What comes to mind when you hear the word organic ? Despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture laid down standards in 2002 for what does and does not constitute organic food, consumers still seem to be confused. In a 2005 survey sponsored by Austin, Tex. based Whole Foods Market, 72 percent of respondents said they believe organics contain more nutrients than conventional food. In fact, evidence for extra nutrients in organics is debatable.
So what does organic really mean? Produce is grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides, genetic modification, irradiation, or fertilizer made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Organic meat comes from livestock that has never been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and has been given organic feed free of animal by-products.
Though the Food and Drug Administration monitors conventional produce to ensure that pesticide levels aren t toxic, it s the cumulative effect of small amounts that concerns some people. The Environmental Working Group compiles a list of dirty dozen produce that retains the most pesticide residue according to FDA and USDA tests. You can see the list, which includes apples, strawberries, and potatoes, at www.foodnews.org.
No sooner did the federal organic standards get implemented than food producers began to lobby Congress for changes weakening the regulation. In one notable case, after Georgia chicken producers reportedly balked at the standards, they convinced Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) to add a rider to the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill allowing them to label chickens raised on conventional feed organic if organic feed was more than twice the cost of conventional feed. Organic activists and trade groups objected, and the rider was repealed in April 2003.
Around the same time, Alaska s two senators sponsored an amendment to a wartime bill, opening the door for wildcaught seafood to be labeled organic a boon for Alaska s wild salmon fishery. The problem? Organic standards are meant to deal with farming, and organic advocates argue it s impossible to know how wild seafood has been fed or maintained. Indeed, wild shark and swordfish can contain such high mercury levels that young children and pregnant women are advised not to eat them. For more details on wild seafood safety, check out the EPA s advisory at www.epa.gov/ost/fish or visit www.environmentaldefense.org.
As the demand for organic products has grown, a number of other eco-labels that imply health or environmental purity have also proliferated. Their true meanings range from the application of standards stricter than the USDA s organic rule to kinda-sorta organic to anything but organic adding another layer of confusion when you re shopping.
For example, Biodynamic, a label created by a consortium of farmers, shares many of the same principles as organic but has even stricter rules. On the other hand, Food Alliance Certified, a label created by the eponymous Food Alliance a nonprofit that believes organic isn t a complete solution is aimed at helping farmers reduce pesticide use and toxicity over time, according to a company spokesperson. Make sense? Not really. Consumers are caught in a marketing war that s meaningless as a whole, says Alex Avery, director of research at the Center for Global Food Issues, a think tank that supports modern high-yield agriculture. To find out what s behind any confusing label, head to www.greenerchoices.org.
Organic and health-oriented foods generally will cost you more than conventional foods. Some of the biggest differentials exist in meat and milk: Organic milk typically costs as much as 50 to 100 percent more than conventional milk, while organic meat can cost two or even three times more, according to an Organic Trade Association spokesperson.
But there are plenty of ways to minimize costs in health food stores. Buy from that old hippie standby, the bulk bin, where you can save on staples such as cereal, pasta, and flour. Or consider joining a local co-op, where you exchange a little volunteer time for big savings, or a community-supported agriculture or CSA program, in which you pay a farmer up front for an entire season s worth of produce. (To find one near you, go to www.csacenter.org.)
James Brundage, an administrative assistant at a PR firm, joined his local co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y. I used to buy most of my food at Whole Foods, he says. Now I buy it all at the co-op, and prices are about 30 to 50 percent cheaper. As for the co-op s requirement that members put in about three hours of work per month at the store, Brundage says he finds it only mildly annoying. Everyone is so friendly, the time passes quickly.
Dietary supplements are a booming business in this country, with sales of about $17.5 billion in 2007. Since the fallout surrounding the FDA s ban of ephedra years ago, many consumers have already learned that manufacturers of these supplements don t have to submit evidence of effectiveness, since they don t make overt claims of curing or preventing a particular disease. Indeed, there are few controls to make certain that supplements even contain what they claim to. Assume that nothing is guaranteed [about content] or the appropriate dosage advice, says Ron Buchheim, deputy health editor at Consumer Reports, which has tested numerous supplements since 1995. Though the products are more consistent these days, We still sometimes find significant variation in the concentration of the active ingredient, he says, sometimes more than 20 percent outside the amount on the label.
Right now testing by independent labs is the best way to ensure that your vitamins or supplements are at least reliable. Before buying, check out how the product rated on the website ConsumerLab.com, which tests a wide range of supplements for identity, potency, and purity.
Don t assume that health food store employees are experts on their products, especially supplements. In 2003 the journal Breast Cancer Research published a study in which investigators went undercover to 34 health food stores and asked about recommendations for supplements for their fictional mother, diagnosed with breast cancer. The stores suggested 33 products, none of which has sufficient evidence of effectiveness. Of the 10 employees who asked which prescriptions the mother was taking, only 8 mentioned that the drug tamoxifen might interact with the natural remedies.
Though this particular study focused on a small group of stores in Canada, it was modeled on similar research that drew the same conclusion. Every study we ve seen has found the same thing that the health advice dispensed by clerks is usually in a range of 50 to 100 percent wrong, says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs the website at www.quackwatch.org. Imagine going to a doctor with [that] batting average. The majority of health food store workers have no scientific training, he points out. If you are interested in trying dietary supplements, check with your doctor about any adverse interactions with your prescribed medicines.
Though many people exercise caution when downing supplements in the form of pills, it s easy to forget that we may be overloading on certain nutrients by regularly consuming the enhanced foods sold in health food stores. Soy is the perfect example: Due to an FDAapproved health claim that soy protein lowers LDL or bad cholesterol and preliminary evidence that other soy components known as isoflavones may reduce symptoms of menopause, soy is a popular additive to foods. Products such as bread, juice, and sports bars are often enhanced with added soy protein, sometimes including isoflavones.
However, There are more and more studies showing that isoflavones [may not] have the greatest effect, that you may need to have the whole bean, says an American Dietetic Association spokesperson. On top of that, some researchers worry that consuming high quantities of soy isoflavones may even have adverse health effects, including contributing to thyroid problems in some situations. If you think adding a large amount of a particular nutrient to your diet would be beneficial, consult with your doctor just as you would about a medication.
Gone are the days when the most sinful thing in a health food store was carob chips. Today plenty of dietary pitfalls lurk in the aisles: banana chips fried in coconut oil; vegetable crisps, which are essentially fried potatoes flavored with small amounts of vegetables; and socalled enhanced waters, which add sugar and literally pennies worth of vitamins to plain water to create what s basically a glorified soda, according to Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The problem is, these foods have an aura of healthfulness, she says, in part because they are sold in health food stores.
To really know what you re getting, you need to read labels on packaged food just as closely in a health food store as you would in a regular grocery store. Look out, for example, for seemingly low-cal foods that actually contain several servings per package. Liebman says she found a giant high-energy cookie that contained only 140 calories per serving but each cookie constituted four servings. Also watch for prepared vegetarian foods that are high in saturated fat more than 4 grams per serving from added butter, cream, and palm kernel or coconut oil.
Participants at nearly every stage of food production seed vendors, farmers, and processors must be approved by independent certifiers in order for the final product to be labeled organic. However, for the last link in the chain, the retailer, certification is optional except in organic food preparation areas.
Why does it matter? In a store, with so many foods commingling, the potential for contamination with nonorganic substances can be high, argues Cissy Bowman, an Indiana-based organic produce farmer and a USDAaccredited certifier. Some problems: nonorganic produce stored above organic, where residues can drip onto the food below when misted with water to stay fresh, or worse, simply mixing up conventional and organic produce that look virtually identical. Chemicals used in an uncertified store everything from cleaning agents to rodenticide may also wind up in the food.
Fortunately, organic certification does seem to be catching on among retailers. Whole Foods Market has had all its retail operations certified organic, as have many independent stores, such as the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. If you don t see a certification seal posted at your local health food outlet, ask the manager how the store prevents contamination of organics.
Walk into almost any health food store and you ll see so-called organic cosmetics and personal care products that are often much pricier than their traditional drugstore equivalents. But shoppers should understand that there are no national USDA standards for organic cosmetics.
Many products create an organic halo by calling themselves 70 percent organic. Right now that 70 percent can include organic hydrosol, essentially a tap-water-based extract of an organic plant. Shampoo and lotion are usually well above 70 percent water anyway, says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association, which is opposed to counting added water in hydrosols toward an organic total. So you can have a product labeled organic that s exactly the same as if you went into a Wal-Mart and bought a conventional product with the same synthetic cleansers and preservatives.
How to know what you re getting? When considering an organic personalcare product, check the ingredient list. If the first entry is hydrosol sometimes called organic hydroflorate, organic plant extracts, or floral water it s probably being counted toward the total.