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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Where there's muck...

Organic soap, organic nappies, organic cola and now organic water. As sales boom, everyone's hopping aboard the organic bandwagon. But that can be bad news for the consumer.

Forget those adverts about cleansing your temple-like body with water fresh from an Alpine stream - you're wasting your money.

Latest research shows you are better off drinking from the tap in your kitchen. A Consumers' Association survey found plain tap water was not only safe to drink, but also beat dozens of bottled varieties on taste.

All of which will do little for the latest designer drink - organic water.

Carrots
We tend to think of "organic" in fruit and veg terms
You heard it right the first time. A Welsh company is bottling and selling water, called Llanllyr Source, which springs from a borehole in organic fields.

But Llanllyr Source, which costs 1.49 for 750ml, has not gone down smoothly in all quarters. Which? magazine called the brand "misleading" and the Soil Association, Britain's largest organic certification body, has held back from giving its seal of approval to organic water.

One reason, it says, is the difficulty in tracing the source of spring water, therefore ensuring every drop is organic.

It's not the first product to controversially carry the "organic" tag.

Critics say the craze for all things organic is out of control. The lure of higher price mark-ups and the fact that one in four people now eat some form of organic food has made it a boom sector.

Certified organic
Six certification bodies in UK
All comply with EU standards monitored by UK Register of Organic Food Standards
Produce from outside EU must meet the standards
'Organic' processed foods can carry up to 5% non-organic agricultural ingredients
"There's definitely a bandwagon", says Ian Tokelove, of the Food Commission.

"Put 'organic' on something and it will increase sales and profit. And the more food that is produced, the more costs come down for manufacturers," he says.

While the main emphasis is still on organic fruit and vegetables, the processed foods sector has started to cash in on the trend.

But these products are not always as healthy as they sound. Many contain additives and have high levels of sugar, salt and fat. The Food Commission even found one breakfast cereal that had higher levels of added sugar than its non-organic counterparts.

Organic junk food

"Junk food is still junk food, wherever the ingredients come from. If it's organic then it's good for the environment but not necessarily for them," says Mr Tokelove.

Eggs
Shell shocking: Organic eggs are not always what they're cracked up to be
Organic certainly makes good business sense. Although production costs are higher, companies more than make up for it by charging an average 70 to 80% premium.

Soon it will be possible to live a normal organic-only lifestyle. Several cities boast organic supermarkets and London can claim a fully organic pub, which serves hemp lager.

Ethical consumers can absolve their consciences with organic sunscreen, organic bed linen, organic toilet cleaner and, controversially, organic cigarettes and organic cola - branded as "a bit cheeky" by Food Commission co-director Tim Lobstein.

Keep it sweet

Caroline Jeremy, of Whole Earth Foods, says the company's Organic Cola is a response to children who insist on sweet, fizzy drinks.

Organic ice cream
Organic food can be about indulgence, says Caroline Jeremy
Its sweetness derives not from sugar but Mexican agave cactus syrup and apple juice, while the caffeine is more subtle than that in most cola drinks.

"People think of organic as healthy but it can be more indulgent with food like chocolate."

With not one but six different UK authorities handing out organic certificates to food manufacturers - each has its own benchmarks - it's easy to see how the term might become devalued.

Egg on their face

Some producers don't even bother going through these channels. About 80% of organic eggs sold in British supermarkets are produced in semi-intensive circumstances.

"When you see products which just have 'organic' shoved on them and they don't even taste good, that's where it falls down," says Ms Jeremy.

Organic cigarettes
Health warning - but at least this tobacco is organic
Roger Bate, who co-edited the book Fearing Food, says consumers are blindly buying into the organic dream.

"There is a movement growing out of genuine concern but blown out of all proportion that if something is synthetic it's probably not safe," says Mr Bate.

"The corollary of that is anything that's natural is safe, which is plainly not true."

Last year, government-backed research in the United States reported organic crops carry greater concentrations of a potentially fatal E-coli bacterium. This is because they are grown in manure rather than synthetic fertilisers.

But with a host of food scares fresh in our minds and widespread concern over genetically modified organisms, the pendulum of public opinion has swung purposefully back to traditional farming methods.

"People want something to believe in that's natural," says Mr Bate. "Technology is changing faster than it's ever been and we need something reassuring to hold on to."

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See also:

25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Organic farms 'benefit wildlife'
03 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Organic food 'proven' healthier
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