The Dirty Truth About Organic Food

[UPDATE: If you're planning on spending this weekend forgoing your usual diet of takeout and eat all-organic, read this first. Here's what you may not realize about the organics industry... This story was originally posted on July 17, 2012]
We’ve long been privy to the fact that organic foods — blissfully lacking in icky industrial solvents, pesticides, and growth hormones — are the healthier option for the human body. And since we’re all trying to live to be ageless 187-years-olds, making the switch to cleaner eating seems natural.
According to a recent New York Times article though, the fresh-food market has transformed from a mom-and-pop economy into a multi-billion dollar industry. "As soon as a value-added aspect was established, it didn’t take long before corporate America came knocking," Michael J. Potter, CEO of Eden Foods, told the Times. Bottom line: There's some shady activity hiding behind a lot of certified organic labels.
We did some digging and uncovered five surprising things you may not know about those so-called health foods you're paying top dollar for. Seriously, that salad might not be so green after all.
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Little-Known Fact: Not All Food At The Farmer's Market Is Organic

It depends on the grower. Some farmers are tiny producers who cannot afford the organic certification fees, but still grow according the organic standards. Some have the USDA seal hanging from their booths, signaling that they are a certified grower. Others say they are organic but do not have the USDA seal to prove it.

If you want to check on a specific farm, but don’t want to come across as confrontational, contact the National Organic Program (NOP) for verification, suggests Jody Mason of NewHope360, the industry source for the organic and naturals market.

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Little-Known Fact: Some Organic Brands Are Owned By Large, Non-Organic Corporations

Your fave cereal brands (think: Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, and Kashi) are owned by Kellogg — yes, the same Kellogg that keeps kids spinning in the mornings with their Pop-Tarts and Eggo waffles. Meanwhile, Naked Juice is owned by PepsiCo and Walnut Acres and Health Valley belong to Hain Celestial, which used to be affiliated with Heinz.

It’s no wonder mega-food corps are pursuing ownership of smaller companies — organics are profitable to the tune of $30 billion a year…and growing. But, not every organic brand has sold itself to the big boys — Clif Bar & Company, Amy’s Kitchen, Lundberg Family Farms, Earthbound Farm, Rudi’s Organic Bakery, and Eden Foods all remain independently owned.

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Little-Known Fact: Thankfully, GMOs Are Prohibited In Organic Food

"Genetically modified organisms, sometimes referred to as genetically engineered, are any agricultural product that has been altered (notably in the seed) with the insertion of a gene from a separate organism or chemical," says Mason.

The average woman has much cause for concern, because some independent studies suggest that GMOs impact human fertility and contribute to a rise in food allergies. In addition, the FDA does not require labeling of GMOs, so most consumers are eating GMO foods and are not aware of it. "Buying organic is the surest way to avoid GMOs because they are never allowed in a scrutinized organic farming system or food processing." Phew!

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Little-Known Fact: Over 250+ Non-Organic Ingredients Are Allowed In Organic Foods

There’s always a catch, huh? "The NOP is extremely transparent with this list, which includes food processing ingredients such as oxygen, citric acid, diatomaceous earth, and the baking agent agar- agar," says Mason. "All ingredients are deemed safe for human consumption if used in food, and are regularly scrutinized by the National Organic Standards Board.”

And, while organic-food purists, like Potter, oppose the list, others find value in it. "There are many un-harmful ingredients that we use in our foods every day that are intrinsically non-organic," says Mason. “For example, a small amount of baking soda is needed for otherwise entirely organic cookies and baked goods, but because all ingredients in a baked item must be accounted for, it has to be considered for the National List."

Our advice: Take a peek at the list and see how many of those ingredients are in your favorite organics, then ask yourself how many is too many for your taste buds.

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Little-Known Fact: There's A Lot Of Controversy Surrounding Labels & Regulating

The Organic Foods Act calls for a board — charged with helping to set the standards for organic foods — made up of four farmers, three conservationists, three consumer representatives, a scientist, a retailer, a certification agent and two organic food processing company reps. All good. All great! However, the Times article we were talking about before revealed that farmers and consumers are getting the shaft, with their seats often being filled with agricultural academics and corporate executives.

While the board's personnel makeup leaves much to be desired, it does welcome public comment and recommendations which go directly to the Agriculture Department, says Mason. "From what I've witnessed, no one on the Board is jockeying for control, even when they are often tasked with difficult decisions that are not black and white."

Skeptics often cite the previous facts on this list as reason for their cynicism. For example, Potter calls the certified-organic label a fraud and refuses to put it on Eden’s products. On the other hand, "The USDA organic seal is the only way a shopper can know if what they purchase is truly organic," says Mason. "Unless you have a personal farmer who grows all your food." That might not be such a bad idea.

Photographed by Ingalls Photo

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