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Theme: Food Quality

FiBL-Dossier Food Quality

Is organic food better? The dossier explains the different aspects of food quality and compares organic and conventional food stuffs based on an integrated approach.

The dossier in the FiBL-Shop

Background to the quality of organic products

The production of organic food is, in many ways, fundamentally different from the production of conventional food. With its principles, the organic movement is trying to satisfy all aspects of sustainability (see Principles of IFOAM, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements). This suggests that we should look for a sustainable diet based on regional, seasonal, eco-friendly and socially-sound food (in terms of production, processing and trading); our wellbeing is affected not only by our eating habits, but also by the way our food is produced. In nutrition and health research, the evaluation of food is often based on the content levels of selected, positively rated substances. Is organic food distinguished by higher levels of these substances? At least for some of these positively rated substances, organic food seems to show higher levels than conventional food. Large-scale studies in France and Germany show that consumers of sustainable organic food are healthier. Does this make organic food generally healthier than conventional food, or do organic consumers simply live a healthier lifestyle? Presumably, organic food contributes to a healthy lifestyle, which respects society and nature.

In the following section, we will show different aspects of conventional and organic food, using fruit, vegetables and convenience food as an example.

Fruit and Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are the epitome of healthy food. The production of most fruits and vegetables requires much care. Frequent use of crop protection products in conventional farming carries the risk of residues being left on the produce. Organic fruit and vegetables should not be treated with chemically synthesised pesticides and fertilisers and they are therefore significantly lower in various residues. The problem of unwanted residues is described in the following section, using fruit and vegetables as an example.

Some vegetables are very susceptible to pests and diseases. An infestation can reduce the yield, result in lower quality (e.g. scab on apples) and reduce the shelf life of the product. Today, most consumers will not tolerate a visible disease or pest infestation on food, resulting in intensive pesticide use for many fruit and vegetable crops in conventional farming systems. Currently, largely similar requirements for external quality apply to conventional and organic food, which places high demands on organic farmers and growers. In organic farming, pests and diseases are managed primarily through preventative measures. Thus, for example, strips with flowering plants are sown alongside cabbage fields. These flowers attract beneficial insects, which in turn parasitize pests. Direct plant protection measures should only be used in cases where the preventative measures are not sufficient to meet the high requirements for external food quality.

Conventional fruits and vegetables are often contaminated with pesticide residues. However, with today’s sensitive analytical methods, traces of pesticides can also be detected in organic food. According to recently published comparative studies, organic food contains significantly lower amounts of pesticide residues than conventional food (see figure below). If residues are found in organic food, these are – in contrast to the case for conventional food – usually at trace levels below 0.01mg/kg. For a period of 10 years, the Organic Monitoring Agency of the German region Baden-Württemberg has found 180-times lower pesticide contamination in organic fruits and vegetables than in comparable conventional food. A large-scale study in Europe has confirmed that residues are significantly less likely to be found in organic fresh produce.

How can synthetic pesticides get into organic food?

On rare occasions, residues of synthetic pesticides are found in organic food. These can occur through deliberate, unauthorised use of synthetic pesticides during cultivation or storage of food. In such cases, pesticide residues on crops and food products are usually significantly higher than 0.01mg/kg. Residues at trace levels are generally not the result of intentional applications, but are the consequence of drift of spray from neighbouring conventionally farmed fields; or carryover in storage, processing or packing plants. Such impurities are not in the interest of organic farmers and farmer organisations, and they do their best to avoid such contamination.

Pesticide residues on organic and conventional fruits and vegetables

In 2013, a survey of 253 organic and 1803 conventional samples of fruits and vegetables in the German region of Baden-Württemberg revealed large differences in the levels of pesticide residues. While only a small percentage of organic produce showed more than 0.01mg pesticides per kg of crop, three-quarters of conventionally produced fruit and vegetables were significantly contaminated.

Convenience Food

Convenience food is defined as ready to eat or semi-ready to eat dishes that can be prepared easily and quickly. The high demand for such products has led to the availability of a wide range of organic convenience foods today. But is this compatible with organic principles?

Another disadvantage of ready meals is the high proportion of preservatives and other food additives that they contain. Additives are used, for example, for colouring, preservation or sensory effects (e.g. flavour, sweetness, etc.). There are more than 320 additives approved for the processing of conventional food in Europe. All these substances must be guaranteed to not be harmful to human health. Nevertheless, in many cases their use is unnecessary and unnatural. Organic products need to be authentic. Therefore, only essential additives are allowed in the processing of organic food.

Number of permitted food additives for the processing of conventional and organic products in Europe

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The example of dried apricots

How the authorisation of food additives affects processed food is shown in the following example: Why are conventional dried apricots orange while organic apricots have a dark brown to black colour? In the EU, conventional apricots may be treated with up to 2000 mg sulphite (E220) per kg. This prevents the change of colour, but also protects the dried fruit against fungi and bacteria. In principle, adding sulphite is unnatural and should not be necessary, because dried fruits can be stored for long periods even without preservatives. Therefore, the addition of sulphite to organic dried apricots is not allowed.

The text on this background page is taken from the FiBL dossier "Sustainability and quality of organic food"