A box of organic vegetables

What does organic mean?

The UK has a long history of organic farming, but is it really worth buying organic? Nutritionist Jo Lewin lays out the facts to help you make up your own mind...

What does ‘organic’ actually mean and what’s the difference between organic and non-organic fruit, vegetables and animal products?

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Organic – a definition

The Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) states that:

‘Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.

Organic agriculture is a systems approach to production that is working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable production. Instead, the agricultural systems rely on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control’.

**Taken from DEFRA – Crown Copyright 

Is organic food healthier than non-organic food? Read our expert guide to find out. You can also discover the best fruit and vegetable boxes by checking out our detailed review, whether you’re looking for organic produce or not, we found lots of great options.

Organic farming

Organic agriculture is about a way of farming that pays close attention to nature by using fewer chemicals on the land such as artificial fertilisers, which can pollute waterways. It means more wildlife and biodiversity, the absence of veterinary medicines such as antibiotics in rearing livestock and the avoidance of genetic modification. Organic farming can also offer benefits for animal welfare, as animals are required to be kept in more natural, free range conditions.

Organic labelling

For composite foods to be labelled as organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals. EU-wide rules require organic foods to be approved by an organic certification body, which carries out regular inspections to ensure the food meets a strict set of detailed regulations, relating to production methods and labelling.

Look for labels like the Soil Association. This is the gold standard of organic labelling. As some ingredients are not available organically, a list of non-organic food ingredients are allowed however, all artificial colourings and sweeteners are banned completely in foods labeled as organic.

A selection of vegetables in a box

Useful logos

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Buying organic produce

Organic food is cheapest when bought directly from a farmer or producer, either via a box scheme, farmers market or farm shop. Buying local, organic food will often cost less than the non-organic equivalent. Unfortunately, most of us cannot access organic food directly from the producer and therefore it tends to be more expensive than the basic non-organic equivalent in the supermarkets. It does pay to shop around. Some organic products cost less than premium non-organic products. You might be pleasantly surprised.

If you are on a tight budget but would like to buy more organic food, then you could try prioritising your purchases. Items such as organic flour, milk, bread and butter can be cheaper, as can fresh seasonal produce such as salad leaves and herbs. If you do compare prices, you may actually find that many organic brands are cheaper than their conventional equivalents and are often on special offer.

There are many reasons why someone might choose organic – such as taste, health, to avoid pesticides and a concern for the environment. The organic movement does promote healthier soil and it stands to reason that in the long run, organic farming is better for overall soil quality. However, let’s not forget that the most important factor in your diet, as far as fruit and vegetables are concerned, is to eat as much and as wide a variety as possible, regardless of whether it is organic or not.

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For more information on organic foods visit The Soil Association website.

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This article was reviewed on 7th September 2020.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.