Continuing with our food theme for National Nutrition Month, here’s another eye-opener for you…
By D’Mine Columnist / Correspondent Wil Dubois
Probably not. And even if it is, what you have in your shopping cart isn’t as organic as you think it is.
Well, even if it’s not nutritious, it’s still worth paying more money to avoid chemicals, right?
Ummm… probably not. More on that in a minute.
But at least I’m supporting small farmers, yes?
Uhhh… No… You’re actually supporting Phillip Morris. Yeah, the cigarette guys. OK, look, I’m sorry. But there is no Santa Claus. There are no unicorns. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist. And organic is a lie. There. I said it.
Now I’m going to prove it.
Please see satellite images of the north pole here… What? Oh. You’re only interested in the whole organic thing? OK, but remember, like learning about Santa, unicorns, and the Tooth Fairy, the truth is going to hurt.
Let’s take a tour of Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or even Albertson’s. Looking at the packages lining the shelves and freezers, we seem to have lots of wonderful, healthy, natural foods to choose from. Things that are kind to our bodies, our planet, and our fellow creatures.
Don’t believe everything you read. In fact, don’t believe anything that you read.
“Healthy” food label writing is an art form. It nearly rises to the level of the poetry printed on the back of wine bottles describing the flavors inside. But unlike “subtle notes of blackberry and undertones of chocolate;” phrases like “all natural,” “heart-healthy,” and “whole grain goodness” have more in common with literature than poetry, because these healthy labels frequently owe more to fiction than they do to fact.
The biggest offenders in this label fiction game are: “natural,” “free-range,” “humane,” and “hormone free.” They’re just words. Highly elastic marketing terms designed to trick you, to fool you into buying a product that isn’t really at all what you’re being lead to believe it is. These terms have no oversight, no law behind them.
But it’s not all smoke and mirrors, of course. The USDA organic seal is highly regulated (maybe too much so, as we’ll see in a moment), and the rules have teeth. If you use USDA’s Organic seal for a product that doesn’t meet the standards, you’re facing an $11,000 fine from the feds. For each violation.
There are actually three USDA organic categories, depending on just how organic a product is: 100% organic and 95% organic can use the forest-service green and brown USDA Organic seal on their packages; and if a product is at least 70% organic you can legally say “made with Organic Ingredients.” But if your product falls below the 70% threshold, use of “organic” is prohibited.
Even with all this government oversight, however, not all is what meets the eye. A “natural strawberry flavor” doesn’t necessarily mean an actual strawberry was used in its creation. It only signifies that the flavoring isn’t synthetic, but it can still be made from another natural substance altogether, like… say… corn.
For a guide to translating this Label Literature into plain English see this list, created by the prestigious EarthWatch Institute, of 27 different food labels seen in American grocery stores. Spoiler Alert: you’re about to find out that “cage free” eggs are fiction, “grass-fed” may be a joke, and that a pasture probably isn’t what you think it is. On the bright side, the Food Alliance Certified label is deemed “reliable.” But while “dolphin-safe” is true, “wild-caught” might not be. And don’t even get me started on how confusing the labels about hormones in milk are—they’re a blend of fact and fiction convoluted enough to rival the Blair Witch Project.
Not all “real” organic foods have labels
Confounding the issue of what’s real and what isn’t real, is the fact that the tight federal regulation of organic, according to Michael Pollan, author of the seminal food book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has resulted in many small, legitimate organic farmers choosing to opt-out of the labeling system altogether, rather than jump through the government’s hoops to use the organic seal of approval. Some small farmers say that simply maintaining the FDA required paperwork would require them to hire a full-time person just to keep up with it.
Others go farther and claim the government’s regulations are designed to help big producers while placing small farms at a disadvantage, or that the legal requirements to call something “organic” aren’t nearly strict enough and they refuse to participate in protest. The USDA label mainly deals with fertilizers and pesticides; it still allows for a very long list of substances in foods that most of us would not regard as natural, including heavy chemicals and antibiotics. And “USDA Certified Organic” can still be treated with preservatives to get it to market while remaining “farm fresh.”
So on one hand, half the food labels cheat, lie, and stretch the truth; while on the other hand, some of the possibly most natural foods around aren’t labeled as such!
But suppose, just suppose, that you’ve successfully navigated the misleading marketing, creative fictions, and nebulous claims (with the help of the EarthWatch list above), and have scored a true naturally grown or raised food. It will cost you, at least half again as much as conventional foods, and in many cases twice as much. But the dent in your wallet has landed you healthier food, right?
The truth about (organic) nutrition
No. Probably not. No studies to date show that organically grown food is any more nutritious than conventionally grown food. In fact, the most rigorous study to date debunks that notion altogether. Bluntly put: whole food is whole food. We are completely lacking in any proof whatsoever that one carrot is more nutritious than another, or that lettuce grown on an industrial farm is any different than lettuce grown in your backyard; at least as far as food value goes. (Obviously, there are big differences in the ingredients in processed foods, making some much healthier than others, but that’s outside the “organic” realm we’re addressing here.)
Of course, there’s one other issue that’s a soap box for the organic industry, and that’s pesticides — chemicals used to protect crops in the fields from insects. True organic veggies are grown without pesticides, and are therefore billed as healthier, although research shows a good washing under tap water removes most pesticide residue. There’s room for common sense, too, as my sister likes to say, “Who cares if it’s organic if you’re going to peel it before you eat it?”
But for those still on the fence about pesticides, the controversial research and lobbying organization Environmental Working Group has produced a list they call the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 that advocates a split-shopping approach: buy organic for the foods that tend to contain the highest level of pesticides, and buy conventional in the produce that runs the lowest in pesticides. Their list guides you as to which are which.
The real winners and losers
So much for Santa and unicorns. What about the Tooth Fairy?
If you want to support small farmers, your best bet may be a local farmer’s market. You’ll have to look the farmer in the eye and ask him about pesticides and fertilizers and decide if he (or she) is telling the truth. But if you’re going to Whole Foods Market for lettuce, you’re more likely to be helping a company called EarthBound, rather than Farmer Brown. According to Pollan, EarthBound is the largest supplier of organic lettuce in the United States, with a whopping 80% market share. Organic is big businesses.
It’s true. Consider that Back to Nature, maker of assorted granola-type-stuff that is now owned by Kraft Foods (of blue box Kraft Mac n’ Cheese fame) who are themselves owned by… you guessed it… cigarette conglomerate Phillip Morris.