By buying products that bear a “USDA Organic” seal, most consumers hope to establish some sense of consistency or peace of mind that the foods they purchase have been produced or grown in accordance with organic standards. While many of us couldn’t recite the specifics the regulations spell out, many perceive “organic” food items to be more wholesome, closer to the natural state of things.
However, things may have gotten a little out of hand: The New York Times recently reported that the list of non-organic ingredients allowed in organic products has grown from 77 in 2002 to over 250 today. While there may be some ingredients for which no organic alternatives exist, should we be concerned about the increasing number of non-organic ingredients approved for use in organic products?
Non-Organic Ingredients in Organic Foods
The USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances specifies which synthetic substances can be added to organic foods or used in organic food production. It also specifies which naturally occurring substances are prohibited. Items on the list serve different purposes, during either farming, production, or in the actual end product. Companies can petition to add new substances to the list; these submissions are reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board, which in recent years has come under increasing criticism by organic advocates that it is being influenced by corporate interests.
One example of a non-organic ingredient allowed in organic food is carrageenan. Carrageenan is extracted from seaweed, but some safety concerns were raised by the Cornucopia Institute. Carrageenan is found in some flavored milk and non-dairy milk beverages like soy and almond milk, in which it is used to prevent separation and contribute the creamy mouthfeel associated with dairy. It can also be found as an ingredient in organic chocolate milk.
Some other examples of non-organic ingredients on the National List are:
- tocopherols – to prevent rancidity
- xanthan gum – a thickener
- agar-agar – a thickener, or a vegetarian substitute for gelatin
- nutrient vitamins and minerals – to fortify/supplement
The Bottom Line: Is Organic Still Worth It?
Beyond the list of allowed non-organic ingredients, organic regulation forbids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering in food production. It also prohibits the addition of artificial sweeteners, artificial flavorings, and food dyes. Organic food production is supposed to follow ecologically sound principles that help promote biodiversity and facilitate recycling of resources. So, buying certified organic still differentiates what you get from foods derived from conventional food production.
Having said that, you still need to be smart about what to purchase. Even with organic foods or food products, the general rule of thumb is to purchase ingredients and foods that are as close to their natural (i.e., minimally processed) state as possible. For example, if you choose to avoid carrageenan, buy organic plain milk and make your own homemade chocolate milk. Alternatively, the Cornucopia Institute has produced a shopping guide for avoiding organic foods containing carrageenan.