Bee Wilson tastes some gross organic food

The organic movement suffers from evangelism and insularity

Not all good food is organic and not all organic food is good. This was driven home to me recently when I acted as a judge at the annual Organic Food Awards, whose results were announced on 18 October.

These awards, which have been going for 17 years, are organised by the Soil Association. Just as the organic food market has mushroomed over the years, so the awards have grown from a few stalls in a humble tent to a two-day extravaganza in Bristol, during which a cornucopia of organic produce is tested, from jam to gin, from steak to breakfast cereal and convenience foods.

The organisers first approached me to be a judge in the cheese category. I regretfully said no, on account of my midwife's belief that unborn children and unpasteurised milk shouldn't mix. They took my condition to heart and offered me non-alcoholic beverages and baby food. It seemed churlish to refuse, though the thought of tasting bottled infant pap hardly made the expanding stomach sing.

Organic baby food epitomises the merits and demerits of "organics" as a whole. On the one hand, there are sound reasons for feeding your baby organically. The "safe" levels set for pesticides are based on adult bodies and may not be "safe" at all when fed to children under one. It is not, therefore, unreasonable that as much as 50 per cent of the baby food now sold in supermarkets is organic, a much higher percentage than for other food. What is unreasonable, though, is how unpleasant many of these over-packaged purees turn out to be.

I had expected to be revolted by the lack of seasoning. As it turned out, though, the mushes that really made us gag were acridly over-spiced concoctions aimed at the imaginations of adults rather than the tummies of babies. There were kormas and sweet-and-sour porks, and a horrible mixture of chicken and spiced apricots. Sampling a whole tableful of these disgusting things - not one of the meat dishes we tasted was palatable - was powerful evidence that "organic" on the label is no proof that what's inside will taste good.

The winner in the end was a simple and pleasant mixture of sweetcorn and root vegetables, made by a company called "Truuuly Scrumptious", based in Radford, Avon (01761 239 300). What made this company's food so good was that, unlike Hipp and Baby Organix, it comes frozen, not bottled, and consists of few ingredients, tasting just like the sort of purees you might make at home. Of the bottled foods, only the sweet, fruity offerings were any good. (Incidentally, baby food was not even the worst category; the sausage judges gave numerous scores of 0/20 and could be seen grimacing and spitting.)

Most shoddy baby product of the day, which all three judges disliked intensely, was a kind of "finger food" for older babies reminiscent of Cheesy Wotsits, only yellower: processed puffs coated in salt and cheese powder with a horrid aftertaste. My fellow judges were both distressed to find out afterwards that it was a new line from Baby Organix, a company revered among organic campaigners. Indeed, cheese puffs or not, Lizzie Vann, the company's founder, was later awarded the prestigious Organic Trophy for "the most significant contribution to the organic movement over the last year".

The organic movement suffers from the evangelism and insularity that afflict many newly successful industries. Too often, its message is self-indulgence masquerading as altruism. By dividing the world up into organic and non-organic, the campaigners can get in the way of the good food they claim to represent. Judged by the criteria of taste (which, admittedly, is not the only one), the difference between good and bad organic food is still as great as that between good and bad food generally.

This article first appeared in the 04 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, In the Middle East, you will hear the worst story ever told