That “organic” word

Last year whilst doing my weekend morning ChefTip tweets I touched on a subject that involved organic food and meats. I tried to explain my opinion on the organic food market that is currently booming and en vogue in the culinary world. There are many people who throw the word “organic” around these days in order to give whatever they are trying to sell an edge. Ask the person what makes their product organic or what exactly “organic” means and they are usually stumped.

What is organic food? When I was in chef school we had a whole section of our syllabus dedicated to organic, genetically modified and non-organic food. It was interesting to find out what the industry is actually all about. In some countries overseas it is illegal to call something organic unless it has been certified organic by an independent body. The EU is probably the strictest when it comes to this (let’s pretend the whole horse meat saga didn’t happen). In South Africa we do not have as stringent a vetting process but with the cost of chemicals being the way they are and our economy being a relatively small one, most farmers tend to utilize more natural methods in growing their produce. So to answer that question I posed at the top of this paragraph: What is organic food? Organic food is food that has been produced without the use of artificial chemicals (natural chemicals are allowed), pesticides and chemical fertilizers (natural fertilizers are allowed). Sounds simple when it’s put that way…but it’s not. You’d be surprised at just how many fertilizers, pesticides and animal feed has added man made chemicals. Chickens are grown from egg to full-grown chicken in just 6 weeks with hormones and artificial lighting to simulate sunlight. With our consumerism as a human race, economics is king to health or ethics.

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I used to always picture organic stuff as tree huggers gone crazy and forcing us to adopt their ways. With it having become a fashion craze, everything seems to be labelled organic and ironically I think this will be the undoing of it all. Over use of the word will eventually dilute its meaning and clout. Hopefully as EU regulations become the norm for other countries too it will make it illegal to claim your products as organic.

Ok, onto the questions I always get asked when it comes to organic food…does it taste better? Well, yes and no. Meat definitely tastes better when it’s organically grown and allowed to mature slowly, like nature intended. Organic meat would be from animals reared naturally and allowed to roam freely, free from added hormones and growth serum. They cost more to raise due to the time it takes to rare them. Eggs also taste much better organic, their yolks are a darker orange colour and more flavourful. Fish as well, naturally raised fish (not necessarily wild, they can be farmed naturally) also taste better. The difference comes when it comes to vegetables. I’ve found in the years I’ve been a chef that organic vegetables seem to be less tasty than the ones grown the non-organic way. Somehow they tend to be smaller and perish faster. Just my opinion.

Some have said the hormones given to animals in order for the to grow quicker may cause cancer but (like so many things these days) research has been done by The American Cancer Society and they found that “some early studies found a relationship between blood levels of IGF-I (IGF stands for Insulin-like Growth Factor) and the development of prostate, breast, colorectal and other cancers, but later studies have failed to confirm these reports or have found weaker relationships.” The organization concluded in 2011 that “the evidence for potential harm to humans is inconclusive.” So not even scientists are 100% sure about the effects of non-organic meat on humans. I know my folks keep saying that kids seem to grow so much faster these days than in their time. They believe it’s linked to all the added things in our food. Until it’s conclusively researched and findings made official, it’s all guesswork at the moment.

There are many articles and white papers done on the matter and scientists argue amongst themselves about it all, it gets complicated and complex (but interesting) but I won’t bore you with the details. In terms of the science behind it, academics say there isn’t an argument for or against organic food but from the cooking and flavour side, my opinion is there. Price wise organic produce is a lot more expensive. It’s all up to your preferences as to what you choose to consume. Restaurants have learned to use the word “organic” in menus and in their profiles now and some surf on the crest of the wave and use it to increase their food prices. A good chef will know where his produce is from and will be able to give you more info about the produce. Don’t be scared to inquire.Image

Another growing trend in the food industry is organic wines. These are wines made without adding sulphur dioxide during the winemaking process. Sulphur dioxide is one of the oldest known food additives and in biblical times it was added when sulphur was burnt before sealing the wine in the barrels. It is also added as a preservative to prevent oxidation of the wine and at the grape-crushing stage as a cleansing agent to kill unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts. It also develops naturally in wine as part of the fermentation process. Organic wine is lower in sulphur and apparently doesn’t cause as much of a hangover. When organic wines were just starting out as a trend they tasted horrid but as time and practice has moved on they have improved.

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So in conclusion yay or nay for organic food? Well, yay if you want to save the planet and eat without feeling guilty. There are some ethical farmers who aren’t 100% organic but are doing more for nature and their produce than some organic farmers. I will post about one particular farm I was lucky enough to discover in January. It’s up to you what you choose to purchase. I always preach on about reading labels. If you have a garden and the space, I’d highly recommend you get into the growing your own vegetables. You’ll know exactly what has gone into them! And it’s fun…

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