by Kimberly Allen, RN
With the push to eat more healthy and fears of what the long term effects of eating foods from animals that have been injected with hormones or antibiotics as well as the fertilizers and pesticides used to produce more produce the umber of people turning to organic foods has increased significantly. There have been numerous studies in the US and Canada as well as the UK have indicated that the “nutritional content of organic food is higher than food grown on conventional farms.” Research also indicates that organic foods contain more vitamins and minerals than conventional foods providing more health benefits. This has the sales of organic foods on the rise. And of course with the label organic there comes a higher price tag. People are willing to pay more for their food when the believe they are getting a healthier organic product. This higher sticker price has significantly increased the profits of the retail sellers and their distributors as well as the farmers. Any farmer that has made the change to certified organic farming will tell you they’re making much more money selling premium organic crops and livestock. Unfortunately, greed is one of the factors that leads to fraud in organic foods.
So what is organic? Many people don’t realize it but organic actually refers to the way foods are grown and processed or in the case of livestock they are raised and processed. The farms that produce organically grown/raised must maintain and replenish their soil without using toxic fertilizers and pesticides, nor can they feed their livestock with any grain that has been treated with hormones and their livestock can not be given any injections of hormones, antibiotics or anything else. Their foods can not contain any artificial ingredients, preservatives or coloring. However, believe it or not there are NO LIMITS on levels of heavy metals required by the USDA Organic Standards. In addition to that there are also no limits on the amount of contamination of PBA, PBC’s and other synthetic chemicals that is permitted for foods to be called organic foods. The truth is only the process of how the food is produced by the farmer is regulated. As long as the farmer meets those requirements they can be certified organic. What is not taken into consideration is the environment, more specifically environmental sources of pollution. For example, a farmer that is certified organic can use polluted water to water their crops and those crops will still be certified organic. China is one of the largest exporters of nutritional supplements and superfoods as well as organic foods in the world. However, it also has a horrendous pollution problem. It is considered one of the most polluted cesspools on the planet. Many of the rivers in China are so toxic that sometimes they actually catch fire and burn. In most cases it’s this very same water that is used in the production of “organic” foods and superfoods in China.
Unfortunately supermarkets today are just loaded with fruits and vegetables as well as meat and poultry labeled organic. So how do you know if they are really organic? Unfortunately that an be very difficult because some may have been grown in a polluted environment, like China, while others were transported mixed in with other fruits and vegetables that were not organically grown which then contaminates the organic produce. Some farmers are also tempted by the money organic produce can bring, like the case of Harold Chase of Eugene, OR who was caught selling more than 4.2 million pounds of non-organic corn as certified organic, doubling his profits.
The best way to know the organic food you’re buying is the real deal is to support your local farmer or farmers co-op. Another way to tell if a produce item is certified organic is to use the USDA sticker system. Organic produce is labeled with a round, green and white sticker that reads “USDA Organic.” There should also be a five number code on produce stickers. Organic produce always begins with the number nine. Also, the USP (US Pharmacopeial Convention) has developed an online data base for food fraud that you can check to verify that what your eating is really what it says it is.
For more helpful ways to understand organic food labels, use the chart below courtesy of organic.org:
- Single-Ingredient Foods – On foods like fruits and vegetables, look for a small sticker version of the USDA Organic label or check the signage in your produce section for this seal. The word “organic” and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.
- Multi-Ingredient Foods – Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods use the following classification system to indicate their use of organic ingredients.
- 100% Organic — Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients* and may display the USDA Organic seal.
- Organic — These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the NOP. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.
- Made With Organic Ingredients — Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.
- Other — Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.
Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic, the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers’ market, for example, don’t hesitate to ask the vendors how your food was grown.
Other Fraudulent Foods – Do you really know what you are eating?
Organic foods aren’t the only victims of food fraud. Some foods that we consume on a daily basis are loaded with things they shouldn’t be or are completely and knowingly mislabeled as something it’s not. As reports of food fraud have progressed from the discovery of undersized foot long subs at Subway to reports of fake tuna and horse meat in hamburger one report states food fraud has gone up 60% this year.
In a recent study food fraud in the seafood industry was as high as 70% both in the US and internationally. In the study, 1,215 seafood samples were taken from 674 retail outlets across 21 different states were tested to verify if they were what they claimed to be using DNA testing. According to the guidelines established by the FDA, one third of the samples tested were found to be mislabeled nationwide. Red snapper was found to have the highest rate of mislabeling at 87% followed by tuna which was 59%. In fact only 7 of the 120 samples of red snapper in the study turned out to actually be red snapper, the rest were some other fish labeled ‘red snapper’. There are numerous other fish including cod, halibut, grouper, and Chinese bass that were also found to be mislabeled as mush as 38% of the time. The study indicated that 44% of the retail outlets they visited sold mislabeled fish. The retail outlets included restaurants, sushi venues as well as grocery stores. The study also found that certain retail venues had higher rates of food fraud than others. Sushi venues were found to have the highest rate of food fraud at 74%, restaurants followed with 38%and then the grocery stores with 18%.
Fish is not the only area where food fraud is taking place. Other foods we consume regularly like milk and olive oil as well as coffee and certain juices have also been found to be “fraudulent”. Food fraud even extends to things like honey and certain spices, especially saffron. Researchers state that olive oil is the most commonly adulterated food on the market today. Most of the time it is diluted with hazelnut oil or other oils like soybean or palm oil and peanut oil or walnut oil. So any of you that have nut allergies might want to be very careful about the olive oil you use. Milk is also commonly diluted by a wide variety of alternatives ranging from milk from other animals like sheep or goats to something called “fake milk”. Fake milk consists of oil, urea, caustic soda, detergent, salt, sugar and skim milk powder. Doesn’t that sound healthy?
So why is food fraud becoming a more common practice? It’s simple, money. Companies are looking for ways to save money. The ingredients used to adulterate the foods we eat are much cheaper and whats worse they are virtually undetectable by the consumer, which is you by the way. This also makes it a significant challenge for experts to detect the fraud.
So how can you be more confident that the food you are eating is what it’s supposed to be? First of all, be a smart shopper, buy the good stuff. Buy whole food products they tend to cost more but, are safer. Instead of buying a bottle of lemon or lime juice squeeze your own, grind your own spices and instead of using tea bags brew loose tea. And stay away from white tuna. A fish called escolar is usually labeled as white tuna and has substances that humans are unable to digest.
The best places to buy foods are at co-ops or farmers markets when possible. Remember foods that have been diluted or substituted no longer have the health benefits they claim to have. So if you are buying ‘fake’ products you may be saving your wallet but hurting your body.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.