You and your friend are hungrily studying the snack section at the local grocery store. There are at least a dozen different brands of potato chips and popcorn from which to choose. You know what you should be looking for: things like low calories, low fat, low cholesterol, and so on. You find a brand that looks good, and to your delight it’s labeled natural, or even better, organic. You’re sold! This has to be the best choice, right? Well, maybe. And not necessarily, says Peter Simpson of Lake County Community Co-op, a sustainable community farm in Clearlake, California.
In most states, the terms natural and organic currently have no precise legal definition. In common usage, however, natural refers to foods that have undergone little if any processing. Organic is a term applied to foods grown without the use of manufactured fertilizers or pesticides and processed without the use of chemical additives.
Nutritionists tell us that the protein and vitamin content of crops is determined by genes, climate, maturity at time of harvest, and the soil in which they’re grown. Therefore, organically grown food isn’t necessarily nutritionally superior to foods grown by conventional means. To some, the value of organically grown food lies in its lack of synthetic chemicals. They see the value of natural food as that most of the plant, including fiber, is intact when it reaches the table.
Concern Over Toxic Chemicals
The interest in organic foods grew out of concern over the toxic pesticides used in commercial farming. Following World War II, chemical pesticides were developed that increased American food production enormously. They were viewed as a miracle of sorts and were used in large amounts. By the time the dangers of some of these chemicals were discovered, irreversible damage had already been done.
DDT is a classic example. One of several organochlorine pesticides, DDT moves up through the food chain and persists almost indefinitely in the environment. Although its use was banned in the United States in 1972, it’s still used in emergencies and by farmers in many other countries. Every one of us has traces of DDT in our body tissues. DDT and related compounds are known to damage the reproductive system and may cause cancer.
Other chemicals have been developed to replace the organo-chlorines. Although some are even more toxic than DDT, they degrade (disappear) more quickly, in time for harvesting. Most experts believe these chemicals are necessary for the high crop yields produced by American farmers. To help protect consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set tolerance levels for most chemicals. These are maximum amounts of a chemical allowed in a food.
Organic farmers and the people who buy organic food believe NO hazardous chemicals should be allowed in food. Organic farmers use a combination of crop rotation, mechanical cultivation, and biological controls to fight weeds and pests.
How can you know if a food labeled “organic” actually has been grown organically? Organic farmers recognize the need for a verification process that assures consumers that food labeled organic meets specific standards. To police themselves, they have formed independent certifying agencies throughout the country. Some states have passed laws that set specifications for organic food.
In some areas, finding organically grown food takes some effort, and these products can also be more expensive than commercially grown foods. Is it worth it? That depends on whom you ask. Some people respond with an allergic reaction to food additives; for them, avoiding chemicals in foods is a necessity.
Is It Listed on the Label?
Food labeling is regulated by the FDA. Except for the addition of sodium content in the late 1980s, food labeling regulations have remained basically unchanged since the early 1970s. But Americans have become much more concerned about what they eat. More of us are reading labels and making choices about what we buy based on the information on those labels.
The FDA has recently proposed new labeling requirements. According to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, M.D., the goal is to create “a label the public can understand and count on — that would bring them up-to-date with today’s health concerns.”
The new regulations will make nutrition labeling mandatory for most processed foods. Currently, only foods fortified with nutrients or those making a nutritional claim are required to be labeled. The regulations will also standardize serving sizes. Now set by the food producer, serving sizes vary, and they can be confusing. (What’s an ounce of potato chips?) (Who eats only a half cup of macaroni and cheese?)
The new rules will also standardize terms such as “low sodium,” “low fat,” “reduced cholesterol,” and “source of fiber.” (The rulings will not, however, define or standardize the terms natural and organic.) The proposed changes were published in November 1992. The new labels will be required on all processed packaged foods by May 1993.
The new labels are designed to keep pace with the changing health concerns of Americans. For example, the amount of thiamine and niacin contained in a food is currently found on most labels. But deficiency diseases caused by a lack of these B vitamins — beriberi and pellagra — are no longer a problem in this country. In their place will be information on cholesterol and fat, both factors in cancer and heart disease, the killers of the 1990s.
Diet is a personal matter. Each of us must decide what we will and will not eat. If you choose organic foods, check the labels for a certification organization. If you prefer natural foods, buy foods that have been minimally processed. Read labels. If a food is described as whole (for example, whole-wheat bread), the label must say whole wheat. The first ingredient on a label is the one most abundant in the product.
Check with your family about joining a food cooperative (co-op) in your area. This is a group of people pooling their money to buy large quantities of foods. Co-ops often buy high-quality natural and organic foods.