Food for Thought #7: The Organic Truth

Lots of folks, hoping to enjoy the benefits of higher-quality, higher-nutrition foods, make the choice to go organic. More than 60 percent of Americans – nearly twice the number in 2004 – purchased organic food products last year, and organic foods are among the fastest-growing segments of the food industry. Just take a look at the long lines you’re likely to find in your local natural-foods market: It still amazes me to see just how many people willingly shell out top dollar for some sort of nebulous guarantee that we’re buying better health for ourselves and our families. Are we making a smart choice?

In the Feb. 2006 Consumer Reports, we learn the answer: sometimes. More often than we care to think, however, we who go organic are fooling ourselves – and wasting lots of money in the bargain.

That isn’t to say that many or most of these products aren’t worthwhile; CR says certain items indeed are preferable to their non-organic kin. The magazine points to a new study of US Department of Agriculture data conducted by Washington, DC-based Environmental Working Group that says particular fruits and vegetables contain substantially lower amounts of the pesticides and contaminants routinely found in conventionally produced items. Fewer chemicals equals lower health risks, making these purchases smart ones.

More from the Orlando Sentinel:

Based on thousands of samples, the nonprofit research group came up with the “dirty dozen” — vegetables and fruits that have high pesticide residuals, even after washing. They are apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.

In short, buying the organic versions of the “dirty dozen” items is the way to go. (And if you can’t afford to spend extra for organics, be sure to scrub your fruits and veggies thoroughly.)

Not all organic choices are as intelligent, though – particularly if you must watch every penny spent. CR notes that many items cost 50 percent more than their non-organic versions. Some items, including milk and meat, are twice as expensive. So, unless you are Oprah or the Donald, it’s important to realize that the “organic” label sometimes isn’t worth the inflated price. The EWG study says asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples and sweet peas don’t have the contamination problems that, say, apples and spinach do, so it makes sense to save money and use the conventional variety.

The same holds for processed foods. Organic or not, they contain additives that tend to be on the unhealthy side. If you’re determined to buy, for example, a frozen entree, there’s little need to go organic when a Lean Cuisine can fill the bill for less money. The rule to follow is, if and only if the organic version is demonstrably superior to the non-organic (antibiotic- and hormone-treated milk, beef, eggs and poultry; “dirty dozen” items, etc.), buy it if your budget allows.

And there are ways to save money on organics. CR suggests doing your homework. Compare prices at a number of stores. Buy foods when they are in season. And expand your shopping-venue choices: In addition to the upscale whole-food markets popping up across the nation, organic items are appearing with increasing frequency in your local groceries and chain markets – even at Wal-Mart and the discount Shoppers’ Warehouse. Additionally, there are food co-ops and farmers’ markets where you can find fresh, locally grown produce.

My personal suggestion: Check out Local Harvest, an invaluable resource that can help you “find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area. At these establishments, you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.” Local Harvest can also give you info on buying clubs, where organic foods can be bought at lower prices than those found for comparable items in brick-and-mortar stores.

Whichever way you go, you can still count on spending at least a little more for organic foods in most cases. After all, these products have to meet stricter standards, which makes them more labor- and management-intensive, according to the Organic Trade Association. In addition, organic farming generally is done on a smaller scale, producing smaller harvests and fewer livestock. It’s basic economics: the smaller the supply, the higher the price. So if you’re going to go organic, it makes sense to make sure the food actually is worth what you’ll pay for it.

Take seafood, for instance. Consumer Reports cautions that any seafood labeled “organic” is meaningless, as the USDA has no standards for seafood. As ABC News medical editor Dr. David Katz puts it, “You can’t really control what gets into fish… If there are chemicals in the ocean, they’re going to be absorbed into that fish and there is no way to tell how much is in there. So labeling any sort of seafood as organic is a bit misleading.” And paying more for “organic” seafood is just dumb.

Other labels are misleading too. If a product carries a label that says “natural” or “all natural,” don’t mistake it for being organic. CR warns that the claim of being “natural” cannot be verified. In addition, there is no USDA standard defining either categorization, save for meat and poultry. Equally meaningless are the animal-product labels “free-range” and “free-roaming.” All they mean is that the animal in question had access to the outdoors for some undetermined period each day. “In other words,” the report says, “if a coop door was open for just five minutes a day, regardless of whether the chickens went outside, the animals’ meat and eggs could legally be labeled ‘free-range.'”

And “organic” shampoo and cosmetics? They’re a joke. Perhaps one ingredient in a beautifying potion or pomade may be organic, but there is no accounting for the rest. Save your money.

Labels Consumer Reports says you can trust are “100% Organic” (no synthetic ingredients, as mandated by law; production processes meet federal organic standards and have been independently verified by accredited inspectors), “Organic” (at least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced, the rest can be non-organic or synthetic) and “Made with Organic Ingredients” (at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic, and the rest must be FDA-approved).

Of course, with organic food growing in popularity, many companies, seeking a lucrative payoff, are willing to do whatever it takes to fill their pockets.

According to CR‘s investigation,

“Consumer spending on organic has grown so much that we’ve attracted big players who want to bend the rules so that they can brand their products as organic without incurring the expenses involved in truly living up to organic standards,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group based in Finland, Minn.

Lobbying by large food companies to weaken organic rules started when the U.S. Department of Agriculture fully implemented organic labeling standards in October 2002. Food producers immediately fought the new rules. A Georgia chicken producer was ultimately able to persuade one of his state’s congressional representatives to slip through a federal legislative amendment in a 2003 appropriations bill to cut its costs. The amendment stated that if the price of organic feed was more than twice the cost of regular feed – which can contain heavy metals, pesticides, and animal by-products – then livestock producers could feed their animals less costly, non-organic feed but still label their products organic.

That bizarre change in standards was repealed in April 2003 after consumers and organic producers protested, but the fight to maintain the integrity of organic labeling continues. In October 2005, Congress weakened the organic-labeling law despite protests from more than 325,000 consumers and 250 organic-food companies. The law overturns a recent court ruling that barred the use of synthetic ingredients in “organic” foods. It mostly affects processed products such as canned soups and frozen pizza.

Which explains my suggestion to avoid “organic” processed foods. Unless you like their flavor, there really is no point – they are not organic in any meaningful sense. And while “organic” meats and poultry offer more assurance than those labeled “free-range,” caveat emptor:

Current federal regulations state that organically raised animals must have access to pasture and may be “temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.” But that vague language allows large producers to cut corners and compromise on what consumers expect from organic food, consumer advocates say.

The regulations also leave open questions about whether dairy animals could have been treated with antibiotics or consumed feed containing genetically modified grain or animal by-products prior to becoming part of an organic dairy farm.

As always, the remedy is to take positive action. In addition to the cost-cutting ideas listed above, buy shares in community-supported agriculture, local organic farms that are supported through shares purchased by other smart, eco-friendly consumers. You get high-quality products that you know are healthy and where you know who’s doing the growing and, often, at truly competitive prices. Purchase organic items through the mail from reputable, easily investigated firms (CR recommends My Natural Beef and the Organic Pages as great places to find fine organic foods from known quantities). Keep informed on organic issues. Keep an eye out for news stories concerning genetically modified foods, USDA and FDA regulations and the like – and if you see legislation being considered that concerns you, contact your lawmakers. And read all food labels – know what you’re getting before you buy. For information on the subject, visit Eco-Labels.org.

Making organic foods part of your family’s diet and lifestyle can be a terrific, good-tasting, healthy choice. Just be sure you know the ins and outs of it. A good place to start is the February issue of the mighty Consumer Reports. Pick up a copy; it’s good readin’.

Recipes next time…

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5 thoughts on “Food for Thought #7: The Organic Truth

  1. Trader Joe’s is fast becoming my only supermarket. Their selection tends to be on the weak side, but the foods they do carry are absolutely amazing. Couldn’t recommend it higher for the organically-inclined.

  2. I’m surprised there isn’t more benefit from eating organic milk and eggs. I pay the extra money for them because I think they taste better and I like the kids to have the organic milk.

  3. eRobin, there is absolutely a benefit. As the essay notes, organic milk, eggs and meat from reputable firms offer more reassurance that its products don’t have the antibiotics, animal by-products, etc. that conventional versions can have. Now, as is also noted, there is no guarantee, but little in life is. On the whole, I believe there *is* enough assurance to warrant paying extra for organic dairy and meat items – and, yeah, they taste better. That’s a worthy outlay of cash.

  4. Free range and free roam actually mean the animal was not in a cage. There is no requirement for the animal to go outside. but all organic animals are supposed to have free access to the out of doors daily so all certified organic meats should be from free ranging stock.

    As far as milk goes it depends on who you get it from. horizon manages its’ cows pretty much like any industrial farm. Their dairies tend to be
    4000+ head factories. organic valley on the other hand is a co-op made up of hundreds of much smaller organic dairies nation wide. the smaller farms are better at getting the cows out to pasture and keeping them away from drugs and the cows tend to be healthier on smaller farms.

    As far as eggs go if you can find a small local farm that has pastured eggs buy them at almost any price (well up to $5 a dozen) the certified organic eggs from the big egg farms do let their hens have access to the out side but it in not lush pastures but generally a dirt lot surrounded by a high fence (which at least lets the hens scratch and get the occassional bug and take dust baths and get exposed to the sun but it is not replacement for being out all day on pasture)

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