We hear discussions about “organic” this, and “organic” that. What’s confusing is that sometimes we are led to believe that simply because something is labeled organic, it must truly be healthy…
It’s true that to be assured you are getting something that is at least 95 percent organic or better, you need to look for the USDA symbol on the package or food in question. It is a green and white label. But is that the only thing to be concerned with when choosing food?
That is a tricky question, and one that needs a bit of discussion since organic, by its very mention, sounds like it’s all good and healthy.
Processed foods with “organic” on the label
Examples of processed foods are cereals, crackers, cookies, or other similar products. But does the organic label make these foods healthier?
Conventional and organic packaged foods like potato chips, tortilla chips, rice cakes, granola and food bars, pretzels, and other snacks have something in common: they are both processed in ways that compromise the quality and integrity of the food whether through heat or other processing, or adding of chemicals or preservatives.
There’s no room for fudging on this one. If you don’t believe me, just read the ingredients. What you’ll find in these products are ingredients such as canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean, cottonseed oil. These are rancid vegetable oils that have been put through high heat or chemical processing. Some of them including soy, canola, and cottonseed are from genetically-modified sources. All are too high in Omega 6s – a major cause of inflammation in the body, and a major sources of chronic disease conditions.
You’ll also find other ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable and soy protein (sometimes called soy protein isolate), whey protein (which is healthy if eaten from real whey, not the processed kind), rennet (which, if not animal-sourced – and there’s probably no way to tell if it is – can be derived from ingredients like soy), non-fat milk, skim milk, powdered milks or cheese, and even undesirable sweeteners like dextrose, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, agave nectar, or high fructose corn syrup.
Many products have ingredients containing soy, corn, wheat, or other highly allergenic and processed substances that are not easy to discern by reading. All products containing any type of grain, “granola”, muesli, or other similar substance – unless noted, are most likely extruded. These are not real foods. If you come across something like this, avoid it like the plague!
Unless the food has been made that day with freshly ground and soaked flour, for example, most of these kinds of foods go through a process called extrusion process whereby grains are forced through a little hole at high temperature and pressure. The process effectively strips nutrients out of the grains before they are put in the package and damages fragile proteins rendering them rancid. Then, the manufacturer adds synthetic nutrients back in to be able to claim the food has anything worthwhile in it. We all know synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t something your body knows how to use.
Consuming extruded foods not only fails to provide the nutrition claimed on the label, it also contributes to nutritional deficiencies where minerals are leached from the body. Read more about why processed grains actually leach vitamins and minerals from the body in What Are Sprouted and Soaked Grains?
Is it healthier because it’s organic? Unfortunately, that probably isn’t the case. Organic milk, by organic standards, may not contain growth hormones, antibiotics, nor genetically-modified ingredients. However, at the very minimum, almost all milk sold in commercial environments is pasteurized, which destroys the valuable lactase enzyme, among others, and renders the milk indigestible to humans. Lactase is one of the main enzymes necessary for digestion of proteins and fats in milk. Many organic milks are ultra-high temperature pasteurized (usually labeled as UHT), which destroys even more of the essential bacteria critical to the digestion and absorption process.
Lactose-intolerance? If you or someone you know is “lactose-intolerant”, it may be from consuming pasteurized milk. My son and husband were both diagnosed with a dairy “allergy” some years ago. My husband had congestion every day of his life for over 15 years. When he stopped consuming pasteurized dairy, his allergies went away. When we started consuming raw milk and other dairy, we have never had any issues whatsoever. For more information on the health benefits of drinking raw milk and consuming raw milk products, read The Truth About Raw Milk, Part I and Part II.
People can still have lactose intolerance or problems that result from consuming pasteurized dairy. They may not realize the connection between a symptom they believe to be “normal” and consumption of pasteurized dairy, or simply may not associate the symptom with that activity at all.
How pasteurization destroys nutrients High heat temperatures applied to milk actually completely destroy or denature important vitamins like A and D, and can remove around 38 percent of B vitamin content. Heat also weakens or destroys Vitamin C. The enzyme phosphatase, necessary for absorbing calcium, is also destroyed. It changes or destroys many amino acids, reducing the digestibility of milk protein by about 17 percent. These modifications of the milk protein are responsible for causing an immune response. This response by the immune system causes allergies and digestive difficulties. It also contributes to many other health issues from eczema to osteoporosis to heart disease.
Milk naturally contains beneficial bacteria or probiotics necessary for digestion and health. When milk is heated, these beneficial bacteria also become denatured. This bacteria aids in keeping milk from going sour too soon. That’s why when raw milk finally does go sour, it is still a living food that can be used for all sorts of purposes – cooking, buttermilk, yogurt, clabbered milk, cheese, and the list goes on. If you drink pasteurized milk past the date on the label, it will be completely rancid.
And now, milks are not the only foods that are pasteurized – nuts, juices, pickles, and some canned foods as well. Pasteurization is an affect of our modern society’s need to control “bad” bacteria by heating up and “sanitizing” everything and anything possible. The bottom line is, this process removes all bacteria and leaves you with nothing except dead bacteria and no nutrition. Read more from Lori Lipinski, Ph.D, CCN, CHN who explains why pasteurization denatures nutrients in milk.
Homogenization In this process, fat particles are broken down into even smaller pieces to allow them to be suspended. That’s why you don’t see the fat in homogenized milk – it’s been broken down by this process. Then, when the pasteurization occurs and the milk is heated, the fat becomes oxidized. Oxidized fat is rancid fat. Consuming rancid fats contributes to health problems like weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
What the cattle are fed Even organic milk often comes from cows on feedlots who are still eating grain, soy, and/or corn. The practice of feeding these substances fattens the animals up quickly, but they are not natural feed for cattle, who are ruminants and should be on pasture most of the time. Cattle that regularly consume something besides grass and pasture plants develop health problems which start in the gut. Corn, soy, and grain contribute to a variety of issues that make the digestive tract acidic and adversely affects the overall health of the cow and its milk.
For more information on real milk and the benefits of consuming it, visit the Real Milk site.
Meats and dairy products
In the past, organic did not specifically mean meat and dairy products were 100 percent grass-fed, pasture-raised, or humanely-raised. Organic meats and dairy products could still have originated from feedlots, as long as the animals or birds had outdoor “access”, which was vague.
For years, the organic label has meant only that animals raised for food could not be fed genetically-modified organisms, or administered hormones or antibiotics. Fortunately, things are starting to change. According to the Organic Consumers Association, organic milk will now be required to originate from cows on pasture eating grass, engaging in natural behavior and getting access to sunshine.
“We’ve been trying to get the pasture rule clarified and educate consumers about the organic frauds going on,” said Honor Schauland, campaign assistant at the Organic Consumers Association. “This is a big victory for us.”
This occurrence comes after a five-year consultation process and over 25,000 comments submitted by farmers, retailers and trade associations. New regulation laws now require access for dairy cows to grass for a minimum of 120 days during grazing season. Previously, the language stated it had to be merely “access to pasture”.
“There’s no longer this gray area of ‘what is the requirement’,” Schauland said. “The next step is enforcement.” While this change is definitely a move in the right direction, this is still not the most ideal situation available for animals being bred for meat and to produce milk. Why not allow the animals access to pasture most of the time, weather permitting, to allow for healthier conditions and consequently, healthier meat and milk?
However, because labeling is still vague and conditions where animals are raised are largely unknown when you buy meat and milk from somewhere you don’t know much about, the best solution is to know your farmer and buy meat and milk locally.
Canned, packaged, bottled, and frozen foods
These foods are what I would call a gray area because depending on what you are buying, they are processed to a certain extent. Canned “meals” like soups, broths, boxed macaroni and cheese, salad dressings, syrups, mayonnaise, frozen dinners or breakfasts, side dishes, burritos, breakfast sandwiches, pizzas, and any other prepared food should always be suspect. At the very least, even if you recognize all the ingredients, many canned and other packaged foods are processed with high heat which destroys nutrients. I watched an episode of “How It’s Made” on cable television about a year ago where Amy’s Organic soups were being made. All the soups are cooked in the cans in the process line! So if you buy any soup from the store, there is a possibility that it’s been cooked in the aluminum can it is sold in. With Amy’s, it’s not just a possibility as I watched this happen with my own eyes. Yikes.
Vegetables, fruits, jams, sauces, legumes and other foods in cans or packages are also somewhat of a gray area. Many of these products, although organic, may have had something added that is not natural. To make certain they are just the whole food and nothing else, you have to check the label.
Many canned, jarred, and other types of packaging contain the chemical Bisphenol A – a hormone-like chemical that acts as a xeno or false estrogen – and therefore are subject to the contents being leached with this dangerous chemical. Adding additional estrogen to your body from an artificial source contributes to disease and illness – especially the development of cancer:
According to Greenhouse from USA Today, “Research has linked the chemical to cancer, heart disease, Type-II diabetes, obesity, sexual dysfunction and early-onset puberty. FDA officials said they are especially concerned about its developmental impact on fetuses, infants and young children.”
“BPA, used to harden plastics, leaches from containers into food and drinks, even cold ones. It’s so ubiquitous that more than 90% of Americans have traces of it in their urine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Liz Szabo, a reporter from USA Today said that FDA said it has “some concerns” about health effects and “encouraged people to limit their exposure”.
Food in jars can also be sealed with BPA in the lid, so those are not always safe solutions. The only company I know of that doesn’t use BPA in their cans is Eden Organic. However, many companies have replaced toxic BPA containers with other estrogen-inducing chemicals, often which are some type of petroleum-based ingredients. Read more from the Center for Environmental Health.
Frozen foods can be an okay way to go as long as the food is just food, and no additives or preservatives.Check labels! Organic frozen food won’t contain pesticides or other chemicals, but can be more expensive and sometimes may have questionable packaging (again, think BPA). So look for sales, and also check the Dirty Dozen list to find out which produce should be bought organic and which are less critical.
What about truly organic foods with no preservatives, chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or anything harmful?
I’ve looked at a lot of different brands of organic packaged foods including Amy’s, Cedarlane, Nature’s Path, Newman’s Own, Earth’s Best, Cascadian Farm, Walnut Acres, Eden Organic, Ezekiel grain products, and many others. These foods may be somewhat less toxic than their conventional counterparts in varying degrees. To know the net load of your purchase, you must know the real expense of buying any processed food – which comes down to the following:
- the upfront cost you pay at the store
- the quality of the food you are getting versus what it does for your health
- the after cost of the product – how it affects your health and how much it costs to dispose of the packaging
The cost of how it impacts health down the road and cost of disposal of packaging is critical. To me, those are the real determinants of the effect the product in question has on your pocketbook, well-being, and the planet. Remember that even foods that are completely healthy on the label may have some ingredients you really don’t know anything about, as well as the packaging may be toxic in more ways than one.
Impact on the environment
It may seem as though organic foods have less impact on the environment than conventional, and in general that is true. However, when you support the processed food industry, you are really just helping to contribute to more pollution and toxicity. Processed organic foods have to be packaged and sold in boxes, cans, plastic, and other containers – some of which just end up in landfills and pollute our soil, water, and air.
Those same packages also require transportation dollars and create emissions and pollution to be shipped all over the world. So that means the use of more petroleum and other forms of energy expended to bring those products to their destination.
Recycling helps these issues, but in my opinion reducing your overall use of containers that cannot be recycled, those which have a long disintegration cycle, and those that don’t get recycled has a better overall impact. Avoiding processed foods as much as possible, whether organic or conventional, will reduce the overall toxic load of our planet.
Visit the EPA Waste site for What you Can Do to learn more ideas about reducing the amount of waste you and your family produce.
What’s really in your organic food?
Even if your food is truly sustainable and organic, you are not getting benefit from your food without the all-important presence of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Dr. Weston A. Price who traveled the world in the 1930s to various locations discovered that all healthy populations had something specific in common. They consumed these nutrients in significantly higher amounts than those living in developed countries such as the U.S. – in some cases, TEN times the amount.
This means that the foods those people consumed were high in real fats – raw dairy foods like butter, milk, and cream from pasture-raised cattle, fish roe (eggs), animal fats such as lard, tallow (beef fat), chicken, and others, organ meats, cod liver oil, egg yolks from hens raised in the open and eating a natural diet, seafood, and grass and pasture raised meats and poultry.
These foods have not only sustained but allowed civilizations to thrive and have robust health. These foods support conception, pregnancy, and nursing mothers, and also their unborn fetuses and children.
Today, the emphasis on health that comes from nearly all angles is on processed, low-fat foods. When you lose the fat, you lose nutrients. The result is decline in health and chronic disease.
Although the label on a product claims organic, it won’t support wellness unless you include with regularity these critical components of overall health – nutrients that support digestion, immunity, reproductive, excretory and detoxification, circulatory, pulmonary, endocrine (hormonal), brain and nervous system health; these essential fat-soluble vitamins that Dr. Weston A. Price discovered in all healthy populations worldwide.
Because many foods labeled organic do not meet the kind of standards you would expect, the best policy is to avoid processed foods as much as possible and buy food in the most whole form available. This means making efforts to buy your food direct from the source whenever you are able.
Other healthy choices include foods that are produced sustainably without chemicals, hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics. You can find good choices in this category by knowing where your food comes from and how the farmer or food producer uses farming practices. If you are buying something that is not local and you’ve checked the ingredients, the best thing to do is some research by contacting the company or food producer where the food is made if you want to be assured the food is safe and nutritious to eat. You can also find out about packaging and materials used to package your food.
To review, here’s how to make sure what you are eating is safe and healthy:
- Learn about where your food comes from – for more information, read How Well Do You Know Your Food? Find Out!
- Support local agriculture and farming efforts by looking on the Internet, Craigslist, and checking out your local farmer’s market
- Avoid packaged and processed foods to save money and health – read Reading Labels in The Store – Don’t Be Fooled By Marketing Lingo!
- If you aren’t doing so already, learn to cook and make foods at home from scratch so you know what you are putting in
- Make a food budget – use creativity and prioritize to save money on healthy food; create schedules and plan your cooking and food preparations
- Embrace and perfect your home-keeping skills
- Use networking and resource opportunities with others – in real life and on the Internet – to make this process easier. Start a blog or get on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. You can find like-minded people on these sites to help find the things you are looking for.
- Learn to can and jar fresh foods for later use in winter months. Check out Marisa’s site – an excellent resource for this process!
- Plant a garden or plants in pots to enable yourself to save money on food, or get involved in a local garden effort in your area
- Start a compost bin to enable your garden to produce healthier food
This article appeared in its original form on Agriculture Society, Heal Your Gut With Food’s sister site, in April of 2010.