Mother Earth Monday – How Organic is Organic?

Organic... ish

Organic… ish

Let’s first start by clarifying that every organic anything is allowed to have 95 percent inorganic components. This is a little buffer for things that can’t be obtained in a purely organic form or which can’t be replicated outside of synthetics. This tells us right away that whole organic foods are going to be more organic than processed organic foods. Next, we need to understand what those packages really mean. First off, understand that ‘natural ingredients’ do not mean they are good choices or even meaningful. Extremely processed chemicals originating in a natural source (read corn usually) are still considered natural. Your raspberry tea that says natural flavors on the label, has no raspberry in it. It has corn-derived chemicals mixed in a way to create the raspberry flavor.

So with that out of the way, some labels list 100 percent organic. Usually these are unprocessed products or processed items that only involve one or two ingredients such as flour and the like. Most products only list Organic by itself, which is the above mentioned 95 percent. Then there are the sneaky ones that say ‘Made with organic ingredients’ on the label. Only 70 percent of the ingredients in these need to be Organic. The rest could just as easily be petroleum derived.

Don’t! Except…

So what are some of the more common inorganic things getting added to your organic foods? Well, there are any number of allowed items, but these ones in particular get a lot of attention.

  1. Dupont, another of those chemical giants like Monsanto, creates a chemical known as Acidified Sodium Chloride. As of this point, it hasn’t been connected with any health problems. Organic farmers mostly use it to disinfect meats such as poultry and may remain on the surface of the meat in question.
  2. In a tongue twister so common to chemical ingredients, Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate finds its way into the organic palette. It is a blend of phosphoric acid and sodium carbonate and is used in soy-based meat substitutes. It also gets used in things like imitation crab, imitation lobster and chicken nuggets. It is being used to bind water and protein so that the soy particles bond more fully.
  3. Ethylene can be generated through organic structures, but more often than not the ethylene being produced from fossil fuels. The gas is used to force ripening in fruits. While the ethylene is entirely harmless, the fact that it is being converted out of fossil fuels somewhat goes against the ethic of Organics. With this said, if your organics originate somewhere other than a local garden, it is going to involve a lot of fossil fuel consumption anyway.
  4. Sausage casings made from the intestines of non-organic raised pigs are allowed as well. The oddest part about this is the idea of making organic pork sausages and stuffing them into inorganic casings. It is one of those strange twists of logic that baffles just about everyone who hears it. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why it is allowed aside from perhaps allowing some companies to buy casings for cheaper and sell the product at a higher price as organic.
  5. So then there is Carrageenan, derived from seaweed and used to thicken and stabilize dairy products. Yogurt, cottage cheese, other cheeses, etc all are likely to use this if they aren’t listed as 100 percent organic. It may be the most controversial additive of any in organics. Why? Well an associate professor of medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago named Joanne K Tobacman petitioned the USDA not to approve it for organic foods. She claims that the product causes intestinal inflammation. It has also been linked to colon cancer. The USDA organic code notes that it can’t be added to foods unless it is considered ‘essential’ to the manufacture of the product. Correct me if I am wrong here, but cheeses and yogurts don’t need it to set properly. My last posting about yogurt in fact clearly lacks a step of adding Carrageenan.
  6. And then there is Synthetic DHA. It’s a supplemental omega-3 fatty acid derived from algae that once again makes its way into dairy products. A subsidiary of Royal DSM known as Martek Biosciences Corp creates the stuff. So why does it have a strong following of critics? It isn’t really essential to the production of any product. None. You don’t need it to product milk after all, the cow does that for you. It gets added after the fact so that they can boost their listed levels of omega-3s. Even better is how they derived the strain of algae used to generate the stuff. In the same basic technique that helped develop some of our modern wheat (And trust me, I will get to that topic eventually as well), they used ‘enhanced traditional plant breeding’. Sounds benign enough until you hear the real term; Chemical Mutagenisis. This is where you expose the embryonic plant to harsh chemicals and radiation as a means of forcing mutations. Eventually you get a plant that lives through it and shows completely new traits. If you notice a trait you want, then you breed it into a new strain. Pleasant isn’t it? There are a lot of negative mutations that can go along with that which may not be found out right away because they don’t stand out like the wanted traits do. This stuff has been linked to some painful conditions already along with ARA, also allowed in organics

Changing the Rules

Here is the real kicker; the Organic Trade Association has been pressuring the USDA to allow even more things into Certified Organic foods on behalf of the corporations they represent. Without allowing for public discussion or input, the USDA altered the manner in which the NOSB (National Organic Safety Board) may decide what is allowed into organic foods that isn’t. I only listed six things, but it is actually a pretty hefty list already. No longer do items go up for review after a period of five years. Instead they are indefinitely renewed unless there is a two thirds vote to remove them. The fifteen seat board is mostly composed of industry representatives who can easily have a conflict of interest in keeping items on the list.

Just as unsettling is that those percentages I quoted above are quite likely to shift in favor of more inorganic allowances. We can almost certainly expect the percent of organic ingredients to go down over time. If you are thinking to yourself that the NOSB isn’t going to do that sort of thing, let’s look for a moment at their history. In 2001, they added the synthetic version of methionine, a sulfur-based amino acid, into chicken feed. Why? Well mostly because the only way to keep chickens tightly confined in a factory farm setting and still be profitable was to supplement the feed with higher doses that just can’t be done with natural foods. The only way to maintain chicken health without it is to let the chickens have time in the open air and pasture.

Okay, but they do maintain a ban on regular use of antibiotics on livestock right? Sure they did make a move to prevent further use of tetracycline and streptomycin on apple and pear trees, though the industry is fighting that ruling, but they have never once moved to close the loophole for using gentamicin on chickens. Since it is allowed up to the second day of life on chickens, the producers simply inject the eggs themselves with the stuff so that it gives them the same early kick start. Of course it is one of those antibiotics we humans are using too, so will eventually become less effective against certain skin infections possibly.

And of course we all know GMOs aren’t allowed into organics knowingly right? Nope, except when they are. GMO vaccines can be used on livestock as long as they are on the National List. Guess how many the NOSB approved? Go ahead, shoot for it. That’s right, all of them. Instead of reviewing the safety of each as an individual product, they hand-waved the whole lot into place as a single ‘synthetic substance’. I could go on, but forgive me if I am a little slow to believe the NOSB is going to do anything but expand the list of inorganics allowed into organic foods.

The More You Know

I know this entry into my blog probably sounds like an campaign against organic foods. It isn’t. I just feel that you should know what you are buying and that the labels you see may not reflect the values you endorse. If you really want to ensure you are eating really organic foods, avoid processed foods and try to favor local farmers who you can get to know and who allow for transparency. Visit their farm, learn about how they produce what they do. Don’t expect the industry or the government to stay on task for focusing on what you see as important. The industry is watching profitability, otherwise it wouldn’t have grown so large and the government rarely stays on point for anything outside of whatever the highest bidder, er… lobbyist is asking for. Well, unless it is an election year. Then you can expect them to sidestep a little better. Anyway, buyer beware.

What are your thoughts?

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