Health and Safety Concerns and Dangers of Eating Organic Food
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Real Concerns About Organic Food
There are many genuine issues that come up when considering the option of organic food in our diets. From the perceived higher cost to questions of safety and regulation in the industry, consumers want to know that they are getting the healthy option that they are paying for and the actual value of the product to justify any higher price. With as many as 78% of American households purchasing food with organic labels, big corporate interests have taken serious notice. The Organic Trade Association pegged organic sales at $28 billion in 2010.
Confusing terms such as "All Natural" and "Whole Foods" and "Raw Food" compete with the term "organic" for space on food labels. Some of these are used as meaningless marketing terms, others for misdirection. Understanding the food we eat is essential for a healthy lifestyle and new regulations may make this easier even while the food processing industry as a whole has tried to confuse the issue.
Poll: Food Labels You Trust
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Meaning of Food Label Terms and Misleading Marketing
The National Agriculture Library is a good resource for understanding what different terms mean.
All Natural: This is one of the most misleading labels on food products. It is not a regulated term and often simply means that there are no artificial additives. Ingredients like high fructose corn syrup are often allowed as long as nothing artificial is added to the high fructose corn syrup during processing, even though high fructose corn syrup does not appear naturally in nature. In short, the label is typically about additives, not processing and not about the healthy nature of the food. What should be noticed, however, are other claims in tandem with the "All Natural" label, such as "hormone and antibiotic free." Understanding that the term "natural" does not equate with obvious health benefits by itself, it is equally important to explore the ingredient list and nutritional value of a product before purchase. Many "natural" foods do contain unhealthy levels of salt, sugar and fat.
Regarding poultry, pork and beef production that is USDA regulated, the term "natural" will ensure that no preservatives or artificial coloring or flavor has been added in during what is termed "minimal" processing.
Many retailers are enforcing their own definitions of "natural" on products they design in-house or sell on their own labels. Some of them use very weak definitions while others are actually pushing for stronger standards than the USDA uses for "organic." Because this is largely a marketing tool, it will ultimately be up to consumers to reward the retailers who sell very strict, high-quality "naturals" vs those which are simply trying to use the label as a means to get their customers to make snap decisions without reading the ingredients. Still, concerns will remain without standards in place. There are periodic natural label lawsuits that dispute the use of genetically modified corn or soy included in "all natural" products, for example, that are helping to pave the way toward these standards.
Healthy: This is a relatively meaningless marketing tactic used by food manufacturers. Although the FDA does regulate the use of this label, it is only in regard to certain limits on ingredients typically related to heart disease (salt, cholesterol and fats). Additionally, there is a requirement for foods with such a label to have one nutrient such as calcium or vitamin C in significant amounts (also known as "A Good Source Of" on many labels). This label, although FDA sanctioned, does allow for high calorie foods with low overall nutritional value to be called healthy in spite of the fact that they may contain any number of potentially unhealthy additives.
A more appropriate term for this label might be "disingenuous marketing claim."
Whole Food and Raw Food: These labels typically refer to the level of processing involved. Whole food products are made with very minimal processing and, theoretically, retain more nutritional value as a result. With wheat as an example, highly processed wheat will generally have most of the nutrition removed during the refining process, and then must be fortified. While fortification will greatly increase the overall nutritional density of things like iron and folic acid, unrefined, whole wheat will maintain much more of its natural nutrition in its original form. There is a strong argument that nutrients from whole foods are more easily assimilated into the human digestive system than those which are added artificially (and may largely pass through the body without being absorbed). Raw foods are generally cold-processed in order to maintain enzymatic activity. Heat kills enzymes and it also reduces nutrient levels. However, heat also kills bacteria, which is why most milk is pasteurized. There are, however, growing markets for raw dairy products, including both milk and cheese. Purists prefer the richer flavor, but handling of these products must be highly controlled to keep them safe.
Organic: This label is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture and is only applicable to foods produced with a strict list of ingredients produced according to strict policies. There is still wiggle room within this label that is constantly under debate and increasingly influenced by multi-national corporations, but it is the strongest and most meaningful label available on processed or whole foods to ensure quality standards.
The Gaiam website has a more extensive list of labels and definitions.
Organic Vs Conventional
The Mayo Clinic website has a terrific breakdown of comparisons between organic and conventional farming.
The Environmental Working Group's list of the Dirty Dozen is revised each year to show the levels of pesticides in various types of produce. This list is especially useful when trying to decide whether to buy conventionally grown (and higher in pesticide content) than organically grown vegetables and fruits. Apples, for example, are constantly at the top of the list of conventionally grown fruits with the highest amount of pesticides that can be absorbed into the body.
The biggest differences between conventional and organic produce are not in terms of nutritional content. The (generally) more expensive organic option will often be healthier because of the lack of chemicals absorbed inside during the growing process or on the surface of the item. Additionally, many consumers choose the organic product because of the farming practices used by organic farmers, which sustain the land without polluting it through chemical use or stripping it of its natural components. Other consumers simply prefer the taste and individuality of organic produce, in spite of its typically shorter shelf life (without waxes or added preservatives).
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The pathogens that get into the food supply are statistically more likely to find the way there through conventional produce than organic, mainly because organic farms and organic processors have more checks in place along the way to market. This is not to say that organic food cannot go bad, nor does it suggest that bacteria or a virus cannot make a home in a particular batch of produce or meat.
Food-borne illnesses can generally be traced back to a single instance, whether that be the home or restaurant, grocery store, the packing plant or the farm itself. Generally speaking, organic foods are going to be a safer starting point for avoiding the circumstances that make carrying pathogens likely. The source of most outbreaks tend to be large factory farms or industrial growers.
The following labels generally apply to prepared foods:
Unpasteurized or Raw Foods
Raw foods such as cheese or unpasteurized milk may be very harmful to people with suppressed immune systems. This is a big concern because pasteurizing or cooking food kills off harmful bacteria that may exist naturally in the ingredients. Often nut-based products or seed-based products will carry this label as well, indicating that they have never been heat treated.
Many stores now stock uncured meat products. These are generally lunch meats or sausages, with the current trend being toward uncured hot dogs. What this boils down to is that the manufacturers have decided not to use added preservatives known as nitrates and nitrites in the process. Uncured meats have a potentially shorter shelf life and often carry a notice to keep them refrigerated below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the biggest difference is really only about color retention. What is interesting to know is that many "uncured" meats actually have the potential for higher levels of nitrates, which naturally occur in sea salt and celery powder.
The preservatives being removed are presumed to be highly unhealthy and yet they are in the vast majority of prepared meat products because they keep the color looking better. Nitrates may damage the liver in very high doses and can set off migraine headaches, among other concerns. Vitamin C is supposed to help the body process nitrates and prevent them from transforming into the carcinogenic compound that has caused many people to be wary of cured products.
Packaged Organic Foods
What Is Wrong With Non-Organic Food?
In many cases, eating non-organic (or conventional) produce is just fine. However, most fruit and vegetables sold in grocery stores comes from farms that use high levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These toxins remain on or in the food and then are often consumed. Over the years certain chemicals have been removed from the market because the long term affects in our food supply were so detrimental that they could not be ignored. While most of the chemicals used in farming today are considered legally "safe," this may only be due to the lack of time on the market and the lack of associated research. In some cases, the chemicals are already deemed hazardous and yet for various reasons remain in use.
In addition to the chemical elements mentioned above, there has also been widespread use of hormone and antibiotic "therapy" in livestock. Hormones are now illegal to add to poultry, for instance, but this has not completely prevented artificial hormones from making their way into the food supply. It was not until after boys who consumed large quantities of poultry and dairy were noticeably growing breasts that this issue gained traction and laws were put into effect to curb the practice.
Antibiotics needlessly added to livestock are potentially even more insidious because they actually cause bacteria to become resistant to the medications designed to help us in the event of actual illness.
Why Organic Farming Is Important
Once all the confusion has been sorted through, it becomes clear that there are many benefits to consuming organic food. Not only is the food itself frequently more healthy than its non-organic counterparts, but the land on which that food originates is healthier as well.
While it may not be practical for everyone to eat an entirely organic diet, choosing a select number of important items is a healthy way to start. Picking organic dairy, strawberries, apples, greens and beef or poultry whenever possible is directly beneficial.
Caution Regarding the Future of Organic
A recent NY Times article on the state of organic food producers discussed at length the consolidation of organic farms and manufacturers within the "Big Food" industry, such as giant agri-food corporations like Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars.
In December, 2012, representatives from General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms had voted on the National Organic Standards Board to add an herbicide to the list of acceptable ingredients in organic food and nearly succeeded. Only one vote prevented that from happening.
Quoted from the article: “In some ways, organic is a victim of its own success,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who has documented the remarkable consolidation of the organic industry. Organic food accounts for just 4 percent of all foods sold, but the industry is growing fast. “Big corporations see the trends and the opportunity to make money and profit,” he says.
BIG FOOD has also assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods. Major corporations have come to dominate the board that sets these standards.
As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002. -- End Quote
More Organic Resources
- Organic Consumers Association
Research and Action Center for the Organic, Buy local, and Fair trade movements
- National Organic Standards Board
This is the national board that recommends the "official" standards to be certified organic. These recommendations must then be approved by the USDA.
- GreenerChoices.org | Eco-labels center
Information on labels and claims found on food, personal care & household cleaning products.
- Organic Consumers Association
Research and Action Center for the Organic, Buy local, and Fair trade movements
- Cornucopia Institute | Economic Justice for Family Scale Farming
Through research, advocacy, and economic development our goal is to empower farmers in support of ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.
- FDA's meaning of the 'natural' label
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natu
- American Grassfed Association
A National multi-species organization dedicated to protecting and promoting grassfed producers and grassfed products through national communication, education, research and marketing efforts.
- Country of Origin Labeling
Info on the COOL label, defining the country of origin for produce or livestock.
- What is sustainable agriculture? - Introduction to Sustainability - Sustainable Table
The Sustainable Dictionary.
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