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USDA organic certification affords the U.S. consumer one of the only food quality protections available today, but does it really guarantee a product is chemical free?
What's a consumer to do today? Between cause- and patently false-marketing, looking beneath the surface appearances of product packaging and advertising becomes a necessity, lest we harm ourselves or the environment unknowingly, or support industries that don't have our best interests in mind.
You may already know about green-washing, pink-washing and so-called gene-washing (i.e. 'natural' labeled products containing GMOs), but prepare yourself for the next level of @%@#!% with "organic-washing."
We hit upon this topic recently in our exposé on USDA organic baby formula containing a chemical ingredient used as a pesticide, but the problem extends to many other "certified organic" products and brands on the market.
For instance, recently my wife brought home a product by a generally good company, Plum organics baby, who deserves recognition for making some actually pure and organic products. The product is called "organic super puffs," and describes itself as "fruit & veggie grain puffs," bearing the reassuring "USDA organic" logo. [See the product here] If I wasn't such a neurotic label reader I could have easily fallen for buying this product myself.
Nowhere on the seemingly wholesome product label is there an indication that it contains chemical ingredients. Even the Nutrition Facts panel doesn't help. Zinc 15%. Vitamin E 15%. Looking good, right?
Nope. A more careful analysis of the presumably organic "ingredients" below the Nutrition Facts panel reveals the following enhancements:
Vitamins and Minerals: Tricalcium phosphate (Calcium), Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C), Ferrous Sulfate Monohydrate, Dl-alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E), Mixed Tocopherols for Freshness (Vitamin E), Vitamin A Palmitate, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D).
We aren't going to nit-pick about all of these inorganic vitamins and minerals, but there are two that we must say a word about. It is downright disturbing to find ferrous sulfate monohydrate (Elemental Iron) and dl-alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) in any USDA certified organic product.
Ferrous sulfate is basically inorganic or 'elemental' iron. It is notorious for causing adverse symptoms as a supplement, including vomiting and constipation. When consumed in excess, as in the case of a child accidentally consuming their parents iron-containing supplements, elemental iron is the #1 cause of death from accidental poisoning in children under 6. A common justification for its use as a 'nutrient' in food is that in 'small doses' it can do no harm; the body, after all, is a 'biofilter' capable of dealing with a wide range of toxins, and iron is essential for health, right? Even if this is true, it should be a consumer/parent's choice whether they are willing to take the risk, especially when higher quality iron supplements are available, such as glycine-bound iron. The fact remains that elemental iron is closer to a chemical in definition than a nutrient (nutrients are organically bound to amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates), and at the very least, it shouldn't belong in a certified organic product because it misleads the consumer into thinking it is safe a priori. [Learn more about this substance by viewing its Material Data Safety Sheet]
Next up is dl-alpha tocopherol. This strange form of "vitamin E" is actually a petrochemically derived set of 8 synthetic isomers (known as a racemic mixture) which mirror the natural complex of 8 molecules found in the real vitamin E complex, but are believed to differ structurally and functionally. For toxicology citations on the potential adverse health effects of synthetic dl- form vitamin E view our research citations on the topic: Dl-alpha tocopherol.
Is it just me, or should it be forbidden to include a synthetic, petrochemically produced form of a "vitamin" within a product intended for babies that bears the USDA certified organic logo?
With the USDA organic logo increasingly being slapped onto products that don't represent the ethos or quality of organic, sustainable farming, either the USDA certification process needs to undergo reform, or we need another type of certification altogether. Better yet, grow your own high-quality, truly organic food, or work with local growers and producers that are doing just this. After all, we can see through recent GMO labeling initiative defeats that when it comes to enacting reform, we are going to have to do it from both top down and the bottom up, i.e. you can vote and enact immediate change with your dollar and your fork!