Hazards in Food: Are Organic and Natural Foods Safer?

Hazards in Food: Are Organic and Natural Foods Safer?

by Matt Collins

Hazards in food are practically everywhere you look.

From E. Coli outbreaks in leafy greens to tainted beef and food poisoning at popular restaurants like Chipotle, it's an ever-present threat to American life.

And while it's not as frightening as some of the topics we usually cover—like a nuclear detonation or a chemical weapons attack—it's still a genuine consideration. The World Health Organization estimates 600 million cases of food poisoning each year, with 420,000 deaths.

(Image courtesy of Business Insider)

Despite the popularity of organic foods and other "natural" alternatives, these numbers keep growing. This leaves consumers to wonder how safe their supermarket produce is and whether they should take extra steps to look out for their families.

Today, we're going to help you answer that question by deeply diving into what "organic" labels mean and how you can keep your family safe from everyday food hazards in food.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Origins of Organic Food

  • 02

    The Organic Seal

  • 03

    Four Common Organic Labels (and What they Really Mean)

  • 04

    What “Natural” and Other Marketing Terms REALLY Mean

  • 05

    Hidden Organic Hazards in Food

  • 06

    Facing the Facts

  • 07

    Insurance for Your Family’s Diet

  • 08

    Is Organic Food Safer?

  • 09

    Frequently Asked Questions: Organic Foods

Origins of Organic Food

The concept of "organic farming" began with Lord Northbourne in 1940.

At the time, agriculture was rapidly evolving all over the world. Industrialization paved the way for giant factory farms, and a small group of farmers from Europe, Australia, and the United States wasn't happy with how things were changing.

"Spiritual scientist" Rudolf Steiner was among the first to implement the principles of organic farming, and he founded several associations to help empower farmers worldwide. Later in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements—or IFOAM—came along to unite over 700 affiliates in more than 100 different territories all over the world.

IFOAM dictates that organic farming should follow four fundamental tenets:

  • It should sustain and enhance the health of farmland, plants, animals, and humans all at once.

  • It should be based on the current ecological cycles, emulating them for the environment's sake.

  • It should help forge relationships that ensure the process is completed relatively regarding all parties.

  • It should be managed responsibly, with equal consideration for today and future generations.

In contrast to these ideological principles, the US National Organic Program (NOP) focuses on the specifics of practical regulation because the NOP is responsible for creating and enforcing the rules that dictate what counts as "organic" here in the United States.

Working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it conducts inspections and certifies products for their organic content.

When you see an "organic" seal on a food product, it's the NOP's job to ensure you know what you're getting.

The Organic Seal

(Image courtesy of USDA)

When you see this seal, it means the product uses only natural and synthetic ingredients that are certified for organic production. It also means the product has been produced in keeping with accepted methods. This rules out certain types of genetic engineering.

Farms that produce certified organic goods must support soil health and biodiversity. But pesticide usage is still (somewhat surprisingly) allowed.

Only certain pesticides are allowed, and only in limited amounts. So you'll never see organic produce that's truly 100% pesticide-free. The pesticides used may have been natural or less toxic than those used in other farms—but they're almost always there.

So if you've been thinking the organic seal means you're not at risk of pesticide exposure … that's just not the case. "Organic" and "natural" don't necessarily mean better.

Take the copper derivatives used as a fungicide for organic food production. It's not as dangerous as some of the more toxic pesticides out there, but in large enough amounts, it can still be harmful to humans.

But when it comes down to brass tacks, the science is precise. According to Food Toxicologist Carl Winter from the University of California, 3 essential factors determine your exposure risk:

  • How much of a given threat is in the food you're eating.

  • How much of that food you're eating.

  • And how bad is that resulting dose for your health.

And, of course, the traditional seal isn't the only type of organic label out there.

Four Common Organic Labels (and What they Really Mean)

There are four popular organic classifications that you're likely to find in your local supermarket. Each one is slightly different, with different requirements, as you'll see in just a moment. Of course, most consumers can't even tell the difference–which is precisely how marketers like it.

(Image courtesy of Farm Aid)

Busy shoppers typically make that flawed association—thinking of organic as better or healthier—and want to give their families the best. It's understandable, and we all want to do the right thing for our family, but there are still significant differences you should consider before you check out.

Here's what you should know about each of the four labels:

  • 100% Organic: This is the strictest classification and the most difficult for producers to obtain. Products must contain 100% organic ingredients (along with salt and water), and the label is typically found on raw/unprocessed foods cultivated with minimal interference. They may also show the USDA organic seal with a label identifying the organic ingredients. This label is arguably the best of the four.

  • Organic: To use this word in its label/advertising, a product must be at least 95% organic (once again, excluding salt and water). The remaining 5% of ingredients can be nonorganic but must be listed within the Code of Federal Regulations. This label may display the organic seal, and it will also list organic ingredients.

  • Made with Organic: Products with these labels must be at least 70% organic, with additional constraints on the remaining ingredients in the nonorganic portion. Organic ingredients may include up to three different categories, and the label is often found on more processed foods.

  • Listed Organic Ingredients: These are the least strict labels, which name specific organic ingredients (made with organic tomatoes, for example). This category has no percentage requirement, but these products are NOT allowed to use the USDA organic seal.

Producers who earn less than $5,000 from organic products each year are not required to apply for organic certification. That might include some of the folks you see at a farmer's market or other small local sellers. But they are still required to comply with established regulations regarding the production and handling of products, and they're required to keep three years of records on hand. These products cannot use the USDA organic seal.

Now that we've got organic food worked out, let's look at what some of these other popular marketing terms mean.

What “Natural” and Other Marketing Terms REALLY Mean

You see it stamped on everything from yogurt to white bread and even Cheetos. "Natural probiotics" or "natural whole grains."

(Image courtesy of Vox)

In reality, the word "natural" in food marketing means that artificial coloring, flavors, and preservatives have been left out of the final product. It doesn't say anything about the ingredients or how they're cultivated.

This is important because you'll recall that "organic" labels dictate how a product may be farmed and processed—unlike "natural" foods. Other standard labels like "cage-free," "free-range," and "hormone-free" likewise don't imply that same standard (we might cover those in a future article).

These labels are sometimes used deceptively, with claims like "grown local" or "100% natural" that have nothing to do with USDA certification. So just make sure to be cautious when you're shopping in your local grocery store.

Because when you buy a USDA-certified organic product, you don't have to worry about some of the industry's most toxic pesticides. In fact, the only pesticides allowed in organic food production are sulfur, boric acid, copper sulfate, bleach, magnesium sulfate, and ammonium carbonate.

Organic food production also prohibits the inclusion of nasty chemicals and additives you'll often find in processed foods … ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, red dye #40, Glyphosate, BPAs, and genetically-modified organics.

But why does all this really matter at the end of the day?

Hidden Biological Hazards in Food

So, "organic" food can be practically anything in your supermarket.

But to qualify, it needs to meet specific standards not only in terms of food production and pesticides—but also in terms of its environmental impact. This is a crucial factor for sustainability and has some essential benefits on the farm.

Today's massive factory farms often have large livestock herds near produce or processing facilities. That means a heightened risk of cross-contamination—ultimately reduced when you switch to organic. Organic standards also prohibit cows from eating animal byproducts, which can prevent issues like Mad Cow Disease.

With organic farms, there's less risk of toxic runoff and other potentially hazardous threats. There's less soil erosion since these farms use crop rotation more frequently. They cut down on energy use since fewer pesticides are manufactured for them. They also limit the risk of chemical hazards in food.

But organic food still comes with some notable compromises.

Organic qualification specifically prohibits the use of specific pesticides, for example. But some of these organic pesticides can be highly toxic to the environment. Chemicals like Rotenone and Azadirachtin have been known to eradicate bee populations. And the usage of "green manure" (rotting plant waste) as compost is also permitted. That's not the only kind of manure used, either. Manure from farm animals is also used for composting the soil.

That natural fertilizer sinks into our groundwater, which can increase the risk of E. Coli and other bacterial infections. More demand for organic food means more demand for organic manure … and, ultimately, more chance of exposure.

(Image courtesy of Wyoming Dept of Agriculture)

Additionally, organic cultivation prohibits sprays and additives that would otherwise prolong the shelf life of certain fresh produce items. So, in addition to the higher cost of organic goods, consumers are likely to buy them more often.

Worse still, the production on organic farms simply can't match the output level you'd get from a traditional farm. Without popular GMO seeds and other synthetic solutions, organic food prices will likely remain high (even as food prices rise across the board).

Studies show that organic farms use more land to produce lower yields, often less than half of what you'd get from conventional methods. Even if every farm was converted to organic to meet demand, we'd still need to find more land to plow—or learn to live with less food. Ready to fight the neighbors over your backyard apple tree?

But at least it's healthier… right?

Facing the Facts

Organic food should be healthier and better for you.

But as always, the truth is more complex. Experts at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition closely reviewed over 50,000 articles and 162 studies to find proof for those claims. They couldn't and concluded that there was no material evidence of a connection between certified organic foods and improved nutrition.

At least there's a benefit to the environment and safer standards being followed at farms. Except that's not always the case, either.

The USDA conducted an audit just a few years ago that revealed numerous businesses couldn't prove their "organic" labels were backed up by real-world certification—even when these companies were taking in shipments from seven different ports nationwide. In another incident, three Nebraska farmers were found guilty of blatantly selling nonorganic crops as certified organic. They earned millions selling their falsely-labeled produce through an Iowa-based company.

Remember how I said the NOP is in charge of enforcing USDA standards? According to recent studies, they've got a grand total of 77 agents policing 44,896 facilities worldwide. 60 agents are in the states, while the rest investigate facilities in foreign countries.

As a result, just 5% of all facilities are tested yearly. It's a joke.

Meanwhile, organic farmers charge a fortune due to restrictive practices (sometimes just greed). And as fuel costs continue to rise, food costs will grow with them—especially organics.

So if organic food isn't any safer, how can you be sure you're putting safe food on the table for your family?

Insurance for Your Family’s Diet

Eating clean and healthy food begins at the source … with the farms that grow our meat and produce.

The more you know about your food sources, the better. Is it coming from big factory farms or smaller local outfits? Are the packages stamped 'organic'? Have they been involved with outbreaks of E. Coli in the past? If possible, do a few minutes of research. Restaurant chefs often go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they're sourcing the most tender cuts of meat and the freshest fruits and vegetables.

Once you've got your fresh food back home, the next step is cleaning.

(Image courtesy of Evidence Based Mommy)

Many American households are not doing enough to cleanse their fruits and vegetables, which can put you and your family at risk. Cleaning is where you can make the most significant difference and have the most control over food safety. But many Americans still eat "pre-washed" salad straight from the plastic bag to the dining room table.

Here's how to prevent biological hazards in food. Washing by hand, using a salad spinner, or any other method that meets the US government's food safety standards is a good idea. But we recommend taking additional precautions with the MIRA Safety DTX-1 Detoxifier.

The DTX-1 is one of the first home appliances on the market to combine cutting-edge ultrasonic cleaning technology with rapid oxidation to achieve a level of cleaning that's 20X better than traditional hand washing.

Simply submerge the Detoxifier's lower fins into a water container and activate it to send ultrasonic pulses through the water, which will unseat fine particulate and erase physical hazards in food. At the same time, jets of oxygen molecules are penetrating the water and killing different types of bacteria and viruses on contact.

It's a much-needed innovation that can help you enjoy cleaner fruits, meats, and vegetables than ever before.

Once your foods are clean, they should be dried, separated, and stored until you cook them. Once again, refer to the US government's food safety standards for details on these critical steps.

Is Organic Food Safer?

As you can see, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no.

Sure, organic food is clearly better for the environment. It saves on pesticide, which saves on the massive amount of energy that goes into producing pesticides. It strictly limits what farmers are allowed to do with their crops and livestock, which can reduce incidental risks of disease. But organic farms also produce less food and take up more land.

Sure, organic farms don’t use harsh pesticides or synthetic chemicals. But they do require a substantial amount of manure—which can still potentially pollute water supplies. They use crop rotation which can cut down on soil erosion, but also means they’re utilizing a much wider area.

Ultimately, it’s still uncertain whether the organic food revolution has been a good thing for America’s agriculture. Organic farming hasn’t eliminated hazards in food though, which means you’ll still need to take additional steps to ensure your own family’s safety.

Frequently Asked Questions: Organic Food

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