What does “Organic” Really Mean? (Part 3 – Packaged & Processed Foods)

Packaged and Processed Foods

In my last two posts, I talked about what “organic” means for meats, dairy, wines, seafood, and produce – basically everything that you find along the perimeter of your supermarket. This third and final post on this topic is about what organic means for packaged and processed foods, which are found in the center aisles of the supermarket and include the product that started this post: organic stevia powder.

Here are the basic organic labeling rules for multi-ingredient foods:

  • Products sold, labeled, or represented as organic must have at least 95 percent certified organic content.
  • Products sold, labeled, or represented as “made with” organic must have at least 70 percent certified organic content. The USDA organic seal may not be used on these products.
  • Products containing less than 70 percent organic content may identify specific ingredients as organic in the ingredients list.
  • Organic foods cannot contain synthetic additives, unless these additives have been petitioned and approved to appear on the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances
    • Note that some of these ingredients are questionable, such as carrageenan
  • Sulfites, nitrites, and nitrates may not be used as additives.

I think these rules have merit, but there’s still a lot that’s left unsaid, which food producers have learned to exploit. Three qualities of most organic packaged and processed foods that cause me to question their healthfulness, are:

  1. the ingredients list is often misleading
  2. they come in fancy packaging
  3. they are usually industrially processed

Misleading Ingredients List

Something to watch out for in multi-ingredient packaged foods, even when organic, is that the actual ingredients or relative proportions of ingredients used in the product are sometimes very different from what’s advertised on the packaging.

One example of this is truffle oil, such as this organic white truffle oil from Manni, sold by Williams Sonoma.  It’s not cheap – the sale price currently shows $59.95 for just 2 oz. I called Williams Sonoma to inquire about the ingredients and was told there are just two: organic extra virgin olive oil and “flavoring.” Other, cheaper brands usually just use a vegetable oil and truffle “aroma.” What is this illusive “flavoring/aroma” ingredient anyway? I’m willing to bet it comes from a company like the multi-billion-dollar International Flavors and Fragrances (ticker symbol IFF) and doesn’t contain even trace amounts of actual truffle mushroom.

Slightly less egregious is when manufacturers misrepresent the proportion of an ingredient. A good example of this is this blog post entitled “Decoding Labels: McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract.” One would assume based on the word “Pure” that a fair amount of vanilla was used to produce this product. Unfortunately the reality is that there’s more corn syrup than vanilla in this product. Corn syrup makes the end product taste better more cheaply, by using far less vanilla.  If you think you get a better quality product by upgrading to “organic” vanilla extract, think again. At more than double the price, you can buy organic vanilla extract from Rodelle on Amazon. The only difference is that organic cane sugar takes the place of the corn syrup and the alcohol is organic. It doesn’t look to me like you’re getting more actual vanilla bean.

I’m happy to see that some producers of chocolate are starting to disclose the percentage of cocoa in their products. I just wish more packaged foods did this.

Organic packaged foods also frequently contain disguised ingredients. One example of this is the neurotoxin MSG. Nowadays, this controversial ingredient is disguised using cryptic names, such as “natural flavoring,” “whey protein,” and “yeast extract.”  Here’s a list of many other pseudonyms for MSG. If you think that MSG isn’t in organic foods, then check out this blog post, entitled Chicken Broth: ‘No MSG’ Labels are False.

Fancy Packaging

Food packages offer advertising real estate for producers to market to consumers. The green USDA organic seal is a powerful marketing tool that has been shown to command a substantial price premium.  The seal rarely ever stands alone though. It’s usually placed alongside other marketing tools: pretty pictures and  health claims, like “High in antioxidants, “ or “low glycemic index.” Even the nutrition information panel is aimed at making shoppers believe that the product inside is healthy. After all, emphasizing that food A has fewer calories than food B is interpreted by most people as meaning that food A is the healthier choice, or one that will help you lose weight. But there’s no mention of, say, naturally occurring mineral content or active enzyme or probiotic content, which may turn out to have a much bigger impact on one’s health. Furthermore, food labels never disclose risks (except for those few that are government-mandated). For example, have you ever seen a warning label on foods that contain non-fermented soy (which many organic products contain), such as soy milk, alerting female buyers that consuming the product could disrupt their hormone balance?

So what’s wrong with marketing organic foods? For the most part, those producers who choose to make the investment in getting their foods certified organic tend to also use expensive marketing to convince the buyer of the food’s healthfulness. The problem is that those health claims are based on “shifting nutritional fashions,” as Michael Pollan puts it, which are started by, “a scientific study, a new government guideline, or a lone crackpot with a medical degree.” Most of these nutrition fads, in my opinion, are started by powerful special interest groups, such as the way the American Soybean Association kicked off a smear campaign targeting tropical oils, as described by Bruce Fife in The Coconut Oil Miracle.

Sadly, the marketing works extremely well in influencing consumer behavior, which sends a message back to the producer, thereby driving future product development. When was the last time you saw any packaged foods in the grocery store that are made with coconut oil, lard or tallow?

Industrial Processing

Another characteristic of most multi-ingredient, packaged organic foods is that they are often industrially processed. When I refer to “industrial” processing, I’m specifically referring to the process of treating a food in a way that is relatively new and can’t easily be done at home or hasn’t traditionally been performed on the food and for which the consequences may not be fully understood. In other words, I’m not talking about grinding nuts, chopping vegetables, drying fruit, salt-curing meat or beating egg whites until frothy and baking into meringue. I’m talking about processes like:

  • Powdering of milk
  • Extrusion, commonly performed on breakfast cereals, baby foods, pet foods, pastas, doughs, sausages, processed meats, snack foods and candy
  • Bleaching, which is commonly performed on sugar, flour, salt and whey (which is used in cheeses)
  • Hydrogenation, Intersterification, and other chemical processes that most vegetable oils go through
  • Centrifugation, chemical clarification and crystallization through vacuum pans, which are some of the steps cane sugar goes through
  • Pasteurization of foods that haven’t historically been pasteurized, like milk and almonds

So what’s wrong with industrially processing foods? Processing impacts the way that our bodies use the nutrients. Take milk, for instance. Here’s a great presentation that talks about why pasteurized milk is nutritionally inferior.  The Truth in Labeling Campaign discusses how the processes of powdering and ultra-pasteurizing milk result in milk that contains “processed free glutamic acid,” better known as MSG. And here’s one of many research studies showing that extrusion “… can impact chemical composition … of the resultant product.” In the book The Coconut Oil Miracle, by Bruce Fife, the author explains how the processing that’s performed on polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils, including organic canola oil, makes it carcinogenic.

Every year, industrial food producers are coming up with innovative new ways to process food in order to “add value”, which allows them to charge a higher price and maintain competitive advantage. When someone questions the foods healthfulness, they respond with claims like, “there’s no evidence that [insert food product] causes [insert adverse reaction.]” Of course not, because the government will never pay for those tests and the manufacturer will never conduct them in a fair way. Unversities won’t even do these tests because they know that it could impact their funding, much of which comes from the food industry giants. It generally takes a long time for consumer-advocacy organizations to raise the funds and complete tests themselves. In the meantime, I’m nervous about volunteering my body to find out what the health consequences of these ever-more-complex processes have on foods.

What about Organic Stevia?

Let’s now return to the stevia topic, which inspired this trio of blog posts in the first place. What could possibly be wrong with “Organic Stevia?” I’ll tell you what’s wrong: that the manufacturer of the product my friend was using, Wholesome Sweeteners, is guilty of nearly every offense I’ve listed in this blog post.

  1. They mislead consumers about the ingredients. The first ingredient isn’t actually stevia. It’s “Organic Agave Inulin.” Why don’t they then label the product as “Agave & Stevia Sweetener.”
  2. It is industrially processed: There is no traditional food preparation method I’m aware of that turns a non-white plant into a white powder. I’m sure that the processes used in manufacturing this product are state-of-the-art. That tells me that no one knows how the human body will actually metabolize this ‘food.’
  3. The packaging makes misleading health claims: These are claims like “prebiotic, which is beneficial to digestive health,” and “low glycemic.” What they don’t disclose, however, is that the use of Agave Inulin is very contentious due to claims that it’s so similar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in terms of how it’s manufactured and utilized by the body. Here’s a great post on Agave Nectar’s dangers, which argues that agave inulin contributes to diabetes and other metabolic disorders, raises your triglycerides (which correlate with heart disease) and deactivates the signals in your body that tell your body that you’re full, which of course makes you eat more and gain weight. Unfortunately the message that’s interpreted by most people who read the label is that it is a health food that will help you lose weight. I don’t think so.

What are some Alternative Sweeteners?

My sweeteners of choice, depending on the use, are:

  • Raw, unfiltered honey, for my morning yogurt, in salad dressings, on toast, in tea
  • Pure maple syrup/maple sugar, with pancakes and baked goods, in smoothies
  • Raw coconut sap/coconut sugar, in baked goods (here’s a source I like)
  • Date sugar, in baked goods, like cookies and granola (it doesn’t dissolve well in drinks). It’s not cheap, so here’s how to make it yourself.
  • Rapadura Whole Cane Sugar, in baking and for coffee/tea
  • Palm sugar, in asian foods, baked goods and high temperature cooking (e.g. candies/confections)

I’ve tried fresh and dried stevia leaves in my tea, but I’m not fond of the flavor. If stevia is your sweetener of choice, here’s a great recipe for how to make your own stevia sweetener that’s healthier and cheaper than what you get in the store.

Final thoughts about Organic Foods

In this blog article, I’ve raised a number of concerns about organic foods of all types, however, it’s not because I feel that all certified organic foods are bad. It’s to warn people that the organic seal alone does not, in and of itself, mean that a food is nutritious or safe. Caution is always advised. I recommend scrutinizing all labels, questioning the production methods and whenever possible, contacting the producer to ask for more details or better yet, visiting their production facility if possible. If they keep anything secret, I would personally err on the side of caution and avoid that food. Especially now, as I’m nursing a baby.

See this and more posts like this at: Butter Believer, Healthy Home Economist, Food Renegade


3 comments on “What does “Organic” Really Mean? (Part 3 – Packaged & Processed Foods)

  1. Wonderful article! Here is a post that I wrote after reading the USDAs explanation on their organic label. http://organicallythought.com/usda-certified-organic

  2. Hanif says:

    Wow Amazing

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