The Mechanics of Organic

An article in The Times earlier this week stated: “People who eat organic food are 25% less likely to get cancer, according to a study of almost 70,000 volunteers. Researchers say pesticides in conventional fruit and vegetables can cause cancer, suggesting ‘going organic’ helps prevent the disease. 

“Previous studies have failed to find any convincing evidence that organic foods protect against disease or are more nutritious. Now researchers at Paris University have questioned 69,000 people about their diet and followed them for an average of five years, during which 1,340 of them developed cancer.

“The one-quarter of people who ate the most organic food were 25% less likely to get cancer than the quarter who ate the least, even after adjusting for age, class and other health conditions, according to results in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

“The risk of breast cancer after the menopause was 34% lower in the organic eaters involved in the study, while the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer, was 86% lower.”

I couldn’t believe those figures and found them astonishing. The food debate, though, has tended recently to be about food miles, sustainability, provenance, vegan and vegetarianism – not about going organic, which appears to have dropped off the consumer debate agenda. While all these issues are incredibly important, as far as I know no-one has said any of them has such a profound positive effect on preventing cancer as eating organic food.

Is this something our sector needs to take more notice of or will consumers reject the price increase that inevitably follows when buying organic? My organic chicken at the weekend was twice as expensive as a non-organic one but didn’t, in all honesty, taste any different. However, that and the article failed to make me stop to consider what additional expenditure I was prepared to tolerate to be 25% less likely to have cancer.

Following the Times article we ran a survey with OnePulse of more than 1,000 consumers and asked them what they thought about the issue.

Almost one-third (31%) of consumers we surveyed said they believe it’s important for meat and vegetables to be organic when dining out. That’s quite a high percentage. This belief is much more important for those with plant-based diets, with almost half (49%) thinking it’s important for restaurants to serve organic meat and vegetables. In our survey, 14% of consumers said they were more likely to visit a restaurant if they knew it served organic food, rising to 19% of 18 to 24-year-olds. However, 16% don’t believe it’s important at all.

Three-fifths (60%) of respondents believe eating organic food in general is important, while almost three-quarters (72%) of consumers believe eating organic food has some sort of health benefit. However, almost one-third (32%) are unsure of what these health benefits are and almost one-fifth (18%) aren’t 100% sure what organic food is.

Only 12% believe eating organic meat can prevent cancer, while 14% believe eating organic vegetables can prevent cancer. So there is a general feeling organic is good for you but a general lack of understanding about the concept of organic or what the precise benefits are.

As I felt at the weekend, cost is a big issue with 42% of people believing organic food is too expensive for them to eat regularly at the moment but one-quarter (25%) of respondents believe they would eat more organic food in the future, rising to 30% of those from London and the south east.

It is a growing trend, with almost one-fifth (19%) of people eating more plant-based meals than they did a year ago. London and the south east is driving this trend, with one-quarter (25%) eating more plant-based meals.

Has offering organic food and vegetables on a menu become imperative for operators considering the potential health benefits? The evidence would suggest no. My sense is it has become important for operators to have many more vegan and vegetarian dishes on their menus but for now they don’t have to be organic. I do think, however, this will become increasingly important for us all in years to come as we become much more educated on how eating the right foods can help our physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Written by Ann Elliott