Updated 04 November 2014

Is organic food a big hoax?

DietDoc's firm belief that all's well with of organic food, globally and in South Africa, was recently seriously challenged.


The concept of organically grown foods has always been very important to me. The number and variety of organic products on supermarket shelves has increased, which appeals to me as a nutritionist, consumer, and a supporter of animal rights.

However, a recent article published in the Pretoria News by Keith Bryer, a retired communications consultant, with the title “Marketing genius of organic foods unwrapped” challenged my rather naive belief that all’s well in organic food production, globally and in South Africa. It was a unexpected dose of reality that left me stunned.

Is it all a clever marketing ploy?

According to Bryer, the promoters of organic foods have done a masterful job of brainwashing the public (me included), that organic foods are “superior” and that “free range” animals live a normal life free of the horrors of “factory farming”.

Just by including the magic words “organic and free range” in any advertisement, producers can be sure that the public will accept their foods as worthwhile, healthy, ethical etc., and be prepared to pay considerably more for these products. According to Bryer, Stanford University estimates that the amount of money spent on organic food in the USA grew from $3.7 billion in 1997 to a whopping $26.7 billion in 2010.

Read: Are organic foods healthier?

He goes on to describe how the organic movement has gained momentum from its rather shaky origins in the alternative culture of the 1960s. The people who can be credited with starting the move to “organic farming” are the so-called hippies who dropped out of society and rejected the trappings of “modern civilization”. They wore home-spun clothes and leather sandals; did not bath; grew copious amounts of hair; handed out flowers as tokens of peace; burnt their draft cards; lived in communes; and ate only “organic food” grown without pesticides or fertilisers.

This is all very inspiring and romantic, but the million dollar question is of course if these foods really are superior in any way to foods that are produced by standard farming methods. Do organic foods taste better? Are they more nutritious? And equally, or even more important, are organic foods safe? These questions and their answers have given me a new perspective.

Safety is key

Probably the most important factor when it comes to food, is safety. We all want to feel safe when we buy and eat our daily food. The organic label implies that organically produced and grown foods are safe to eat, even safer than foods produced on standard farms. To disprove this belief, Bryer lists some incidents of contamination of organic foods that have rocked the world over the past few years.

The outbreak of Escherichia coli from contaminated organic bean sprouts that infected 3 700 people in Germany in 2011 and caused 44 deaths, was such an incident. E. coli is a bacterium found in faecal matter, and I must admit the bean sprout incident did raise some doubt in my mind about the safety of organic foods at the time.

Read: Organic trend no passing phase  

The fact mentioned that Canadian authorities removed 50 organic products from supermarket shelves due to contamination with Salmonella (another potentially lethal organism), E. coli and the heavy metal cadmium in one year, increased my concern. If this is happening in Canada, who is keeping an eye on organic produce in this country?

We know that our food inspectors are stretched to the limits, that there is a lack of testing facilities through the country and that most municipalities would not be able to afford the costs of screening organic foods on a regular basis.

With tons of raw sewage pouring into our water supplies and acid mine water leaching every kind of heavy metal and toxic compound into our precious groundwater, how can any farmer using this witches’ brew to irrigate crops, both standard and organic, be sure that any of our foods are free of contaminants and safe?

And what about legislation?

Feeling worried, I did a search on the internet to try and determine if we have any legislation in place to match that of countries like the USA. According to The South African Organic Sector (SAOSO) website we seem to have a Draft Organic Products Regulation, which is still being debated. The current SA Labelling Regulations published in 2010, also do not address requirements for “organic foods”, except perhaps in terms of “misleading advertising”. 

Read: Organic claims often overstated

According to the Mayo Clinic Website (2014), “The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification programme that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.” In addition, this website mentions that to be labelled as “organic” American foods and products have to be USDA certified and be marked with an “USDA Organic label”. 

Depending on the percentage of organic ingredients in a food item, it can be labelled “100% organic” with the percentage of its organic content down to 70%, after which the food may no longer bear the seal.  The Mayo Clinic Website also lists the regulations and standards promulgated by the USDA to oversee organic farming and food production in America.


I must admit that my belief in organic foods has been severely challenged and that I will start considering if the much higher prices I pay for many fruits and vegetables in my supermarket trolley are really worth it. I also think that the time has come for our Department of Agriculture to finalise the standards and legislation for organic farming in South Africa and for our current Labelling Regulations to be expanded to include specifications for the labelling of organic foods.

Read more:

Organic trend no passing phase

Is organic food better than non-organic food?
Buying organic food on a budget


- Bryer K (2014). Marketing genius of organic foods unwrapped, Pretoria News, Published on 18 September 2014;

- DOH (2010). Regulation No. R. 146. Regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). Government Gazette, published on 1 March 2010;

- Mayo Clinic Staff (2014). Nutrition and healthy eating. Discover the real difference between organic foods and their traditionally grown counterparts when it comes to nutrition, safety and price. Mayoclinic

- SAOSO (2014). Organic Standards. 


Image: Fresh organic food from Shutterstock


Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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