The Organic Choice

Boost your overall health and wellbeing with organic food and in the process you’ll be helping the environment. by Erin O’Dwyer It’s only natural

The Organic Choice

Boost your overall health and wellbeing with organic food and in the process you’ll be helping the environment.

by Erin O’Dwyer

It’s only natural to want to feed your body in a way that aids your yoga practice, and going organic may be just what the doctor ordered.

A conversation with Sheridan Hammond is as invigorating as slamming down an ice-cold organic smoothie loaded with bananas, mangoes and freshly picked leafy greens, which is exactly what Hammond—a yogic surfer and organic entrepreneur from the south-west coast of Western Australia—has for breakfast. “As you get further down the path of your yoga practice, you become more concerned about what you put in your body,” he says. “Organic meant better, so I started saying I only want to put organic food in my system. Once you try it, you don’t go back.”

Certified organic is food produced without synthetic chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides. It’s not genetically modified, ensures the humane treatment of animals and is produced with a focus on environmentally sustainable farming practices. Plus, it tastes better, which is a key factor in the minds of the almost two in three Australians who include organic food in their shopping trolley.

Interestingly, the jury is still out as to whether organic food has more nutrients than conventional food. And there’s little evidence to show that an organic diet can reduce our exposure to the pesticides and insecticides that in large doses are linked to cancer, allergies, depression, infertility and chronic illnesses. But for an increasing number of Australians, organic makes sense.

Rising consciousness

“You improve your overall health, raise your awareness and promote a calmer mind, and you look and feel  younger by eating organic,” says Dr Verena Raschke-Cheema, who lectures in nutritional science at University of Western Sydney and is an Iyengar and Satyananda yoga student. “As well, it’s a definite benefit to your yogic life. Yoga is so much more than the asanas. The asanas are a preparation for meditation, they enable us to sit still for longer periods of time and they calm our mind. Yoga is for improvement of consciousness and awareness, and organic food supports that.”

Research conducted for the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) shows that more than 60 per cent of Australian households now buy organic on occasion, up from 40 per cent in 2008. A whopping 91 per cent of Aussies say “chemical-free” is important and one in two Australian Yoga Journal readers eat organic “where possible”. In particular, Australians prioritise organic eggs (sales of which are up 75 per cent in two years), milk and dairy (up 36 per cent), and fruit and wine (up 16 per cent). In just two years, the production of essential oils for the growing cosmetic industry has tripled. Indeed, last year the organic industry nearly reached $1 billion in annual sales, a figure that has doubled since 2008.

For Sheridan Hammond, who went organic a decade ago, the decision was a “no-brainer”. “I didn’t want to have any toxins in my body,” he says simply. Hammond began practising yoga in 1996, when a surfing injury forced him out of the water. With Ashtanga, he found an alternative to surgery and a path back to the surf. In 2008, he and his partner Lisa Archer combined their three loves in Samudra—a yoga and surf school with an organic food cafe, in Dunsborough, south of Perth. The cafe follows raw food and vegan principles, sourcing much of its food from an on-site biodynamic garden.

Four years on, it’s a busy life. Samudra has an online store selling its own organic clothing line and high-protein powders made from spirulina, and runs retreats to Bali and Byron Bay. To fit it all in, Hammond rises before dawn to practise yoga, teaches from 6am to 8am, has breakfast, goes for a surf and then returns to his desk to manage 45 staff. An organic diet keeps him firing: he follows his breakfast smoothie with a garden-fresh salad for lunch that’s packed with superfoods such as sea greens, sprouts, daikon and nuts. Dinner is light, raw and “mono-fruit”.  “I’ll have a whole watermelon or five mangoes for dinner,” he says. “I aim for 100-per-cent organic, but some things slip through, I’m sure. When I started eating organic, I generally found I could fit more into the day. My vitality was better, I could do more yoga and surfing and still have time to spend with the family.”

Taste the difference

Dr Raschke-Cheema began eating organic as a nutrition student in her native Austria. She boosted her diet to 95 per cent organic five years ago and almost immediately noticed differences, such as improved immunity, clearer skin and a calmer mind. Now awaiting the birth of her first child in July, she has had no nausea or fatigue and feels full of energy. Dr Raschke-Cheema says it’s very important to find affordable organic food. “When you are chronically ill, you try to find healthy alternatives but often it’s already too late, especially for cancer patients,” she says. “Those who are not chronically ill and can’t see the relationship [between organic food and health] don’t go organic because of the cost. But when you eat organic for a week, you confirm that conventional foods don’t taste of anything, or worse, they taste of chemicals.”

Nutritionists agree that an organic diet is essential for pregnant women and young children, whose immunity is still being developed. “Allergies in children who convert to an organic diet can be eliminated,” says Dr Raschke-Cheema. “I see the detrimental effects of packaged foods in a lot of children with hyperactivity and behavioural issues. I also believe the rise in infertility in our society is linked to what we put in our food.”

When it comes to children, the research on organic food is compelling. A US study found that substituting organic for conventional fruit and vegies for just five days reduced some insecticides in the bloodstream of children to nil. A study in the journal Pediatrics found a link between ADHD in children and elevated levels of certain pesticides. According to The Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, research shows children exposed to pesticides are more likely to have childhood cancer, behavioural and reproductive issues.

Alarmingly for adults, the cold, hard facts are scant. It’s not known whether the pesticides used on foods are harmful, or to what extent an organic diet can limit our exposure. A 2009 UK review by Dr Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found only eight studies into the benefits of organic food in the past 50 years. The review did not consider pesticides at all and found there was no evidence that organic food was more nutritious than conventional food. “A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs,” said Dr Dangour. He called for more research and “greater scientific rigour” in organic food studies.

A new era of research

In Australia, the first study of organic  food consumers is due to start later this year. Liza Oates, a naturopath and lecturer in the Master of Wellness program at RMIT University, will test the urine of adults for the presence of pesticide residues in both organic and conventional diets. On the question of whether to eat organic, Oates advises the precautionary principle. “As my mother would say, better to be safe than sorry. It’s not that it’s been demonstrated that pesticide exposure is okay, it’s just that not enough research has been done to say either way.”

She says pesticides should be regulated in a similar way to pharmaceuticals, with better testing before use and after consumption. She adds that numerous chemicals designed to “induce cellular death or disruption” in pests have been used for years on food with little or no direct research into the impact on human health. “We know that these chemicals can be dangerous in high doses. What we don’t know is the potential combined cumulative effects of small amounts of pesticides in food. And we don’t know what happens when you combine these pesticides with any of the other 84,000 chemicals we might be exposed to.”

For the earth’s sake

The undeniable facts are the environmental benefits of organic food. According to the BFA, about 30,000 tonnes of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and plant growth regulators are used each year in Australia. Organic farms have a greater resilience to drought and improve biodiversity in plants and animals. They are also more fertile—a 21-year Australian trial showed organic crops had up to four times greater yields than conventional.

Perhaps the most delicious study comes from the US, where researchers grew strawberries on 26 farms. They found organic berries had higher vitamin C and antioxidant levels, and the organic farms had a much healthier soil profile. This reason alone is enough to consider organic food, says Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in the US. “One of the most important reasons to support the organic industry is the effects that organic production is having on the soil, which we will need in the future,” she says. And those organic berries? “The number one reason I think this is a much better choice is not the difference in vitamin C, but the much healthier soil in organic strawberry fields,” she says.

Go Organic

You can move to a more organic diet without breaking the bank. Here’s how:

  •  Buy organic staples at supermarkets. Organic pasta, flour, grains, milk, yoghurt and meat are often priced competitively to conventional foods.
  • Organic food markets offer reasonable prices and the produce is farm-fresh, plus you’ll taste the difference.
  • Start small by adding a few organic items to your trolley—this will reduce the amount of artificial additives in your diet. Try oats, milk, flour, eggs and yoghurt. See if you can taste the difference in apples, carrots, onions, garlic, tea and coffee.
  • Organic butchers might look more expensive but their cuts are usually leaner, which means you’ll just pay for the meat and not the fat.
  • Home delivered produce is organic, fresh from the market and comes with almost no packaging. You can nominate a box size, priced from $30, and make up for any additional needs with conventional fruit and vegies.
  • Organic food co-ops offer discounts for members and volunteers, so you can cut your food bill by up to 25 per cent.
  • Grow your own herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes and eggplants. Use companion planting and non-toxic homemade sprays such as chilli and garlic to prevent pests.

Eating For The Blues

We all know you are what you eat, but how much does food contribute to mental health? Groundbreaking research by Deakin University fellow Dr Felice Jacka has found that women who load up on processed, packaged and junk foods are more likely to have depression. Conversely, women who eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish and low-fat dairy are less likely to have depression and anxiety disorders.

“Eating a lot of saturated fats and sugars has a [negative] effect on brain proteins that are essential for good mental health and also has a detrimental effect on the immune system and the stress response system,” says Dr Jacka.

No research has been published on the relationship between organic food and mood. And while organic foods may be considered better than conventional, Dr Jacka warns against compromising the amount of fruit and veg in your diet in favour of going organic. “While it’s optimal to avoid consuming pesticides, it’s very problematic when people reduce their intake of fruit and veg because they’re worried about eating only organic,” she says. “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to eat in accordance with the healthy eating guidelines.”

Erin O’Dwyer is a freelance writer and yoga student in Bulli, New South Wales.