Last Modified on May 23, 2013
Recently, we came across an article pointing to some huge changes to the organic foods industry. Takeovers and rules changes that have crept into the marketplace without hardly anyone noticing. Contrary to the image of struggling mom and pop farms doing it the natural way, organic produce is now largely in the hands of the same industrial food producers that organic farming originally defined itself against.
It's not that big farms can't grow our produce according to safe, organic practices. It's that they don't necessarily want to go to all that bother. They just want the extra profit that comes with an organic label!
Organic produce is an area of agricultural commerce with a big quality markup built into its prices, which gives the grower a bigger profit margin on each unit of organic peppers, chickens, etc. sold. The big food conglomerates wanted in on that -- a $30 billion a year global market -- for sure!
So you might say, "Well alright, big fella, as long as you agree to abide by the rules of organic farming we'll see if we can't all get along." The trouble is that while the US Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 governs the industry, it's the industry members that largely govern the Act, and the food conglomerates who have gotten into the game have been bending those organic practices rules--sometimes to the point of genuine concern.
So now things like carrageenan, synthetic inositol, and docosahexaenoic acid algae oil (DHA) are considered acceptable food additives because "Big Food" got them onto the approved list.
If you would prefer that your own organic foods were genuinely organic, it's going to take a bit of extra effort but a few tips can set you on the right path.
International Tips on Organic Produce
Internationally, organic farming is likewise taking off, with many countries offering similar levels of certification to those in the US.
- European Union farmers can be certified by the EU so that their produce can carry the starred Euro-leaf organic foods logo, signifying certified organic farm sourcing.
- The UK and other individual European nations also have their own organics certifications.
- India's National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) certifies national and export policies governing organic farming, at levels equal to those of the US and EU. However, within India most organic farming is done without certification, so you have to trust the farmer.
- In New Zealand, the Fair Trading Act 1986 covers organic farming practices, but certification is provided by outside groups such as AssureQuality and BioGro New Zealand.
- Australian certification is provided by two independent organizations, the Organic Growers of Australia and SAI Global.
- The Canadian government also certifies organic produce as "Canada Organic".
When talking to farmers, you want to ask about both pesticides and herbicides. The types of fertilizer a farmer uses and any hormones or other treatments employed in raising animals could be of concern to you as well.
A Few Guidelines on Organic Foods
- Farmers Markets give you the opportunity to talk to local farmers and find those genuinely dedicated to organic farming practices.
Local Farms allow you to visit and discuss farming practices right there with the farmer in his field. If their farming principles sound good, safe, and organic to you then you have an agricultural gold mine just down the road!
- In-State Farmers are more likely to be sending organic produce to your supermarket. If it's out of state or worse out of the country, it's very likely grown with unnatural assistance.
- In-Season Produce is much more likely to be local and organic. However, if it's grapes in the winter or the like, you can be fairly sure that it's coming from a chemically-polluted farm thousands of miles away.
Supermarket Produce that is organic will have a 5-digit PLU starting with 9, while non-organic goods are only four digits long. But this doesn't tell you what sort of farm produced the fruit or vegetable.
- Meat and Poultry buyers should look for the words "minimally processed" on food labels.
- Certification from the USDA National Organic Program is the only nationwide program to indicate and test organic farming practices, but this includes the big "organic" food conglomerates in the same harvest as the mom and pops.
While a USDA organics sticker or certifications from other organics programs may not be a foolproof sign of trustworthiness, it's usually better than trusting any old sign claiming that the produce was grown "spray-free", "naturally", "with organic methods", or the like unless you know the farmer personally. Many farmers and markets want to seem organic without the trouble and expense of being organic.
[YEA] Another interesting and commonplace food additive is carrageenan, an emulsifying agent extracted from red seaweed. While this polysaccharide has been used forever as a thickener and bonding agent in everything from ice cream to toothpaste (taking the place of animal-derived gelatin), in the past several years there has been a growing concern about carrageenan as a potential carcinogen and trigger to bowel disorders. While there is some remote possibility that this is true, mostly this stems from confusion over an industrial agent that at one point was also called carrageenan, though it substantially differed from the naturally occurring molecule.
For the most part, carrageenan is probably safe. In fact, the red seaweed that provides carrageenan has been consumed as a natural remedy for respiratory disorders and as a laxative. However, for those who already have digestive disorders such as colitis, it might be worth avoiding this food additive as much as possible.