DEFINING ‘ORGANICS’ AND OTHER‘NATURAL FOODS’TERMS
This is a revision and re-play of a post I first wrote in 2012 and updated in 2015. It seems that every couple of years there’s a trend that specifically focuses on natural foods, the Paleo Diet, now the Millennial’s reconstruction of the meal formula. Over the past three decades, spurred by our increased awareness of the role food plays in maintaining our health and the desire to stay well and active longer the demand for organically produced food has grown.
But, exactly what is “organic” food? Is it that much better than non-organic? Why is it more expensive? Should I switch over to buying it? Do I have to go completely organic? Am I jeopardizing my family if I don’t? What if I can’t afford it? Should I feel guilty if I can’t? Let’s look at the story of organic foods.
In 1878 a tasteless, odorless pesticide was synthesized. It sat around until World War II, when the U.S. Army rediscovered it and devised means of spreading it over large areas. It was credited with eradicating typhus in Europe, and greatly reducing the danger of Malaria and dengue fever in the Pacific. In 1948 it was made available commercially, and farmers hailed it as a miracle. It quickly appeared in everything from household insecticides to flea powder to bug repellent lotions. Its name was DDT. Then in 1964, biologist Rachel Carson wrote the book The Silent Spring, in which she claimed that DDT was extinguishing bird populations, especially the Bald Eagle, by making their food sources toxic and robbing them of the ability to produce egg shells strong enough to support the weight of the mother bird. In 1974 the production and use of DDT was banned and the public became suspicious of pesticides.
A few years later, the effects of an ex-foliating herbicide called Agent Orange, used in Vietnam, became evident and people became suspicious of chemicals that killed weeds as well. The simple solution was to assure the safety of food by eating products grown naturally, unaided by manufactured chemicals. Actually, it was a return to the ways of the past, but now it was a movement with a name “Organics”.
As with DDT the ex-foliate made its way to market. Named ‘Round Up’, it is marketed and widely used cosmetically for driveways etc. This time, however, there are additional factors in play. Agriculturally, the problem was that its effectiveness was of great commercial value as a labor-saver, but it killed the cops as well as the weeds. Previously all the agricultural experimentation had been done by colleges and universities under Federal Grants. Hence, the results were public domain but with such profits at stake, private corporations entered the field. In the early 1980s one of those labs developed a soy plant which could survive the poison and in a landmark move the U.S. issued the first patent for a living organism for the seed and the process which developed it.
This was the first synthetically Genetically Modified Organism and GMOs have since become a heated topic. Man had been genetically modifying plants since farming began by selective and cross breeding, changing soil and locations—all natural means. The results from ancient to modern are in every market, nectarines, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, but this is different because non-plant genes are being added for cosmetic and commercial purposes. Combined with the current focus on promoting sustainable foods and eliminating chemicals and synthetics in preparation, many feel there is reason for concern. First let’s clear up a possible confusion, GMOs can be grown organically. They are two separate issues. As for that matter, the other categories of food whole, natural etc., defined below can be grown non-organically.
As to what precisely constitutes “Organic” and how can you be sure you’re buying it. Well, the USDA certifies organic products with a green and white PLU (Price Look Up) sticker. To earn this seal the product needs to be verified by 50 accredited certification agents as containing 95% organically produced ingredients. The seal will bear a 5 digit code beginning with the number 9. Products containing 70% organic ingredients often bear stamps carrying the word, but they are not green and white and their codes are 4 digits beginning with the number 8.
According to the Mayo Clinic organic farming is designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution by using frequent crop rotation, natural fertilizer, water with no sewage sludge, and mulch only, with no synthetics, to control weeds. No conventional, manufactured fertilizers or pesticides are allowed. In organic husbandry, certified meat and dairy must come from animals never injected with growth hormones, fed food with additives or irradiated, raised in confined or unclean areas, denied access to the outdoors, given preventative medications and/or antibiotics. The cuts of meat cannot be injected with saline to boost weight.
While discussing definitions, I want to clear up a possible confusion. Organic foods are always natural, but products presented as “Natural Foods” are not always organic. For example, nuts in shell and dried fruits may be 100% natural but not grown organically or may have preservatives added. The International Food and Agriculture Organization Codex Alimenturius doesn’t recognize this category on the grounds that that all foods are natural, but admits any processing alters them. Different countries have different policies about natural foods; a fact to remember when buying exports.
The U.K. has a code defined by process and product to include various types of food. It bans anything derived from cloning or created by process from a” natural” labeling. Canada’s code defines only by process, allowing just water to be removed and no vitamins, minerals or additives to be introduced. Israel’s code concerns only process allowing 33 different treatments, all physical, none chemical. By contrast the U.S. has no definitions of “natural” foods, but it discourages the use of the word on labels of poultry whose weight has been increased over 25% by water injection. I wonder if that extends to ham.
“Whole Foods” are not interchangeable with organics either. These are foods that are unpolished, and minimally processed before being consumed, with no added ingredients, not even salt but again, need not have been organically grown. They consist of mainly high fiber items, like grains, beans, and fruits, but also include non-hydrogenated dairy such as milk and cheese. The FDA dictates that anything labeled “Whole Grain” contain the bran, endosperm and germ of the grain. Makes me wonder about a lot of the breads and cereals I see in the markets.
“Raw Foods” are the ones most likely to have been grown organically, because they are intended to be consumed in their natural state, or never heated above 104 degrees, and contain no whole grains, beans or soy. People who buy raw foods, mainly vegans, are understandably concerned about ingesting chemical residue. Interestingly, India is experiencing a Raw Organic Movement that had seen a 22% increase annually over the past few years. It brought in $57 billion last year and is projected to be worth $104 billion by 2015. Due to the nature of the products, it’s doubtful if much will ever exported but the movement itself may be.
Now, with any confusion of terms out of the way, let’s get back to organics. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, publishes an annual list of non-organic foods to avoid called “The Dirty Dozen”. Since the list is always more than 12, and changes every year, due to weather conditions, drought, rain fall, frost, which affect chemical residues on crops, and insect populations, it’s wiser to remember the categories: thin skinned tree fruits, berries and grapes, leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and kale, low growing vegetables like tomatoes, celery and cucumbers and shallow root ones like radishes, carrots and white potatoes. I understand why citrus fruits, peas, bananas and melons are never on the list, but I don’t get why cabbage, sweet potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, kiwi or eggplant aren’t either, but they aren’t These are general guidelines, and it’s smart to check out the latest annual listings, especially after extreme weather conditions. Just plug Dirty Dozen Foods into a search engine.
Incorporating organic foods into the diet is beneficial for everyone, particularly the elderly and ill, but it can be very important for babies and toddlers, especially if you’re making their food. By the way, baby food is a cinch; I’m just finishing a book on it now titled Children’s Fare. Actually the nutritionists appear to be more concerned about encouraging people to focus on organic meats and dairy than produce because of the possible effects of growth hormones. However, the benefits of organic milk over non-organic are few, so long as the label states the no rBST hormones were used to stimulate milk production.
Are there any downsides to buying organics? Of course! The biggest is that organically grown food is about 50% more expensive than conventionally. It requires more land, and taxes, to ergonomically rotate crops and allow livestock free-range. Far more labor is needed to hand weed, mulch and guard against fungus and pests by natural means. Add to this that organic farmers in the U.S. get no subsidy, and it becomes an unprofitable undertaking. In other words organic farms produce substantially less than conventional ones. Moreover, produce allowed to ripen naturally and not preserved, must get to market faster and will spoil quicker than the conventionally preserved. Incidentally, a note here, farmers in the U.S. earning less than $5000.00 per year from organic products needn’t label them, So if you go to a Farmers’ Market, ask the vendor about the produce.
Are there any ways to make regular food safer? Yes! Rinsing is the most important. Remove any soil and then soak in a solution of ½ part water ½ part vinegar for 5 mins. or wipe well with a solution of 1cup water, 1Tbs. lemon juice and 1Tbs.baking soda, or simply diluted dish detergent followed by water. Of course you can also buy one of the commercial “washes”, but that rather blows the “organic” doesn’t it? Be sure to do this before cutting, because a knife blade can carry pesticide residue into the flesh, and wash all utensils frequently.
Are there ways to buy organic food on a budget? Again Yes! The most obvious way is to comparison shop, especially if looking for milk. Stay seasonal, and, if possible, contact local growers, perhaps through visiting Farm Markets, to see if you can avoid the commercial mark-ups. Plan menus ahead featuring available produce, estimating the prices into your budget, before shopping. Be willing to make budget cuts or buying other items, snacks and sweets, for example, to accommodate the extra costs. Buy the dried foods, beans, rice etc. in economy sizes. Perhaps you have someone who will share bulk purchases from warehouse stores, to save money. There are high price and lower priced organic foods. Find ways to balance your purchases between them, either through menu planning, or by combining them in a casserole. Become familiar with the Dirty Dozen, and find ways to combine organic, with safe non-organic foods as described above. There are coupons for organic foods on the web, but avoid ordering things there, because it will cost too much in shipping, and depending on the vender and item possibly take too long to arrive. If you have space, learn to freeze and/or can. Finally, try growing your own produce, but I should warn you, my neighbors tried that last year. After some “wiffy” days, a rather cute infestation of lady bugs and a surplus of zucchini, the local rabbits got most of the tomatoes and beans, they sodded over the plot. It had cost far more in supplies than they could have saved even with bumper crops.
This highlights the main problem. Organic farming is expensive and labor intensive with a proportionately low yield. Basically all farming was organic before the industrial revolution and the population explosion. It’s the way the Third World nations still farm, struggling to feed their own people. The truth is that without modern farming techniques, and that includes some genetically altered crops, we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves. Moreover, organic farming requires more space than conventional, due to the extra land needed for proper crop rotation, making it too expensive for practicality on a large scale. Add in the weather variables and there’s the potential for disaster. England has an experiment Thanet Earth in Kent, enclosing acres in vast greenhouses, but its success is unknown as yet. The truth is, until a solution is, or can be found we’re going to have to depend for most of our food, on modern, conventional farming techniques and methods. Hopefully, we can make those safer. Though organic husbandry requires land, sufficient to allow the animals free range, it’s then a matter of keeping their housing clean, their food pure, their fields free of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and above all, never giving them anything to modify their growth or productivity. It’s actually a case of doing less rather than more, and leaving the animals to develop as nature intended. That should be somewhat easier to achieve. Let’s hope, as awareness of the benefits of eating organically increases, ways will be found to increase production of and access to these foods, so we may all eat healthier. For now, however, cost and availability are considerations.
I believe that, with all the controversy over GMOs and the difference between produce improved by lab created ones as opposed to the increasingly popular ‘heritage’ produce created through cross breeding, there will be a new category of food recognized soon. I suppose it could be called ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘natural’. Once again, either could be organically grown, but it would give the consumer a wider choice. Obviously, the artificial varieties, since they would be modified to need less care concerning pests, fungus, soil, perhaps even water could be a less expensive, yet still organic, alternative.
Finally, it is also very important to remember that the “organic” label is no guarantee against products causing food borne illnesses. Many contaminants can be introduced between the field and the table. Your best protection is to always buy from reliable sources, constantly wash your hands, counters and tools to avoid cross contamination, keep the cooking area chemical free, and be sure to maintain the proper temperature for storage and cooking of each item.