Is it true that only the affluent can afford to eat healthily? Andrew Don attempted to unravel the premium pricing of healthy and organic food but found as many questions as answers. Justified mark-ups for a premium product, or patent profiteering?

The relatively wealthy can indulge at less proportionate cost to their monthly income than their poorer countrymen.

Yet more than half of those in disadvantaged social groups are now buying organic food and drink, “putting to rest the old stereotype of organic being only for the well-to-do”, according to organic food and farming certification body, the Soil Association

But this means nearly 50% of poorer people are, for whatever reason, choosing not to buy organic which may or may not be to do with price. Lower earnings mean poorer people are paying more for organics as a proportion of their total income and therefore something else has to give – they are being penalised for making healthy choices.

Of course, this is also true if they want to join a deluxe health club or buy health insurance but good wholesome, organic food should, debatably, be a basic right and not considered an optional luxury.

Soil Association spokeswoman Clio Turton argues organic food is cheaper than non-organic if people are “clever” about shopping, citing farmers’ markets and boxed schemes.

But who has time to be clever about shopping in today’s fast-paced society? Moreover, no organic box scheme is going to have everything needed for the weekly shop.

Most people still prefer the one-stop supermarket shop and like the convenience of buying organic food in this environment. Indeed, organic sales in the UK rose 30% last year, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2006 and supermarkets took the lion’s share making up GBP1.2bn (US$2.22bn) of the GBP1.6bn total sales.

A broad-based supermarket shopping basket with organic food will be more expensive than its non-organic equivalent.

Not only that, the organic avocados will probably be smaller, there will be fewer mushrooms in the organic pallet and the strawberries will not stay fresh as long.

But, as with most things, you get what you pay for – customers might get fewer mushrooms to the pallet and pay more but, Renee Elliott, founder of specialist retailer Planet Organic, says, for example, with organic fruit and vegetables you get less water in the product and with chicken 25% less fat.

Organic food is more expensive to produce but the industry has also been clever about maximising the healthy eating message and keeping prices high, arguing what it regards to be a fair price to farmers as in keeping with the ethical organic message.

The Soil Association may argue it is cheaper to buy organics from farmers’ markets and boxed schemes than from supermarkets, yet delivery service Organics to Go says it sees the supermarket sector as the enemy to maintaining high prices.

It says on its website: “Both conventional and organic farming are under threat because of the power of the supermarkets… which push down prices by sourcing globally and by playing farmer off against farmer.” 

It seems the PR message sometimes gets confused.