Real Deal about Organic Foods

Certainly your doctor, trainer, or health conscious friend has ‘educated’ you on the importance of organic foods… in some cases even listing off numerous foreign chemicals that you consume on a regular basis in conventional products – clearly this can’t be good for you.

But what if they’re wrong?  What if, despite the best intentions, both of you are disillusioned by creative marketing ploys convincing you that you’re getting something you’re not.

Today, I want to shed some light on this controversial topic, helping you understand what characterizes Organic Foods, so you can make better decisions for yourself and those you love.

The Organic Foods industry.

Partly due to the virality of nutrition recommendations across media, there has been double-digit growth in demand for organic products in the decades following the 1990s.  When’s the last time you could scroll down your Facebook feed or watch the Today Show without seeing something about detoxing, superfoods, or how your next bowl of cereal might kill you?

Naturally this has incentivized U.S. farmers to produce a broad range of products to service this increasingly health conscious demographic.  Unfortunately, so too has the ingenuity of marketing departments to exploit this evolution in consumer demand by rebranding products that may not meet the expected standards these individuals seek.

Something I hope to clarify for you today.

With this increasing demand and lack of production scale, price premiums have been resilient.  The average cost of organic food is 47% higher than conventional foods, although the range varies largely depending on the specific food (Consumer reports: the cost of organic foods) (see data on Organic Prices).  Despite this premium, the demand for these products continues to rise, now available far beyond the aisles of Whole Foods, today you can find them in 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores.

Yet still, when assessing the industry as a whole, organic sales account for just over 4.4% of total U.S. food sales, which represents only a fraction of the growing demand for these products (see the chart in Organic Market Overview).  Despite this consumer interest, only 1% of cropland is dedicated to producing organic foods – creating an environment of increasing demand and relatively limited supply.

It is this combination that is resulting in the price premiums we’re seeing for these products.  We’ve been taught to assume these higher prices for organic foods are a consequence of the inefficient and expensive production methods required.  That assumption would be incorrect, in fact, the production of organic foods can be cheaper in terms of external costs of inputs (pesticides, antibiotics, chemicals, etc.) and ecological costs of production (environmental sustainability).  Of course, the magnitude varies among comparable products, but in many cases the reduced retail cost of processed foods is driven by government subsidies to support the production of certain input crops (i.e. corn and soy).

Perhaps you believe, it’s time government influence starts reflecting our evolving understanding of the consequences food production has on public health and the environment.  Instituting a set of rules that level the playing field for companies competing in the food market will encourage parity and competition on grocery store shelves.

Nevertheless, today I’m focused on your perspective as the consumer and ultimately the implications on your health.  The right regulatory environment to establish and enforce reasonable labeling criteria is undeniably necessary to ensure a ubiquitous understanding of organic certification across the community.  This will empower you to make dietary decisions with the necessary information to maximize well-being.

First, we need to understand: what does it mean when your apples are labeled organic?

Defining “Organic” labeling.

According to the USDA: “The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”

It doesn’t take much skeptical inquiry to see the ambiguity of this definition.  Fortunately, the USDA goes further to establish strict production and labeling requirements.  Organic products must meet the following criteria:

  1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
  2. Produced using allowed substances. View the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
    1. Allowed: Alcohols, ethanol, isopropanol, among others
    2. Prohibited: Arsenic, lead salts, tobacco dust (nicotine sulfate), among others
  3. Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.

As you can imagine the list of allowed vs. prohibited methods and substances in organic food production is vast and in many cases, could require a degree in biochemistry to understand.  However, specific organic labeling is designed to make the distinction between products clearer.  Here are the main examples:

  • “100% Organic” means that every single ingredient used in the production of this food item meets the organic certified criteria. Any processing aids must also be organic.  Most raw, unprocessed products from the farm would be designated as 100% Organic.  It would contain official USDA Organic seal (pictured to the right) and can present statements of it being 100% organic.
  • “Organic” means that 95% of the ingredients used in the production of this product meet organic criteria. The remaining 5% do have some restrictions but do NOT have to be certifiably organic ingredients.  This product would contain the USDA Organic seal but cannot claim to be 100% organic.
  • “Made with Organic” means that at least 70% of the ingredients used are qualified organic. This product display cannot contain the USDA Organic seal.  However, in the informational panel on the product it can list the organic ingredients that do qualify.

Perhaps the most misleading of terms is the classic notion of a product being considered “natural”.  This terminology is conveniently elusive for companies exploiting this descriptive title.

  • “All Natural”, this category is loosely determined by the FDA, they have considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.  However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation (gov). Therefore, the all natural label does NOT imply a product is produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

In fact, because the definition of “all natural” is so obscure the FDA has requested consumers help in understanding how the word “natural” should be – or shouldn’t be – used on food labeling.  Fostering a public conversation to identify more appropriate criteria.

Still confused?  Naturally. 

Here are some “Natural” examples taken directly from Consumer Reports.  I’ve gone ahead and included some illustrative descriptions of each from the perspective of an organic foods advocate.  These claims are not my own, simply important to provide context from both sides of this conversation.

  1. Del Monte Fruit Naturals

As you’d expect, these snacks are made with fruits such as peaches, pears, and cherries. But they also contain the artificial preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, which are made from industrial chemicals.

  1. Alexia Sweet Potato Fries

The label says “All Natural.” But these fries contain xanthan gum, an ingredient extracted from bacteria.  Xanthan gum can be used as a thickening agent for products.  It is produced industrially from carbon sources by fermentation using the gram-negative bacterium Xanthomonas campestris or by fermentation method using bacteria and yeast by using various cheap raw materials.

  1. Krakus Polish Sliced Ham

The label says that this ham comes “with Natural Juices.” I think we’re all wondering, what does that even mean? Nevertheless, the ingredients listed on the packaging include five artificial chemicals used in part to cure and preserve the meat.

  1. Natural Brew Draft Root Beer

Its dark-brown shade comes in part from caramel color. Consumer Reports’  research suggests that certain types of that artificial coloring contain a possibly carcinogenic chemical called 4-­methylimidazole (4-MeI).  Natural Brew would not say what type of caramel color it used after multiple attempts of inquiry by Consumer Reports.

  1. Tyson Grilled & Ready Frozen Southwestern Chicken Breast Strips

“All natural except for corn syrup solids” appears on the front, but the ingredient list shows that the strips contain corn sweeteners dextrose and maltodextrin. When Consumer Reports’ asked whether they came from GMO corn, Tyson responded that the government’s “natural requirements do not address GMO.”

  1. Kraft Natural Cheese

This “natural” cheese contains cellulose powder—a substance typically created when pieces of wood, cotton, or bamboo are cooked in a caustic solution at high temperatures—which is supposed to keep shreds of cheese from sticking together. Kraft did not respond to inquiries about the source of its cellulose powder. And to inhibit mold growth it contains the antifungal natamycin, which is also used as a pesticide.

  1. Wesson Vegetable Oil

The bottle displays a “Pure & 100% Natural” claim, but the oil is made from soybeans genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. Oils like this one that are not labeled as “expeller pressed” or “cold pressed” are often made using a solvent called hexane. That process can release n-hexane, which is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has identified vegetable-oil production as a major source.

Notice the amount of assumptions required to make a scary case – it doesn’t mean you’d be entirely wrong to make these connections… but Occam’s Razor may suggest a simpler interpretation.

Now whether the ingredients contained in these products are justifiably worth avoiding is another issue entirely, far beyond the scope of this article.  However, I think it’s safe to say a certain degree of transparency and empirical honesty would be beneficial to consumers and producers alike.  These ethical qualities should apply with equal veracity to the fear mongering tactics of many organic food enthusiast and the companies that market their products as such.  

Putting it all in context.

It appears the predominant reasons for people selecting organic foods is to avoid chemicals and pesticides used in conventional food production.  Although the scientific evidence demonstrating deleterious health consequences of these substances is relatively limited, these consumers acknowledge the potential for adverse health effects based on correlational or seemingly intuitive logic.  Part of the reason for limited accessible evidence is likely due to the aggressive lobbying of large food manufacturers seeking to protect the use of chemicals that make food production inherently more consistent, reliable, and cheaper.

Let’s be real, are you complaining about cheaper prices?

As with most things, context and specificity matter.  For instance, in many ways genetic alterations have been going on for over 30,000 years (i.e. selective breeding of wild animals and plants).  One of the most dramatic and prevalent alterations in plant genetics has occurred through artificial selection of corn. Corn, or maize, began as a wild grass called teosinte that had tiny ears with very few kernels.  Over hundreds of years, teosinte was selectively bred to have larger and larger ears with more and more kernels, resulting in what we now know as corn today (“The Evolution of Corn.” Genetics Learning Center, University of Utah, July 2015).  Similar techniques have also been used to improve the nutritional quality of foods, particularly relevant for developing nations with dietary vitamin deficiencies.  An example of this is Golden Rice, which is engineered to contain high levels of the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene to combat malnutrition and disease in certain at-risk populations.

Despite all the hype demonizing GMO’s – there appears to be overwhelming evidence to support its safety.  With a quick search in a scientific database you can find 1,700 + articles demonstrating the safety of GMO’s.  When it comes to reading studies, many people barely make it past the title, but even just reading the titles of this full list would take you over 4 hours.  Let’s see if we can make it through just a brief excerpt from one extensive study using rodents – it concluded:

With respect to the detection of potential unintended effects in whole GM food and feed, it is unlikely that substances present in small amounts and with a low toxic potential will result in any observable (unintended) effects in a 90-day rodent feeding study, as they would be below the no-observed-effect-level and thus of unlikely impact to human health at normal intake levels.  By relating the estimated daily intake, or theoretical maximum daily intake per capita for a given whole food (or the sum of its individual commercial constituents) to that consumed on average per rodent per day in the subchronic 90-day feeding study, it is possible to establish the margin of exposure (safety margin) for consumers. Results obtained from testing GM food and feed in rodents indicate that large (at least 100-fold) ‘safety’ margins exist between animal exposure levels without observed adverse effects and estimated human daily intake. Results of feeding studies with feed derived from GM plants with improved agronomic properties, carried out in a wide range of livestock species, are discussed. The studies did not show any biologically relevant differences in the parameters tested between control and test animals [1].

Although the literature strongly favors the safety of genetically modified organisms, it is still relatively unclear as to what long-term health effects could result from the myriad of chemicals used in modern food processing.  It’s probably safe to say industrial food producers primary goal isn’t necessarily to maximize the long-term health of their consumers, but rather how to produce their products for the cheapest cost with the minimum accepted degree of risk.

But who determines this acceptable risk?  What is that criteria based on?

Currently, the USDA seems to be leading this charge in response to growing activism of consumers applying pressure on regulatory bodies to establish and inforce sufficient measures to protect consumers.

This response has been materialized in recent changes or notable provisions to the Organic labeling rules and regulations.   Some examples are:

  • Clarifying how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter.
  • Specifying which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production.
  • Establishing minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry.

It looks like we’re moving in the right direction in terms of transparency and logically established criteria relative to the consumer’s expectations.

Although we’re still far away from having conclusive evidence as to the long-term health impact of manipulated food production (antibiotics, pesticides, etc.) on consumers, it seems reasonable that people who can afford it, would choose to avoid any potential risk for things we simply do not know.

I’ll tell you this….

Although the evidence substantiating the extreme avoidance of all ‘processed’ foods is weak at best, I’ve yet to hear any viable argument for the negative health or environmental consequences of largely consuming appropriately labeled organic foods.

Although your grocery bill might be another matter entirely.


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