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Ethical food labels- what do they really mean?

Shopping on principle

Ethical food sales are rocketing and “better for you and the planet” logos are everywhere to tempt us, but is it all a big con?.
The supermarkets see us either as “foodies” or “fuellies”. Foodies shop according to conscience and quality where fuellies are driven by value(1).
The foodies dominate the UK consumer base with 58% of the share and spend over £5 1/2  billion each year on organic, fair-trade and locally reared produce.  By 2011 that’s expected to rise to over £71/2 billion. (1) 
“Ethical” foods attract top notch prices, their earthy appeal conjures up pictures of animals living happy lives, chemical free crops and jolly farmers nurturing their produce; but are they really any better? Is organic more nutritious? What does Farm Assured mean? And, who exactly gets the fair deal in fair trade?
UK Food labelling is a mess as it is, and more logos telling us about the life history of our food doesn’t make it any easier. As a dietitian, a chef and someone trying to do my bit to save the planet the supermarket is so daunting - I’m not sure what type of shopper I am anymore!

In 2005 organic food sales were up by 30% on the previous year(2).
Organic licensing in the UK is predominantly overseen by The Soil Association and EU law.

What it means
• Four permitted chemicals are used on organic crops as opposed to over 400 in non organics. They’re sprayed less often too.
• Livestock is drug free, has more space to live and is fed predominantly on organic feeds.
• Additives like hydrogenated fat, aspartame and monosodium glutamate are forbidden.
• No battery hens are allowed, only free range.
• Fewer pesticide residues than in non organic food.
• No Genetically modified crops or feeds.
• More wildlife.

What it doesn’t mean:
• No additives. 30 are permitted, some are used to fortify food with vitamins and minerals. In the UK for example white flour has added calcium and iron, whether it’s organic or not.
• Food tastes better.  Chefs might think so, but research (3) shows that there’s no difference in the taste or appearance or organic and non organic food.
• Residue free. Studies in the US (4) found organic produce has around 66% lower residues than non organics - but they are still there. The health risks of residues are unclear, but it’s thought, the lower the exposure, the lower any risk.
• The risk of food poisoning is smaller. Some experts believe that organic methods make food more prone to contamination, (5,6) for instance, organic eggs without a “Lion” stamp have not been protected against salmonella.
• More nutritious. A review of 41 studies found organic fruits and vegetables contained some extra Vitamin C and antioxidants (7), and organic milk had higher levels of essential fatty acids. But, the Food Standards Agency concludes “The current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any more nutritious than conventionally produced food.” (8) The extra nutrients just aren’t enough to give a measurable health benefit.
• Locally grown.  Around 44% of organic foods are imported into the UK, but there’s nothing to say how it’s transported. A typical, organic Sunday lunch could have accumulated over 16,000 air miles to get to the UK(9). The Soil Association is so worried about these environmental implications; they’ve launched a 1 year consultation which may lead to an outright ban on air-freighted organic food. (10)

Do I buy it?
Yes, but not exclusively, I couldn’t afford it. Muddy carrots allow me to believe that I nearly grew them myself, I still believe organic meat tastes better, but that’s probably because it’s allowed to mature for longer than most supermarket meat. For me, just an organic label isn’t enough- only local and organic really satisfies my conscience.

The Little Red Tractor (British Farm Standard logo)
This is like a basic MOT of food safety, animal welfare and environmental regulations. Set up by the National Farmers Union and Meat and Livestock Commission, it’s by no means independent. The scale of it’s use means both foodies and fuellies eat foods carrying the logo every day.

What it means:
• The standards are very broad and not as rigorous as many others.

What it doesn’t mean:
• Food has to reach any nutritional standard
• Free range. Chickens can still be kept in very cramped conditions and animals kept in barns are not required to be given straw or other forms of bedding (12)
• Organic.
• Local or British.

Do I buy it?
I regularly have food with this logo in my trolley but more by default than choice- it’s appears on so many foods it’s difficult to avoid it. A self regulating logo, to my mind, doesn’t have the same priorities as I do.

Fairtrade is about the farmer’s welfare. Farmers in developing countries are paid a fair price for their produce, profits go back into sustainable farming and local, social or economic development. It’s overseen by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International and predominantly covers products of vegetable origin. There are 2000 Fairtrade products and only fresh flowers and packaged fruit are flown into the UK, the rest are shipped so have a low carbon footprint.
What it means:
• Workers and farmers have received a fair price for their work.
• The local community benefits.

What it doesn’t mean:
• Nutritionally better. Longer shipping times may mean reduced levels of some vitamins and minerals in fruit and veg
• Organic.  Many fair-trade farmers use organic methods, but the logo is no guarantee.

Do I buy it? I buy Fairtrade foods that we can’t grow here. My coffee, tea, nuts and bananas are all Fairtrade, but I could probably extend my range a lot further.

So who’s got it right? The foodie or the fuellie?
Now of course, I won’t give you a straight answer, in fact I’ll give you three, my dietitian’s, my chef’s and my environmentalist’s versions.
As a dietitian I can’t ignore the evidence. Organic has fewer residues, but we don’t really no if that has a definite health benefit. We think it tastes better, but the evidence says otherwise and unless we know where it’s come from it could have clocked up a very un-PC environmental profile. There’s a wealth of good evidence telling us regular, frozen fruits and vegetables can contain more nutrients than fresh (11) so it’s unlikely that there’s any nutritional bonus to ethical food - sometimes there could even be a negative.
With my chef’s hat, I love to go to my local farm butchers for meat and I pick up the organic veg too, but this could easily be a feel good rather than a real good factor.
The environmentalist in me sleeps easy knowing that my morning coffee hasn’t exploited a 3rd world farmer, but if someone offers me a cup of freshly brewed, non fair-trade Blue Mountain I’ll lap it up.

The bottom line is, if you buy food purely according to your conscience that’s great, but don’t be duped into thinking it will be a cert for a long and healthful life or that that the planet will thank you. There’s plenty of food out there without ethical logos which really deserves superfood status. There can of course be healthy and unhealthy foodie and fuellie diets - and that’s the key. Look at your diet as a whole rather than getting hung up on individual foods. Cook from scratch more often, eat more fruit, veg, whole grains and watch your fats, salt and sugar. Then, whether you’re a foodie or a feullie you’ll be doing just fine. 




1. Institute of Grocery Research www.igd.com
2. The Soil Association : Organic food: facts and figures 2005.
3. Woese, K., Lange,D., Boess,C., and Bogl, K.W., A (1997) Comparison or organically and conventionally grown produce- results of a review of the relevant literature, J. Sci. Food Agric., 74:281-93.
4. Brian P., Charles M Benbrook, Edward Groth III, and Karen Lutz Benbrook (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional, IPM grown and organic foods. Insights from three US data sets. Food Additive and Contaminants, Vol19, No5, 427-446.
5. Stephenson, J. (1997) Public health experts take aim at a moving target: food borne infections, J. Am. Med. Assoc., 227:97-8
6. Schmidt, C.W.(1999) Safe food. An all consuming issue. Environ. Halth Perspectives 107: A144-A9
7. The Soil Association: Organic food in relation to nutrition and health: key facts 2004
8. Food Standards Agency, 2003.
9. Chicken from Thailand 10,691 miles, runner beans from Zambia 4,912 miles, carrots 1,100 miles.
10. http://www.naturalproductsonline.co.uk/home.asp?ItemID=2556&rcid=70&pcid=69&cid=70
11. British Nutrition Foundation position paper on Nutrition and Food Processing.
12. www.RSPCA.org.uk

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