Organic food is big business in the UK. And for many consumers, health benefits are a key motivation for buying. In fact, some 42% choose organic for this reason, although taste is also a significant factor. And if sales of organic baby food are anything to go by, it seems many parents also see organic produce as the preferred option for young children. Despite consumer perception, however, organic manufacturers are greatly restricted as to the health claims they can make for their products.
"Like all manufacturers, we need to be able to substantiate every packaging and marketing claim we make," says Lizzie Vann, md of Organix -- the UK's leading organic children's food company. "Although the public understands broad issues such as pesticides and food additives, explaining the difference between the organic usage or non-usage of pesticides and additives is quite a complex business."
But while many manufacturers of organic foods could undoubtedly do without the regulatory minefield of labelling their products, some food experts assert that organics should not be entitled to make any health claims at all. Former Ministry of Agriculture official, Geoffrey Hollis, now a food consultant, for example, argues that organic food is a consumer con, with no clear evidence existing for health benefits.
Hollis is active in lobbying the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to restrict the health claims made by organic manufacturers for their products. "As a result of successful complaints from myself and others, the ASA has issued guidance which prohibits all the major claims made by advocates of organic food," says Hollis. "The only indisputable fact about organic food is that it is substantially more expensive than conventional food."
And Anthony Terwavas, professor of plant biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, goes further in the condemnation of organic produce. Terwavas argues that as organic production methods lower crop yields, they are an irresponsible use of land, and as such have a negative impact on the availability of healthy produce. "Around 200 medical investigations show that a diet high in conventionally farmed fruit and veg -- with pesticide residues -- halves cancer rates," says Terwavas. "The more you eat, the healthier you become; pesticide residues are irrelevant. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the British Nutrition Foundation, no health benefit will follow replacement of conventional fruit and vegetables by organic equivalents. Why waste money?"
In fact, for a government agency, the FSA has been surprisingly strident in its attitude to organic food. And the FSA's official line of "no significant difference" is touted by many who remain unconvinced by organic health claims. As well as refuting that small residues of pesticides on conventionally farmed foods are harmful, the FSA disputes claims of nutritional benefits for organic produce.
"A varied and balanced diet which includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods should provide all of the nutrients that a healthy individual requires, regardless of whether the individual components are produced by organic or conventional methods," it says. "It has been suggested that organic food is nutritionally superior to that produced conventionally. The Agency view is that this assertion is not supported by the available evidence. The Agency's assessment is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally."
And the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with its Organic Action Plan, claims this is not based on any supposed nutritional superiority of organics, but rather for environmental reasons.
It seems that the organic debate is being stoked by a simple lack of scientific evidence. But although research into the subject is still in its infancy, some pro-organic health findings are certainly coming to light. Perhaps more importantly, some experts are convinced that the perceived organic "scare tactics" over pesticides may have some validity.
Toxicopathologist Dr Vyvyan Howard, senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool and member of British Society of Toxicological Pathologists, draws attention to recent studies in the Netherlands on the so-called "cocktail effect" of the chemicals used on conventional farms.
"What we don't know much about is the effect of mixtures of chemicals used for production in conventional farming," he says. "It is certainly the case that you get some unexpected interactions."
Howard reports that government research in this field has left questions unanswered. "My opinion is that this simply isn't good enough in relation to the effect these things may have on children and their neurological development," he adds. "And there is quite a lot of material building up to support the view that we should be exercising caution in this area."
And then there is the nutritional argument. Nutritionalist Patrick Holford -- an exponent of organics -- maintains that chemicals used on conventionally farmed fruit and vegetables tend to force water into the food, lessening the percentage of 'dry matter' in the farmed produce. Put simply, he claims, you get around 26% more carrot in an organic carrot, accounting to some extent for what some perceive as a superior taste.
Others point to research which suggests that organic food is likely to be higher in antioxidants -- valuable components in food which soak up the harmful free radicals which are associated with coronary heart disease and some cancers.
"Antioxidants include certain vitamins known as phenolics," explains James Cleeton of the Soil Association. "One of the ways in which plants produce phenolics is when they are attacked by pests."
Cleeton continues: "Generally, organic crops are not protected by pesticides and research has shown that organically produced fruit contains more phenolics than conventionally produced fruit." He reports that Dutch researchers have found that organic crops contain 10-50% more antioxidants than conventional crops.
In addition to extra antioxidants, some studies are also coming to light concerning the quantities of beneficial omega-3 found in organic products. Omega-3 fatty acids are the subject of many positive recommendations, including some from the Food and Behavioural Research Council -- a charity dedicated to researching links between nutrition and behaviour -- that believes they help reduce heart disease and can assist in treating depression.
But findings in these areas for organic foods are mixed. A well-received study of Greek diets by professor Artemis Simopoulis, president for the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC, suggests that free-range grazing of chickens leads to higher quantities of omega-3 in the eggs they produce. However, Yiqun Wang of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition found that organic eggs had variable quantities of omega-3 -- sometimes less than conventionally farmed eggs.
For organic milk producers, however, strong evidence has been found to suggest that their milk is higher in omega-3.
"The principle recent research on the nutritional content of organic milk shows that organic milk has higher levels of omega- 3 oils," says Nicola Bowman of the Organic Milk Co-operative. "The reason for this is the diet of cows from organic farms."
Bowman says that conventional farms tend to feed animals high rates of concentrates and lower rates of silage (grass and pasture-based feed). Conversely, she adds, organic farmed animals are fed higher levels of silage, and red clover silage specifically, which increases omega-3 in the milk they produce.
"It's interesting, because as far as I'm aware, this is the only naturally occurring increase in the omega-3 content of a product," she claims.
She adds that companies such as Columbus produce eggs with higher omega-3 as a result of putting extra supplements in the diet of their chickens. "But chickens don't naturally eat linseed, whereas cows naturally eat red clover.
"In theory, conventional farmers could achieve the same result by feeding their cattle red clover silage, but in practice they don't because it seems cheaper and more convenient to use concentrates."
Milk from organic cows has also been found to be higher in conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). These are believed to boost the immune system and research at the University of Southampton is looking into whether they might aid cancer sufferers.
For manufacturers of organic foods, the mixed and limited research on health aspects of their products is frustrating. They are particularly incensed by the FSA's lack of support for organics.
And in terms of simply stating that 'organic food is better for your health', manufacturers could still be in for a long wait.FM