Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How Organic is Organic?

A central entertainment at Holiday dinners at our family is an argument about what food is healthy, and what isn't healthy.

This year so-called "organic" food was in focus, pushing aside vegetarianism, hi-carb and lo-carb.

There are two ideas: that the "organic animals" are better treated, and that organic food is healthier.

Being a chemist is completely natural to me to divorce the question of animal treatment from the additives used to make the agricultural product. Organic advocates are always saying that organic animals are treated better by their "loving owners" as opposed to "evil corporate wage-slaves" raising other animals. I was surprised to learn there are animal husbandry standards in the FDA organic regulations. I still don't think that organic farmers love animals more than other farms. For example, egg farmers have standards on how to treat chickens in their large cage-based  chicken farms. Here is something similar for dairy cattle from a farmers group.

I downloaded the approved additives in organic foods lists from the FDA. This puts forth when synthetic materials can be used in "organic" foods, and still be organic. There are actually two lists, one of synthetic materials that are OK, and another of bio-derived materials that are not OK.

One surprise is the amount of antibiotics that "organic" beef can receive, for example Atropine -- which is a weak toxin and dilates the eyes.

Another is a list of synthetic or non-organic biomaterials that can be used in organic foods, for example, like hops or pumpkin juice for color.

The bottom line is that "organic" does not mean what most consumers think it means. Food is actually a more technical and more complex product than anyone cares to know. Having said that, organic food is not any less healthy than standard foods, although it is less healthy for the wallet.