Monday, August 16, 2010

Busting the organic myth

Courtesy  of The Star Online
While there’s little doubt that organic food makes a healthier diet, it has attained a stigma of its own and many shy away believing that it is not worth its salt.
AT the mention of “organic food” what are the other words that come to mind? If you are thinking “bland”, “tasteless”, “expensive” or “sick”, you’re not alone. Many others will be thinking along the same line.
This seems to be the general opinion of organic food now but a couple of years ago, the perception was generally positive. Dozens of “organic” restaurants were opened and though they were serving brown rice and wheatgrass juice (which must have seemed foreign to a population accustomed to nasi lemak and teh tarik), people were curiously receptive.
Creative: Sherene Soong and Wong Kai Yuen, the husbandand- wife team behind the EcoGreen Organic outfit.
It also helped that several big-name celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow were openly touting the benefits of their respective organic and macrobiotics diet.
However, after the initial buzz, many of these restaurants have since closed and we’re left wondering why. Wasn’t there enough demand to sustain them? Are Malaysians really sticklers for their Hokkien mee? Or is organic fare simply not good enough to appeal to our taste buds?
Furthermore, there are many myths surrounding organic food that are hardly going to help jack up its popularity. But does organic food deserve its reputation as “rabbit food”, as one friend puts it?
One myth is that organic food is expensive. This, unfortunately, is true and a visit to a supermarket with a section for organic food will reveal just how much. To give an idea, organic broccoli costs RM20 per kg, which is RM1.10 more than conventional broccoli. This difference is negligible but in other instances, it can easily cost a few hundred percent more. Organic potatoes, for example, cost RM10.90 per kg while non-organic ones cost only RM2.90. In a restaurant, the higher ingredient cost will definitely be transferred to the fare that is served.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), certified organic food is more expensive because of several reasons. These include limited supply and higher production costs due to greater labour inputs and post-harvest handling. Additionally, the price of organic food also includes costs involved in organic farming, which takes the environment and animal welfare into bigger consideration.
This relates to what Sherene Soong and Wong Kai Yuen, the husband-and-wife team behind the EcoGreen Organic outfit, refer to as “value”.
“People who go for industrially produced food is baited by the concept of cheap. Sure, they may eat more but are they getting enough nutrition for their well-being?” Wong asks.
Although he concedes that organic food is not within the reach of the poor, he believes it is within reach of average families.
“Looking at the amount people spend on smoking, or even on entertainment, I don’t feel that spending an additional RM200 to provide the family with better quality food is too much,” says Wong.
Another enduring myth about organic food is that it is only for sick people.

One way to ensure you’re purchasing genuine organic food is to look out for certifications.
Au Tai Hon, co-owner of Yogitree restaurant in The Gardens shopping mall, Kuala Lumpur, was mildly amused as to how this perception came about.
“One hundred to 150 years ago, this ‘organic’ method was how things were done. Food was fresh and procured locally; it was natural.”
Then, he rues, came the industrialisation and commercialisation of food, which affected a change in palates.
“Chain restaurants and instant food trained us to expect things that are fast, convenient, cheap and artificially flavoured.
“We want chickens that are ready for consumption in one month, rather than the three or four that is naturally required,” says Au.
With this line of reasoning, he makes a strong case that organic food and restaurants serving them are how things were supposed to be before food went into the domain of corporations.
Thus, the perception surrounding organic food – that it belongs in the realm of alternative lifestyle – ought to change, he stresses.
“It is for everybody, not just the sick,” he says.
There are some who feel that paying a premium for organic food allows unscrupulous parties to profit by labelling a non-organic product as organic. Herein comes the perception that “some of them are fake”.
Macrobiotics for Life author and proprietor of Woods Macrobiotics, on organic restaurant in Bangsar, June Ka Lim admits that this is a concern but points out that the main culprits are chemical flavourings that are sold as healthy flavourings, coloured food and the presence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Guaranteed organic: Yogitree serves homemade ice cream at RM8 per scoop.
To avoid being deceived, EcoGreen’s Wong suggests two strategies. One is to look out for certification. This includes the local certification standard called the Malaysian Organic Scheme (SOM) under the purview of the Agriculture Department. Other known certifications include Australia’s NASAA and Italy’s ICEA.
Another approach would be to build consumer-producer relationships, Wong says.
Speaking as a restaurant owner, he explains: “Although it’s not always possible, in terms of proximity, consumers or patrons should get to know the restaurant and the people who run it. This way, you get to know their personalities and characters, enabling you to make an informed decision if this person is someone who would sell you inferior goods.”
Calling this the “cultural approach”, Wong believes that it’s easy enough to investigate a producer’s reputation and credentials.
“There are no certifications for restaurants and most of the time, no one really knows what happens in a kitchen anyway. Even conventional certifications for farms are not infallible,” he adds.
One reason often cited for the closing down of organic restaurants is lack of demand. But Woods’ Ka Lim dismisses this, saying that from her experience as a pioneer in the organic food industry, the market is growing at a steady rate of at least 20% a year.
The reason a lot of new organic restaurants close down, she explains, is because most newcomers jump onto the bandwagon without any experience or in-depth knowledge on organic or healthy cooking.
“The menu is not creative enough and food is not well-combined for a nutritional balance, with most of the ideas copied from here and there,” she says. “Some of our dishes have been copied elsewhere but they failed to turn out well because different ingredients were used.”
Yogitree’s Au, on the other hand, opines that a lot of these organic restaurants were probably not received well because they were too vegetarian-based.
The pesto and Portobello mushroom with organic pasta is also tossed with rocket and pine nuts
“Of course, a sustainable bottom line is important and this can be achieved not by targeting a particular market, which can be small, but to gear the restaurant towards entertaining,” he says.
There is a market for organic food, and this is evident by the availability of organic food in supermarkets, he stresses.
“There used to be a limited selection but some supermarkets stock whole sections with organic products now.”
To the average food-loving Malaysian who is willing to drive a few hundred kilometres for a taste of the best char kuay teow or assam laksa, the idea that organic food is tasteless and bland could be one of the most important factors to give it a miss.
EcoGreen’s Soong, who is also the restaurant’s head chef, smiles knowingly when she hears this. “Here, we manage to surprise.
“Creativity is key,” she states.
As an example, she says she creams her curry gravy with nuts and oats instead of santan and it provides a similar richness in taste and texture.
Yogitree’s Au says that organic and natural food cannot go wrong in the taste department because it is fresh.
The best meal he has ever had, he relates, was at the house of a padi farmer in Kedah. There, he had chicken curry that was light yet wholesome but without the “heavy taste” that is found in the city.
That, he says, is “unforgettable”.