Organic v Junk Food
From 2008 but still very interesting.
I cant help feeling that both families spent a fortune of food anyway as my weekly shop comes to about £50 but I guess economy wasn't an issue.
More of us than ever are choosing organic foods. But while it might seem a healthier option, would you really notice a difference in wellbeing if you went totally organic?
We challenged a dyed-in-the-wool organic family to swap lifestyles for a week with a family who love ready-meals. The results make fascinating reading. MANDY FRANCIS reports.
William and Gaby Lana, both 38, are the owners of Greenfibres, an organic clothing company. They live in Totnes, Devon, with their children, Megan, 11, and Max, nine. Gaby says:
We started to eat organically about 15 years ago. Now, just about the only thing in our kitchen that isn't organic is a jar of Marmite - and that's only because we haven't found a satisfactory substitute - yet.
We choose to eat organic mainly for health reasons. We feel it's really important to eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible - freshly picked, in season and not sprayed with a cocktail of chemicals, pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones or packed with artificial additives and preservatives.
We cook everything from scratch, so we know exactly what is in our meals. On an average day, breakfast is no-sugar, organic cereal with unhomogenised milk - milk that has not been processed to break up natural fat globules - as well as fruit and apple juice from local organic farms.
Lunch might be a wholemeal cheese sandwich (all the ingredients organic and made locally) with tomatoes from our organic garden. Supper might be organic pasta with a home-made sauce, salad from a friend's allotment and a glass of local organic wine - followed by ice cream or fruit for dessert.
We were nervous about the life swap - but determined to immerse ourselves in it nonetheless. On the first day, we took the children to a large, local supermarket just outside Totnes - a new experience for all of us.
It really did feel like walking into another world. We're used to small, friendly, local shops - so everything about the supermarket was different: from the controlled temperature and lighting to the weird, deodorised smell.
It's strange that you can't actually smell food in a supermarket - I guess because most of it is so tightly packaged. William makes a homemade pizza once a week, which we all love - so our first mission was to buy a ready-made version.
We were stunned by the choice. There was literally, a whole aisle of pizza! Thin crust, thick crust, stuffed crust - it was really hard to know what to choose, but we eventually settled for a Goodfellas pepperoni - averting our eyes from the scary food label with its salt and fat.
The children were allowed to pick whatever they liked and quickly scooped up packets of chocolate coated cereal, bags of crisps, a huge bottle of lemonade (they only drink fruit juice or water at home) and Cheese Strings - which they had seen on TV at a friends house (we don't own a TV).
Megan was seduced by an ice cream because it came with a free pink plastic spoon. That's the kind of marketing you never see on the kind of food we normally buy.
The display of fruit and vegetables looked lovely - so we took Pink Lady apples, bags of salad leaves and broccoli florets to go with the selection of ready meals that took our fancy.
We finished off with a couple of bottles of wine from California and South Africa. We normally only buy organic wine from Europe as we're conscious of air miles and resulting pollution.
That night we decided to try some ready-made chicken and herb crepes. The flabby specimens lying in the plastic tray looked nothing like the picture on the box - but we hoped they would improve with cooking.
William and I then spent about 15 minutes arguing about whether to put the plastic tray in the oven as it advised on the instructions.
You don't need a degree in chemistry to realise something from the plastic must leach into the food when you're heating the whole thing up to 180c for 30 minutes. Eventually, we gritted our teeth and got on with it.
The crepes didn't improve with cooking. The sauce was gloopy and stuck to our teeth - revolting. We left most of it and had a bowl of super-sweet cereal each instead. Breakfast next day was toast made with sliced white bread, ready-prepared pineapple and melon chunks, and orange juice.
The best way to describe the toast was 'bouncy' - it had an odd, bland, spongy texture - not at all like the local wholemeal, seeded, handmade stuff we normally buy.
The pineapple chunks were delicious, but the melon was fluffy and had no taste. The children loved the milk and orange juice because it was smooth and had no bits - the local unhomogenised milk we buy has lumps of cream in it and the apple juice is cloudy, but then neither has been processed goodness knows how many times.
For their school lunch, Megan and Max took bouncy white sandwiches filled with turkey breast, a pack of Cheese Strings, a bag of crisps and a very sweet non-organic cereal bar. They go to a progressive, alternative school that teaches environmental sciences and only serves organic food - so we had to get special permission to do so. I think their lunch was an object of curiosity all week!
When the children got in from school, they were much more hungry than they would normally have been. They had another Cheese String each, but were clamouring for a bowl of chocolate cereal 20 minutes later.
That night we peeled off three layers of packaging and put our pizza in the oven. It wasn't too bad, just a lot heavier and fattier than our homemade version. Max left some of his - which is really unusual.
By the second day, William complained of an upset stomach and constipation - and the children seemed more hyper and irritable than usual. But we continued with our new lifestyle, going for a second shop at a different superstore this time.
We came home with some tasty-sounding ready-meals, cheesecake and chocolate cake. But aside from an Indian meal and some sushi - both of which were delicious - everything else tasted rather similar.
I'm not sure what they put in the sauces, but it gives everything a weird, rather unpleasant texture. A lot of food was left on plates and had to be thrown out, which we felt guilty about. Unlike home-cooked food, it's not really safe to refrigerate and reheat ready-meal leftovers.
By the end of the week, the children - particularly Megan - seemed uncharacteristically aggressive and ill-tempered - which I'm sure was down to all the sugar and additives they had been consuming. Max had trouble getting to sleep at nights, too. William's stomach problems were worse. He felt gassy, bloated and irritable, probably because he had not been to the loo for three days.
I felt really bloated and lethargic. I also suffered a couple of crashing headaches during the week - which is unusual for me. We were all desperate to detox. The life swop was an interesting exercise - but only served to prove to us that the organic lifestyle is by far the healthier way to go.
We felt unwell, spent more money - £214 compared to our usual £120 and ended up with two enormous bin bags full of wasteful packaging. However we do plan to make a couple of changes as a result of the experience.
We will swop our unhomogenised milk for homogenised organic milk as the kids prefer it, and we'll buy their favourite non-organic chocolate cereal for sleepovers and birthdays - but otherwise, everyone prefers the sort of food we were eating before.
• For further information on Greenfibres, log on to www.greenfibres.com or call 01803 868 001 for a catalogue.
Jacqui Matthiole, 40, is married to Maurice, 52, a senior executive for an IT company. They live with their twin four-year-old daughters, Grace and Amelia, in Camberley, Surrey. Jacqui says:
I used to love cooking - but once I had the twins, I suddenly found I had very little time to shop and cook. I started to rely on ready-meals and convenience foods - and it's now become a habit that's hard to break.
While I try to make sure we get our five portions of fruit and veg a day, and avoid junk food, ready meals are pretty much all we eat.
I do most of my shopping at Marks & Spencer. I like the fact that I can buy everything from lasagne to shepherds pie and Sunday lunch oven-ready. With the exception of potatoes, I buy all our vegetables pre-washed and chopped, too.
I've always thought organic food was a rather expensive gimmick, so it never crossed my mind to try it.
Another reason I have been reluctant to try anything new is that the girls - in particular Amelia - are fussy eaters. For quite some time, I've bought them only what I know they'll eat: Cheerios for breakfast, chicken dippers, pizza, chips and spaghetti bolognese for tea.
They take a packed lunch to nursery, so that would usually contain something like Dairylea Dunkers or a white bread sandwich, a packet of crisps and fruit squash.
I was interested to see if the lifestyle swop would make a difference - although I was dreading all the food preparation and cooking from scratch.
Because we don't have a farmer's market or many local shops that specialise in organic food, I decided to rely on supermarket organic ranges and organic box schemes.
First stop was Waitrose - where I found it surprisingly easy to buy organic versions of almost everything, and I took organic chicken and vegetables home for our first supper. Funnily enough, I really enjoyed preparing our first organic meal - even though it took me half an hour longer than usual.
The girls wanted to help and it was lovely spending time in the kitchen together. I wondered how they'd take to 'real' roast chicken after being used to ready prepared roasts. But do you know what? They ate the lot - which is a first.
The chicken was delicious - much more succulent than non-organic, which really surprised me. The following day we had plain, organic Weetabix for breakfast with organic milk and organic toast - the latter was a bit heavy in texture and went off more quickly than out normal 'plastic' bread - but everyone tucked in without complaint.
I filled the girls' lunch bags with organic egg sandwiches, fruit juice and organic fruit - and again, surprisingly, they ate everything. With the bit between my teeth, I went online and ordered an organic meat box from Eversfield Manor Farm, and an organic fruit and veg box from Abel & Cole.
I loved their websites, because they explain where everything is sourced, what's in season and so on. It's more personal and inspiring than the supermarket. The meat box was amazing - even Maurice, who will eat absolutely anything, commented on how delicious the lamb chops were.
I'm not usually keen on steak but the ones we were sent were really, really tasty. I was less sure about the organic fruit and veg box at first. You only receive what's in season, so there seemed to be an awful lot of things in there I was sure we wouldn't eat. But yet again, the girls surprised me by trying kiwi fruit for the first time (and loving it), and chomping their way through the tiny, sweet tomatoes (they never eat salad normally).
By the middle of the week, I felt really energetic. The food we were eating was just so crisp, fresh and tasty - even the organic tea tasted better, cleaner than my usual brand. And I noticed that I didn't feel headachy the morning after organic wine.
By the end of the week, I was enjoying cooking again. I also realised the girls had been exceptionally well behaved - eating their meals without complaint and even going to bed when asked - there were none of the usual tantrums. They also asked for far fewer snacks between meals. Interestingly, Amelia suffers with eczema on her legs, and by the end of the week, even that was much better than it normally is, much less red and raw, and I like to think the change in diet helped.
After seven days I am converted. I have ordered a second meat box - and we will definitely be eating more organic food and cooking from scratch more regularly. I've become much more aware of issues such as pesticides and additives and I feel as though I'm now nurturing my family. I spent £115 during the week, including several very drinkable bottles of organic wine.
That's less than my normal weekly shop, which comes in at £140 without alcohol. So it's not true that organic has to mean expensive.