Why I chose to go organic-only for seven days... and how I felt afterwards
It's no secret we're becoming more health and eco conscious; veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism are all on the rise and we're taking more interest in exactly what we're putting into our bodies and where our food comes from.
As a result, more of us are buying organic food than ever before. According to a 2018 report by The Soil Association (the UK's organic certification body), the market grew by 6% last year and now accounts for around 1.5% of the total UK food and drink market.
The biggest increase has been online - home delivery grew by 9.5% last year - understandable if you, like me this week, have ever trudged around several supermarkets in search of that elusive 'organic' symbol.
Why are people buying organically?
The modern revival of organic farming took off in the Forties as a backlash to the industry's reliance on pesticides and chemicals, but apparently it's millennials who are driving the recent popularity. The Soil Association's report says 54% of 18 to 25-year-olds would be willing to pay more for organic food (so maybe we are choosing avocados over house-buying after all).
Organic farming uses fewer pesticides, while genetically-modifed (GM) crops and ingredients are banned and it's regulated. Anything sold as 'organic' in the EU must comply with strict legal standards, and farms and businesses are inspected annually.
Organic UK, which is trying to help make organic an everyday choice for more people, says this way of farming is better for the soil too, protects and encourages more wildlife, and ensures produce is full of flavour. When it comes to meat and fish, if it's organic it's always free-range, and standards stipulate that animals must have a certain amount of space and fresh air.
Is it easy to live organically for a week?
I already buy organic eggs because the yolks are brighter and better quality, and hummus, because it just tastes better - but everything organic for a whole week is a leap.
Abel & Cole - who specialise in organic home delivery boxes - loaded me up with a huge selection of fresh produce (a very stress-free shopping experience), including an organic rack of lamb, turmeric and chilli chorizo, wild samphire and rainbow chard. I was also looking forward to trying organic wine (which is said to contain less sulphates) for the first time.
With a fully-stocked fridge, things started well. My pan-fried salmon, roasted sweet potato and mixed greens dinner felt extra virtuous, the fish was plump, more succulent and, yes, I could totally tell the difference in taste.
My lunchtime salads became 100% homemade and mornings began with organic smoothies or really good quality rye loaf and much better butter than my normal spreadable, not-naming-names brand.
Sunday's lamb, roast potatoes and root veg was, quite frankly, a triumph - everyone agreed the meat was tastier than the non-organic one we cooked alongside it (for volume rather than comparison, but it served that purpose too). We even knocked up an apple and raspberry crumble (apples freshly picked from a tree, so guaranteed GMO-free) with custard.
With careful planning and all the ingredients to hand it's easy, but it did test my organisational skills. I had to be militant about packing the food and drinks I'd need throughout the day. A one week-only delivery doesn't account for random 4pm cravings and my local Sainsbury's - and even nearby Marks & Spencer (albeit a small one) - had surprisingly little organic food, unless I was willing to snack on raw veg at my desk. Plans to eat out with friends had to be pushed back a week because, no, Nando's isn't organic.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that not one biscuit handed round the office happened to be organic either, and a day out with my family proved tricky too despite ample googling of 'organic cafes near me'. It really depends where you live. Major cities might have some completely organic eat-out options, and there's a growing number of gluten-free, vegan, fresh, 'natural' options, but organic? Not so much. Aside from one crisp packet-sized slip-up when I was hungry and ill-prepared, I ate and drank organically for just over a week.
Did I notice the difference?
The biggest eye-opener was the difference in taste of meat and fish. If you can afford it, it seems to make sense to eat meat produced in line with higher standards of animal welfare, for environmental, ethical and yumminess reasons. And now that I've read what's allegedly added to non-organic milk (antibiotics and hormones), I'm a convert there too.
There have been conflicting studies about whether or not eating organic is healthier. In 2009 the Food Standards Agency concluded there was no significant difference in vitamins and minerals. However, in 2016, the British Journal of Nutrition found "clear differences between organic and conventional milk and meat, especially in terms of fatty acid composition, and the concentrations of certain essential minerals and antioxidants".
Fran McElwaine, director of the UK Health Coaches Association, said I probably wouldn't notice any changes from just a week of eating this way, although I'd say naturally making healthier choices - junk food simply isn't organic - contributed to me feeling healthier overall.
"The cellular changes made by the toxins in non-organic food are subtle and incremental, likewise the benefits of avoiding them," she says.
But McElwaine does believe chemicals used in industrialised farming methods have serious and compounding effects on our wellbeing."
She says: "Our bodies are extremely efficient at managing toxins, but they are struggling with the increasing burden of man-made substances being ingested through our food."
Eating organic-only is more expensive. My total shop cost £189 (and there were some leftovers), including some household products and a couple of store cupboard essentials. For many people, like me, completely switching long-term just isn't financially possible, but every food choice we make does help determine the kind of standards we want food supply chains to have.
I will be making a few small swaps in my shopping basket from now on, and cheers-ing with a glass of organic wine more often too (zero hangover, thank you very much).
For more information visit the Organic UK website www.feedyourhappy.co.uk and find out about their campaign Feed Your Happy
Ways of buying organic in Northern Ireland
While Abel & Cole, the company which supplied Lauren with organic produce, don't yet deliver to Northern Ireland, there are other local outlets to try:
Helen's Bay Organic offers free home delivery of fresh organic fruit and vegetables across the North Down, Lisburn and greater Belfast areas. You can also visit the farm shop or the Saturday stall at St George's Market (www.helensbayorganic.com)
Mourne Manor Organics is an organic farm based in Newcastle which delivers fruit and vegetable boxes all over Northern Ireland. It offers vegetable boxes, salad bags and even fresh herbs and spices, as well as bespoke options. (www.mournemanororganics.org.uk)
Causeway Organic delivers fresh local organic food to North Coast residents, including vegetables and herbs from Vance's Organic Farm in Kilrea, bread from the Ursa Minor Bakehouse in Ballycastle, organic raw milk from Culmore Organic Farm and fresh flowers and herbs grown by June Brownlow in Kilrea. (www.causewayorganic.com)