Is Organic Food Really Better for You?

The flip side of the “organic” and "grass fed" trends.

Photo Credit: Shanghai Daddy / Flickr

The following is an excerpt from the new book Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture by Kristin Lawless (St. Martin's Press, June 2018), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

As a member of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, I pay a lot of attention to what health-conscious shoppers load into their grocery carts—these are members of a progressive food co-op whose mission is, in part, to make healthier, safer foods affordable. And the co-op succeeds in doing so in many ways. But it also carries a lot of questionable items. This is partially because of the erosion of the term organic since the turn of the twenty-first century. Indeed, when the co-op first opened its doors in 1973, products like Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, Stonyfield YoKids Organic Yogurt Squeezers, and hundreds of other processed organic products didn’t exist. Therefore you never would have found organic ingredient labels that listed substances like these (as they often do now): organic dextrose, organic maltodextrin, organic locust bean gum, organic guar gum, calcium phosphate, natural flavor, sodium alginate, silicon dioxide. This is obviously not a phenomenon exclusive to the co-op; neighborhood natural food grocers, Whole Foods, and even standard grocery stores all carry these items, and many shoppers, lulled into a false sense of safety by the term organic, or even natural, on the front of packaging, are buying foods that are no better than standard packaged products. Indeed, at the Park Slope Food Coop many people are totally convinced that they are feeding themselves and their families healthy foods. And in many cases, they’re wrong.

Their misinformed buying begins with the use of organic, which within the last decade has become a stand-in for everything that is healthy, sustainable, and righteous. Though organic once meant something significant about how food was raised, produced, and processed, that moment has long passed. Indeed Michael Pollan—one of the best-known critics of Big Food—wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine back in 2001 about the emergence of the “organic-industrial complex” and asked, “Is the word ‘organic’ being emptied of its meaning?” I think it is safe to say that the answer to that now, more than fifteen years later, is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, it seems most Americans have not gotten this memo—even many of those loyal Park Slope Food Coop shoppers who think they are buying better foods for themselves and their families.

Many organic processed foods that I see people buy contain questionable ingredients and additives.  And nearly all these processed foods contain vegetable oils that are likely harming our health. Check the labels of your organic foods and you will probably find organic canola, safflower, and sunflower oil, among others. I asked Dr. Fred Kummerow, a scientist who first raised concerns about the dangers of trans fats in the late 1950s, about these organic oils and whether he thought they were any less harmful than the more common soybean or corn oil. “I don’t think any oils are healthy because they are so easily oxidized. Sunflower and safflower oils are even more unsaturated than soybean, corn, or canola oil.” The more unsaturated the oil, the less stable and more susceptible to rancidity or oxidation it is. Bear in mind that eating a lot of processed foods, even organic processed foods, often means eating a large quantity of refined grains too—both the grains and the vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which appears to be problematic for our health.

But maybe you’ve quit the processed food world and you limit your consumption of organic processed foods, which are largely just a marketing scheme. What about the most basic whole foods? You shop at Whole Foods, health food stores, or the perimeter of the grocery store for whole food ingredients and buy organic milk and yogurt, and organic steaks and eggs. Unfortunately, the organic label on these staples is no guarantee that they are safe or nutritious. As is the case with organic processed foods, the label can often mean next to nothing. Take, for example, Horizon Milk, the largest producer of organic dairy products in the country—the company makes dozens of products including milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, and sour cream. Horizon organic milk, with its bright red label and happy cow on the container, gives the impression of a bucolic standard: cows grazing on acres of small-scale green pasture farms. Indeed, some of the milk that ends up in those Horizon products may well be of that nature, but much of it probably is not and is actually produced on large-scale factory farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards for dairy cattle require that cows have access to pasture for grazing at least 120 days a year, but the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit public interest group, found that Dean Foods (which owned Horizon and later sold it to WhiteWave Foods, which in turn was acquired by the huge multinational corporation Danone in 2017 for $12.5 billion) was confining thousands of cows to large buildings and feedlots with little to no access to pasture.

I asked Horizon about the size of the herds and access to pasture, and I was told that the company’s “farmer partners” range in size from thirteen milking cows to twenty-four hundred milking cows, an enormous range that allows for huge differences in the way animals are treated and how milk is produced. Yet the spokesperson for Horizon told me: “We strongly believe that organic farming is scale neutral. In our view it’s about how the farm is operated that matters.” But scale is perhaps the major differentiator between industrial and truly organic farming. This is especially true when it comes to raising animals because part of the USDA’s organic standard requires that every animal have pasture for grazing year-round. This requirement makes the practices involved in caring for a herd of fifty or even one hundred dairy cows significantly different from caring for a herd of two thousand. WhiteWave foods didn’t respond to my question about how many acres each cow has access to; the spokesperson said only that third-party verifiers inspect every farm and that all are required to meet USDA standards.

This brings up another troubling aspect of modern-day milk production, including the production of organic milk. Most smaller dairies can’t afford to build and equip a bottling facility, which means they cannot independently produce and sell their own milk; instead they ship their milk to a larger bottling facility and are at the mercy of the practices of the larger industry. One dairy farmer in Upstate New York, Lorraine Lewandrowski, is in this position. She has a herd of sixty and raises her cattle by organic standards, although she is not certified organic (the organic certification process for some smaller farms is cost prohibitive). All her cows graze on pasture year-round and she knows each by name—in other words, her farm embodies the ideal held up by the sustainable food movement. But her grass-fed, beyond-organic milk, from cows raised using the most humane standards, is combined with milk from farms across the region, many of which are large-scale dairies that feed their cattle grain laced with antibiotics and keep the cows in confinement in factory farm settings. Lewandrowksi’s milk might end up in your Fage yogurt along with the milk from dozens of other dairies. She told me that she’d love to have her own bottling plant right there on the farm, but she doesn’t have the $50,000 it would cost to get it up and running.

What this means for the quality of your Horizon organic milk or milk from other large dairy companies is that there are many unknowns, and as consumers we are being asked to trust a label that might not mean what we think it does. For modern-day organics this is all too often the case. Organic beef, pork, chicken, and egg production have parallels as well. Many so-called organic beef cattle are raised on feedlots where they are fed organic grain, but that says nothing about the health of the animal or the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of the meat you eat. The quality of the animal products we eat has everything to do with the quality of the food they eat; the drugs, hormones, or antibiotics that may or may not have been administered; and, some would argue, the quality of life the animal had. While there are not yet studies to prove it, common sense tells us that a stressed and sick animal is not an ideal candidate to eventually make a healthy meal. Studies do show, however, that what the animals eat has a strong bearing on the quality and nutritional value of the meat, milk, or eggs we eat.

When it comes to the quality of milk, milk that is truly organic does appear to have a nutritional edge over milk that was produced conventionally. After examining nearly four hundred samples of organic and conventional milk during an eighteen month period, the researcher Charles Benbrook found that organic milk contained significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. The researchers also found that whole milk (as opposed to low-fat or fat-free versions) was even higher than conventional milk in the health-promoting omega-3s. (The organic milk that Benbrook used for this study was from suppliers for the cooperatively owned dairy company Organic Valley.) And when it comes to your steak, a 2010 review of the research spanning three decades found that grass-fed beef contained higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than is found in standard grain-fed beef. Multiple studies have shown that CLA protects against cancer, can lower your levels of LDL cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis, and reduces your blood pressure. This same review also found that grass-fed or pasture-raised beef contained more vitamin A and vitamin E and more cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally raised beef. Furthermore, the review found that grass-fed beef has a more favorable ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, which is a vital factor sorely missing from the American diet.

The research on meat, eggs, and dairy is making clear that a grass-based system for raising animals is imperative for the nutritional value of our food. But keep in mind that the food industry has managed to co-opt even the term grass fed. In 2015, the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. introduced a grass-fed burger on its menu, raising questions about how big companies might influence the definition of grass fed, much as they have influenced what is considered organic. Technically all beef cattle are grass fed at one point in their lives, but most end up in a feedlot to be fattened and grow quickly before they are slaughtered. The USDA exercises scant regulation of the term grass fed, and to keep up with demand some producers are claiming, with no oversight, that their beef cattle are grass fed. The American Grassfed Association, a group of producers, food industry service personnel, and consumer interest group representatives, lists producers on its website that the group has certified, which means they have met the following standards: animals are fed only grass and forage from birth until slaughter, they are not confined to feedlots, they are never given antibiotics or hormones, and all are born and raised on American farms.

There are parallels between large-scale organic or grass-fed operations and large-scale organic produce. Many of those parallels lie in scale, farming methods, and attention to the health of the soil. And there’s reason to believe that the quality of organically grown vegetables can vary greatly depending on whether those vegetables were grown in nutrient-rich soil. The USDA has a certification program for organic foods, and for produce the definition states that organic farmers must “respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Organic produce cannot be grown from genetically engineered seed, by using ionizing radiation, or by fertilizing with sewage sludge, and the extensive list of prohibited substances includes various herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Land used for growing organic crops must be free of any prohibited substances for three years before becoming certified. As far as government oversight goes, the organic designation for produce is actually a fairly rigorous one and can be trusted to a decent extent.

However, there are caveats. For example, one of the largest organic farm brands in the world is Earthbound Farm, which you have likely seen in Whole Foods and other supermarkets. Earthbound has farms from California to New Zealand to provide year-round produce from its fifty thousand acres in production. Like Horizon, it was acquired by WhiteWave Foods for $600 million in 2013 (and furthering the consolidation of industrial organic food production, you’ll recall WhiteWave was then acquired by Danone in 2017). Although these farms cannot use many of the most worrisome chemicals that are applied to conventional crops, these operations grow single vast acreages of the same crop, known as mono-cropping, often without caring for the health of the soil or rotating crops. When the health of the soil is poor, the health of the plant is also poor, which means that its nutrient value may be more similar to conventionally grown crops than crops grown in mineral-rich soil that has not been depleted by a lack of biodiversity on the farm. And we have to ask: When an organic farm company becomes as big as Earthbound is, does it embody any of the original spirit or intention of organic agriculture—which has everything to do with caring for the land in a regionally appropriate way while providing local communities with safe, healthy food?

This has been an excerpt from the new book Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture by Kristin Lawless (St. Martin's Press, June 2018), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBoundCopyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Kristin Lawless is an author and independent journalist focusing on the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, VICE, and Huffington Post, as well as in academic journals. Lawless is a Certified Nutrition Educator and works as a nutrition consultant with doctors in New York City.