics on a huge scale — and the more they offer, the more we buy. According to the Canadian Organic Growers, organic is the fastest-growing sector in agriculture, with sales increasing 20 percent annually in recent years, and totalling $1 billion in 2006.

But the more choice we have, the more difficult it becomes to shop intelligently. For starters, can just anyone slap an organic label on a bunch of carrots? Is a box of organic animal crackers really a better choice? And why is organic food so much more expensive than the conventional kind? If you’re confused by all the choices, we have answers.

“Is organic food better for my family?”

Like many parents, Colleen Ryan buys organic milk, yogurt and eggs because she thinks they’re healthier. But the Halifax mom admits she isn’t really sure. “At times I feel like I’m a sucker for advertising.”

Are we buying organic because it’s trendy or because it truly has something to offer? According to Waterloo, Ont., registered dietitian Ellen Desjardins, over the long term, properly grown organic food likely has major health benefits, notably for what it doesn’t contain: pesticide residues. “The government assures us that individual pesticides have been tested and are safe,” says Gillian Deacon, a Toronto parent to three boys and author of Green for Life. “But it’s that cocktail of different pesticides we end up consuming on a diet of conventional produce that concerns me. I feel like my kids are part of a chemical experiment.”

Meanwhile, more information is emerging on how organics compare nutritionally to conventionally grown produce, and there’s evidence the organic stuff has higher levels of vitamin C. Desjardins says the most compelling evidence right now comes from studies showing that organic food contains higher levels of phytochemicals (such as phenols, carotenoids and glucosinolates), which are associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases — when they’re eaten in whole foods. (In other words, you can’t just pop a phytochemical pill to get the same benefit.)

But that’s not all. “One of organic food’s greatest values,” Desjardins says, “is that it doesn’t contain genetically modified ingredients.” Some 42 genetically modified foods are currently approved for sale in Canada and it’s estimated 70 percent of all processed food sold in Canadian supermarkets contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That worries Desjardins, who notes there’s no system set up in Canada to track a food’s origin, should there be a large-scale reaction to a new protein or toxin in a genetically engineered food. Plus, there’s no sure way of testing whether a GMO is potentially allergenic before it is released into the market.

“If the choice is between local or organic, which should I buy?”

Good question. Environmentalists argue that choosing an organic California strawberry is bad for the planet, since imported foods are shipped thousands of kilometres to your local grocery store, burning through barrels of petroleum products and cranking out carbon dioxide in the process. On the other side, staunch organic supporters warn that just because a farm is local, that doesn’t mean it practises sustainable farming.

It needn’t be an either/or proposition, says E. Ann Clark, an associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who’s versed in both conventional and organic farming techniques. “Why not choose both? Local and organic.” The stark reality is that neither option alone can provide enough variety for a healthy diet. Because of the limitations of our climate and growing season, Canada imports some 40 percent of all its food — organic or not. So it isn’t very easy for anyone to eat exclusively local, especially in mid-winter. “You can only serve root veggies and cabbage at so many meals before you have a mutiny on your hands,” laughs Sherry Yano of Vancouver. When food shopping for her kids, Cole, 10, and Olivia, six, she aims for about 30 percent organic.

Even committed environmentalist Deacon acknowledges it isn’t possible to shop whole-hog local or organic, so when navigating the grocery aisles, she looks to buy the best option available at that time. Her preference is for “local organic first, local conventional second, imported organic third and, lastly, imported conventional.”

“Can I trust the organic food in my supermarket?”

Media reports of supposedly organic farms using chemical pesticides and the like have made some consumers wary. But here’s good news: Canadians will be able to shop organic with confidence when the Canada Organic designation goes public December 14. This single logo will do the job of more than 30 different voluntary certification labels currently found on organic foods sold in Canada. Once the Canada Organic logo is on a food item, “you’ve got government assurance that it’s organic,” says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers. What else will the logo mean?

Buyers are protected. For the first time, food fraudsters will face legal action. We’re talking fines, even jail, if a food carries the Canada Organic logo, but is proven not to be organic.

That goes for imports too. Whether it’s coming from the US, Costa Rica or China, all imported organic food must meet Canadian regulations. That’s good, Telford says, because Canada’s organic standards are more stringent than those of many other countries. For instance, United States Department of Agriculture regulations allow the use of calcium nitrate, a synthetic fertilizer that isn’t permitted here.

No logo, no deal. Without the logo, a food can’t be sold as organic in Canada. There is one legal exception, though: If you’re shopping at a farmers’ market in certain provinces, you aren’t likely to see Canada Organic stickers. That’s because organic farmers selling produce in their own province are not bound by law to carry the logo. (Provincial regulations in BC, Manitoba and Quebec will require their farmers to use it, though.) Be a smart shopper and ask for proof: All legitimate organic vendors will have documentation with them.

“Is organic food worth the higher prices?”

Although prices are coming down, organic food still costs about 30 percent more than conventionally grown, estimates David Van Seters, president and CEO of SPUD!, an organic food delivery service operating in Western Canada and the US. And, according to agriculture prof Clark, “the price you pay for organic food is not a reflection of what it actually costs to grow it. It’s primarily a reflection of retail and charging what the market will bear.”

As organic becomes more desired and available, prices are dropping. And, Van Seters says, it pays to keep checking, as they also fluctuate: “At times of the year, certain organic crops can even be cheaper.” Équiterre, a pro-organics organization in Quebec, surveys food prices every month between June and November, and found during harvest time in July 2007, the average Quebec supermarket price for conventionally grown broccoli was $1.42 a bunch, compared to $1.69 for organic in a natural food store — reflecting a premium of just 20 percent. By November, however, two pounds of organic carrots were selling for more than twice the $1.06 price tag for conventional carrots.

When you’re shopping on a budget, and there’s a dramatic difference in price, it makes sense to choose organic only for the items your kids eat most regularly, and those found to be highest in pesticides when conventionally farmed (see Selective Shopping). And don’t bother breaking the bank for processed organic foods such as frozen pizza or instant mac and cheese. These products aren’t necessarily healthier than their conventional counterparts — and, Clark points out, “they are more expensive.” She saves money by purchasing mostly whole, raw foods, which she cooks in big batches for freezing.

What does organic really mean?

Fruits and vegetables Organic produce is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or sewage sludge, and it hasn’t been genetically engineered or irradiated (a process where food is exposed to radiation to kill bacteria and extend shelf life). While manure is used in both organic and conventional farming, the organic standard does not recommend the use of raw manure on fields. Instead, the manure is composted at high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli.

Meat, poultry, milk and eggs These organic products come from animals that are raised on organic feed and never given hormones or antibiotics.

Processed foods Crackers, cookies and other multi-ingredient processed foods must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. So what about the other five percent? “This may look like a loophole,” says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers, “but if we banned certain commercial substances, be they binders, emulsifiers, stabilizers or vitamins like ascorbic acid, we’d have no organic processed food.”

Seafood Beware of seafood sold as organic. There are currently no organic regulations for fish and shellfish in Canada or the US. “We are considering it,” says Telford. However, many issues will have to be hammered out, including whether wild fish can be deemed organic.

Natural doesn’t mean organic Under Canadian Food Inspection Agency rules, a food can claim to contain “natural ingredients” if those ingredients have not been submitted “to processes that have significantly altered the original physical, chemical or biological state.” In other words, a juice may contain natural ingredients such as cranberries and apples, but these may have been grown organically or conventionally.

Selective shopping

Buying organic only when it really counts will help you save money at the supermarket, and still do right by your family and the earth. Here’s your guide:

Save your money These conventionally grown foods were found to have the lowest pesticide residues among the 43 vegetables and fruits that we commonly eat:

• onions
• avocado
• sweet corn (frozen)
• pineapples
• mango
• asparagus
• sweet peas (frozen)
• kiwi
• bananas
• cabbage
• broccoli
• papaya

Worth the splurge These were found to have the highest pesticide residues — so opt for organic if you can. But if you can’t, don’t stop eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Even conventionally grown, they’re still among the healthiest foods your family can eat:

• peaches
• apples
• sweet bell peppers
• celery
• nectarines
• strawberries
• cherries
• lettuce
• grapes grown outside US
• pears
• spinach
• potatoes

Alternatives to organic products

Visit farmers’ markets
In big cities and small towns alike, these markets are often outdoors, with rows of vendors’ booths and a kid-friendly atmosphere. A few tips:

• If you’re looking for organic, ask for certification.
• Ditto for local. Some markets allow farmers to sell imported food, so make sure you’re getting the local strawberries you’re paying for.
• Check the Internet for farmers’ market locations in your province.

British Columbia bcfarmersmarket.org
Alberta agric.gov.ab.ca
Ontario farmersmarketsontario.com
Atlantic Canada acornorganic.org

Get organics delivered
The box arrives at your door, the contents are a surprise and, for many parents, it’s like Christmas once a week. For Sherry Yano of Vancouver, the advantages of organic food box delivery are convenience and variety. Plus the box often contains something that she wouldn’t normally buy, be it kale or Jerusalem artichokes. (Most companies tuck in a recipe or info sheet to take the mystery out of less common veggies.) To find a delivery service in your area, key “organic food delivery [your province]” into an Internet search engine.

Try community-supported agriculture
“Fresh from the farm without the middleman” is a good way to describe what community- supported agriculture (CSA) means. You join by purchasing a share in a farm’s harvest. In return, you receive a summer’s or even a winter’s supply of direct food delivery from the farm. Prices vary from $200 to $600 a year. That’s about the same as or slightly less than the cost of buying organic from your grocery store.

Though still a fledgling development in most parts of Canada, in Quebec CSAs supply 8,300 families and 42 daycares with food from 103 local organic farms. For more information, check out equiterre.org.

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