Organic Foods – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Since posting an article about my 6 year old Sabrina contracting Hepatits A after eating frozen organic berries, I’ve received a flood of emails from concerned moms like you, asking essentially the same questions:”Is organic food really all that it’s cracked up to be?” and  “How do I know which organic products to buy?”

Those are valid questions and, frankly, ones I’ve been asking myself more and more frequently these days.  And the truth is that there is no simple answer to these questions.

By Zabdiel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]  via Wikimedia Commons

By Zabdiel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it organic business is big business.  Most of us who are concerned about our family’s health are willing to spend a little extra, and sometimes a lot extra, to ensure that we are buying, wholesome, good quality food that is free of pesticides and other harmful substances.  And Big Companies like PepsiCo and Kellogs are loving it!

What do these healthy brands have in common?

  • Morningstar Farms
  • Kashi
  • Gardenburger
  • Bear Naked

They are all owned by Kellogs.  Naked Juice?  Owned by PepsiCo while Odwalla is owned by Coca-Cola.

“Mega packaged food companies and investor groups buy successful organic brands that were started by visionaries who began the companies with a commitment to the organic ideal of family farms, a clean environment, and simple food without additives. But often, when the big companies buy in, this ideal flies out the window.”- Read more

In a Forbes Report in May of this year Dr. Phillip Howard of the University of Michigan  shared that:

“It’s very common that when an organic food brand is acquired, that the new parent corporation reduces its commitment to organic ingredients and seeks out cheaper substitutes,” writes Howard via email. “Examples include Odwalla after it was acquired by Coca-Cola, Silk Soymilk after it was acquired by Dean, and Peace Cereal after it was acquired by Hearthside Foods (now Post Foods). Consumers have to be vigilant about scanning the ingredient lists as a result.”

Where does this industry remain trustworthy and where has it been overly corrupted by greed?

One of the things I’ve learned from our recent experience is that organic produce grown in foreign countries often does not meet organic standards at all.  Just today I read a very concerning article by Dr. Josh Axe about organic foods we import from China.  The article made me sick to my stomach!  I knew that standards regarding the production of organic foods vary greatly from country to country but this is horrifying!  The worst part is that the US still imports this food and gives it the coveted “USDA organic” seal, which most of us consumers trust. ( you can read the article here)

And yes this is the UGLY part of this: Certified “USDA organic” is not so pure after all.

Every year the USDA allows more and more non-organic ingredients in packaged products such as cereal bars, that are labeled as “Organic”.  The labeling is not compromised if these non-organic ingredients remain below a certain percentage.

So when it comes to pre-made foods, cereals and other products that contain a multitude of ingredients, read the labels and then choose according to your comfort level. Personally, if there are too many ingredients I can’t pronounce or if I have no idea whatsoever what an ingredient is, I try to avoid it.

When it comes to produce, once again not all are created equal.

In an ideal world we would be able to buy only organically grown produce.  But that’s easier said than done. Organic produce is not readily available everywhere or all year long.  And let’s face it, eating all organic can easily become cost prohibitive.  But you don’t have to buy all of organic produce, with the exception of the “dirty dozen”.

The Dirty Dozen for 2013 (from the Environmental Working Group)

  • Photo Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

    Photo Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos


  • Celery
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Hot Peppers
  • Nectarines (Imported)
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Kale, Collar Green, +
  • Summer Squash (Zucchini) +

These foods are far more susceptible to harmful chemicals than others, so if you can’t buy then organic, don’t buy then at all!  Variety makes eating fruits and vegetables more fun, so be creative in swapping out one vegetable with another in your favorite recipe.  If you can afford to buy all organic, by all means do, just make sure that your produce comes from a trusted source.

These “clean fifteen” are considered safe by EWG.

The Clean 15 for 2013

  • Asparagus
  • Avocadoes
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Sweet Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Mushroom
  • Onions
  • Papayas
  • Pineaple
  • Sweet Peas (frozen)
  • Sweet potatoes

Short of growing your own produce, here are a few tips to making eating organic a little easier.

Buy Local Organic as much as possible

By Jessica Spengler  [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jessica Spengler [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Buying from a local producer is the ideal solution to ensuring your produce is as fresh as it can be and from a reliable source.  Even if produce is grown in a truly organic environment, the longer the food has to travel, the younger it is picked.  This means that food that comes from far away has to be picked before it’s prime in order to be ripe by the time it arrives at your grocery store.  And that means it is not as full of wholesome nutrients as you might believe. And the longer these foods sit in plastic packaging, the more toxins seep into them.

I’m grateful to live in LA where I have a number of Farmers’ Markets to choose from every day of the week.  And my favorite health food store is just a few blocks from my daughters’ school.  But that’s not the case for everyone.  By far your local farmer’s market is the best choice.  You can find develop a trusted relationship with different growers.  I love when I get to my favorite producer and he has choice items set aside for me!

If you are feeling adventurous this summer, schedule a  visit to  a local farm with the kids!  It’s a fun thing to do and a great learning experience.

Always wash your produce!

Yes even organic produce needs to be washed before you eat it.  This is especially true if your items come wrapped in plastic and has traveled a good distance under a hot sun.  The plastic releases toxins that get into your food. Use a special produce soap or you can soak your vegetables in water with a little apple cider vinegar for about 10 minutes to neutralize those harmful chemicals. Even if you’ve hand selected your produce just think about how many other hands have touched it before you decided to put it in your shopping basket!  And I always cut off the piece onto which the little sticker is pasted because I just don’t like the idea of eating glue with my food.

Avoid Organic products that contain non-organic and GMO ingredients

When it comes to cereals, bars and other prepared foods, if the ingredients themselves don’t say “organic” there’s a good chance they are GM ingredients.  This became very clear to me when some of my favorite companies who offer healthy organic products spent a fortune to defeat proposition 37,  the full disclosure measure in a recent California election.  I was truly disheartened to realize that these companies were trying to pull the wool over my eyes by mixing GM ingredients with organic ones.  As a rule of thumb, when it comes to corn, soy and peanuts, if they are not “certified organic” I just don’t buy them, as close to 90% of these crops are GM crops.

In the end, our food industry is seriously corrupted, and frankly it will probably get worse before it gets better. But that is nothing new.  It’s been that way for decades!  And that really is the UGLY in all of this.  An industry that is so blinded by greed that it will deceive us through fancy labeling and dreamy pictures.

But the GOOD is that smaller companies who remain committed to producing real organic food are growing stronger.  And with increasing awareness we are all becoming smarter shoppers.  We have options, and even very good options.  The more we support small, local producers, the better and more plentiful these options will become.

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  1. Some great ideas there on keeping going with Organic, which as we know is becoming more and more difficult as time goes on. And eating healthier is also a big issue which goes hand in hand with this subject!
    nice post Valerie

    • Thanks you Ashley! I think a lot of people get discouraged with the never ending news of more problems with our food chain. I love supporting local farmers and developing relationships I can trust. Short of growing your own fruits and vegetables, it’s a fun way to eat healthy and keep my foods varied. As a mom one of my priorities is teaching my daughters healthy life habits, and it does start with what goes in their mouths. Have a splendid day!

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