Is It Really Organic?

I am ordinarily not the cook in my house. This is because, despite my training as a health coach, I am all thumbs in the kitchen, and I live with someone who has two fully functioning hands that do a much better job with meal preparation — not to mention someone who has a bit more creativity, patience, and diverse recipes stored in the brain.

But because I am a certified health coach, I do try to influence what we buy at the grocery store as much as possible. This can sometimes be a lesson in patience for both the Cook and me.

In the Cook’s defense, I am sure it can get pretty annoying to have the Food Police (that’s me) picking up everything you put in the grocery cart and scanning all the ingredients before sometimes saying, “Okay, we can get this,” but mostly saying, “This is crap, put it back.”

The Cook and I got into, shall we say, a heated discussion in the grocery store one evening. I was insisting upon purchasing uncured sandwich meat taken from animals that had been raised without hormones and fed a vegetarian diet (and simply agreeing to put packaged sandwich meat of any kind in the cart was quite the concession for me).

Things came to a head when the Cook asked the question: “You can’t tell me there’s a difference between this meat and that. What exactly does organic mean? How do you really know something is organic anyway?”

I began to roll out my educated response: “It’s organic because the USDA has strict rules about…”

And the Cook’s eyes rolled with the response, “The USDA? The agency you used to always criticize in your blog? It’s just a marketing word, this ‘organic’ label. Makes people think they are saving the planet or saving themselves. It’s elitist. It’s hogwash. Hog is hog, meat is meat, I’m not buying your argument. But I AM buying this meat.”

I had to admit, though… the Cook had a point. How do we really know that something is organic, and what does organic mean, exactly?

The research hasn’t exactly been helping my case lately. In a paper published this year, researchers examined the literature and couldn’t come to a conclusion. And a few years ago, the New York Times ran a long piece exposing what appears to be the corrupted nature of the National Organic Standards board, basically opining that the very definition of organic depends on who is doing the defining — and more and more, it’s the Big Food Industry.

All of which has the potential to leave me standing before the Cook with cage free egg on my face.

Who Decides What Organic Is?

Good question. The USDA (that agency I used to always criticize in my blog) has what one would think is a pretty clear definition:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

“‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

“Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.

“Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Sounds great. And I suppose the image this might evoke in your mind is one of rolling pastures, freely roaming livestock, and happy farmers.

But that’s not really true.

Because of the growing popularity of “going organic,” the Big Food industry has seized upon an opportunity for delivering premium goods at a premium price, and doing so in a kind of sneaky way. You may think that your package of Bear Naked Granola comes to you from a small company working with a small family farm. But no… Bear Naked is actually owned by Kellogg. Coca Cola and Pepsi own quite a few organic lines, not to mention General Mills, Kraft, and M&M Mars. They don’t advertise this, of course, because there’s a logical disconnect in most consumers’ minds when buying a supposedly organic product directly from the company that also sells us Snickers bars.

So fine, the big companies have bought out nearly all of the small ones. But that also means their influence is growing, not just among consumers, but within the actual regulatory agencies. There is a growing list of non-organic ingredients that are permitted to be used in products that are “certified organic” according to the (ever-changing) USDA standards. Do you think it’s a coincidence that just as representatives from the Big Food industry increased their membership on the board that sets the rules, the number of non-organic ingredients allowed also rose?

Last year, the board narrowly voted down an attempt to include an herbicide on that list.

An herbicide.

Is Organic Better For You?

Although the debate has been raging for years, we are no closer to a definitive answer than we were five years ago, when Stanford University came out with a study suggesting that organic foods are no healthier than conventional foods. At the time, Roger Cohen of the New York Times opined: “Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.”

He sounds just like the Cook! Only a bit more long-winded.

Nutritionally speaking, I don’t doubt that organic foods don’t have much of an edge. But I’ve never really thought of organic foods as being inherently more nutritious anyway. I’ve considered them less contaminated — with pesticides, chemicals, and artificial ingredients. The Stanford report underscores that point: 38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. This is a considerable difference, but I find it more interesting to consider from the flip side: that 62% of the conventional produce apparently did not have detectable pesticide residues, either. For those who simply cannot afford to buy organic foods in the quantities necessary for maximum nutritional value, there is hope that more than half of the conventional food bought is possibly just as safe as organic — and, according to the study, equally nutritious.

It’s a lot to digest, all these organic disputes. The thing is, I agree with almost everyone about all of it. Yes, organic is better. Yes, it’s a premium price for something most of the world can’t afford. Yes, the future is decidedly moving away from this kind of food production toward something more sustainable for an ever growing world population. Yes, Big Food has too much influence and puts profits ahead of consumer welfare. Yes to all of it. It’s a complicated mess.

The steps we can take moving forward, however, are pretty simple.

1. Don’t buy processed food. The key word here is processed, and I don’t care if the organic label is slapped all over a box from the prepared foods aisle, it just means it’s organic crap. Organic does not equal healthy, and as we can see, non-organic ingredients are being quietly approved by Big Food to go into making these products. I’ve bought my fair share of these boxes over the years, back before I knew better.

2. Eating conventional produce is better than eating a processed “organic” meal from a box or a bag. Think: live foods are always better, and organic is better than conventional. And local might well be organic, just not labeled as such.

3. Grow your own produce if you can. That way, you know exactly what your food has or hasn’t been treated with. You have more control over the soil and the harvest. For thousands and thousands of years, this is what people did, by the way. They grew their own food. It’s kind of what we’re meant to do.

4. Beyond your own garden, buy local as much as possible. This is a good rule to live by in any shopping decision, but it’s especially smart when it comes to the foods you eat. Get to your local farmer’s market, where the prices are almost always better than the grocery store, and get to know the people who grow the food there. Even though they may not have gone through the official red tape to get their foods labeled as organic, many local farmers actually do grow their foods according to those standards. Some of their standards are even higher. Ask questions about what sorts of pesticides they use, if any, and see if you can visit the farm and watch how they plant and harvest the crops. Perhaps the best nutritional benefit of buying local is that the foods are freshly picked, and the nutrients are definitely more available. I’d rather eat a conventionally grown local apple than an organic one that’s been shipped across the country.

5. If you can afford it, organic foods definitely have the upper hand when it comes to being free of pesticides and chemicals we don’t want in our bodies. But it’s not as important to buy, say, an organic avocado as it is to buy organic kale. That’s because the tough skin on the avocado already does a pretty good job of protecting the meat inside from the chemicals, whereas kale has so many nooks and crannies where the poison can linger. Check out the “dirty dozen” list to make the smartest choices you can.

When my boys and I lost all that weight years ago, reversed our high blood pressure, lowered our cholesterol, and generally went from the edge of medical disaster to the picture of perfect health, we did so mostly with conventional produce. I was a single mom working in a school and supporting my kids on that meager income alone — the difference between conventional and organic didn’t seem to make a difference in terms of regaining our health, and I was able to buy more of the conventional produce than I could the organic. We are in a better position to eat more organic and local now than we were then, so our exposure to pesticides has been greatly reduced. Will we suffer the long term effects of exposure to chemicals and pesticides? Only time will tell, and it seems there’s better than a 62% chance we won’t.

All I know is that the latest research proves that I don’t have to eat crow — organic or not — for dinner. Neither does the Cook. The Cook and the Food Police have a lot of common ground and room for compromise, and we can be well informed and make healthy choices, always doing the best we can to eat as well as our budget and local suppliers will afford.

You can, too.