What do you think of when you see that little green Organic logo on a food or product? If you’re like much of the American population, a combination of marketing, exposure, and other factors have probably given you vague ideas that the “Organic” stamp implies products:
- Aren’t genetically engineered.
- Are free of antibiotics, irradiation, dangerous pesticides, and other controversial inputs.
- Are comprised wholly of components or ingredients of the highest safety and cleanliness standards.
- Are inherently healthy.
- Were produced under Fair Trade-style provisions and conditions.
- Were produced in ways that ensured humane, free-range-style living conditions for livestock.
- Are healthier than their non-organic counterparts.
At face value, all of those ideas make sense, don’t they? They seem like they line up perfectly with the basic goals behind the founding of the Organic program in the first place, and they’re exactly what you would expect farmers, producers, and government authorities to agree on and put into law in the best interests of the public.
Unfortunately, most of these ideas are not entirely true. So, let’s do some basic sorting of fact from fiction.
Belief: Organic foods/products cannot be genetically engineered(GMO).
Messy Fact: Technically, organic foods can’t be GMO. So, any organic products you pick up must contain organic, non-GMO versions of otherwise ubiquitously GMO crops like wheat, corn and soy. BUT under current laws, there are “more than 250 non-organic substances – often chemicals – that are legally allowed in “organic foods” many of which are made from industrial or GMO corn.” (source) Thanks to loopholes and sneaky marketing tactics, many foods that contain only partially organic ingredients still prominently display the term “organic” on their labels in ways that make them appear as if they organically certified unless or until consumers read their labels closely.
Belief: Organic foods/products are free of antibiotics, irradiation, dangerous pesticides, and other controversial inputs.
Messy Fact: For the most part, this is true. However, as noted above, objectionable non-organic substances may be incorporated into Organic products. Antibiotics and chemical pesticides can also legally be sprayed on some types of Organic produce, such as apples and lettuce. (source) Not all producers use them, but there is no way to know from product labeling which Organic products were exposed to them and which were not.
Beliefs: Organic foods/products are comprised wholly of components or ingredients of the highest safety and cleanliness standards. Organic foods/products are inherently healthy.
Messy Fact: Five words: “Organic High Fructose Corn Syrup.” I cannot make this stuff up, guys. While the Organic certification program was originally designed to help producers and consumers differentiate clean, healthy, ethically-produced products from everything else on the shelves, increased consumer demand – and willingness to pay higher prices for Organic foods – prompted unscrupulous producers to create letter-of-the-law versions of every unhealthy food imaginable. High in sugar, toxic fats, and other troubling ingredients, these products bear the Organic label, but they’re no better than their standard counterparts.
Beliefs: Organic foods/products were produced under Fair Trade-style provisions and conditions. Organic foods/products were produced in ways that ensured humane, free- range-style living conditions for livestock.
Messy Fact: You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? While the original intent of the Organic guidelines was certainly meant to reflect and uphold these types of standards, current production practices and enforcement mean that the reality of them is hit-and-miss, at best. Large-scale producers taking advantage of loopholes has become enough of a problem that separate spin-off certifications with harder and faster rules were developed to around each of those issues.
Belief: Organic foods/products are healthier than their non-organic counterparts.
Messy Fact: Produce, usually. Processed stuff, sometimes. Anti-organic marketing campaigns smear this subject regularly, but research consistently bears out that organic produce has more nutritional bang per calorie than conventionally grown produce, thanks to Organic program standards which incentivize and reward farmers for investing in their soil. Healthier soil = healthier produce. Moreover, organically produced products are free of the toxic burden that comes with the heavy use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other problem inputs of commercial farming. Some of those same benefits carry over into processed products – they, too, will generally have a lower toxic burden. But, as discussed above, they can be laden with sugar and bad oils and just as toxic as commercial products in their own way.
Are you staring at your screen in dismay, wondering what you’re supposed to do with all this messy, conflicting information?
Don’t worry, I have good news. For all its flaws,
Organic labeling can help you identify foods that are right for you and your family.
Now that you’re clear on what it actually tells you – and what it doesn’t – you can use that information to make smart, informed decisions about what products meet your personal needs. We’ll look at how to do that next post!