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Decoding the organic food myth

Confused about the concept of organic food? Kushalrani Gulab gets a few experts to clear up your doubts.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2007 15:38 IST

Homemaker Amrita Sahani has to admit it. Very often, when she’s gone to the supermarket for groceries, she has stopped at the section marked ‘organic’, picked up a packet of, say, organic haldi, and wondered, ‘What’s this about?’ before putting the packet back on the shelf and moving on.

Because while she is pretty conscientious about buying low-cholesterol, low-sugar products and the right kinds of cooking oil, Sahani has only a vague idea of what organic food really is. She knows it’s ‘healthier’ than non-organic food, or at least that’s what she’s read. But how it’s healthier is not very clear.

Plus, it’s priced much higher than non-organic food. She doesn’t know if she wants to pay that much more on a regular basis for something she isn’t very sure about.

This is a position that most of us find ourselves in. What is organic food? How is it healthy? Should we give it a try? We got the experts to answer these questions.

BACK TO BASICS Basically, organic food is produce that a) has not been genetically modified and b) has been grown without the use of chemical pesticides.

But there is more to it than that. Not only must the food have been produced without the use of chemicals to be classified as organic, but it must also have been grown or raised on soil that has been chemical free for three to five years.

Natural pesticides are used instead of chemical ones; these include neem, eucalyptus and other trees that provide bacterial protection planted in and around the fields.

“That’s because chemical pesticides seep into the soil and ground water and remain there for a long time,” explains nutritionist Dr Shikha Sharma.

“The mere statement that the produce has been grown without chemical pesticides is not enough – in that case, the food is classified as semi-organic. It is only when the farm has been certified organic that the produce can be called organic.” In the simplest terms then, organic food is produced the way food was always produced before technology was applied to agriculture. It is a return to traditional methods of farming.

BORN RICH All right, so the food has been classified as chemical-free. Why does this make it healthier than conventionally produced food? There are two reasons. One, says Dr Sharma, is the simple fact that organic food contains no chemicals.

“Any chemical when it gets into the human body disrupts the metabolic processes,” she says.

“DDT, for instance, will settle in the liver or some other organ and cause allergies that may not have existed before.”

For Kavita Mukhi, Mumbai’s health food pioneer and director of the health food suppliers Conscious Food, the purity of organic food is its biggest benefit. She should know – she got into the health food scene more than 20 years ago, when she realised after the birth of her son that the pesticide-tainted food she ate as she fed him made him ill.

“When I understood what was happening, I switched to organic and healthy food,” says Mukhi. “If you care for your family, you will care about what goes into their bodies.”

Aside from the fact that allergy causing chemicals are absent in organic food, it is also richer in nutrients, says Dr G Subbulakshmi, retired director of the post-graduate department of Home Science at the SNDT University in Mumbai, and consultant to several pharmaceutical firms.

In an evaluation of organic and nonorganic methods of farming published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, she says, it was found that vitamin and mineral levels in organically produced food were significantly higher than in conventionally produced food.

“So the advantage of eating organically produced food is clear,” she says.

Organically produced food is also rich in taste, says Jitendra Kumar, executive chef, Taj Lands End, Mumbai, where Pure, the restaurant that focuses on organic ingredients is situated. “It is full of juice and flavour,” he says. “The taste alone gives it away.”

CLEAR CUT Uncontaminated, rich in nutrients and flavourful… Everything sounds good so far. But there’s one thing