Bad news, readers. The words “all natural” on a label don’t mean very much. Neither the FDA nor the USDA have a solid definition for what “all natural” means, which allows companies to add these words to a label without much regulation; however, the FDA has said that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” The final verdict: “all natural” does not mean organic!
The use of antibiotics in the meat industry is very different from their use in humans. Antibiotics, in people, target a specific condition or symptom. Antibiotics in livestock, however, are given sub-therapeutically, or at low doses over a long span of time. This treatment encourages animals to grow larger and is often used to combat many of the diseases they are exposed to when living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. So, why—aside from its being a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle for an animal—are antibiotics in your food something to avoid? According to a report published by the CDC, the FDA, and the NIH: “As a result of continued exposure to antimicrobials, the prevalence of resistant bacteria in the fecal flora of food animals can be relatively high. The impact of increases in resistant bacteria in food animals on the management of human infections is an ongoing concern as many classes of antimicrobials used in food-producing animals have analogues to human therapeutics and are therefore capable of selecting for similar resistance phenotypes.” In English, that means that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is creating bacteria that is resistant to the antibiotics given to animals, many of which are similar to the medicines used to treat infections in humans.
Bisphenol A, or BPA
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a manmade compound used in making some plastics and epoxies. Plastic containing BPA is clear, rigid, and hard, making it popular for water and baby bottles as well as the linings for cans, which is rather troublesome as some research has shown BPA’s propensity for leaching into food or drinks. In the body, BPA mimics the hormone estrogen and, some studies have shown, plays a role in a host of disorders, including obesity, neurological and thyroid disorders, and even cancer. In 2010, the FDA warned that BPA poses potential risks to babies and children, and shortly after that, Canada became the first country to declare the compound toxic.
Not to be confused with conventional agriculture (see below), commercial agriculture simply means agriculture being used in business. Your favorite organic brands are commercial because they are businesses selling a product.
This is a broad term that encompasses a variety of different practices, making conventional agriculture somewhat hard to define. Perhaps the easiest way to describe conventional agriculture systems is as any system that isn’t employing organic practices. This includes the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides—unlike the organic fertilizers and pesticides used in organic production—and intensive mass animal farming, or factory farming, meaning raising livestock in confinement at high densities.
In conventional agriculture, a feedlot is a system used for finishing livestock, which is to say, preparing the animal to be butchered. A feedlot may contain thousands of animals in a series of pens, where they are fed a diet high in grains to encourage them to put on fat, which creates marbling in the meat. Because most of these animals would not naturally consume a diet so grain-dense as they do in the feedlot, it is necessary to put them on an antibiotic regimen to prevent them from developing diseases. Feedlots require particular government permits to deal with the concentrations of waste produced by the animals.
As of now, USDA free range regulations are applied only to poultry production and do not include egg production. Essentially, these regulations require that the animal has access to the outside; however, the duration of time outdoors and the quality of the outdoor access are not regulated. Free range also does not apply to the quality of feed given to the animals, although their not being caged allows birds to engage in instinctual behaviors like nesting and foraging.
A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism whose genes have been tinkered with using genetic engineering techniques (as opposed to traditional methods of selective breeding which produced things like livestock breeds and vegetable varieties). This ranges from corn that has been altered to be tolerant of certain pesticides to cats that glow in the dark. GMO’s also include bacteria & small mammals that have been altered for pharmaceutical use, or “pharming.” However, when most folks talk about GMO’s, they are talking about crops. Agriculturally, the first GMO product to hit American shelves was the FlavrSavr Tomato 1994, and today, consumers are offered an increasing number of GMO products including cotton, corn, and soybeans: “As of June 30, 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agriculture Statistics Service (USDA/NASS) reported that transgenic varieties comprised 87 percent of all soybean acreage planted in the United States (up from 60 percent in 2001, and 85 percent in 2004). As of the same date, transgenic corn acreage planted was 52 percent (up from 47 percent in 2004). Transgenic upland cotton was 79 percent (up from 76 percent in 2004). “It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of these commodities grown in the United States are GMO crops. Note that any product labeled certified organic cannot include any GMO components.
This term applies only to ruminant animals, which includes cattle, goats, and sheep. Grass-fed is a USDA regulated term, meaning that the animal has consumed nothing but grass since weaning. Specifically, the animal’s diet has not been supplemented with any kind of grain. Grass-fed has no bearing on whether the animal has been given hormones or antibiotics. Currently, there is no regulated equivalent to “grass-fed” for pork or poultry, which are omnivores and, therefore, require more than roughage to be healthy. The term “pasture-raised” is the closest analog; however there is no regulation surrounding the use of the term. See pasture-raised below.
Heirloom refers to old cultivars or varieties of vegetables and flowers. Heirloom varieties have been open-pollinated (see below) and have not been bred or hybridized in a controlled manner. Plainly speaking, heirloom varieties are the result of natural selection. They are often not efficient for large-scale agriculture but are adapted and specialized for the small region from which they originated.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup is a syrup made from the starches in corn which has been processed to convert some of its glucose to fructose, making it quite sweet. Thanks to the price of sugar in North America being two to three times higher than it is in the rest of the world and government corn subsidies, you see high fructose corn syrup so much more frequently than sugar, or sucrose. So what makes high fructose corn syrup so controversial? According to a Princeton study, high fructose corn syrup has health impacts that sucrose does not: “The first study showed that male rats given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar, or sucrose, in conjunction with the standard diet. The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, while the high-fructose corn syrup solution was half as concentrated as most sodas.” Along with just being plain questionable for your health, some studies have detected mercury in high fructose corn syrup, a byproduct of the process used to convert glucose to fructose. Fortunately for you, Organic Thinker, if a product includes high fructose corn syrup, it will say so in the ingredients.
Vegetable oils that have undergone hydrogenation, a chemical process that forces hydrogen atoms to bond with molecules present, are called hydrogenated oils. Vegetable oils, because of the weakness of the bonds between its carbons, oxidizes (goes rancid) easily; however, hydrogen atoms, introduced through hydrogenation, bond to the free floating carbon atoms and prevent oxygen from bonding, thus preventing oxidation and rancidity. This process turns a liquid oil into a solid, extends its shelf life, and can make for a more pleasing texture when cooked with. There is, however, one nasty side effect of hydrogenation: it changes the shape of the fatty acid molecules, turning them to trans fats, which, it turns out, stack very neatly together, leading to clumps of fat in parts of your body where you don’t want them. The arteries, for instance. Trans fat “both raises your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol” and is related to a host of health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. To make matters worse, all cell membranes in the human body are made of lipids, building and regeneration of which require fatty acids. Many of these fatty acids the body can synthesize, but a few of them must be attained through diet. So, trans fats are not only creating plaque in the coronary artery but also changing the chemistry of actual membranes of cells, the detrimental effects of which are only now being studied. The verdict: avoid foods that must be bombarded with hydrogen atoms in order to achieve a pleasant mouthfeel.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is a broad, environmentally-friendly system of pest control used in both livestock and vegetable production. IPM focuses on keeping pest populations below the level where they begin to have a negative economic impact on the farmer instead of simply eradicating the entire population. Farmers using IPM use a variety of techniques to control pests, only one of which is the use of chemical sprays, which are typically used in conjunction with other methods such as traps, introduction of predator species, and crop rotation. Currently, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy produced using IPM are not identified as such to consumers. For more on IPM applications in livestock, click here.
Seed varieties that are open-pollinated have been pollinated by insects, self-pollination, or other natural methods of pollination. A seed that has been open-pollinated will produce a plant with the same characteristics as the parent-plant.
Organic refers to a regulated labeling term indicating that the food or fiber product has been produced using methods approved by a third-party inspector that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical farming practices. These practices are meant to encourage cycling of resources, foster ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organic agriculture prohibits the use of genetic engineering, and chemical pest controls (some exceptions include naturally derived substances).
Non-Certified Agriculture tends to refer to farming that adheres to all the standards set forth by the National Organic Program, but is not officially inspected or certified to use the USDA organic seal, or the word organic as a labeling claim.
Use of the word “organic” by non-certified farmers continues to spark controversy. Technically, a producer who makes more than $1000 per year may not use the word organic unless officially certified. Certified growers, and representatives of the National Organic Program argue that the use of the word “organic” by non-certified growers lends to confusion in the consumer market, and jeopardizes the integrity of the organic seal. Non-certified growers counter that many people used organic practices before the word was regulated, and that the costs and due diligence associated with maintaining certification are often not worth the trouble, particularly when those growers have regular, face-to-face contact with their end-consumer, and can describe their farming methods in detail to their buyers. Still, the USDA’s organic program remains as the only nationally recognized and accepted program that is most understood by consumers to translate into clean, safe food. As the market for organic grows, there is no doubt that all growers using non-chemical, sustainable farming practices depend on the organic program and the market it has created in order to survive.
As a consumer, your purchases will most likely depend on how close you can get to the farm gate. You may choose to buy non-certified food, especially if you know the farmer who grew it and you can ascertain that it is clean and healthy. In the Southeast, the number of un-certified farmers far outnumber those who are certified organic, so it behooves you to form some relationships to determine how important that “O” word is when voting with your food dollar.
The USDA defines pasture-raised as follows: “Livestock that have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle, including “:
Cattle *-Shall never be confined to a feedlot.
Sheep *-Shall never be confined to a feedlot.
Swine *-Shall have continuous access to pasture for at least 80% of their production cycle .
* FSIS requires product labels from red meat species with these claims also include the
following further qualifying statement : “Free Range-Never Confined to Feedlot.”
However, this label does not preclude the use of antibiotics or hormones or prevent farmers from supplementing their animals with grain or a grain-based feed. Similarly, the use of the term “pasture-raised” is not regulated and, therefore, can be used rather loosely. The solution? Know thy farmer! Pasture-raised can evoke all kinds of bucolic visions in your mind, but be sure you know what visions it evokes for the person producing your meat.
A chemical compound added to plastics to increase flexibility and durability, phthalates are just about everywhere: “Phthalates are found in a wide variety of products including vinyl upholstery, shower curtains, food containers and wrappers, toys, floor tiles, lubricants, sealers, and adhesives (Arbeitsgemeinschaft PVC und Umwelt e.V., 2006; European Union, 2007; Heudorf et al., 2007; Rakkestad et al., 2007; Rudel, 2000). Beyond their use in PVC resins, phthalates can be found in cosmetics such as perfume, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, hair spray, and liquid soap, and as an inert ingredient in pesticides (European Union, 2004; European Union, 2007; Rudel, 2000; Schettler, 2006).”
Because of their chemical structure, phthalates breakdown easily as plastic ages, and these chemicals are then released into the air and leach into food. Fortunately, factors outdoors such as sunlight and heat continue to degrade phthalates when released into the environment; however, their lifetime indoors is longer, making their concentration in homes higher. This behavior is troublesome because phthalates act like hormones in the body and can wreak havoc on your endocrine system. Essentially, they confuse hormone receptors and have been shown to cause reproductive and neurological damage. The risk is particularly high in children and infants because of their propensity for putting objects in their mouths, which led Congress to ban the use of six of the twenty-five most common phthalate compounds in toys. However, more recent findings suggest that the risk does not stop with children, as in a 2010 study, 82% of women tested had phthalates present in their bodies.
Currently, there are no specific labeling requirements for phthalates; however, they are used in some–but not all–PVC compounds. PVC plastics are labeled “Type 3” for recycling reasons, but as not all PVC plastics contain phthalates, this is not a consistent identifier of the chemical. So how do you avoid exposing you and your family to these noxious chemicals? Cut down on plastics and send your congressmen and women strongly-worded letters about label requirements.
Parabens are a class of chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and as a food additive. They are effective and cheap, which lends to their popularity as preservatives. According to the CDC, “People can be exposed to parabens through touching, swallowing, or eating products that contain parabens. Many products, such as makeup, moisturizers, hair-care products, and shaving creams, contain parabens. Parabens in these products are absorbed through the skin. Parabens also can enter the body when pharmaceuticals, foods, and drinks containing parabens are swallowed or eaten. Parabens that enter the body are quickly excreted.”
Because of their use in cosmetics, studies have shown paraben-concentrations to be much higher in women than men.
In the body, parabens have shown estrogen-mimicking behaviors, which is, perhaps, why some studies have shown a correlation between paraben-levels and breast cancer–one of these studies, in fact, detected paraben compounds in the tissue of breast cancer tumors. The fact that when parabens are consumed, they do not tend to linger in the body leads some specialists to believe that the parabens present in cancer tissues came from something applied to the skin, suggesting that a deodorant or body spray may be the culprit. At the same time, no causal relationship has been found, and other specialists in the field believe it very unlikely that parabens have anything to do with breast cancer.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, is the synthetic version of bovine somatotrophin, or bST, which is a naturally occurring hormone produced by a cow’s pituitary gland. It is administered to dairy cows to increase milk production. While the FDA issued a report stating that milk produced with the aid of rBGH was safe, the health of the cows is another story.
Cows treated with rBGH experienced “widespread and virulent outbreaks of mastitis” which, in turn, created the necessity for antibiotic treatments. Bad news if you’re a cow, but what about if you’re a person? While, milk from cows treated with rBGH has not shown to have higher levels of growth hormone than untreated cows, according to the American Cancer Association “Of greater concern is the fact that milk from rBGH-treated cows has higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone that normally helps some types of cells to grow. Several studies have found that IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors. Some early studies found a relationship between blood levels of IGF-1 and the development of prostate, breast, colorectal, and other cancers, but later studies have failed to confirm these reports or have found weaker relationships. While there may be a link between IGF-1 blood levels and cancer, the exact nature of this link remains unclear.” It’s also unclear if drinking milk from treated cows actually increases a person’s IGF-1 blood levels, either. Many companies producing milk have begun labeling their products rBGH-free when applicable, but the FDA has recommended the inclusion of the phrasing “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.” Buyer beware?