Millions of Americans rely on organic food as a safe-haven from pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms. Whether produce, animal products, or the plethora of processed foods that make up our food options, consumers often look no further than the USDA certified organic label on an item before placing it in their shopping cart. But, organic foods can contain a number of non-organic and synthetic ingredients. Some have even been proven to be harmful.
While it can seem like a flagrant disregard or deception, it's not exactly the case…technically. Substances are approved by the National Organic Standards Board, which was appointed by the USDA's National Organic Program. Many of the board members come from big-organic companies that have vested interests in seeing certain substances allowed in organic foods. The number of nonorganic substances allowed in organic food has increased considerably in the last decade. In 2002, there were just 77 nonorganic items permitted; that number is more than 250 now.
Even though the NOSB must review all materials allowed in organic food every five years and make recommendations on renewal, removal or changes in the listing, many items are pushed through that have known risks. The rules state that nonorganic ingredients can be allowed in organic foods if they are "essential" to the manufacturing process. And some organic advocates suggest that certain nonessential ingredients are now commonplace in organic food.
Two of the most common additives receiving attention lately are carrageenan and Docosahexaenoic acid.
Carrageenann is derived from seaweed, and used as a thickening agent and stabilizer. It's widely found in dairy products such as yogurts and ice cream as well as nondairy milks, cheeses, yogurts and ice cream. Research linking the additive to digestive disorders and certain cancer risks has made it a highly controversial ingredient.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is another highly controversial ingredient commonly added to infant formula. It's a concentrated form of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in cognitive function and development, but the issue is with it being a synthetic additive connected with an increased risk of cancer in the prostate and colon.
Other additives of concern include those with potentially harmful effects on humans and the environment such as ethylene, a fossil fuel-derived substance used to hasten ripening of fruits and vegetables; tetrasodium pyrophosphate, a combination of phosphoric acid and sodium carbonate common in soy products; copper sulfate, used in agricultural production, has been linked with liver damage and is considered to be highly toxic by the EPA. It's just one of many pesticides approved for use in organic food production.
Want to kick non-organic substances off your plate?
The easiest place to start is with the label. Don't let the certified organic claim lead you to believe your food is entirely organic. Read the ingredients. There are a number of smart phone apps you can download to help you look up ingredients you're unsure about.
And consider whether or not you can make your own. Nondairy milks, for example, can easily be made at home for a fraction of the cost of store-bought brands.
Let your favorite brands know how you feel about controversial ingredients in your favorite products. Whether a post on Facebook or a letter written directly to the company, your voice is incredibly powerful and important! Giving companies feedback is one of the greatest tools to help them change their ways.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger