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Chemicals in Natural and Organic Foods

There are multiple reasons why consumers prefer organic or all-natural foods over standard supermarket fare. Some are looking for produce which contains no additives, no preservatives and no pesticides, just pure whole food, the way nature intended. Others simply prefer the taste and flavour of natural foods. However, whatever the reason for it is, your choice of health food does not automatically make your diet healthier. Worse yet, in many cases it turns out that there is no real evidence for the superiority of health or natural foods over standard supermarket produce.

In fact, you simply cannot assume that everything sold at a health food store is better and healthier, let alone tastier, than what you get at the supermarket. For example, health or all-natural foods may not be processed but they could contain as much fat, salt, sugar or even environmental contaminants as their conventional counterparts. Moreover, as the big food conglomerates are acquiring small natural food manufacturers, former “health foods” are becoming a major presence everywhere and may no longer be as natural and organic as you think.

Health Food Store versus Supermarket

Natural and organic foods are becoming increasingly common as many health food products moved to traditional stores. With less processed, “additive-free”, organic food now featured in most supermarkets, natural food stores serve mainly as a source of variety. When it comes to buying health foods the key is to evaluate the caloric, fat, salt and sugar content of each product and to consider whether you are sensitive to any of its additives. And remember, what you buy is more important than where you buy it, whether at a health food store or at the regular supermarket.

What Is Natural Food

You should know that “natural” has no standard and unified legal definition and natural food is not inevitably healthy. Natural products may also contain additives and be as high in fat, salt and sugar as similar supermarket foods. In general, in order to be labelled as “natural”, a food should be minimally processed and should not contain artificial additives or preservatives. However, no natural food has special health-promoting properties other that those provided by its nutrients.

“Natural” versus Processed Foods

There is no question that many unprocessed foods are healthier and more nutritious than their refined versions. The prime example are grains. Whole grain foods are much more nutritious than their processed counterparts and are often no more expensive. For instance, refined white rice or precooked rice contains few of the nutrients present in brown rice. The same is true of speciality breads.

Regarding cereals, the situation is more complex. Many popular cereals have added nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. If you eat a balanced diet, this enrichment is unnecessary. However, some “natural” cereals, while free of unnecessary nutritional enrichment, contain far more added sugar and saturated fat than their processed versions.

When it comes to other types of food such as meat, vegetables and fruit, it sounds obvious that fresh produce is healthier and generally more nutritious than processed products with extended shelf-life.

Why Is Kosher not Healthier?

Many consumers associate the kosher label with purity and the kosher food business is flourishing. A kosher label means that the meat has passed examination by a bodek, the Jewish food inspector. But, kosher and government food inspectors look for different things. For example, a government inspector examines an animal for signs of infection that could pose public health threat, whereas bodeks are not trained to do that. Instead, Jewish inspectors check whether animals were slaughtered according to certain Old Testament directives and properly drained of blood, which has little to do with public health. Thus, a kosher designation indicates nothing about health safety standards or nutritional value.

Is Organic Food Less Contaminated?

The organic food market is growing rapidly, driven by people’s fear of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Yet for most consumers, pesticides pose little threat. In up to 50% of conventionally grown food, there is no trace of pesticides to be found. In general, by the time food reaches the store, pesticide residues are typically well below the legal limit. And, by simply washing and peeling fruits and vegetables you can remove most of what little remains. Although organic farming is believed to further reduce this risk, the fact is, it cannot do that much. Shifting winds and especially water run-off can carry the chemicals from one field to another, even chemicals that were used years ago. As a result, pesticide and fertilizer residues on organic and conventional foods may be quite similar. On the other hand, organic fertilizers, though chemical-free, may carry disease-causing bacteria.

Additives: Organic vs Conventional Food

Food additives seem to be the major distinguishing factor between organic foods and conventional products. It would be hard to argue that chemicals in conventional foods that slow or prevent spoilage, improve aroma and taste, produce uniform color and texture, thicken or stabilize the product are meant to be healthy. But health foods may also contain additives as long as they are “natural”. Therefore, you need to read the fine print and do your own research to be sure they really are harmless.

You may also hear arguments that not all additives are automatically bad. Some, like vitamin fortifiers, enrich foods. And some additives are even necessary, such as those that make long-distance shipping and safe storage possible. However, advocates of natural foods often argue that since many additives, especially those in locally grown produce, are unnecessary, and some may not even be safe, there is no reason to eat them.

Here is a summary of the most common ingredients that manufacturers are permitted to add to their food products:

Sweeteners: Foods labeled “no sugar added” may still contain sweetening in the form of fruit juice or malt extract and despite being sugar free contain plenty of calories from fat.

Salt: A “no salt added” label does not mean the product is not an unhealthy salty food.

Oils: Snack foods available in health food stores generally contain heart-healthy non-hydrogenated oils, which are largely made up of unsaturated fats, while conventional snack foods typically contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Partial hydrogenation, used to solidify liquid oils, produces trans fats, which are bad for your heart health.

Sulfites: These common preservatives can be found in wines, dried potato products, dried fruits and seafood. They can cause serious, sometimes fatal breathing problems in asthmatics. About 5-10% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulfites. The most common source of sulfites are wines. Wines containing more than 10 PPM of sulphites must be labelled. However, organic wines are not necessarily free of sulphites. Another common food that often contains sulphites are shrimps. The FDA bans the use of sulfites in fresh fruits and vegetables but allows their use in other food products as long as it is declared on their product label.

Antibiotics in meat: Antibiotics are fed to animals to promote growth and to prevent and treat infections. Long-term exposure to low levels of antibiotics makes disease-causing microorganisms resistant to them. Some of these antibiotic-resistant microorganisms from animals can infect people. Farm and food industry workers are at highest risk.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG is an ingredient used in the food industry as a flavour enhancer and it is particularly popular in Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisines and can be found in certain seasonings. It is naturally occurring in tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, parmesan cheese and hydrolysed vegetable protein. MSG can cause a variety of side effects including nausea, dizziness, throbbing headache, aching joints, shortness of breath, weakness, numbness and heart palpitations in certain people.

BHA and BHT: These two preservatives are suspected of being cancer-causing. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants commonly used to stabilize foods but they can also be found in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Although small doses of these preservatives are considered safe, there are many foods you can find that do not contain any traces of them.

Tartrazine: This yellow food coloring agent known as E102 causes most food allergies and intolerances of all the azo dyes used in the food, cosmetics and pharma industries.

Genetically Modified Food

Genetically modified plants have become too common in recent years, enabling the farmers to achieve high yields of higher-quality crops with less expense and effort required. They happen to be an ample source of controversy and dread, though. Genetic engineering can be used to mass-produce exact replicas of natural substances and create new, genetically improved strains of existing plants and animals. Many experts view this new technology as an effective way of not only improving food quantity but also its quality and safety. Opponents, on the other hand, object that besides having a negative environmental impact, genetically modified organisms contain new toxins, they can provoke unpredictable immune reactions and they stay living inside us long after we stop eating genetically modified food. However, to this date there have been only isolated reports of adverse health effects on humans despite growing use of genetically altered ingredients in a wide array of products.

Irradiation: Is It Safe?

Irradiation exposes food to ionizing radiation in a closed room. This process is used to preserve food. Ionization breaks chemical bonds in organisms such as bacteria, yeasts or insects, thereby killing the pests so that they cannot cause spoilage or microbial food poisoning. In the US, the FDA allows irradiation be used on vegetables, fruits, grains, poultry, meat and spices. But because consumer perception of foods treated with irradiation is negative, the only area where it is commonly used is preserving fruits and vegetables. In countries of the European Union only some food products such as spices, seasonings and dried herbs can be processed with irradiation whereas in some other countries, such as Brazil, all foods can be irradiated at any dose.

Irradiation has been used for decades to sterilize medical equipment and various consumer products. But there is some controversy when it comes to its use in food. Since most radiation passes through food rather than remaining behind, a majority of scientists believe that it probably poses no danger and may have some benefit. The fact is that irradiation reduces vitamin and mineral content by about 10-15% but this compares well with other preservation techniques such as pasteurization. However, though retarding spoilage in some food, irradiation speeds up decay in produce with high water content, gives unpleasant odor to dairy products and may alter the color of green vegetables, thus making these products less marketable.

Conclusion: Should You Buy Organic Food?

Nobody is saying that organic food cannot be healthier than conventional produce. But, given the world we live in, couldn’t it be just another marketing tool exploiting the terms “organic” and “natural” to sell us the same low-cost, tasteless fodder we all already got used to? However, just because of a much lower additive content, many consumers find legitimate reasons to spend more for organic, natural foods than for conventional supermarket products. Keep in mind, though, that a difference in nutritional value should not be one of the reasons to buy organic food. In general, when compared with standard supermarket products, organic food should contain less or no additives at all, be free of irradiation and genetically modified organism but it may contain more environmental and fecal contaminants because it stays longer in the fields to absorb pollutants such as heavy metals and because of using animal manure for fertilizer in organic farming. Hence, purchasing food at a health food store will not make your diet necessarily healthy. To make healthier choices, you will need to use your common sense while checking the fine print on labels and sorting through a wealth of often incomplete and misleading advertising claims.

Where to Find More Information:
US Food & Drug Administration
Food Ingredient Facts
Organic Consumers Association