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Health Articles

Organic Food Claims

One of the many controversial topics in the healthcare world concerns the benefits of eating organic foods.  On the surface, the generally accepted concept of organic foods makes sense.  Eat only those foods that are not grown with manmade and potentially toxic chemicals.  But it only makes sense up to that point where I have to wonder why someone would either feel or be healthier if that same food plant was not treated with conventional manmade products and was instead organically sprayed with fresh manure.   

More and more consumers pay a higher price for organic foods.  Do they really know why organic food is healthier?  Or is it healthier?  What exactly makes food organic and why is it supposedly better?

Conventional vs Organic

Conventional farming assumes the use of fertilizers and pesticides.  Therefore, conventional farmers are normally able to attain higher yields and produce crops that are far more resistant to disease.  By definition, organic farming seems to be more of a process to attain the right to use an organic label.  According to Wikipedia, those organic processes may not be as fertilizer and pesticide free as many people perceive, “Organic farming is a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost, and biological pest control.”  Depending on whose definition is used, organic farming uses fertilizers and pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides…, but it excludes or strictly limits the use of various methods including synthetic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, et al;(1) human sewage sludge;…nomaterials,(2) for reasons including sustainability, openness, independence, health, and safety.(3) 

That definition is a bit tedious so let’s look at the labels.  Within the organic family there are two labels to consider; 100% Organic and just plain Organic.  A product that is 100% Organic contains only USDA certified organic ingredients and does not contain any non-organic ingredients.  A product that is labeled just Organic must contain at least 95% organic ingredients yet the remaining ingredients can be non-organic.  If a label says Made With Organic Ingredients the product cannot use the USDA Organic Seal and must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.  The remaining 30% can be non-organic allowed ingredients.

The USDA decides which crops and livestock are approved as organic.  Certified organic crops are not subjected to irradiation, synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms.  Additionally, organic livestock must meet a number of criteria.  Organic animals must consume organic feed, have some access to the outdoors, and cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics.  The thought process is that organic farmers practice sustainable farming methods that help keep the soil healthy, which in turn should produce higher quality foods.  Again, that theory makes sense on the surface. 

Products that are certified organic indicate that natural resources are protected in the process of production.  In theory, organic farming promotes ecological sustainability while maintaining biodiversity.  So organic isn’t just about what products were used to grow the food, it’s also about the process involving biodiversity within the farm.  That part of the equation is normally lost on the consumer, which brings us to another confusing point... 

Organic versus All-natural

All-natural labels are unregulated for the most part.  While the USDA regulates what foods can be labeled as organic, neither the FDA nor the USDA has regulations for all-natural foods.  All-natural foods can be just about whatever the marketing guys at the factory want them to be.  They can be heavily processed with artificial preservatives, colors, and/or flavors.  There simply isn’t a good rule on what all-natural really means so it’s left up to the consumer to decide.  Basically, the guidelines for all-natural products are left up to the company, with each company practicing its own regulations.

The effectiveness of the term all-natural loses some of its aura when you read the official definition from the FDA. “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, the FDA “has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.  However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”(4)

Unfortunately, the public really can’t define either organic or all-natural so it’s been lulled into associating these terms with healthfulness.  However, that association is based on reverse psychology.  The marketing campaign behind these terms is remarkable considering the unsubstantiated claims they’ve made in their efforts to convince the public that organic and all-natural labels automatically make a food better for you.  Their approach is both clever and simplistic because they can’t really connect the dots on why these words make the food better for you and, instead, they focus on explaining why conventionally farmed foods are bad for us.  They point to conventional chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides and demonize this practice.  Yet, as I wondered in the beginning of this article, Why would someone either feel or be healthier if that same food plant was organically sprayed with fresh manure instead? 

Intelligence2 Debates (I2D) claims, “Eating organic used to be a fringe commitment.  Not anymore.  The idea that the adage ‘you are what you eat’ actually has merit – that America’s industrialized food system is making consumers obese, diabetic and primed for heart disease – has converted millions of us into pursuers of the American Organic Dream: Eat Organic To Live Longer and Better.”

I2D further states, “But many aren’t buying it.  Most consumers, for example.  Although sales of organic food increased six-fold over the last decade, organics are still a tiny fraction of the food Americans eat.  Perhaps that’s because organic food can cost up to twice as much as conventionally grown?  Perhaps it’s because – as critics of the organic food movement argue – there’s just not a lot of solid evidence that going organic makes you any healthier.  This side says the race by food makers to slap labels like farm-grown, free-range, and all natural is more about catching a fad than upgrading our food in any meaningful way.  Should we all go organic, and pay the extra that it costs, because few things are more important than our health?  Or is the organic movement, and the firms cashing in on it, hawking a hoax, or at least grossly overstating the biological benefits to be had when the chicken that we eat is raised with some more legroom?”(5)

Organic Seal

Another confusing point in this arena is the use of the USDA Organic Seal.  The official sealis often used interchangeably with the term USDA Organic labelor Organic label.  They're not the same thing though.  The USDA Organic Seal is what a true organic product is allowed to use.

For example, you might say, "My apple juice is 100% certified organic so the USDA allows my juice to use the USDA organic seal." The label term could be used like so, "My apple juice has some organic ingredients, but it's not certified, so it can't use the USDA Organic Seal, but I can use an organic label that says, Made with Organic Ingredients.”  An organic label is just a label. The USDA Organic Seal is a privilege of certified products. (6)

Not All Organic Food is Healthy
By now it’s clear that not all organic foods are created equal.  There are many nutritionally rich organic foods available such as vegetables, fruits, beef, pork, poultry, grains, nuts, seeds and dairy products.  Yet in addition to the controversial benefits of eating organic foods of any label, there are also many high carb foods labeled organic that you should avoid altogether.  Many high carb and/or highly processed foods can lead to strong cravings and weight gain.

Nowhere does the USDA claim that organic products are more nutritious than non-organic products.  Even growers of organic foods don't usually claim that their foods are necessarily more nutritious, and any studies trying to prove this fact have been inconclusive.  Non-organic foods have just the same amount of vitamins and nutrients as organic products, as long as they haven't been processed with salt, high-fructose corn syrup or other unhealthy additives. (7)

A peer-reviewed research study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the top medical journals in the world, addressed the claim that organic food is healthier.  The study found that organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional food. (8) 

Is Organic Food Tastier?

Real Clear Science.com states there is not a lot of data on the better taste issue, but at least one taste test conducted by a consumer watch group concluded that organic food was not tastier.  Have you ever heard a friend rave about how much better non-irradiated fruit is, or how much tastier organic veggies are?  Keep in mind that taste is highly subjective and not immune to marketing. 

In summary, science has soured on the promises of organic food.  While most people would agree it’s better not to use antibiotics in livestock feed, the rest of the claims made by the natural food movement simply don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.  Organic farmers and ranchers are not saving the world with healthier food.  So don’t buy into the scare tactics and hype.  Instead, it’s time to face up to reality: If you’re a regular organic shopper, you may have been duped. (9) 

Whether you prefer to bypass the conventionally grown foods is your own choice, but be aware that the products used in conventional farming have not been shown to affect the nutrition of produce and animal products when compared to organics.

By Mike Beatty

August 2014

______________________________________ 

1 Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission on  What is organic farming?

2 Jump up^ Paull, John (2011) "Nanomaterials in food and agriculture: The big issue of small matter for organic food and farming", Proceedings of the Third Scientific Conference of ISOFAR (International Society of Organic Agriculture Research), 28 September - 1 October, Namyangju, Korea., 2:96-99.

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_farming

4 http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm214868.htm

5 http://intelligencesquaredus.org/iq2-tv/item/672-organic-food-is-marketing-hype

6 http://organic.about.com/od/organiclabels/tp/10-Frequently-Asked-Questions-About-Organic-Labels.htm

7 http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/food-myths-debunked-organic-foods-are-always-more-nutritious.html#b

8 http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685

9 http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2012/09/05/science_debunks_the_organic_fantasy_garden_106363.html

 

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