by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Jul 30 2009

Today’s huge flap about organics: forget nutrients

I’m in London and today’s tabloid Daily Express has a headline in type two inches high: “ORGANIC FOOD NO HEALTHIER.”  The article begins, “Eating organic food in the belief that it is good for your health is a waste of money, new research shows.”


Really?  This surprising statement is based on the conclusions of a lengthy report just released from the British Food Standards Agency, Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature.  This report, done by excellent researchers at the prestigious London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looked at the results of 162 studies comparing organic to conventionally grown foods for their content of nutrients and other substances.  Although it found higher amounts of some nutrients in organic crops, it found higher amounts of others in conventional crops, and no difference in others.  On this basis, the report concludes:

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Food Standards Agency says:

The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.

Fine, but do animal welfare and environmental concerns not matter?  The authors of the report summarize their findings in a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The paper concludes:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Oh?  I thought that’s what organic foods were about – production methods: no antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  I thought better production methods were the precise point of organic foods.

But these authors did not compare amounts of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  They did not look at any of those things.  They only looked at nutrients.  This is an example of nutritionism in action: looking at foods as if their nutrient content is all that matters – not production methods, not effects on the environment, and not even taste.

I’m surprised that investigators of this caliber would focus so narrowly on nutrient content.  There is no reason to think that organic foods would have fewer nutrients than industrially produced foods, and there are many reasons to think that organics have greater benefits for the environment, for pesticide reduction, and for taste, all of which affect human health at least as much — or more — than minor differences in nutritional content.   I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably.  I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics and this study does not even begin to address them.

[Posted from London]

Jul 2 2009

Feeding the world: an economic analysis

The Deutsche Bank and University of Wisconsin researchers have collaborated on a major investigation of what has to be done about agriculture to feed the world.  The report, which has lots of economic charts and diagrams, takes a tough look at resources and the environmental and climate-change consequences of agricultural practices.  It concludes that agriculture needs lots of money invested in fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization, farmer education, and land reclamation, and that both organic as biotechnological approaches will be needed to maximize production.  The facts and figures are worth perusing.  But what to do with them is always a matter of interpretation.  It will be interesting to see who uses the report and how, or whether it, like  most such reports, ends up in a dusty drawer.

Jul 1 2009

Horizon organics alert: here comes “natural”

Horizon, the commercial organic milk producer, is introducing  its first new non-organic products for children.   These will be labeled “natural,” not organic.   Horizon’s press people say the products “don’t contain growth hormones and will be easier on the pocketbook…These are our first natural offerings in the marketplace, and Horizon always tries to provide great-tasting products for moms and for families.”  Really?

“Natural” is an odd term.  It has no regulatory meaning.   Meats that are “natural” are supposed to be minimally processed and if their labels say they were produced without antibiotics or hormones the statements have to be truthful and not misleading.  As I discussed in What to Eat, meat retailers can’t tell the difference between “natural” and organic and neither can a lot of consumers.  Retailers are happy to charge the same high prices for the “natural” products and consumers think they are buying organics.  This is not a good situation.

So why would a company ostensibly devoted to the principles and practice of organics suddenly decide to start marketing “natural” products?  For the answer, I defer to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute who sent this message today:

The rumors have now been confirmed.  Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division has now announced that they will bring out “natural” (conventional) dairy products under the Horizon label.  This at a time when organic dairy farmers around the country are in financial crisis due to a glut of milk.

They are in essence creating a new product category, “natural dairy products,” that will directly compete with certified organic farmers and the marketers they partner with.

This move comes on the heels of the recent decision by Dean/WhiteWave to switch almost the entire product offerings of their Silk soymilk and soyfoods line to “natural” (conventional) soybeans.  They made the switch to conventional soybeans, in Silk products, without lowering the price.  Sheer profiteering.

The likelihood is that they will create this new category and enjoy higher profits than they currently realize having to pay those pesky organic dairy farmers a livable wage.

The news story below, from the Natural Foods Merchandise quotes Dean Foods/WhiteWave officials saying these products will be “easier on the pocketbook.”  Yes, they will be designed to undercut certified organic on price.

Horizon is the largest, in terms of dollar volume, organic brand in the marketplace.  Silk holds the leading market share in soyfoods and was once, prior to Dean Foods’ acquisition, a 100% organic company and brand.


Stay tuned.  Dean Foods has just declared war on the organic industry.  Although the first shot has been fired it will not be the last.

The organic farmers, consumers and ethical business people who built this industry did so in effort to create an alternative food system with a different set of values.  We will all work hard to defend what so many good people spent so many years to create.

Mark A. Kastel

Senior Farm Policy Analyst

The Cornucopia Institute

Jun 24 2009

Organic wine: clarification of the rules (?)

You would think that the labeling of organic wine would be simple, but you would be so wrong.  Just for fun, here’s who does what in the federal government when it comes to food and beverages.  For the most part:

  • USDA does meat and poultry
  • FDA does everything else
  • Except alcohol, which is done by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • Except that USDA does all organic food
  • Except for organic wine, sort of
  • Problem solved: USDA and TTB have made a deal.  TTB will do organic wine
  • Except that USDA has just changed the rules

Got all that?

I won’t try to reproduce the rules for organic wines; they look too much like what I’ve just written.  Take a look at judge for yourself.  I’m just happy that all this has been straightened out.

Jun 22 2009

Organics: letter vs. spirit

My once every three weeks Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle deals this time with a slew of questions about organic foods: what are they, can you trust them, are they worth it, aren’t they elitist?

In response, Scott Exo of the Food Alliance points out that his organization does certifications that go beyond what the USDA requires and include the Alliance’s broader requirements for sustainable food production practices: working conditions, animal welfare, and environmental impact.  I’m glad to know about it.

Jun 18 2009

Food legislation (maybe)

Legislators in the new administration are working on food laws.  Here is a quick sample:

Calorie labeling: it looks like we have bipartisan support for national menu labeling.  If passed, calories will have to be disclosed on menu boards of fast food and vending machine chains throughout the country – and not just in New York City and the few states that have passed their own laws.   Lots of health organizations are backing this proposal.

Food safety: the House just passed its version of a bill that will overhaul some aspects of the present food safety system.  This bill still has a long way to go but is a hopeful sign that Congress might actually do something to fix the FDA.  What the bill does not do is deal with fixing the system.  It exempts meat, poultry, and eggs under USDA jurisdiction.

Produce safety: The new head of the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, says her agency is going to put special efforts into ensuring the safety of high-risk produce. To do that, she will need Congress to pass laws that, among other things, give the FDA the authority to order recalls and a lot more money to carry out its work.

Organics: The U.S. and Canada have agreed to coordinate their organic standards, so foods certified organic in Canada can be sold here and vice versa.  Let’s hope the most stringent standards prevail.

These are (somewhat) hopeful signs.  Let’s hope Congress manages to keep at this and tries to get it right.

May 6 2009

American agriculture at a glance

The New York Times has an informative series of maps of the locations of the more than 10,000 organic farms in the U.S.  And notice the increase in sales!

That number of organic farms may seem like a lot but it pales in comparison to the total 2.2 million farms.  Most farms are East of the Mississippi and in the far West.  The maps also show where most of the orchards, vegetable farms, and dairies tend to be.  A big chunk of the country must have a hard time getting locally grown fruit and vegetables, let alone organics.  Doesn’t this look like a growth opportunity?

Mar 22 2009

New York Times: the food revolution!

It’s been a big week for food politics in my local newspaper.  First, the Obama’s new garden (see earlier post) and now Andy Martin’s recap of the events leading to the current push for a healthier and more sustainable food system.  This starts on the front page of the Business section (note photo) and continues on to a full page on the inside.  And in the Week in Review, Mark Bittman writes about the organic revolution.  Full disclosure: I’m quoted in both.


Page 5 of 8« First...34567...Last »