How Do You Know When “Organic” Is Really Organic?

organic label with question markAs we mentioned last time, trust is a big issue when it comes to food labeled “organic.” When people don’t trust it, they don’t buy it.

But matters of trust can also be confounded by our own expectations – and lots of people have different, not always correct, ideas about what “organic” actually means.

According to the USDA,

Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.

But even this doesn’t necessarily mean “all natural.” As you may already know, there are plenty of approved synthetic substances that can be used in the production of crops or animal products and still allow a food to be called “organic.”

Similarly, a processed food can still get the USDA organic seal even if some ingredients – up to 5% – are non-organic.

But these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to trust.

With popularity and demand, organic food production has grown beyond our current domestic capabilities. More food is being imported, yet as news has shown through the last several months, regulation may be more than a little bit lacking.

Earlier this year, for instance, shipments of corn and soybeans from Turkey wound up labeled as “organic” – and thus, worth about $4 million more than they should have been – even though the crops had been grown conventionally. And while “USDA officials say that their system for guarding against fraud is robust,” reported the Washington Post, the facts suggest otherwise.

Under USDA rules, a company importing an organic product must verify that it has come from a supplier that has a “USDA Organic” certificate. It must keep receipts and invoices. But it need not trace the product back to the farm. Some importers, aware of the possibility of fraud, request extra documentation. But others do not.

Regardless of where organics come from, critics say, the system suffers from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception rather than the rule.

These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported products, which often involve more middlemen, each of whom could profit by relabeling conventional goods as “organic.” The temptation could be substantial, too: Products with a “USDA Organic” label routinely sell for twice the price of their conventional counterparts.

In recent years, even as the amount of organic corn and soybeans imported to the United States has more than tripled, the USDA has not issued any major sanctions for the import of fraudulent grain, U.S. farmers said.

“The U.S. market is the easiest for potentially fraudulent organic products to penetrate because the chances of getting caught here are not very high,” said John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, or OFARM, a farmer cooperative. In Europe and Canada, he said, import rules for organics are much stricter.

Since the news broke, an industry group, the Organic Trade Association, has said it will create an anti-fraud task force. US organic farmers remain skeptical, even “amused” by the thought.

And meantime, a USDA audit has revealed further issues. As Civil Eats recently reported,

The resounding issue is a lack of transparency. First, auditors found that the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which houses the NOP, did not clearly share with stakeholders its methodology for determining how other countries’ organic standards compared to the USDA’s. And the on-site audits meant to ensure the efficacy of other countries’ certification practices were not conducted in a timely way, auditors found.

In addition, once products reached the U.S. border, auditors found that the agency did not provide reasonable assurance that inspectors reviewed the required documents proving organic practices at U.S. ports of entry. Finally, auditors also found that millions of pounds of organic products were sometimes fumigated with conventional pesticides to prevent invasive pests from entering the country, but still labeled and sold the food as organic.

“While most organic food is safe, and dramatically reduces your exposure to pesticides, the report reveals serious regulatory gaps that allow a few bad actors to ship sham ‘organic’ products to the U.S.,” explained Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “The USDA must up its game to block these imports, both to protect consumers and ensure a level playing field for American organic farmers.”

So what can we do? Is there any way to make sure that the organic food you buy is really organic?

The only sure way right now is to start your own garden. Then you control what’s put in, on, and around your food. It doesn’t need to be huge. Start small with just a simple tomato plant, say, or a few peppers, both of which can be very fruitful with pretty low maintenance. As your green thumb develops, you can always expand with more plants.

You can also limit the number of processed products you buy, centering your diet on whole food rather than collections of ingredients. It’s simpler to source single or minimally processed products than pre-made ones.

If you support your local community gardens, farmers markets, and CSAs, you can find out as much as you want to know about how the foods were produced. You can ask the growers directly – something impossible to do at a big box store or even your local grocery store.

That said, more and more supermarkets now are starting to feature more local, organic produce, at least. If that’s not an option, at least seek domestic products, which are more regulated for now.

And if money is a concern, there really are ways to eat organic on a budget. Here are some tips to get you started.

Image via Food Renegade

The Magic of Food Labeling

grocery storeShop in a grocery store, and most of what you see has been processed to one degree or another.

Yes, strictly speaking, even things like cleaning, sorting, and bagging organic fruit or veg count as processing.

In essence, “processing” is merely about turning food in its natural form into a product for consumption. Such products run the gamut from minimally- to hyper-processed, with foods tending to lose more of their nutritional value the more processed they are.

Regardless of the degree of processing, something funny happens when food companies slap labels onto their products: Consumer perceptions can change.

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a front group for the food and beverage industries, many consumers base their opinions of what they think is “processed” only if the item seems like it was altered in some way.

And if you label it as “organic,” the product may seem even less processed.

Only three out of fourteen carrot-based products listed were considered “processed” by over half of respondents…Interestingly, consumers were only half as likely to categorize organic bagged baby carrots (7%) as processed compared to conventional bagged baby carrots (14%).

A recent study in Appetite likewise found that the “organic” label can indeed lead consumers to attribute qualities to a processed food quality that may or may not actually be true.

Overall, processed organic (vs. conventional) foods were perceived as tastier, more healthful (Study 1) or equally healthful (Study 2), but also as more caloric.

“Uncovering the specific conditions in which food claims bias consumer’s perceptions and behavior,” note the authors, “may have important implications for marketing, health and public-policy related fields.”

Of course, we have good reasons for favoring organics. As a study in Procedia Economics and Finance noted,

the reasons advocated by the consumers for buying organic food products are varied and primarily the motivations behind their decision to purchase include concerns for environment, health concern and lifestyle, food product quality and their subjective norms. Consumer behaviour involves the psychological processes that consumers go through in recognizing needs, finding ways to solve these needs; collect and interpret information; make plans and implement these plans, making purchase decisions and post-purchase behaviour.

But our willingness to buy and our purchases making a difference hangs on another important thing: trust. This was demonstrated nicely by a 2015 Thai study in the Journal of Business Ethics. Through two focus groups and 10 interviews, as well as a related intercept study, its authors found that lack of trust in the labeling and control procedures of organic food in Thailand have resulted in consumers being much less likely to buy organic.

Mistrust in the control system and in the authenticity of food sold as organic has a significant negative impact on self-reported buying behavior. Implications for policy and future research are discussed.

Next week, we’ll look further at the issue of organics labeling and how you can make sure you’re getting the quality you pay for.

A Look Back at…Nitric Oxide

Originally posted September 29, 2016

nitric oxide moleculeUnlike nitrous oxide, a.k.a. “laughing gas,” nitric oxide it is no laughing matter. Rather, it’s a signaling molecule that our body produces to help the trillions of cells in our body communicate with each other.

Nitric oxide is made by the body’s blood vessel’s lining. When this lining – the endothelium – senses healthy conditions, such as when you exercise, it releases more nitric oxide. Nitric oxide expands the blood vessels, increases blood flow, and decreases plaque and blood clotting.

A healthy release of nitric oxide has been reported to

  • Help memory and behavior.
  • Support the immune system’s fight against pathogenic bacteria and defend against tumors.
  • Regulate blood pressure.
  • Improve sleep quality.
  • Reduce inflammation.
  • Increase endurance and strength.
  • Aid digestion.

We get plenty of nitric oxide when we’re young, but production falls later in life. Production also drops off when the endothelium senses less than healthy factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and increased stress levels. Free radical damage, inactivity, and poor dietary choices likewise have a negative effect nitric oxide release.

Happily, there are ways to increase nitric oxide and reap its benefits.

  1. Exercise
    When you exercise your muscles require more oxygen, which is supplied by the blood. As your heart pounds, your arteries release nitic oxide into the blood. This opens and relaxes the vessel walls and allows more blood to pass through.

  2. Diet
    Vegetables such beets, beet juice, celery, and dark leafy greens such as kale chard, arugula, and spinach are high in dietary nitrates and nitrites, both of which stimulate the production of nitric oxide. In addition, eating food with color increases the flavonoids in your diet. Flavonoids protect nitric oxide from free radical damage. Generally, it’s best to avoid a diet either too high in fat or carbohydrate. Both can inhibit nitric oxide production.

  3. Nitric oxide supplements
    Traditionally, supplementing for nitric oxide meant taking supplements containing L-arginine. But current research indicates that, as you age, L-arginine is less likely to prove effective.

    Enter new research out of the University of Texas Health Science Center, which has led to a proprietary, beetroot-based, nitric oxide formula that generates authentic nitric oxide while supporting the enzyme that makes nitric oxide in the body.

    The scientist at the helm of this form of supplementation is Dr. Nathan Bryan who co-authored The Nitric Oxide (NO) Solution based on his research.

Whether you increase nitric oxide via exercise, diet, supplementation, or a combination of all three, tapping into this overlooked molecule’s power may well help you age with strength and vitality.

Changing the Narrative of Food

Healthy eating starts with whole food, real food, including lots of fresh produce. When you picture how it’s grown, you may imagine wide open spaces, fields spanning acres and acres.

But it can just as well happen on a much smaller scale, in urban and suburban areas alike. Think front yard gardens, rooftop and courtyard gardens, or any underutilized space. Many communities have unused or struggling properties that can be repurposed for flourishing community gardens.

In this TED Talk, Pam Warhurst describes how she and a group of others made it happen in her community of Todmorden in northern England, launching an initiative they came to call “Incredible Edible”:

Such programs are cropping up all over the world, including here in Arlington, where we have things like the Community Garden of UT Arlington and the Harvesting Hope Community Garden.

Consider supporting one of these or another community garden project. Volunteer or donate or buy from harvests put up for sale. Or follow Warhurst’s lead and create your own concept for an edible neighborhood landscape and make it a reality.

Already doing so? Share your experiences in the comments!

More Reason to Kick the Sugar Habit (and More Tips on How to Do It)

dropped cupcakeEver notice that when you cave in to sugar cravings, you don’t end up feeling any better – and may, in fact, actually feel worse?

That feeling worse may not just be a short term effect. According to new research in Scientific Reports, depressive symptoms can be directly linked to the intake of sugary foods and drinks.

Food frequency questionnaires were reviewed from over 23,000 British subjects dating back to 1985 and compared with mood responses on validated questionnaires. Men who ate the most sugar were found to have a 23% higher chance of common mental disorder (CMD) after five years – a condition marked by insomnia, fatigue, irritability, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and somatic (physical) complaints.

Both men and women who ate the most sugar were found more likely to experience recurrent depression, as well.

The researchers also tried to find a reverse causation between mood disorder and sugar intake – in other words, whether mood also caused more sugar consumption. The answer to that was “no.”

“Our research,” they wrote, “confirms an adverse effect of sugar intake from sweet food/beverage on long-term psychological health and suggests that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.”

With a high prevalence of mood disorders, and sugar intake commonly two to three times the level recommended, our findings indicate that policies promoting the reduction of sugar intake could additionally support primary and secondary prevention of depression.

No, the study isn’t perfect. All data was self-reported and thus prone to bias. Sugar from alcohol wasn’t counted. But its results do jibe with the new understanding of the role chronic inflammation appears to play in depression.

Sugar is one of the main fuels for inflammation. Eating less of it is the first step in any anti-inflammatory diet: You quit adding fuel to the fire.

Here are 7 simple tips for cutting back on added sugars (and keep in mind, when we’re talking sugar, we’re talking about all kinds, including honey, agave nectar, and other “natural” alternatives):

  1. Try a squeeze of fresh lemon into your iced tea instead of a sweetener.

  2. If you eat oatmeal or other grains in the morning, top them with fresh sliced whole fruit instead of pouring sugar on them.

  3. Clean your cupboards to simply remove temptation.

  4. Include more healthy fats such as avocado or coconut and olive oils to help satiety.

  5. Create a schedule with healthy snacks throughout the day to avoid those “hangry” moments that might lead you to binge on a sugary snack.

  6. Consider making your own “pudding” with whole fat coconut milk rather than buying something at the store packed with artificial ingredients and extra sugars. Here’s one way to do it, for example.

  7. Substitute things like bananas and applesauce in your baking. Here’s a simple cookie recipe using bananas, oats, Sunbutter, and raisins (optional).

Previously

Image by mumblyjoe

Food Literacy? There’s Room for Improvement

grocery store aisleAsk a typical American where their food comes from, and they’ll probably say something like “the grocery store.” Beyond that, they might not even want to know – just so long as the food they want is there when they want it.

The depths of food illiteracy were recently seen in a new dairy industry survey.

Among the most shocking findings? Almost half of American adults aren’t sure where chocolate milk comes from. Seven percent actually believe that chocolate milk comes only from brown cows.

Really.

If you do the math, that works out to 16.4 million misinformed, milk-drinking people. The equivalent of the population of Pennsylvania (and then some!) does not know that chocolate milk is milk, cocoa and sugar.

Other research cited in the same article found more than half of urban California fourth- through sixth-graders “didn’t know pickles were cucumbers, or that onions and lettuce were plants.”

Four in 10 didn’t know that hamburgers came from cows. And 3 in 10 didn’t know that cheese is made from milk.

The problem of food illiteracy isn’t unique to Americans. A recent survey from the British Nutrition Foundation

found that children between the ages of 5 and 16 have real misconceptions about what they’re eating. Among them: the belief that pasta comes from animals, which about a tenth of 8- to 11-year-olds subscribe to.

…The poll also found that about a fifth of 5- to 7-year-olds believe fish fingers contain chicken. And another 29 percent of them thought cheese was a plant….

Such beliefs don’t necessarily signal a lack of intelligence. They do show that a good many of us are very divorced from the source of our sustenance.

If you grew up in the country, you probably have an idea of how “farm-to-table” actually works. Otherwise, it’s quite reasonable to think that food comes in packages and leave it at that. Food, in that world, is a consumer good, and who thinks about how any consumer good winds up in our hands, the path it took from raw materials to the item we bought online?

The simple fact is that most of us have handed over our food and nutrition needs to third parties. That’s why labeling matters as much as it does. If we don’t make or grow the food ourselves, it’s one of the main ways we have to know much of anything at all about it.

Industrialization reduces food to simply a matter of consumption. We come to think of it as fuel or as a delivery system for nutrients and not as something that’s also important socially, culturally. Just think about any special occasion: a holiday, a birthday, a first date, a funeral. Chances are, food is at the center of it – not for the nutrition it delivers but for its ability to bring us together in our shared humanity.

Improving food literacy could take us a very long way toward improving the health of our nation – indeed, of our world. Alice Waters’ Edible Classroom project is perhaps the most notable effort to reconnect kids with nature through food, and it’s certainly spawned many imitators. After all, it offers beautiful evidence of how kids gravitate toward the real when given the chance.

Image by Sean Gregor

Ditch the Juice, Go for the Whole Fruit

oranges and juiceHow much juice should you let your kids drink? If they’re younger than one, zero, zilch, nada.

That’s according to new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And that’s the best part of the news.

Fruit juice offers no nutritional benefit to children under age 1 and should not be included in their diet.

But that implies some nutritional benefit to kids over a year old. And that’s a sketchy claim at best. As nutritional consultant Dr. Mike Roussell has put it,

There aren’t any benefits to drinking fruit juice over eating whole fruits. In fact, eating whole fruit is a better choice. In regards to vegetables, the only benefit to vegetables juices is that it might enhance your consumption of vegetables; but you’ll miss out on some key health benefits by juicing.

As Dr. Royal Lee pointed out years ago, when you eat whole fruit, you get the total nutritional package: vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients. When you juice, these get delivered with concentrated sugar – sometimes even more sugar than you’d get in a can of soda pop.

Really.

And that’s not good at any age. As one 2016 review put it, while there are still research gaps to be bridged by science,

Sufficient evidence links a high intake of sugar to dental caries and obesity, and high intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages in particular to increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Other research has confirmed that, like diet soda, fruit juice is not apt to be a “healthy alternative…to sugar sweetened beverages for the prevention of type 2 diabetes.”

“Fruit juice,” notes the AAP, “offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruit for infants and children and has no essential role in healthy, balanced diets of children.”

Whole fruit, on the other hand, has such a role. Many fruits also tend to be high in vitamin C, which is essential for healthy gums. Crunchy fruit such as apples also help stimulate saliva flow that helps protect the teeth.

And what does juice do? Bathes the teeth in sugar and acids, destroying tooth enamel and making the teeth more vulnerable to decay.

Ditch the juice. Go for the fruit.

A Look Back at…”Healthy” Smoothies & Your Teeth

Updated from the original post for July 11, 2013

Drink Your Fruit & Veggies?

smoothiesThink you can just drink your fruit and veggies in a delicious fruit smoothie? Research from the BDJ might make you think twice – at least if you care about your teeth.

Researchers found that smoothies can, in fact, be quite damaging to enamel – the hardest tissue in the body, protecting the softer tissues within. But a number of things contribute to erosion, including dry mouth, medications, bruxing (habitual grinding and clenching) and sugars and acids like those you find in the typical smoothie.

Damaged enamel means sensitive teeth and a heightened risk of cavities.

While certain fruits proved to be more damaging than others, the BDJ study found that “some fruit smoothies have the potential to bring about dental erosion if consumed irresponsibly.” To lower the risk, the authors suggest eating while enjoying your smoothie (which, you may argue, may defeat the purpose of having a smoothie, but we urge you: read on).

The trouble with smoothies – as with fruit juices – is their reputation of being “healthy.” There are those who, instead of eating fresh fruit and veg, drink lots of such beverages for a nutritional boost – or, more worrisome, give them to kids instead of whole produce. The drinks’ sweetness makes them especially appealing. Like other animals, we’re evolutionally partial to sweets since they’re associated with high energy foods. (Cats, in fact, may be the only animals that grew out of the sweet tooth.)

Although the sugar in smoothies can be a problem – and there can be a lot of sugar (see this and this, for instance), as as much or more than in most sodas – the BDJ study was concerned more with acidity. Food and drink with a pH value lower than the critical pH of tooth enamel (5.5) are erosive. Most smoothies have a pH value around 2 or 3. Most sodas do, too.

This PSA from the Wisconsin Dental Association pounds the point home:

What about using a straw? Some say it helps get the beverage past the teeth while getting nutrients into the consumer, but that skirts a related issue. As Dean Kathryn Harley of the Faculty of Dentistry at the Royal College of Surgeons has suggested, if kids are constantly exposed to sweet foods like juice, candy and desserts, they may increasingly reject lesser sweet foods such as whole fruits and vegetables.

Remember that the easiest way to get your fruit and veggie intake up is by eating them, not drinking them. To get kids to eat vegetables, try serving them alongside foods you know they enjoy, or serve fresh vegetables as a snack. In her excellent post on “11 Proven Ways to Get Kids to Eat More Vegetables,” blogger Darya Rose suggests using the one bite rule: require your child to try one bite of an unfamiliar food before rejecting it altogether – along with 10 other great ideas.

None of this is to say that you have to cut out smoothies or juices completely. If you like them, enjoy them once in a while. But here’s an added plus of opting for more whole fruit and veg over smoothies and juice: Not only do you avoid the sugars and acids, the more complete nutritional intake can help remineralize your teeth, keeping them strong and healthy. Foods rich in nutrients such as calcium, antioxidants, Vitamin D and phosphorous are especially beneficial.

Image by Ken Hawkins

Fish: Methylmercury on your Plate

Fish on a plateDuring this Lenten season, those of us who give up meat on Fridays will be eating fish. We know including fish in our diet can offer nutritional benefits–a 6-ounce serving offers a hefty dose of B vitamins, some minerals, and those beneficial omega-3 fats.

But we’ve also heard other things about fish. Every year an advisory is issued for pregnant women and young children that calls for a limit on the amount and types of fish they eat. That’s because all fish, all fish, is contaminated with methylmercury, a neurotoxic element that is particularly dangerous for a fetus or young child.

Because the amounts of methylmercury in fish vary greatly, to eat fish safely, you need to know what fish are more likely to contain more methylmercury.

But as a recent NPR article points out, lists can be confusing. For starters, you have to know what they are filtering for. Very often it’s for sustainability, not methylmercury . Only two out the most commonly referred to guides take mercury content into consideration.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Regional Consumer Guide or App

  • Recommendations help you choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.

Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector

  • Scientists analyze many aspects of wild fisheries and fish farming operations for more than 200 types of seafood frequently sold in the US market.
  • They collaborate with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.
  • They rank mercury content in fish with a vague category: unknown, moderate, or elevated.

Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guide to Seafood

  • Since government and independent scientists have not reached a consensus on a safe level of mercury exposure, it makes recommendations that are aimed to steer people to toward seafood with the best safety profiles.
  • Until the EPA completes its multi-year process to revise its assessment of mercury toxicity, this guide recommends that pregnant women and children consume no more than 75% of the EPA’s safety level. This builds in an extra margin of safety.

Similar to our ubiquitous and unknown levels of exposure to fluoride, mere avoidance of mercury is not only complicated, but political.

Since 1994, when the first published advisory about methylmercury in fish was issued, the FDA and the EPA have come under scrutiny. This year’s advisory is no different. A public health watchdog organization,  the Environmental Working Group, fired back on the “shocking” EPA-FDA advice about eating fish and shellfish. As an eater, you have to wonder, who do you trust and what do you do?

Concern is a good indication that we need more information, for example:

The answers to these questions don’t mean you can’t eat fish. But they do suggest it may be best to check with a guide or a print off list. Things can, and do, change.

Image by Art Siegel

 

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Fluoride in Your Tea

5001227590_1a883e0927_zThough we’ve blogged before on the benefits of green tea for healthy gums and its ability to relieve oral pain, we’ve not looked at the relationship between tea – green or otherwise – and fluoride

A recent entry on the Nourished Kitchen blog, a traditional foods blog, posed the question: Should you be worried about fluoride in your kombucha? If you have never even thought to ask the question, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t know where to look for fluoride.

In answering the question, the blog’s creator Jenny McGruther cites the Big Book of Kombucha:

Kombucha is made from weak tea, rather than strong, so there will be less fluoride in kombucha than a strong tea of the same volume.

On the surface, this answer might seem plausible. But it’s an incomplete answer. The reality is, since we don’t often consider what foods and beverages may contain fluoride; since many of us live with fluoridated municipal water supplies; since many of us use products like toothpaste and mouthwash that contain fluoride, we have no real way of knowing what our daily intake is.

The truth is, ingesting a known toxin daily at unknown levels can be problematic.

Though McGruther says she doesn’t “worry about relatively small amounts of fluoride in the modest amounts of kombucha my family drinks,” this might err on the side of simplicity.

If you’re wondering about fluoride in tea products, one of the best sources for scientifically based information is the Fluoride Action Network.

Five informative links to assist  your decision making:

  1. How fluoride ends up in a tea plant?
  1. Which tea contains high levels of fluoride?
  1. What kind of health issues a heavy tea drinker might expect?
  1. How much fluoride is in newer tea commodities, such as: packed teas, bottled tea, canned tea, and instant tea powders?
  1. How to minimize your exposure to fluoride in tea, and other products?

That said, it’s important to remember that drinking tea does have many benefits, some which may offset potential fluoride exposure. A well-researched approach can provide information that allows for balanced decision making.

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