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The Scary Truth Behind Certified Organic

July 10, 2012

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If you think all “organic” is created equal, think again. At Integrative Nutrition, we often talk about the benefits of eating organic, but this weekend, the New York Times revealed that many seemingly trustworthy organic brands are owned and operated by companies such as Kellogg, General Mills and PepsiCo. And with big agriculture money comes big agriculture influence.

In the article “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?”, much of the conversation revolves around the National Organic Standards Board, a committee which submits policy recommendations regarding organic foodstuffs directly to the USDA. With an increasing market share of leading organic brands - including Bear Naked, Honest Tea and Cascadian Farm – giant agri-business corporations have gained access to seats on the NOS Board. The results are far from benign.

Among the board’s responsibilities is the review of a list of nonorganic additives allowed in “organic” foodstuffs. The list began with widely accepted substances, such as baking soda, but has grown to include more than 250 nonorganic items, including DHA and carrageenan. Other areas of the board’s jurisdiction include agricultural practices, such as the amount of living space allotted to organic chicken.

To say the value of the USDA organic label has been compromised is an understatement. Many small, independent organic producers – like Joel Salatin, of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame - have taken a stand by refusing to use the label on their products. While this is a noble political move, it leaves customers with little bearing as to which foods fulfill the “organic ideal” vs. the organic reality.

The good news is that there are things we can do to support small farms, brands and producers that still believe in a higher-quality “organic.” Shop at farmer’s markets and interact directly with growers who can tell you exactly where your food comes from. When it comes to buying things in boxes, bags or cans, learn which food labels are reliable and read ingredient lists carefully. Take the time to research who owns organic brands, and opt to support independent brands such as Eden Foods, Clif Bar & Company, Amy’s Kitchen, and Lundberg Family Farms.

And remember: an “organic” label isn’t everything. Your local growers may not have applied to become certified as organic for ideological or financial reasons. But like the uncertified produce that comes from your own backyard, their products may still be the most nutritious, sustainable and tasty foods you can find.