Organic food buying guide

Choosing organic food is easier than ever. But is it worth the extra money?
 
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  • Updated:17 Jul 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Lady fruit and vegetable shopping

Not too long ago you had to go to special shops if you wanted organic food. Now you can find plenty in supermarkets, but mostly you’ll pay a pretty high premium over the cost of standard produce. Is it really worth it? 

The answer’s not clear-cut. While organic farming can be better for the environment, the jury’s still out on whether organic food is more nutritious and tastes better. Research is ongoing.

It is possible that organic fruit and vegetables contain less water and more concentrated vitamins, minerals and other plant chemicals. Circumstantial evidence suggests they could have more beneficial phytochemicals, such as antioxidants. Plants produce phytochemicals to defend themselves, and without pesticides to protect them, organic plants might produce more. But the research is complex and results aren’t definitive.

Research from the US and Europe suggests good things about the nutritional value of some organic animal produce. However, it’s not clear whether this translates to Australian farming practices, which are often very different.

In this report, we take a look at some typical organic foods now available in many local supermarkets — how much more you’ll pay and what is known about any differences between the organic and standard versions.

‘Certified organic’ produce is the best guarantee you’ll get what you pay for. Wherever we talk about organic food in this article, we mean certified organic.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2007 but is still a useful guide today.


What’s organic?

Organic agriculture methods can be better for the environment than conventional methods because they don’t use synthetic chemicals like pesticides or herbicides. There are no genetically modified inputs, and the philosophy incorporates a respect for the natural order of seasons and animal behaviour.

Organic animals are free-range and there’s no use of growth promoters such as steroids or hormones. And you may find a wider range of varieties of fruit and vegetables than with conventional produce.

However, organic produce isn’t guaranteed free of all chemical residues (they can drift in from other areas or persist in the soil). But independent testing consistently finds fewer, and lower, levels of residues of pesticides, herbicides and other farming chemicals than in conventional produce. That said, the jury is still out about whether it’s in fact safer than conventional produce.

On the global scale, there’s debate about whether organic agriculture can produce enough food to feed the world.

One thing’s certain: organic food does cost more — our survey of supermarkets found it often costs two or even three times as much.

 
 

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02.Milk, meat and eggs

 

Milk

Typical price for 1L Glass of milk
Organic brands: $1.70 to $2.50
Leading brand: $1.80 to $2.30

Organic cows have free access to pasture and their feed isn’t treated with pesticides or herbicides. The animals aren’t routinely treated with other things like antibiotics.

Research from Europe suggests full-fat organic milk contains higher levels of omega-3 fats, as well as the fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin E, compared with regular milk. However, the situation in Australia may not be the same: non-organic European cows don’t graze on pasture much (particularly in winter), while organic cows get free access to it. Organic or not, most Aussie cows spend most of their time on pasture. Australian research is needed.

In the US there are concerns about possible effects of growth hormones given to non-organic cows to increase milk production. These hormones aren’t permitted in Australia at all, so it’s not an issue here.

Butter

Typical price for 250g Butter
Organic brands: $3.50
Leading brand: $1.80

Organic butter is made from organic milk, so the comments about milk (see above) also apply.

Chicken

Typical price for a whole 1 kg chicken

Organic: $10 to $12A chicken
Standard: $4.50 to $6.50

Typical price for 1 kg breast fillets

Organic: $28 to $33
Standard: $12.50 to $15

Certified organic chicken is typically twice the price of regular chicken.

For this, the chickens are free-range: they have access to the outside world, and get much more space. Standard broiler chickens are kept in sheds, which are often condemned as being crowded. They’re fed a minimum of 95% organic feed, graze on pastures that aren’t treated with pesticides or herbicides, and their feed isn’t genetically modified. Plus there’s no use of antibiotics. Growth hormones aren’t used in any chickens in Australia.

Eggs

Typical price for one dozen 55–60g eggs Eggs in tray
Organic: $8 to $9
Leading brand (cage): $4 to $4.20
Leading brand (free-range): $5.50 to $7.50

Organic eggs are free-range, which means no cages, but they’re even more expensive than ordinary free-range chooks.

Beef

Typical price for 1 kg scotch fillet Steak in fry pan
Organic: $30.50 to $35
Standard: $20 to $27

Typical price for 1 kg mince

Organic: $14 to $15
Standard: $10 to $12

Organic beef, like much of the beef cattle in Australia, is free-range rather than from a feed lot. However, for organic beef, the pasture and any other feed used must be organic and not grown with pesticides or herbicides.

Unlike most regular Australian beef, organic cattle can’t be treated with growth-promoting hormones. The use of growth hormones in meat production is a matter of contention and international debate. The Australian government’s position is that they’re unlikely to be a health risk when properly used. The European Union disagrees and has banned growth hormones. There’s a sophisticated control system in Australia to ensure no growth hormones are used in beef exported to Europe.

All our prices were collected in 20 Sydney supermarkets in May 2007. They may change depending on the season.

Images: Paul Santelmann

Apples

Typical price for 1 kg Apples
Organic: $5 to $8
Standard: $2 to $5

Organic apples are anywhere between one-and-a-half and three times more expensive than standard apples.

If you’re keen to reduce your exposure to synthetic chemicals, organic apples could be worth considering. Taste-wise, there’s some (limited) evidence suggesting organic apples have an edge.

The (very limited) Australian testing for pesticides and herbicides has found residues on apples although, as on other fruit, almost always at less than the allowable limits. One WA study found at least one low-level residue on around half the apples sampled. The 2003 Australian Total Diet Survey (ATDS), which looked at residues, also suggests around half of the conventional apples had one residue or more.

Strawberries

Organic strawberries weren’t in season when we did our price survey (May 2007). As we went to press they were starting to become available from Queensland. We found them online and in speciality shops for $9 to $10. At the same time conventional strawberries were around $4.50 per punnet. Pile of strawberries

The 2003 Australian Total Diet Survey found the fruit with the highest residue levels was strawberries. The survey found at least one residue on two thirds of strawberry samples. Some studies suggest organic strawberries may have more antioxidants and one study found them to be redder and sweeter, so you could give them a try — if you can find them at a reasonable price.

Carrots

Typical price for 1 kg Bunch baby carrots
Organic: $4.30 to $5.00
Standard: $1.20 to $2

Organic carrots are quite a bit more expensive than standard ones — over twice as much.

But when it comes to synthetic chemicals, regular carrots seem to have few pesticide residues. The the 2003 Australian Total Diet Survey found residues in only one of 21 samples, and this was backed up in the most recent Victorian survey (nine out of 10 samples were residue-free). However, a WA survey found only 50% of conventional samples were residue-free.

Tomatoes

Typical price for 250 g cherry tomatoes Bowl of cherry tomatoes
Organic: $4 to $6
Standard: $3 to $4

Perhaps surprisingly, organic cherry tomatoes don’t always cost more than standard ones.

As for residue concerns, the 2003 ATDS found at least one in five samples had at least one residue. Some studies suggest organic tomatoes are more concentrated (which could improve the flavour) and have more of some beneficial phytochemicals and vitamins.

Potatoes

Typical price for 2 kg Bowl of unwashed potatoes
Organic: $6 to $8
Standard: $3.90 to $5

Recent Australian residue surveys have found almost no pesticide residues in conventional potatoes, so paying extra for organic may not be worthwhile in this respect.

Some preliminary studies suggest organic potatoes have higher levels of some vitamins and minerals. And in one recent study, people could taste the difference as long as the potatoes weren’t peeled. However, they tasted somewhat more bitter and earthy — it’s not known which was preferred.

All our prices were collected in 20 Sydney supermarkets in May 2007. They may change depending on the season.


Images: Paul Santelmann

Teabags

Typical price for 50 bag Tea bags with container
Organic brands: $2.40 to $4.80
Leading brand: $2.8

CHOICE tested teas for pesticides in 2003, and all the varieties that claimed to be organic got the all-clear. However, we found traces of pesticides in nearly 40% of the tea samples, of which a few were much higher than the maximum residue limit (and residues of 17 pesticides not registered for use in foods in Australia).

Green and herbal teas had greater numbers and levels of pesticides in general than black teas.

Chocolate

Typical price for 100 g block (high in cocoa solids) Broken block of chocolate
Organic brands: $4 to $6
Leading brand: $3.30

The number and type of additives are restricted in organic chocolate, and typically it’s high in cocoa solids (at least 70% for dark chocolate). However, the ingredients are very similar to other upmarket high-cocoa-solids chocolate.

Some cheap choc bars contain unhealthy trans fats, which aren’t permitted in organic foods. And there’s more to chocolate than conventional versus organic issues. As a letter to CHOICE (May 2007) pointed out, child slave labour has been central to the chocolate trade and it’s worth looking for brands that don’t use it.

Cereals

Typical price for 750 g wheat biscuits Wheat biscuits in a bowl
Organic: $4.20 to $4.60
Leading brand: $3.90 to $4.00

Not all organic cereals are more expensive than standard. For breakfast wheat biscuits, there’s little or no price difference.

Organic cornflakes and muesli usually had greater differences. You can expect organic cereals to have no artificial additives and to be made from organically grown grains and other ingredients.

Honey

Typical price for 500 g Honey pot
Organic: $4.60 to $7.40
Leading brand: $5.30 to $5.50

Bees fly — it seems obvious, but as a result organic beehives must be at least five kilometres from conventional crops/orchards and pollution sources such as livestock dips, urban areas, garbage dumps, contaminated water, industrial sites, golf courses and genetically modified crops.

There are other requirements for honey to be labelled 'organic', relating to factors like bee welfare and the materials that hives can be made from.

Biscuits

We didn’t find any organic biscuits in supermarkets, but some brands are available in healthfood stores. Duchy original biscuits

A well-known one is Duchy Originals, imported from the UK. But at around $10 to $12 for a 250 g packet, they’re definitely a special-occasion purchase.

Apart from the usual organic farming benefits, the main benefit of organic biscuits is no artificial additives or hydrogenated fat, which often contains trans fat that’s bad for your heart.


All our prices were collected in 20 Sydney supermarkets in May 2007. They may change depending on the season.


Images: Paul Santelmann

If you like the idea of going organic but aren’t keen on buying your fruit and veg at a supermarket, an online organic home box delivery service could be for you. We asked three families in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to give it a go for four weeks — here are their experiences.

Green Line Organic Direct

Box of the week: ($35/$45/$55/$70/$100), free delivery on Melbourne metro standing orders and Melbourne metro orders over $100.

Delivery area: Melbourne on Thursday/Friday and major Victorian country areas on Friday.

Payment: They phone you to organise payment: credit card, BPAY or money order.

Website: www.greenlinedelivery.com.au

Sharon from Melbourne tried a weekly box from Green Line Organic Direct. With three teenage children, she found having a box of home-delivered fruit and vegetables very convenient, but was frustrated by the surprise factor of not knowing what they’d receive. “My family’s likes and dislikes didn’t always match well with the week’s box. We eat lots of carrots — raw and cooked — and the box couldn’t keep up.

There was plenty of variety, but not all the things I would usually buy,” she says. “Organic fruit and veg is more expensive per kilo, but I was pleasantly surprised with the quantity I got for $55 each week.” Sometimes things didn’t look as perfect as regular vegies, but the taste and quality were generally good. However, she found it a challenge to convince her teenagers that slightly strange-shaped snow peas were fine.

Sharon was impressed with the helpful website, which had recipe ideas and lots of information. She doesn’t usually buy organic fruit and veg, but says that now she’ll be more inclined to do so. She won’t be continuing with delivered boxes, though: “I still prefer to look over and select my own fruit and veg — what I buy depends on what’s still in the crisper from last week, family fads, and what’s fresh and good value.”

Farm Fresh Organics

Box: Small ($35); medium ($50); large ($70), plus delivery. Minimum order $50.

Delivery area: Brisbane, Ipswich and surrounding areas, delivered on Thursday and Friday.

Payment: Direct deposit or credit card — you call them to arrange it.

Website: www.freshorganics.com.au

Robyn from Brisbane sampled a weekly box from Farm Fresh Organics. She and her husband their teenage family are keen organic buyers — they have a local supplier Robyn trusts, who sells organics at prices often similar to those she’d pay for conventional fruit and veg at her local supermarket.

She thought the mixed box from Farm Fresh Organics was easy to order, as well as fresh and good value for money, but found the fixed contents of the weekly box something of a challenge: “The same fruit and vegetables appeared from week to week in large amounts, so I was fairly quickly overloaded with silverbeet, potatoes, oranges, apples, onions and carrots. Our fridge quickly became a version of The Day of the Triffids.”

Robyn thinks ordering item by item from the website would make more sense for her family, allowing her to buy exactly what she wants in the amounts she needs that week. “You can ask for up to three items to be excluded from your box, but not for anything specific to be added. But it’s a good way of getting vegies you might not usually buy and experimenting with how to cook them.”

In the end, Robyn decided not to continue with the delivery service: “I’ve got a local market supplier that’s great value, and I know from experience I can rely on the quality.”

Abundant Organics

Box: Mixed boxes ($35/$45/$60/$75/$100), free delivery (Sydney metro).

Delivery area: Sydney, Blue Mountains, Nepean; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, depending on area.

Payment: Online by credit card.

Website: www.abundantorganics.com.au

Elisabeth and Greg from Sydney have four small (and hungry) boys under seven. They tried a weekly box from Abundant Organics. “We’re pretty busy, as you can imagine,” says Elisabeth, “and home-delivered anything is a great time saver.

We were really happy with the convenience and quality, but we’re a big family, we rarely eat out, and the boys are all keen fruit eaters. Even though I was getting the biggest mixed box on offer ($100), I still had to buy extra fruit each week — a rockmelon can disappear just for the boys’ dessert.”

The family doesn’t usually buy organic fruit and veg, although they like the idea: “If money was no object, we’d continue with the deliveries — it was a real time saver and I like the idea of buying organic and in season. But I usually spend about $50 on fruit and veg and buy the things that are the best value that week. This was great, but seemed to be about twice the cost,” concludes Elisabeth. 

What to consider

There are lots of home-delivery fruit and veg businesses on the net — some are organic, some not. To find one that suits you:

  • If you want organic produce, check their policy on certified versus non-certified. Certified organics are your best guarantee of getting what you're paying for (see Is it organic?).
  • Some may use more local sources and others source nationally and internationally. It will affect the variety available as well as the distance the food has to travel.
  • Check the variety of box sizes. Some services have one size, others several. Some let you request certain things be left out or added if available. With some you may be able to see what's in the box before you order. With others it's a total surprise.
  • Check if you can choose your own individual order rather than a fixed box. All the families who tried boxes for us thought this would suit them better.
  • Check the delivery areas and days/times — some are more flexible than others.
  • Check their payment method: some have secure online credit card payments; others will call you after you place your first order to arrange a payment method (cheque, direct deposit, credit card over the phone and so on).

Is it really organic? Currently, the organic industry is in effect regulated by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), because exported organic foods must meet AQIS’s National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce. It has accredited a number of organisations as qualified to certify organic foods.

The government does this to ensure Australia’s organic export markets, but Australian consumers benefit indirectly. There have been debates recently about how much flexibility is permitted in the standards, and whether food that can’t be exported should be allowed for domestic consumption in certain circumstances.

The debates serve to highlight the urgent need to develop a domestic standard and enforcement framework for organic produce sold to Australian consumers — CHOICE is keen to see this happen.

In the meantime, certified organic produce is still the best guarantee currently available. If you buy produce without a logo, you don’t know what you’re getting.

You may see other certified organic logos on imported foods, but look for these schemes’ labels on local produce:

Australian Certified Organic (Biological Farmers of Australia)

Australian Certified Organic logoPhone: 07 3350 5716
Website: www.aco.net.au

Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)

Demeter logoPhone: 03 5966 7333
Website: www.demeter.org.au

 

National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) NASAA logo

Phone: 08 8370 8455

Website: www.nasaa.com.au

Organic Food Chain (OFC)

Organic Food Chain logoPhone: 07 4637 2600
Website: www.organicfoodchain.com.au

 

Organic Growers of Australia (OGA)

Organic Growers logoPhone: 07 3350 5716
Website: www.organicgrowers.org.au

Safe Food Queensland

Safe food QLD logoPhone: 07 3253 9800
Website: www.safefood.qld.gov.au

Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers Cooperative (TOP)TOP logo

Phone: 03 6363 5162
Website: www.tasorganicdynamic.com.au