Organic: Healthful or Hype?

Bunny_Fruit_Snacks

It usually doesn’t take the processed food industry long to trip to a trend.

When the first rumblings were heard about cholesterol being a bad substance, the market was flooded with products proudly proclaiming their cholesterol-freeness. It didn’t matter if the product was an apple, a banana, a nut or a grain, it was advertised as cholesterol free. Which was kind of ridiculous since no plant food of any kind contains cholesterol. Plants can’t make cholesterol, so they are all cholesterol free. But it made the sellers of these products appear to have done something special to create a cholesterol-free apple. I mean why buy an unlabeled apple when you could have a cholesterol-free one for just a few pennies more.

Then came fat free. Back a few years ago, I saw a bottle of soda with a label proclaiming that it contained no fat and no cholesterol. Really? Have soft drinks ever come with fat and cholesterol?

Not too long ago, we started seeing labels telling us the product inside contained no trans fats. We never saw these labels, of course, until after the news started circulating about what bad actors trans fats are.

Now we are in the throes of gluten-free mania. I’ve seen meats and nuts and all kinds of things that have never had gluten in them since the beginning of time labeled as gluten free.  Plants don’t make cholesterol and animals don’t make gluten.

But the granddaddy of them all as far as wholesome labeling is concerned has got to be “organic.”

I know there are all kinds of regulations as to what makes a product legitimately qualified to be labeled “organic.” And by and large I would prefer an organic product over a conventionally-grown product as long as the expense difference wasn’t too great. There is just so much I’m willing to pay for wholesomeness.

My gripe with the term “organic” is that in the minds of many, probably most, it equates with good.

Sugar is bad, but organic pure cane sugar is okay because it is, well, organic. It doesn’t matter that plain old sugar is also pure cane sugar – it’s not organic.

So people will pay more to kill themselves with organic pure cane sugar than they will to do the deed with ordinary pure cane sugar.

If something is bad for you, it’s bad for you whether it’s organic or not. And therein lies the problem.

Marketers have discovered the magic of the word “organic.” A busy mom out shopping for a passel of kids scans the snack shelves at the grocery store and her eyes are drawn to the ones screaming “organic.” It’s the halo effect. Instead of feeling guilty because she’s buying snacks, she feels absolved because, after all, they are organic.

So, food manufacturers say, Let’s spend a few cents more on organic ingredients for our junk food, label it “organic,” charge 25 cents more for it and watch if fly off the shelves.

Bunny_Fruit_Snacks_frontI’m on a rant about this because I happened to be in the pantry of some well-to-do friends of ours who have toddlers. I noticed a ton of snacks, all labeled organic, of course, and a giant bag of little packets of the candies pictured at the top of this post.

I pocketed one of the little packets for later examination.

The entire branding of the packets oozes sincerity and goodness. Everything from the name of the company with the sub tag “Homegrown” (flanked by tiny ears of wheat) to the little rabbit in the circle.

You can also see that there are no artificial flavors, synthetic colors or preservatives!

The candies (since when is a candy homegrown?) are called Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks, Summer Strawberry.

To a shopper, the only offensive thing on the entire front of the label is the word “snacks.” And that’s only because we’ve all heard that people snack too much, which, so we’ve also heard, is a major cause of obesity. But the word “snacks” is surrounded by all kinds of wholesomeness-conveying words: Bunny, fruit, summer strawberry. And even natural strawberry flavors, to boot. It’s a pastiche of marketing genius.

(Know what “natural” strawberry flavors are? Food technologists long ago figured out how to extract the specific taste molecules out of just about everything that tastes good. They’ve discovered the molecular structure so they can be reproduced in large quantities. But even though these molecules are the exact same molecules that create the taste of, say, strawberries, they can’t be labeled as “natural flavors.” To be legally allowed to label as “natural flavors,” the same molecules have to be actually extracted from strawberries. Which are, of course, the exact same molecules made industrially, but much more expensive. So if you want to label your product as containing natural flavors, you’ve got to pay for it. But all you really get is the ability to put “natural flavors” on the label. The product is no different than had the flavor molecules been created from scratch. It just costs more.)

So goodness and healthfulness practically jump off the front of this package. When we turn it over, what do we find?

Bunny_Fruit_Snacks_back

Well, the ingredients, which aren’t even just listed as ingredients but as Best Ingredients, are:

Organic tapioca syrup
Organic cane sugar (they missed the chance to make it organic pure cane sugar)
Organic tapioca syrup solids
Organic white grape juice concentrate
Pectin, citric acid, and all the rest.

The first four ingredients are all various forms of highly concentrated carbs or outright sugars.

This little packet of snacks, the contents of which you see in its entirety at the top of this post, contain 18 grams of refined carb, including 10 grams of sugar. 18 grams of highly refined carbs equates to 3.6 teaspoons of sugar. The entire blood volume of an adult contains about a teaspoon of sugar; that of a toddler much less. So the metabolisms of toddlers throwing back just one of these packets (and who eats just one?) must deal with about four times the amount of sugar than their blood can normally accommodate.

If you look at the rest of the ingredients, you will see that despite its name being Bunny Fruit Snacks Summer Strawberry, there is not a strawberry anywhere near it. The only strawberry falls under the rubric “Natural Flavors” and is the molecule or molecules giving strawberries their taste that has been extracted from strawberries.

So these are not fruit snacks, they are basically little lumps of strawberry-flavored sugar.

But they’re organic.

And that’s the problem. The mother who purchased these snacks by the giant bagful is a good mom. She is totally conscientious, watches her kids sugar intake and would never, ever purchase a product called strawberry flavored sugar. But she bought these because she was seduced by the term “organic.”

Which is what the video on the manufacturer’s site wants its customers to think: I love you and I care about your health.

How could anything organic be bad?

That’s the point. You’ve got to be as careful purchasing products labeled “organic” as you are with any non-organic consumables.

Oh, and if you go to this company’s website, you’ll find all kinds of pictures of barns, fields, blue skies, rosy-cheeked kids, ruddy farmworkers, and other outdoorsy goodness. If you click some of the tabs, you’ll find verbiage that ranges from the treacly to the outright nauseating about how concerned these folks are about the planet, their customers and the integrity of their products.

If you dig a little deeper and click on the Investor Relations link in the lower left, you’ll find the company is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has revenues approaching $200 million per year, hardly the little farming operation the rest of the website would have you believe it is.

Not that there is anything wrong with a business being big and being on the New York Stock Exchange. I would love it if our sous vide business reached those levels and our company made it on the NYSE.

The point of this post isn’t to bash this company; it is just marketing its products to the best of its ability. And it is certainly far from the only one doing the same thing.

The point, I guess, is just a rant about the halo effect associated with the term “organic” and a cautionary tale about how someone else got sucked in. Not that readers of this blog would ever fall for that.  But you may know someone who might, so feel free to pass this post along.

Caveat emptor!

If you’ve got any particularly egregious samples of organic labeling, post them in the comments so we can all enjoy them.

 

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107 thoughts on “Organic: Healthful or Hype?

      • Much white sugar (and hence brown sugar made by the bizarre but common method of adding molasses back to white sugar) gets white by charcoal filtering. Bone charcoal. Almost none of that charcoal makes it into the sugar, but dead animals were involved so it’s not considered vegan.

        The lure of “organic” and “health food” labels is strong! Thirty years ago in grad school I spiked my blood sugar (type 1 diabetic) all too often with whole-wheat organic croissants, heavy but tasty, from the little health food store on that side of campus. Took a while for it to register why my blood sugar got so high…

      • Cane sugar can be non-vegan simply because some of the refining processes use charcoal, which tends to be bone char. Vegan-friendly cane sugar is refined using plant-based charcoals.

      • Actually, long time ago sugar was considered a product non-appropriate for the Orthodox christian fast because back then beef bones were used during the sugar purification, so people though honey was less sinful. I know that nobody cares about such nitpicking, just decided to give an example that a religious approach may always provide with an explanation why some food is bad for an odd reason.

      • Vegan horticulture refers to using a non-animal derived fertilizer. In the case of organic (veganic), vegan means using things like straw, wood ash, rock phosphate, cover crops, and things of that nature as the nutrient source.

  1. Got a local “health store”, it’s a charming little rustic shop run by volunteers in an old stone cottage – on the surface it looks great, of course I don’t consider anything they sell to be food but hey…

    Anyhoo, all their labels are hand-written, and EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. has “organic” written in front of it. After a while browsing through there (my gf eats a bunch of that stuff) the word organic just seems surreal – organic organic organic organic – I think there’s a term for it when a word when oft-repeated becomes weird.

    Didn’t find any organic arsenic or organic strychnine, will have to try another health food store because surely if they’re organic they’re healthy…

    • Saw Jasmine rice from Thailand and Forbidden Black rice, Bhutanese Red rice, etc. all labeled organic…. how does the consumer know for sure that thes are indeed farmed in the way we think is “orgainc/”

      • I have no idea. There is a lot of hanky panky that goes on in labeling. I don’t think the downside is very bad when someone mislabels. This miscreant is simply ordered to make it right, and is usually allowed to use the old labels until they run out. At least that’s my understanding. Which is why it always pays to be wary of labels.

      • Re labeling: I once bought some pressed coconut. The label said it had a certain small amount of cholesterol. Huh? Plants don’t have cholesterol. It was made in Thailand or somewhere in Asia, and I wondered if they’d cut the coconut with lard or something, although pork fat would probably be more valuable than coconut.

        You’re not required to list an ingredient if it’s under X%.

        Whatever, I didn’t buy it again.

    • Hey Michael–

      Good to hear from you.

      This is a strange one. Elemental nutrients come in two forms: an inorganic salt or a chelated version. The chelated version has an acid hooked on to it to make absorption better. The inorganic version doesn’t absorb nearly as well and competes with other minerals. So, for instance, if you take a bunch of inorganic zinc, it will reduce your absorption of copper and can actually lead to a copper deficiency. By adding the chelating agent onto the inorganic molecule, the way the element is absorbed doesn’t compete. So you can’t get deficient in one elemental nutrient if you take a lot of another one in the chelated form.

      This iron supplement you linked to is a chelated iron. What the sellers have done is basically say, Well, if it isn’t inorganic iron, it must be organic iron. And so labeled it that way. So a buyer evaluation iron supplements would probably go for the organic over on that just said iron.

  2. One of my pet peeves is organic bacon labeled “no nitrites added”; they use organic celery juice, which is chock full of nitrite.

    http://www.sausagemaker.com/11080celeryjuicepowder.aspx

    My coop sells Applegate bacon, and I asked that they educate people about what they’re getting. Of course they didn’t, just as they didn’t tell people that Agave syrup is mostly fructose. They both sell well.

  3. Man, is it ever nice to have you back firing on all cylinders! Insofar as the labels go, especially the “organic” ones, one must not forget that the companies that rake in the money from these products aim their wares at a large population group. Statistically at least, 50% of the population is below average intelligence; they just don’t realize it.

    • In the case of organic, I would bet the marketers are going for consumers in the upper 50 percent of intelligence. I would imagine not particularly intelligent people would care much about what they ate, and would purchase based on flavor and cost.

    • Not quite a true statement. You’re looking for median, not average. If your population consists of nine people of IQ 100 and one of IQ 110, the average IQ is 101, and 90% of the population is below average. If there are nine people of IQ 100 and one of IQ 90, the average IQ is 99 and 90% are above average. Outliers distort the curve.

      median: relating to or constituting the middle value of an
      ordered set of values (or the average of the middle two
      in a set with an even number of values)

      cheers,

      gary

    • Don’t think I’m defending the mass consumption of MSG, but I’m not really sure how citric acid (2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid) can be a code term for MSG (monosodium glutamate) since they don’t seem to have much in common and serve different purposes in the food industry.

      Citric acid is used to lower the pH of foods to reach safety levels required by the food type, or to mimic the tangy flavor in cheap summer sausage normally produced by lactic acid fermentation in cured meats. Probably originally isolated from citrus fruits.

      MSG is a salt/amino acid combo that enhances the other flavors in a food (makes sausage taste…sausagier) when it hits the salt sensor of your tongue. It was originally isolated from seaweed, and naturally occuring glutamate is why some foods are extra savory like cooked mushrooms and fish sauces.

      • Sorry, I’m not a chemist, but do read a lot blogs. The first time I read about citric acid being a code word for MSG was in an Autism Blog. Mom,a phd. chemist discovered that her 3 year daughter’s autism went into remission when all glutamate/msg was removed from her child’s diet. Sorry I can’t find my bookmark for that blog, but a google search did uncover blogger saying citric acid was another name for MSG. http://lifespa.com/sneaky-names-for-msg-check-your-labels/ .

        I am MSG sensitive. My wife is Vietnamese and an excellent cook sometimes she forgets and adds a chicken broth flavoring to food. My heart rate jumps to 125 or more and my blood pressure drops (I feel like crap). Some bacons and other processed meats have citric acid on the label which I try to avoid. I don’t think citric acid corn should be on or in an organic product.

        • Here’s something from Weston Price that explains the confusion about citric acid, which is not a “code word” for MSG. It’s that in the manufacture of citric acid, some glutamic acid (glutamate) remains:

          “Citric acid” is produced by fermentation of crude sugars. When “citric acid” is produced from corn, manufacturers do not take the time or undertake the expense to remove all corn protein. During processing, the remaining protein is hydrolyzed, resulting in some processed free glutamic acid (MSG). “Citric acid” may also interacts with any protein in the food to which it is added, freeing up more glutamic acid.

          “A visit to the grocery store to read labels will quickly demonstrate that “citric acid” is being widely used in processed foods. Its use appears to be increasing and, as this occurs, it appears that, based on interactions with MSG-sensitive individuals, more and more MSG-sensitive people are reacting to “citric acid.” Its uses in food include flavoring, balancing of acid-alkalinity levels, as a preservative, as a firming agent and as an antibacterial agent. Consumers will find no reference to the presence of free glutamic acid on the labels of foods that contain “citric acid.”

  4. Heh. I’ve seen lots of ingredient lists like that , where every ingredient has the word “organic” before it.

    For now, I’m going to abstain from criticizing companies for labeling foods “gluten-free,” just because wheat flour has been added to so many foods where you wouldn’t expect it. Shredded cheese, some versions of Uncle Ben’s rice (ilttle grains of orzo pasta are added to the rice) are a few examples.

    • This is a case in which the labeling is actually accurate. Problem with the word organic is that it means two different things. One meaning is that foods labeled “organic” have been grown in a way that doesn’t use certain fertilizers and pesticides. The other meaning of organic involves the chemical structure of molecules. Organic chemistry is the study of hydrocarbons. Gasoline is a hydrocarbon and is, therefore, organic. It terms of chemical nomenclature. Most of the compounds in living things are organic, which is why a pre-med requisite course is the much dreaded organic chemistry, the study of how these “organic” hydrocarbobs bond and act.

      In the case of pesticides, organic pesticides can be those that are hydrocarbons. They’re not organic in the sense I was talking about in the post.

      Or they could be herbal or botanical pesticides that are acceptable for use in organic farming. In this later case, it’s probably legitimate to call them organic pesticides.

  5. Having spent most of my working life in farming or in the food industry you can assume food companies and farmers are followers in trends not trendsetters. I was responsible for growing organic popcorn for a leading brand and while we accomplished our task we hated it. The growers were horrendous in their practices (organic though) and working with them was like meeting aging stoners who now have flashbacks mixed with dementia! Consumers are like sheep. You are spot on with the organic=good for you. Not sure when or how we will get the LCHF trend started but for society’s sake I hope it’s soon!

  6. Question — if kids are going to eat sugary snacks, aren’t organic sugary snacks without preservatives, dyes, etc. better than the stuff with these chemicals?

    • Yes. I was hoping I made that point in the post. But maybe I didn’t. Absolutely. If they are going to eat sugary crap, it would be much better sugary crap if it didn’t contain dyes, preservatives, etc. The case I was trying to make is that many parents see the logo “organic” and just assume whatever is labeled thusly is good irrespective of what it really is.

  7. As a parent of a toddler as well as reader of your blog, I loved this post. When my daughter started on solid foods, I was absolutely flabbergasted to see the sugar content of nearly all prepackaged baby foods – over 20 grams of sugar in some of them! And these were in the baby food meant for babies from 6 months – 1 year. That’s an obscene amount of sugar for a person weighing less than 20 lbs! None of it was added sugars, to give them credit, but what really bugged me was that you can hardly find pre-made baby food without massive quantities of apple or pear juice in them. Even the ones that look like they are vegetable based still have apple or pear juice as the first ingredient, and sometimes both as the first two. Many of my parent friends try to tell me that as long as sugar isn’t added in addition to the fruits (i.e. all the sugar comes from the fruit juice) then the foods are ok for their kids. The baby foods are bad, and as you’ve pointed out, the toddler snacks are as bad or worse. When in a hurry, I’ve fallen into the trap of buying the sugary organic snacks for my daughter, then upon getting them home and realizing the sugar content, I’ve hid them or given them away. Not only are they bad for health, I can’t believe parents don’t see the correlation between huge amounts of sugar and a subsequent energy and mood crash in their kids. The experience of a crashing toddler alone should be enough to make them get rid of the snacks! Thanks for a great post that I will share with friends.

    • Thanks for the comment. You’ve summarized the situation well.

      An interesting story re the apple and pear juice…

      When we were getting our sous vide company going in the early days, a consultant we hired worked on the first of the mega-juicers that came out 20 or so years ago. The Juiceman, I think it was. He told me that they were trying to create recipe booklets to sell along with the juicers. They would spend hours mixing various vegetables and fruits together to see how they came out when juiced, with the goal of finding offbeat combinations that were tasty. What they discovered was that you could basically throw anything together and it would taste fine as long as you added either pineapple or apple to the mix. Of course, both of those fruits are high in sugar, which makes anything taste better. So they wrote the recipe books and had all these weird food combos all mixed with apples or pineapples.

      Which is why the baby food manufacturers do essentially the same thing. If they make it sweet, the little buggers will eat it all. And them Mom will buy more.

  8. “Organic” is one of my major pet peeves as well. Last night I was offered organic salmon! Thank goodness, because the inorganic (silicon-based?) variety is hard on the teeth. The fact is, all foods are organic, by definition. Duh.

    My other favorite is “natural”. Whenever a patient insists on a “natural” remedy for whatever ails him/her, I point out the arsenic, cyanide, and monosodium glutamate are all quite natural!

    Mike, I thoroughly enjoy your blog. You may remember, we had dinner once, many moons ago, when you were here in NJ on business.
    All the best,
    –Joe

    • Hey Joe Eastern (like the airline)

      I do remember. And I’ve never used the term shrimp scampi again since you schooled me on it. It has now been relegated to the Department of Redundancy Department.

      Great to hear from you.

      MD says Hi.

      • OMG, you do remember! I’ve been very careful with “like” vs. “as” since then as well.

        Tell MD “hi back” — and Robin sends her best regards.

        If you’re ever in the area, it would be great to see you folks again. You have my e-mail!

        • You’ll no doubt be pleased to learn that I read all the articles on organization you wrote for some journal. And I saved them, in fact. But, as with some many people on diets, I backslid to my former cluttered ways and couldn’t find them if I tried.

          If we’re in NJ, we’ll let you know.

          We’re going to be in NYC sometime in March. MD has a gig singing at Avery Fisher Hall. Maybe we can get together then.

  9. You do know that most organic processed foods are not organic. Most large companies are able to obtain waivers for their products which still allow use of the organic label.

  10. Hi Mike –

    You said:

    “The entire blood volume of an adult contains about a teaspoon of sugar; that of a toddler much less. So the metabolisms of toddlers throwing back just one of these packets (and who eats just one?) must deal with about four times the amount of sugar than their blood can normally accommodate.”

    Dr. Paul Jaminet of the Perfect Health Diet claims that no matter how much sugar/carbs you eat (so long as you are not diabetic), it will have no adverse effect whatsoever on your blood glucose levels as your body keeps BG tightly regulated.

    I think what he is suggesting is that a person with a healthy working hormonal system will not be adversely affected.

    Do you agree?

    • I do agree to a point. If, and it’s a big if, the metabolism is working fine, then people can indeed go face down in the carbs without consequence. But sooner or later such behavior damages the metabolic machinery and starts to make people insulin resistant. It’s a well known fact, shown in many studies, that people become more glucose intolerant as they age. In my view, overconsuming carbs accelerates the process.

      I’ve got a post in the works on this very subject that I hope to have up soon. Should answer all these questions.

      • You touch on the keypoint: over consumption of the carbs. a diet with some fruit some veggies and a little starch, a potato that fits in the palm of a hand with dinner, or a half cup of cooked rice not likely to cause derangement in the absence of the sugary junk all to typical in most American’s diets.
        I don’t count carbs, and the only one’s i get consist of 1/2 cup of berries in am with Fage yogurt several times a week, and a small potato or little rice. Hard to imagine this will lead me down the road of metabolic derangement. After all many cells in our body need 120G to 150G of glucose(red blood cells,etc). Don’t go above that amount and provided your healthy you should be ok
        As people age, not only can they be more sensitive to carbs, but decreased activity level further contributes to avoidable metabolic decline with aging.
        Excellent post.

      • Throughout my teens lived on sodas and pastries and chocolate and popcorn and fast food burgers and red meat. And I was ripped like a mofo.

        My metabolic machinery made a fairly sudden switch around age 22, stacked on 25kg of blubber in a matter of about 2 years – of course everyone told me it was just me not getting exercise and eating too much fatty meat.

        Took me until my early 30’s to correlate stretches of time when I’d basically go carnivore that I’d lose tons of weight and feel better all the time – of course I still had that dogma of the lipid hypothesis gnawing at me so I’d limit those periods to a couple weeks at a time just for the sake of shedding some flab.

        My saviour in the end was stumbling on the Bellevue papers on Stefansson after I decided once and for all to figure out whether my inclination toward carnivory was truly bad, that was my red pill and things all went great from there.

        • Not sure why anyone would believe Stefansson. He was a notorious liar, a deserter. The whole reason the Bellevue experiment was performed was because nobody believed him.

          Plus, none of the VLC gurus ever lived longer than him.

          William Banting (1796 – 1878 = 81 years)
          Dr. James Salisbury (1823 – 1905 = 82 years)
          Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879 – 1962 = 82 years : died of a stroke)
          Dr. Blake F. Donaldson (1893 – 1966 = 73 years : died of a heart attack)
          Dr. Irwin Maxwell Stillman (1896-1975 = 79 years : died of a heart attack)
          Dr. Alfred Pennington (1903 – 1959 = 56 years)
          Dr. Herman Taller (1906 – 1984 = 78 years)
          Dr. Richard Mackarness (1916 – 1996 = 80 years)
          Dr. Robert Atkins (1930 – 2003 = 72 years : died of complications from head injury)

          Dr. Wolfgang Lutz lived to 97 years old (1913 – 2010) but he wasn’t VLC as he targeted 72g of carbs—or the glycemic equivalent of 0.8 pounds of potatoes per day.

          • Do you have any firm evidence you would care to share to back up your statement: “The whole reason the Bellevue experiment was performed was because nobody really believed him.” I would truly be interested to see what you have. I can buy the notion that no one believed someone could live for a year on meat alone, but I’m not buying the notion that no one believed him as in they thought he was “a notorious liar.”

          • I’m not really interested in the longevity of any of these folk, it’s well known that Stefansson drifted back to a Western diet and lifestyle, knowing what’s good and doing it are two entirely different things.

            There’s plenty of criticisms levelled against him here if anyone wants:

            http://www.rawpaleodiet.com/review-of-not-by-bread-alone-by-vilhjalmur-stefansson/

            Though the bias against anyone who thinks that eating cooked food is anywhere within the same realm of a hoighty-toighty “raw paleo” diet is pretty well set up there.

            Point is, Stef was just as good a storyteller as anthropologist and emergent dietetics researcher, and in his writings you’ll find a lot of speculation as to why something was – rather than what we have with diet gurus now who have access to unlimited “studies” that they can prove their existing bias with.

            I still go back and read “Adventures In Diet” a couple times a year, and each time am smacked upside the head at the fact this stuff is near a century old.

            http://highsteaks.com/carnivores-creed/vilhjalmur-stefansson/adventures-in-diet/

            Strip the datestamp from it and it’s still mostly relevant today – if anything even moreso, as now that we have “science” we’re even more sure that we need bread and veggies and fruits and litte meat for optimum health – oh, and supplements. Daily supplements.

      • I am reading a “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” , and it looks like that the diet high in sugar and refined carbs will affect a person even if he/she stays slim. Toddlers, for example, would develop dental arches degeneration, dental occlusions, and a tooth decay with a high probability.

  11. Whenever I see food labeled as “organic”, the biochemist in me immediately wants to know where the “inorganic” food is. 😉

    Here’s a hint, folks — “organic” means “contains a carbon atom”. Not only all foodstuffs, but also coal and petroleum are “organic”.

    There are now people who hawk “organic” fodder for livestock.

    I am sooooo tempted to start selling “organic coal” as a specialty product.

    PS. Arsenic is not organic, but strychnine is.

    • Interesting, this morning at the gym two elderly gentlemen were talking about raising hogs in their childhood. In those days, hogs were fed slop which was all the kitchen scraps, bath water, skimmed milk, rotten fruit etc. with corn or other grains which might be added. It was common for the pigs to escape their pens, and they would head straight for the coal pile and start eating. So maybe there’s something to that organic coal.

    • I read this paper long ago, and it kept me up at nights until I could finally figure out a way to test what he was saying. Turns out to be true.

      In fact, I searched around until I found Sir Edward Schafer’s book from the early 1900s The Endocrine Organs, which is now part of my collection of ancient medical books.

      Sonksen has a few other papers kicking around, but this is the most comprehensive one.

      it always intrigued me as to why a paper of this importance ended up being published in the British Journal of Anaesthesiology, a journal that is not widely read outside of the gild of anesthesiologists. Must mean Sonksen pissed off some mainstream folks or they didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

      • Yikes! Just read Sonksens’ paper. PhD in biochemistry, years of reseach in cell biology, PA-C degree and practice in internal medicine and nutrition only to now learn I likely never correctly understood insulin action. Ouch, that hurts! Where exactly is “evidence based medicine” taking us?

  12. I am sorry to say I think you are spitting in the wind!

    Until we can get “conscientious” and other, hey, ALL mothers to READ LABELS nothing will change. I cannot imagine anyone eating something without reading the label. I sometimes wish I were a chemist, because I don’t really even trust the labels, and would often like to see for myself without paying for a lab to assay.

    “Organic” is the new “Natural” and means just as much—basically NOTHING. “Organic” is the USDA’s Term of Art, legally reserved now–stripped of the original intention–for CRAP hidden under a glamour of goodness (http://blogs.usda.gov/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-the-usda-organic-label-means/)

    Until we can convince people to think for themselves and to realize that corporations do not ever have their best interest at heart (and do not have a responsibility to anything at all besides a monetary responsibility to their investors… but that’s another rant) nothing will change. BTW, same with most companies that are not corporations, and even individual manufacturers and sellers must be suspect until known and vetted by proper due diligence.

    It simply boggles the mind how naive most consumers… well, most people are… I have come to the conclusion it must be Willful Ignorance, it’s so pervasive, even among people who appear to be “well educated”.

  13. What you’re describing is the fact that even supposedly well educated and concerned parents don’t know the difference between real food and manufactured “food” products, because they are bamboozled by the organic label. They need to learn that real food rarely has a label. Why not give their toddler real organic fruit instead of candy with an organic label?

    One of the things we are trying to teach our kids is the “5 ingredient rule”. We don’t buy many things with a label, but ideally if there is a label. It should have 5 ingredients or less, the fewer the better. “Sardines packed in olive oil”, “raw almonds and salt” are fine. A label like the gummy snacks is not. The corollary to the 5 ingredient rule is that all of the ingredients must be recongnizable to my grandma (who would be well over 100 years old by now). She would have no idea what BHT and BHA are, unprounouncable betahydroxywhatsits, etc., so they are not OK in our food.

    Finally, if it says strawberry on the label on the front, it better list actual strawberry on the ingredient list. We’ve had numerous amusing dinner table discussions about how “natural flavorings” can mean natural beaver butt secretions.

    I know my kids may go from joking about beaver butt to a friend’s house to eat crap (and we won’t discuss the bucket of leftover Halloween candy they raid), but at least stuff like those snacks doesn’t make it’s way into my pantry and my kids do know what real food is.

  14. Agree with you completely on the organic label, but let’s not be too hasty on gluten-free labels. As someone with a gluten allergy, I know that nuts (while naturally gluten free) are frequently processed on equipment that also processes wheat. I check every label every time because I can’t count on manufacturers to maintain the gluten free status of foods that should never have anything to do with gluten.

  15. Hi Michael
    I’ve ranted about product claims for years, as I make “green” cleaners. a marketing term I have issues with yet am forced to use. I wrote a small book called “How to Kill your Cleaning Staff” that you can download on my web site. http://www.oillift.net.
    The whole idea is make fun of the product claims so people get it.
    I’m about to start upgrading the book, maybe you should write the forward.
    cheers
    Kevin Daum

  16. The sad thing is, I appreciate the gluten-free label on things I would never make with gluten, because so many manufacturers do. Sausage, broth, oat cereals, herbal teas, spice mixtures, dry-roasted nuts….

    As to organic sugar, the deli at my local health food store puts sugar into nearly everything, but calls it “organic dehydrated cane juice” or “Florida crystals”!

    • Interesting. And pretty much what I said except that the natural flavorings have to come from something natural. In this case, the packet says “Natural Flavors,” which means the flavoring agents had to come from some natural source instead of being synthesized. What I didn’t realize until reading this article is that “natural flavors” don’t have to come from whatever it is they’re flavoring. In this case the strawberry flavor could come from the bark of some tree that produces the same molecule that gives strawberries their flavor.

      I’m assuming that if the label reads “natural strawberry flavor,” the flavor molecule would have to come from strawberries, though I don’t know for sure. In this case, I got duped by assuming the “Natural Flavors” came from strawberries since the product was sold as a strawberry snack. But according to the Scientific American article in your link, it could have come from anywhere.

      • Givaudan, the largest flavor and fragrance company in the world, was featured in a 60 Minute segment a couple of years ago. It gives some unusual insight into “natural flavors.” This program is on this site”
        http://foodbabe.com/2011/12/01/chemical-warfare-with-natural-flavor/

        Having worked in the flavor industry for over 20 years, I can assure you that natural strawberry flavors contain little or nothing that actually came from strawberries. All the “natural” aroma chemicals had to be extracted from natural sources, but berries actually have only a delicate rather weak flavor and contain no essential oils. Before natural aroma chemicals were developed, natural flavors had to use concentrated fruits essences which were very expensive and only available in limited quantities. As grown in nature is always superior, even if our taste buds are easily fooled!

      • I think perhaps this sort of labelling is clearer in the UK. Here, if the label says ‘strawberry flavoured’ then the product is flavoured with real strawberries. If it says ‘strawberry flavour’ then it isn’t, it’s flavoured with chemicals. Very clear.
        Sadly, of course most people don’t know this…

  17. didn’t Annie’s get into the “news” recently, because their so-called “organic” mac&cheese actually contain GMOs? this company sure trades [pun intended] on catchwords, gimmicks and loopholes to make their JUNK FOOD sound like the real thing….

  18. Re the gluten-free label – my personal favorite is instant gluten-free mashed potatoes. I’m sure that lots of instant potato packages have wheat in them, but really? Is everyone so busy that peeling a few potatoes and cooking them is too much work? Wow! And you’re right – wheat’s in a ton of stuff. My cousin’s daughter was diagnosed as celiac at about 6 months. That’s when we all discovered that most frozen turkeys are “cured” in a wheat bath. Who knew? (Probably lots of people with celiac . . .)

    But hey – I’m happy that you’re fired up about all this – since it means more posts from you, which we all love seeing!!

  19. I once saw “unscented aroma therapy” while shopping at Whole Foods. Alas, it was in the days before cell phone cameras were common or I would have snapped a pic. I also once collected a hotel nightstand card that offered multiple types of pillows, including a “hyperallergenic” one. Oy, what’s that filled with then? Poison ivy leaves?

    Cheers, Dr. Eades, and welcome back to blogging. We missed you!

    • Thanks. It’s good to be missed, I guess.

      “Unscented aroma therapy.” That’s a great one – it would kind of seem to defeat the purpose. Now I’ll probably get a hundred comments from aroma therapists explaining it all to me.

  20. Dr. Eades, I am new to your site and cannot get enough of the old posts; new lunchtime addiction while eating LC. My question is about my husband: family with nightmare cardiac genes ( dad and 4 uncles with bypass by 50; two brothers with stent/bypass and one has had 2 subsequent strokes by age 50. These are not heavy guys; one ran marathons. My hubby is 5’7” and 150 trim lbs but on statin and metropolol. His brother with stents is now strict vegan, no oil. How can he survive with no intake of fats or oils? Wouldn’t skin dry up like an Aztec mummy? I work in neurology research ( ie lipophilic cell membranes, fat soluble vitamins etc) and do not understand how an MD could prescribe no fat allowance at all? What is their thinking?

  21. As someone currently living in Thailand I would advise to never believe any labeling from companies based here, especially not when it refers to ‘organic’ products.

    Labelling is not controlled or monitored by any regulatory body and to think any food crop is completely organic just because the label says so, is completely wishfull thinking. Especially rice!

    Money number one is the motto in Thailand, unfortunately, and with the current ‘rice pledging scheme’ fiasco going on here at the moment, where the government tried to game the international rice market prices by buying rice from farmers at massively inflated prices. Has resulted in years of stockpiled rice sitting in warehouses, untreated and unsold, being sprayed continously to prevent spoilage by bugs and mould. (So much so that even the farmers who grew it don’t want to eat it now!)

    This rice could well be labelled as organic and sold as such.

    The mentality here is profit at all costs. And if something works well with a little, a lot must be great!

    And so when it comes to spraying, food crops get multiple doses, in multiple combinations. illiterate farmers can’t read labels, mix pesticides together, or in wrong doses thinking ‘more is better’. The end goal is not clean, healthy or nutritious food, but profit. Pure and simple. Higer yields.

    I try to buy organic rice from Japan or a county that I trust to have tougher regulation for labelling. Not easy in a rice growing nation! But Thailand’s rice (even it’s high end marketed organic jasmine rice) I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

  22. I have some non-organic instant mashed potatoes in my cupboard. But the good news is they are gluten free! I shake my head every time I see the label!

  23. Dr Mike, have you ever heard of the company Isagenix? It’s catching up like fire in NY …..Its a multiple marketing nutritional cleansing co…and I signed up as associate but I actually like their whey protein shakes… Claims, the whey is imported from new zeland and the milk is from grass fed cows… A person who signed me up coaches more then 1000 people and is making six figure from home… I actually like the products… Got my fibromyalgia symptoms at bay… So far so good, and it’s definitely built on low carb mild ketosis approach… The weight loss program is basically two whey shakes with two 100 snacks in between followed by 400-600 cals dinner… But the kick to the weight loss comes from a product called Cleanse for life which is used for 48 hrs…. Can you please, please inquire if you haven’t heard ? I value your opinion and would love to know what you think? The creator of the program is John Anderson who is one of the best vitamins and botanical formularies in the world according to the company

    • I have an inherent bias against multi-level marking approaches to selling. I’m sure these products are fine, but I’m also sure they are overpriced, as is the case with just aboiut every product sold via multi-level marketing. I’m sure you could find comparable products at any health food store for a lesser price. The one thing you do get with the MLM model that you wouldn’t get just purchasing the stuff at the health food store is a support system. And if you need the support system, then the extra price you pay for MLM products may be worth it.

  24. If my memory is correct, it seems Annie’s started and ended up like Tom’s
    of Maine. A company is started by a person with good intentions, who only
    wants the best ingredients in their products. After a number of years and
    phenomenal growth, the company is bought out by a large corporation, whose only intention is to make money.

    I remember years ago (maybe 10 or so), the list of ingredients on Annie’s
    products could not be faulted for anything. Then one day about 2 or 3 years
    ago, I picked up a bottle of salad dressing which contained canola oil.
    Right then I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t believe that the
    original business owner would put a genetically modified oil in their
    salad dressing.

    If anyone knows that Annie’s changed ownership, please enlighten me.

    By the way, Tom’s of Maine was purchased by Colgate, with the stipulation
    by the original owner that the formula not be changed. And if you go into
    a large-chain grocery store, what you’ll mostly see are the fluoride-con-
    tining varieties (conspiracy?).

  25. As a dedicated label reader, I have found wheat in many products (including chicken broth) that you would never guess contained wheat!

  26. I’ve long had a similar complaint about people saying something was safe and good because it’s 100% all natural. I’ve even taken to retorting with, “cyanide is also 100% all natural but you won’t find me eating it on purpose”.

  27. @ Vadim,
    It’s true NZ cows are primarily grazed on pasture, but having spent a few months in NZ earlier this year, I left NZ with a strong impression not all is well with the NZ dairy industry.

    NZ’s milk production rate is kept extremely high, but at a high cost, primarily because most of the milk is processed into bulk cheese, whey products, and dry milk powder products. The NZ food supply is literally stuffed with dry milk powder – which I discovered much to my dismay while reading labels during my family’s 4 months in NZ. Excess milk production is also exported after processing (esp as EZ to store/transport milk powder). NZ is working overtime to convert the Chinese population into dairy consumers.

    What’s the problem with the excess milk production? NZ’s major food growing regions on the South Island have experienced drought conditions for several years. Cows, sheep, and other pasture grazers (farmed deer) require green pastures. The natural underground water supplies from glacier and mountain spring-fed aquifers are being drained faster than they are renewed to keep the dairy and sheep pastures continually irrigated during a long drought. It’s an unsustainable and risky production model, but it’s very profitable for just about everyone who handles dairy products (except the farmers, of course), at least in the short term.

  28. I’ve seen organic dehydrated cane juice on labels, and had to shake my head at their wording for sugar, but my personal favorite was the Live Granola Bars. Big sign for it. It kinda scared me – I was waiting for them to gang up and start jumping on customers. I took a wide berth around that corner.

  29. I took an organic chemistry class years ago, not sure the chemistry was healthier. In French it is even more horrible, as we used the world “biologique”, meaning “biologic” as you might have guessed. Didn’t know we were already at the stage of having synthetic meats and veggies.

    “Food technologists long ago figured out how to extract the specific taste molecules out of just about everything that tastes good”: however, do they get the right blending? Most candies and similar things with added flavors never really taste like the real thing. For instance, maple syrup flavor (the tastiest sweet flavor in the world, especially if it’s Canadian maple syrup (just kidding)) must be difficult to replicate because map-o-spread (fake maple butter) tastes nowhere near the original thing. I would however wager that natural flavors might be less pure and might contain a mixture of tasty oils instead of only the desired one, whereas a synthetic oil might contain other chemically derived oils (which have nothing to do with the natively-occurring enzyme-derived oils) from the synthesis process giving it a more off taste. Would need to hear from someone in the field.

    In the end, it is the ignorant people that pays more for random organic food while the smart people behind the company gets more money. I’m all for capitalism that promotes intelligence. In my opinion, this is quite different from the banks and other financial advisers that purposefully misguide their clients so they can milk more money out of them.

  30. I happened to see your post as it was posted on Facebook by one of my friends. I just wanted to say that I disagree with your statements regarding “gluten-free”. As the parent of a child with celiac disease, it frustrates at how much people do not understand the seriousness of the disease. Yes, we realize that meats, vegetables, nuts, etc. are naturally gluten free. However, my child loves cashews. She doesn’t get them often, but when she does we have to check and make sure they are clearly gluten free before we buy them. For those who don’t realize, to be truly gluten free the item not only has to not have wheat, rye or barley in it but, it also has to be processed in a plant and on equipment that has not had wheat, rye or barley on it. If you will check, there are many cans of cashews and other nuts that will clearly state that the items are processed on equipment with other items that have wheat in them. If my daughter eats these, she will be very, very sick. I am not just talking about nuts, but many other items as well. I realize that gluten-free is a buzz word right now, but it’s a serious, sometimes overwhelming concern for those who suffer with celiac and those living with celiac patients.

    • I agree with you re true celiac disease. It is a terrible burden for those who have it, and the least exposure to wheat can set off a dreadful reaction. Most people have no idea how little wheat it takes to be problematic.

      I do think it helpful when manufacturers declare when something normally gluten-free is processed in the same plant in which wheat, rye or barley have been processed.

      The point I was making was more about how different nutritional ideas trend, especially if food manufacturers can use them for marketing purposes. I can guarantee you that if the only people who cared about whether products were gluten free or not were those with true celiac disease, you would seldom see a product so labeled because, despite the severity of the disease, there just aren’t that many people affected. Since the publication of Wheat Belly and other books bashing grains and the growing popularity of the Paleo diet, a ton of people who don’t have true celiac disease are avoiding gluten. Enough to get the attention of the Big Food in a way that the small number of true celiacs couldn’t.

      • I so agree with Kara….. I have Celiac and also Microscopic Colitis and also had Cdiff for 5 months. I haven’t been able to leave the house for these past 5 months due to 7-10 bouts of severe diarrhea every day…. Unexpected, unstoppable, and unrelenting. I do not eat any of the GF foods as I don’t trust my health to promises of manufacturers of GF “foods.” As you suggest, Dr. Eades,the manufacturers of GF foods have hopped on the band wagon as they have spotted a trend that they can use for their profit. Therefore I eat foods that have less than 5 ingredients or are foods than I can picture. I can picture a carrot or eggs, but cannot picture “natural flavors” or chemicals.

  31. I have got to say that I am enjoying reading your blog. One of my pet peeves is organic. I have to say if we would all go back in time and start our own gardens which it seems the government wants to get involved with, we would not have to worry so much about store bought products. Organic products are very expensive for the average person today trying to feed a family. And juicing is very expensive. My father use to do it every morning and wow the food bill went up at least 50%. Unless you have some medical problem, in my humble opinion organic and juicing is silly. Just eat healthy and like my grandmother always said everything in moderation. She ate everything.. baked every Saturday and lived well into her 90’s.