SINGAPORE - After high-school teacher and author Andrew Hallam was treated for bone cancer here in 2009, he switched to eating mostly organic food.
The 42-year-old, who wrote the book Millionaire Teacher: Nine Rules Of Wealth That You Should Have Learnt In School, is happy to pay a premium for putting healthier food into his body.
"Is it worth spending 50 per cent more on groceries for the possibility of living longer? The question answers itself, I think," says the Singapore-based Canadian, whose wife also joins him in having a mostly organic diet.
"I would rather eat organic and do without the latest iPhone or flashy car. Material things, studies have shown, don't make people happier. But life's experiences do. And the longer I live, the more I can experience and see."
Whether other organic food enthusiasts think the same way or not, they are also buying up organic food in larger quantities.
Grown without the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and through sustainable farming practices, organic food used to be the purview of small, independent operators catering to an upscale clientele. Now, you can find an abundance of such products in supermarket chains, shops and even wet markets.
Supermarket chain FairPrice carries more than 800 organic items, from fresh produce to household items, up from 200 in 1998.
Sales at FairPrice stores have grown steadily with a more than 30 per cent increase registered so far this year compared with the same period last year, said Mrs Mui-Kok Kah Wei, director of purchasing and merchandising at NTUC FairPrice Co-operative. As people become more affluent, they are better able to choose what they eat.
Zenxin Organic Food, a major Malaysia-based producer of organic fresh produce sold mainly through Cold Storage and Market Place, has registered a year-on-year growth of more than 10 per cent since 2010.
Though director Tai Seng Yee says the organic market is still a niche one despite having existed for more than two decades, he feels this will change.
"We believe that more people will adopt healthier lifestyles in the near future and consuming produce free from chemicals, toxins and pesticides is one step towards a more health-conscious lifestyle," he said.
UConsumers can also buy organic food products from speciality stores such as Brown Rice Paradise, Four Seasons Organic, The Organic Grocer and SuperNature.
Ms Linda Locke, marketing director of SuperNature, which has two physical stores here, said expatriates formed the basis of its clientele when it opened in 2001.
She said: "Over the years, more locals have also started to make organic food part of their dietary choice. We are also seeing more young parents adopting an organic lifestyle that starts with their babies and then becomes the norm for the whole family."
SuperNature did well enough to be acquired by the Como group, the Singapore-based luxury hotel, retail and spa organisation, in 2007.
Indeed, the booming organic market elsewhere has long attracted the big boys. In the United States, major food corporations have bought up smaller organic food companies and now dominate the organic food industry.
Brands such as Kashi and Silk Soymilk are now owned respectively by US breakfast cereal maker Kellogg and US food and beverage company Dean Foods.
Organic food products are grown and processed using organic farming practices, which are meant to encourage soil and water conservation as well as reduce pollution.
Unlike conventional farmers, organic farmers avoid the use of chemicals, such as artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Natural fertilisers, such as compost or manure, are used instead and crops are rotated to develop fertile soil and reduce pest infestations and disease outbreaks. Some farmers even manage weeds manually.
Organic vegetables and food have less pesticide residue, are grown as naturally as possible and are governed by a set of strict guidelines to ensure the integrity and quality of produce, said Mr Bjorn Low, who owns Edible Gardens, a social enterprise that helps people grow their own food in Singapore.
"From a livestock point of view, organic-raised meats are humanely treated - that is, not kept in overcrowded conditions. They are fed natural and organic feed, and generally have less hormones and antibiotics pumped into them," he said.
These more expensive farming methods are largely why organic food products cost more than conventional produce.
Organic fruit and vegetables may also spoil faster than conventional produce as they are not treated with waxes and preservatives. They also do not have food additives such as colouring and flavouring.
Many people think the premium they pay for organic food products are for safer, more nutritious food.
Ms Jocelyn Chia, a senior dietitian with the department of dietetics at the Singapore General Hospital, said people have the perception that such products could help in the prevention of cancer and the preservation of fertility.
Mr Hallam, for one, turned to organic products to keep carcinogens at bay.
"Of the pesticides and herbicides used in different countries, many are known to be carcinogenic," he said.
The aim, he explained, is to give his body the "best possible odds against the disease".
"At my funeral," he said half-jokingly, "I want people to say, 'My god, he was old!'"
No dire need to go organic
A recent analysis by researchers from Stanford University of results of various studies did indeed find that organic food products were 30 per cent less likely to have pesticide residue though they were not 100 per cent free of the chemicals.
The researchers had reviewed data from 237 studies that compared either the health of people who ate organic or conventional food, or the nutrient and contaminant levels in the food themselves.
However, the analysis found there were no obvious health advantages to eating organic food, including organic meat. They said organic food was no more nutritious than conventional food.
Dietitians agree there is no need to eat only organic food as there is no strong evidence that its consumption is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content or that the level of pesticide residue in food causes harmful outcomes.
There is also no need to start babies on organic food, said Ms Chia.
All imported and locally produced fruit and vegetables are regularly inspected by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority for excessive pesticides and chemical residue and are safe to eat, she said.
The US Food and Drug Administration has also said that approved waxes - which help to retain moisture in fruit and vegetables, inhibit growth of mould and enhance appearance - are safe to eat.
"As wax is indigestible, it will go through the body unabsorbed," said Ms Chia.
Cancer patients should not get stressed over whether they should eat organic food.
"They don't have to eat organic food," said the senior dietitian at Parkway Cancer Centre, Ms Fahma Sunarja. "Just ensure that they remove the pesticides and fertilisers by washing fruit and vegetables under running tap water for several minutes."
Or you can rinse the fruit or vegetables, soak them for 15 minutes and rinse them again to remove pesticide residue and dirt, said Ms Chia.
Perhaps the rationale for eating organic food is that you are paying for the reassurance and luxury of knowing the food has been handled with care, said Ms Vanitha Buthmanaban, a dietitian with the Youth Health Division at the Health Promotion Board.
Others want to encourage farming practices that do less harm to the environment and less destruction to the livelihoods of traditional farmers who cannot compete with giant commercial farms.
The quality of food does not depend on whether they are organically grown or not, said Ms Buthmanaban.
"The nutritional quality depends on the type of food, their freshness, storing methods and cooking methods," she said.
"The most important consideration is not whether you are eating organic produce, but whether you are enjoying a healthy, balanced diet."
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