If you are debating whether or not to make the switch from conventional food to organic, you are not alone. With the media increasingly reporting on the potential dangers of pesticides used on conventional crops and the still relatively unknown hazards of genetically modified foods, many people are opting for organic. The availability of organic food is on the rise, in the UAE and abroad, and the US Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey found that US sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, demonstrating how consumers are increasingly turning organic. But why exactly is this happening?
The lowdown on organic
“Organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve synthetic inputs such as pesticides, chemical fertilisers or food additives,” explains Tori Leckie, PR manager for UAE-based company Ripe. “This not only makes organic much better for you, but also makes it taste much better, to. The difference in taste between, say, a Ripe tomato compared to the mass-grown non-organic supermarket variety is incredible.”
The main difference between organic and ‘conventional’ food is the way in which it is produced and processed. The use of chemical fertilisers is strictly forbidden in organic food and producers are more likely to rely on using biological diversity in the field to disrupt pests as opposed to using potentially harmful chemicals. So what does this mean for our health? It has been widely reported in the media that conventional ways of food production have potentially adverse health affects. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, some pesticides have been found to contain carcinogens, while others may affect the body’s endocrine or hormone system.
“People are becoming increasingly aware of their diet and taking better care of themselves,” explains Tori. “By turning to organic, they avoid exposure to pesticides, get a great deal more essential minerals and can enjoy safer, greener foods. Many of the UAE’s top chefs are also turning organic now because they know first hand that the quality of their meals is only as good as the ingredients that create them.”
And for those not convinced that organic food is healthier, a brand-new study has found that when it comes to tomatoes, at least, it does pay to go the more pricey organic route. Researchers from the University of Barcelona have found the pesticide-free version of tomatoes contains higher levels of disease-fighting chemicals (polyphenols), which can halt the spread of certain cancers. Lead author Anna Vallverdú Queralt says: “Organic farming doesn’t use nitrogenous fertilisers; as a result, plants respond by activating their own defence mechanisms, increasing levels of all antioxidants.”
Savvy shoppers are also choosing to buy organic as a way of avoiding genetically modified foods. Products derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO) have caused a large amount of controversy since they were first introduced to the market in 1996, due to their potential environmental hazards and human health risks. “Choosing to use organic produce is down to two factors: health issues and taste,” says Sally Prosser, the name behind My Custard Pie (www.mycustardpie.com) –
a popular blog that was voted one of The Independent’s top-50 food websites and The National’s UAE’s best food blogs. “On the health front I am concerned that my family do not ingest agro-chemicals from fruit and vegetables, plus as GMO products are not labelled here in the UAE, I can be sure that I am not eating them by mistake.”
Sally was raised in a family where they grew most of their own vegetables, and was therefore aware of the issues involved with conventional food from an early age. “I started buying organic foods whenever I could but this hasn’t always been feasible. I wish I could have given my children organic milk when they were small but we lived in Saudi Arabia so it wasn’t possible. I have bought organic food when travelling abroad for as long as I can remember. I cooked my first free-range, organic roast chicken about ten years ago in the UK and the taste is still imprinted on my memory. Having children certainly focuses the mind around health issues,” observes Sally.
Worth the price tag?
One of the biggest concerns shoppers have when debating whether or not to make the switch to organic is the price tag that comes with it. Organic food typically costs 20 to 100 per cent more than conventional food, which is a significant amount of dirhams for those watching their monthly budgets. Some of the reasons why organic food is more expensive include the higher cost of fertiliser that is used, the high cost of covering the higher loss of crops, and better living conditions that are required for the rearing of organic livestock.
So, taking the higher cost of organic food into consideration, is it actually worth it? “You have to ask what price you put on your overall health, wellness and lifestyle,” answers Tori. “Sure you do sometimes pay more for organic but the product you are getting is far superior to its non-organic counterpart as is the quality and quantity of nutrients you will benefit from. With organic, you know what you are eating; you know it’s safe and natural. As organic becomes more and more mainstream, it no longer carries the high price tag of yesteryear. At Ripe we purposely strive to ensure our produce is affordable for all.”
Luckily, by adopting some budget-friendly tips when buying organic, you can vastly decrease the amount you spend, while still experiencing the benefits of eating more healthily. Sally suggests prioritising what you buy organically by choosing organic on foods that are normally highest in pesticides and going conventional on those with the lowest number. “Some fruit and vegetables retain more of a residue than others, for instance strawberries absorb them like a sponge,” says Sally.
The Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce* lists 15 ‘clean’ types of conventional produce that are the lowest in pesticides. These include onions, sweetcorn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus, peas, mangoes, eggplants, kiwis, cabbages, watermelons and sweet potatoes. On the other hand, the Dirty Dozen list cites apples, celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach as most ‘contaminated’ and so buying these foods organic is the best way to go if on a budget.
Tori also recommends eating seasonally, as this is always best value. “Also, avoid the costs of food miles by sourcing local organic foods, buy in bulk and flash-freeze to avoid wastage. Cook from scratch, as produce will go much further when you create your own meals. The Ripe website, www.ripeme.com, has a great recipe collection to get you going,” she says. Leckie further advises adding eggs and chicken to your must-buy organic list.
Abu Dhabi-based nutrition consultant Sarah Queen advises also investing in organic milk and yoghurt, although she admits it tends to come with a hefty price tag in the UAE. “We eat a lot of these products and non-organic milk contains antibiotics which are routinely given to cows to help with mastitis,” warns Sarah. “These antibiotics are then taken on board by our bodies, which can then affect the gut flora (the good and bad bacteria) and can subsequently lead to health problems.”
Getting started in the UAE
The availability of organic food in the UAE has increased over the last few years. Nils El Accad, founder of Organic Foods & Café, says: “Organic food is slowly becoming popular due to more products being available. The media has also played an important role, and global trends have further helped.”
From supermarkets such as Organic Foods & Café, which sells organic and biodynamic food, to the farmers’ markets now being held in Dubai, the range of choice is on the increase. Ripe is one of the latest additions to the scene; the company works with a handful of farms in the UAE, which have been chosen for their organic-farming techniques. It then sells the produce in the form of handy (and very well-priced) vegetable boxes. The company has also recently opened a Farm Shop, through which it sells organic produce.
“The choice we have now is incredible and it has happened in the last two years,” says Sally. “Yael’s [Yael Mejia – the founder of Baker and Spice] vision drove things forward, while Ripe’s growth shows that there is a huge demand, and I think they have been influential in letting farmers know what customers want. Who would have thought we’d have delicious, locally grown kale? Organic Foods & Café were the first in the market and are invaluable for ambient goods, although the mainstream supermarkets have also caught onto this for some lines. Prices have become keener with all this supply, but it would be great to see some more competition and a wider choice of meat products,” she adds.
It is understandable to feel overwhelmed by the information out there regarding organic food, but Organic Foods & Café has a free on-site nutritionist who can help. “We wanted to be able to give customers who are new to organic a free on-site resource to help them make informed decisions when shopping. When you eat organic it is important to understand what a balanced diet is and why it’s important,” says Nils.
He adds that customers who use the service can expect to discuss their diet and concerns with the nutritionist, who will then recommend certain food groups which may be missing and take the customer around the store, like a personal shopper. The nutritionist is available in all of the supermarket’s branches.
Organic food stores in the UAE:
1. The Organic Foods & Café The perfect place to visit if you are looking for somewhere healthy to eat, it offers everything from coffee and cakes, to organic cheeseburgers. They have cafés within their retail stores in both The Dubai Mall and The Greens. For more information visit www.organicfoodsandcafe.com.
2. Ripe Farm Shop
This is the latest addition to the organic-food scene. Located off street 8a, Umm Suqeim 2 in Dubai, the store stocks organic locally grown vegetables, as well as dairy, meat and bread. Ripe also runs a Ripe Food & Craft market at Jones the Grocer’s
Al Raha Gardens, Abu Dhabi outlet, every Thursday, 3-7pm. For more information visit www.ripeme.com.
3. Baker & Spice This Dubai Malldeli uses fresh locally grown and mainly organic ingredients in all its recipes. It has branches in Souq Al Bahar, Dukkan Al Manzil and Marina Promenade. Visit www.bakerandspiceme.com for more details.
4. Scrumptious cupcakes They make delicious cupcakes from organic free-range eggs, real butter and Swiss chocolate. See www.scrumptiousdubai.com.
5. The Farm This ‘destination’ restaurant off Emirates Road, sources fresh produce from local farms. See www.thefarmdubai.com for details.
6. Slices This is an all-organic food station in Abu Dhabi, offering wholesome dishes. Ground floor of
Al Mamoura Building B. www.slices.ae.
DID YOU KNOW…?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests you can lower your pesticide intake substantially by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated produce. The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides produce a wallet-sized list, which can be downloaded at www.foodnews.org. Though the list was compiled in the US, it’s also relevant for use here.
WHAT TO BUY ORGANIC
BEST NON-ORGANIC CHOICES
*For the full list and further details visit www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary