Reading Organic Food Labels

Madeline: Posted 31/01/2017

Unfortunately, buying organic food doesn’t mean the same thing today as it once did.  At one time, you could purchase organic food without paying much mind to the label or the origin—you were pretty much guaranteed to be buying real organic food, free from harmful chemicals and additives, from a local, dependable source.

This isn’t the case today, however, as many products whose labels proclaim them organic may actually contain carcinogens and other harmful substances.  In fact, some organic foods, particularly those originating in other countries, may not even be organic at all!  In light of this, it’s crucial that you read all the labels on your organic products before you buy.

Not All Ingredients Are Created Equal

Most of us believe that when we buy an organic food product, all of the ingredients in that product are going to be, well, organic!  This isn’t necessarily the case anymore, as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) increases the number of synthetic and non-organic ingredients allowed to be added to certified organic food each year.  Sadly, “certified organic” doesn’t have to be organic!

Three of the newest synthetic substances added to the list are known carcinogens, substances that have been shown to change the makeup of human DNA and potentially cause cancer.  Carrageenan, an emulsifier found in some dairy products and juices, is a carcinogen that causes digestive problems.  Aren’t easier, more efficient digestion, and a healthier digestive tract, some of the reasons we eat organic?  In addition, choline and inositol have been approved for addition to organic baby formula.  Though these chemicals are known to produce dioxane, a carcinogen, they’ve been added to regular baby formula for years.

When you purchase organic food, you expect that food to be GMO and pesticide free, with little to no processing or additives.  Why, then, are harmful synthetic substances being approved for use in organic foods, particularly when consumers pay a premium price to ensure that food doesn’t contain such substances?  This is where the importance of reading organic food labels—and subsequently taking action—comes in.  Before you purchase organic food, you should always read the label and check to see if that item contains any synthetic, non-organic substances.  (In fact, you can find a list of approved synthetic substances here.)

If there are synthetic substances in your organic food item, you can take action.  Call or email the company’s customer service department and let them know your thoughts as the consumer.  Sign petitions to have the NOSB revise their list of allowed synthetic ingredients, or to have organic companies stop using carrageenan in their products.  Finally, use your purchasing power to make a statement: don’t give your money to companies whose products contain non-organic, harmful, synthetic ingredients.

Know Your Food’s Roots

As important as reading the labels of your organic food products is knowing where your organic products come from.  In recent years, China has begun exporting organic food products in an effort to support the livelihood of citizens victimized by the country’s inability to regulate its food industry.  The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) rejects food products from China on a regular basis for mislabeled products and unsafe ingredients.  However, are organic products from the country any safer?  While not all organic food from China poses a problem, the matter does merit consideration, particularly considering the fact that China is the third largest exporter of agricultural products to the U.S.

One of the biggest issues facing China’s organic products is the level of pollution that plagues the country and how this translates into its organic exports.  Heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, aluminum, and cadmium easily find their way into agricultural products grown in areas where air and irrigation systems are contaminated by the same substances.  Most disturbingly, the USDA doesn’t actually regulate the level of heavy metal contamination in organic foods.  “Certified organic” simply indicates a process by which food is produced without the addition of synthetic and other substances to the crop, in soil that hasn’t been altered by contaminates for a specific number of years before approval.  In other words, environmental sources of pollution, such as fallout from nearby chemical factories or contaminated irrigation systems, that affect agricultural products aren’t considered when certifying a product as organic.

What does this boil down to?  In addition to reading organic food labels to determine whether harmful substances have been added, it’s also crucial to understand where the products have come from: a clean environment is essential to the cleanliness, and therefore organic nature, of the final product.  Even though not every organic product from China is contaminated, why risk your own and your family’s health?  Why waste your money on a “certified” product that may or may not actually be organic?  It may cost you more time at the grocery store, but in the end, knowing where your food comes from and what’s inside will save your health.


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