What exactly constitutes organic, anyway?

Access to organic foods is very important to me, and as such, a story that ran in the New York Times this week piqued my interest. An under-side of the organics industry was explored: Seeing the demand for organic foods as a profitable trend, the story reports on how large food processors (such as Kellogg, General Mills, and PepsiCo) have quietly bought up smaller organic companies and then hold positions on the National Organics Standards board, which regulates standards for what is considered organic. They govern what constitutes organic raw and processed ingredients, such as what defines an organic egg and an organic chicken, and which non-organic ingredients can be added to organic products without interfering with the product’s organic certification.

Many consumers, including myself, view organic processed products, such as a box of cereal or frozen pizza, as being pure without additives due to the certification. If there are additives, I assume they are necessary and safe for consumption. But my view of organic processed products apparently comes in conflict with that of the National Organics Standards Board, which is heavily comprised of representatives of these large food conglomerates. As a result, more and more additives are starting to slip into organic processed foods, and in my opinion, this means the quality and purity of the products are being compromised. Caveat emptor:  For the consumer that shops by organic certification label instead of ingredient information, you may be unaware that you are purchasing products containing questionable ingredients.

Mother Jones ran a response to the New York Times story, reporting on the “Five Surprising Ingredients Allowed in Organic Foods,” including carrageenan, which is an unnecessary food thickener and stabilizer in some dairy products and which also causes intestinal inflammation. In reality, according to the New York Times, over the past decade the list of acceptable non-organic ingredients permitted into organically certified products has risen from 77 to 250. For some of these ingredients, it is logical that they not be organically certified. After all, a cheese culture is a bacteria and tartaric acid (cream of tartar) is scraped out of wine casks after fermentation is complete. But these are naturally occurring additives and there are no other naturally occurring substitutes to achieve the intended usage in manufacturing. Meanwhile, the USDA allows a synthetic version of tartaric acid to be included in organic labels (why can’t the naturally occurring version be used?), as well as a variety of antimicrobial agents (aren’t these what I’m trying to avoid by purchasing organic?), xanthan gum (is a stabilizer really necessary?), and other items that read more like a periodic table. And to return to carrageenan, some organic companies have found ways to process their products without including it in their ingredients. So why are these synthetic and sometimes harmful ingredients allowed to be included?

I think this example of what’s left hidden from the consumer in the organic food industry is yet another illustration of how this country’s policies are swayed by large corporations, lobbyists, and the money trail particularly come election time, rather than by what can be considered in the public’s best interest to promote optimal health. I am once again reminded of the importance of reading food labels and relying on my own best judgment in making food decisions, rather than relying on government certifications about product purity, manufacturing claims, and splashy product labels.

If you’re interested in reading the government’s organic requirements directly, you can find that information here.

How do you shop for food products for your family? Do you read labels? Rely on manufacturer food claims? Splashy packaging? What else guides your decisions?

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