Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Going "Organic" May Require A College Degree

One would think that when one reads a label of classification on how a food product is produced that what you read says it all.

Take, for example, the word "ORGANIC" on the package of something you are interested in eating ... what does it really mean?

In order to understand what one is really getting with this classification on the package, one needs to have a degree in law, agriculture, biochemistry, animal husbandry, cattle ranching, and who knows what else and by the time one understands what they are buying ... you've lost your appetite!

Excerpts from U.S.News & World Report -

The Green Invasion
By Betsy Querna - U.S.News & World Report - 6/12/06

Grocery shoppers across America have been witnessing a subtle but revolutionary change on store shelves. Organic products are popping up in the cereal aisle, amid rows of canned goods, and beside bottles of salad dressing. Though organic food has been around for decades, it used to be found mainly in specialty stores like Whole Foods or confined to a tiny corner in the produce section.

Today, most grocery stores stock big organic brands like Earthbound Farm. Wal-Mart plans to double its organic offerings this summer in some stores, and grocers like SuperValu and Safeway recently unveiled organic house brands. Major food companies have grabbed up organic brands. General Mills, for example, owns the organic brands Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Some food producers are even rolling out organic versions of existing products. You can now fill your cart with Ragu organic pasta sauce, Snyder's organic pretzels, Orville Redenbacher's organic butter popcorn, and later this summer, organic Kraft macaroni and cheese. "With Wal-Mart in the game and Safeway and just about everyone else, organic is at a tipping point," says Samuel Fromartz, author of the new book Organic, Inc. "It's really gone mainstream."

Getting specific. With so many more choices, consumers may wonder what they're really getting when they buy this newfangled organic food. Though the organic label is often perceived as synonymous with healthful, virtuous, or just plain better, organic has a specific definition, set in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after years of varying standards muddled its meaning. In a nutshell, organic produce cannot be grown with pesticides or most synthetic fertilizers, while animals must not be injected with antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic farms undergo a rigorous certification process and are inspected for compliance by an independent agent.


To earn the "100 percent organic" label under the USDA system, a food must contain only organically produced ingredients. Next in line is "organic," in which at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic. The other 5 percent must be an approved ingredient. Those are mostly preservatives, thickeners, or other things such as baking soda and spices. Here and with "100 percent organic" foods, consumers may also spot the USDA seal. Products that have at least 70 percent organic ingredients can sport the term "made with organic ingredients." Any less and the food gets no boasting rights beyond noting the organic elements in the list of ingredients. (In some cases, you will see a certifying agent seal. More details are at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.)
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What consumers should do, experts say, is carefully consider each organic purchase. There may be no reason to buy an organic version of a favorite food when its conventional counterpart is little or no different and most likely cheaper. On average, organic food costs 30 to 50 percent more than conventional food. Heinz's Classico pasta sauce usually sells for about $3; the organic version is a dollar more.
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While organic fruits and vegetables do usually have fewer pesticides than their conventional cousins, there is no consensus on how harmful those pesticides are to humans. Joseph Rosen, a professor of food science at Rutgers University who has been studying pesticides for more than 40 years, contends that the amount of pesticides on produce is too small to hurt and that the liver efficiently flushes them out. Other experts dispute that notion, and some shoppers don't want to take the risk.
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A 2003 Environmental Working Group study that looked at USDA pesticide data from more than 100,000 pieces of produce found that those with the most pesticides include strawberries, peaches, nectarines, bell peppers, and spinach. Because of the way they are grown or their heartiness, conventional broccoli, asparagus, mangos, and bananas are less likely to have pesticides.

Recently, several small studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables might also have higher amounts of protective antioxidants. The thinking: Without pesticides, the plant must rely on its own defenses to shoo away bugs; one way it does this is to make more antioxidants. Still, it's only a hypothesis. "I wouldn't tell my mom or neighbor to go buy organic because it has more antioxidants," says Kathleen Merrigan, director of the agriculture, food, and environment program at Tufts University and an author of the USDA organic standards rule. "I would tell them to buy it because it has fewer pesticides."

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While health concerns motivate many buyers, others prefer organic milk for more humanitarian reasons. Many organic milk producers are small farmers, and their cows are often given more space to roam than cows at large dairies. In fact, major organic dairy producers such as Horizon have come under much criticism for their pasture size. On an Idaho farm that's taken the brunt, the cows "are very comfortable," says Kelly Shea, a Horizon vice president. "They have a nice life." Shea adds that the company is now converting more land to organic there so the cows can have more room and increase their grass consumption. The USDA is currently seeking comments on a rule that would nail down the amount of pasture required for these cows.

On conventional farms, animals are routinely given hormones and antibiotics, which could be passed on to your dinner plate. Though there is no scientific consensus about whether these substances cause health problems, shoppers who want to avoid them can look for other phrases on meat packages. "You are not necessarily going to see the organic label," says Keecha Harris, a national nutrition consultant for the Head Start program. "You are going to see how the animal is raised."
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These days, the biggest organic explosion is in the middle of the store, where the cereals, frozen foods, and processed packaged goods are sold. Experts urge shoppers to remember that the organic label means one thing and one thing only. So the corn in Orville Redenbacher's organic microwave popcorn comes from an organic farm; Heinz's organic ketchup uses organic tomato concentrate and organic sugar. Shoppers still need to flip over those jars and packages and scrutinize the nutrition facts, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian with Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Organic food and regular food should be viewed with the same skepticism when it comes to calories and fat.
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In the end, nearly everyone--even the most ardent organic fans--recommends that a consumer's first goal be a nutritionally balanced diet. Then the organic decision comes into play. "What people should be doing is getting more fruits and vegetables regardless of whether they're conventional or organic," says Harris. "A cheese puff is a cheese puff is a cheese puff."
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Meanwhile, so I can take a break to figure this stuff out, I am going around the corner to In-N-Out to have a "Double-Double Animal Style" ... hold the fries!

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