Healthy? “Organic” & “milk” products are phoney-baloney

betty ming liu Food, Health 28 Comments

Since we care about our food, I MUST share two articles that left me feeling very emotional. One is about the ugly reality of so-called “organic” labels and the other tackles the problems with our cow milk-based culture.

Both pieces appeared in The New York Times, the paper of record — so this is not me or some other grouch on a rant. The two well-reported journalistic works raise questions about our core beliefs. If you don’t have time to read them — one piece is very long — then you might like my summaries below.

And for those of you interested in writing tips, this post is my practice of a core skill: the ability to concisely condense material. The actual Times stories are already a summary of each journalist’s research and reporting. Now I’ve taken it to the next level. So if you look at their actual pieces and compare it to the nuggets I’ve highlighted, you’ll get an idea of how this process works.

All right, now. Here we go….

“Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” explains that a majority of America’s organic companies are actually owned by makers of some of our most familiar junk foods. The Big Food operators have been buying smaller companies started by “real” organic entrepreneurs. The strategy gives Big Food a quick way into the $30 billion-a-year organic industry. While organics only account for 4 percent of all food industry revenues, it’s a fast-growing market because consumers willingly pay top dollar for items viewed as more pure and healthy.

But in truth, these powerful Big Food companies not only own the market, they’re shaping the laws that define what “certified organic” means.

To get an idea of the players, check out this list from the story:

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Heart, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be Pepsico, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Health Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Over the past decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled  up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced food from small family farms? Not so much anymore.

The industry is regulated by a 15-member National Organics Standards Board which decides — by a two-thirds majority vote — what extra ingredients can go into products labelled as “certified organic.” Today, 250 nonorganic additives are deemed okay, up from 77 in 2002.

According to the Times story, Big Food board members usually vote as a block. In December, six board members wanted to greenlight a new additive that is actually a herbicide called ammonium nonanoate (!). They were ultimately voted down, but you might like to learn the names of the six Big Food, Big Organic players for future reference: General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms (which had two votes on that issue).

This board was formed in 1997. The 15 members were supposed to include four farmers, three conservationists, three consumer representatives, a scientist, a retailer, a certification agent and two people from companies that process organic food.

But stuff happened. There’s never been a true consumer advocate on the board. And by the time the rules became law in 2002, three of the early board members, all small independent companies, were acquired by General Mills.

Then, as newly-minted Big Food subsidiaries, these members voted to allow synthetic ingredients into  supposedly all-natural, organically-manufactured goods. As for the three little guys gobbled up by General Mills: Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen and Small Planet Foods.

Today, one of the farmer seats is held by strawberry grower Driscoll’s, but the Driscoll’s vote is held by an executive, not a real farmer. The seat held by the Organic Valley brand, which is a cooperative of 1,400 farmers, voted with the corporate board members to add DHA and ARA to fortifying milk products. As for your organic eggs, forget the fantasy of free-running chickens. Your certified organic eggs come from hens that the board says can be crammed into two square feet of living space.

The eye-opening story, which is packed with more details, makes me grateful for my local farmers market where I buy veggies, fruits and eggs from Hudson Valley farming families. Real people, real food.

Let us also take note of the diminishing list of still-independent companies mentioned in the Times article: Eden Foods, Clif Bar & Co., Amy’s Kitchen and Lundberg Family Farms. Let’s hear it for the underdog — and the smaller dogs.

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If  you’re ready for a little bit more thought-provoking intensity, there was the second article that I ripped out of the Sunday Times….

“Got Milk? You Don’t Need It” is an opinion piece by cookbook guru Mark Bittman. After 30 years as a food writer, he’s finally discovered that cow milk isn’t really good for him.

He grew up drinking a glass of milk at every meal. Of course, that’s totally normal in this country, where  the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still recommending that we drink three, eight-ounce glasses of “nature’s perfect food” every day — 1.5 pounds per day. And we wonder why we have an obesity problem.

Not only that….Bittman cites the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which says that the lactose found in milk is a form of sugar. In analyzing an ounce of skim milk, lactose accounts for 55 percent of its calories, “giving it ounce for ounce, the same calorie load as soda,” according to the story.

And the situation gets worse. The government and dairy lobby are pushing milk in a country where up to 50 million people are lactose intolerant, says Bittman. This group includes 90 percent of all Asian Americans as well as 75 percent of all Americans of African, Mexican and Jewish descent.

Yes, there’s lactose-free milk, but that’s not the point. Milk is milk, and remains our major source of saturated fat.

And three months ago, Bittman said he quit milk to see if he could cure his chronic heartburn. In 24 hours, it was gone. P.S. — Bittman mentions that the heartburn treatment industry is a $10 billion business. Duh.

Bittman quotes his doctor, Sidney M. Baker, author of  “Detoxification and Healing:”

…we’ve evolved to drink human milk when we’re babies but have no need for the milk of any animals. And no matter what you call a chronic dairy problem — milk allergy, milk intolerance, lactose intolerance — the action is the same: avoid all foods derived from milk for at least five days and see what happens.

Yesssss! My classic Chinese medicine expert has been preaching this for years. Like Bittman, I can vouch for the health impacts of making plain-and-simple water my main beverage. Bye-bye, milk, except on special occasions and when I’m eating socially. If you want more info on my Jeffrey Yuen food regimen, click here.

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If you don’t have time to read the full, juicy stories at the Times website, these highlights will still give you plenty to chew on. Both issues are critical to our future — and future health. Thanks for hearing me out!    :)

Comments 28

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  1. Great piece! ORganic a lot of times is just a way to lure customers to spend more and milk is absolutely overrated! I drink soy milk and it is great!

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    And btw, this post is dedicated to those of you who miss my longer posts. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep the word count in the 375-450 range. Writing tight is hard! But it seems some of you like it when I blather on. And on. And on. And on. So this one’s for you. xo

    P.S. – If you’re curious, this post weighs in at 1,192 words.

  4. thanks, betty! do you see tigers drinking cow’s milk? do you see calves sucking on mom’s udders after being weaned? how did we get so brainwashed? hmmm, maybe all the hormones & antibiotics we sucked down with all that milk all our lives put holes in our brains. yes, do something for yourself by quitting dairy. it’s unnatural! & know that you’re also doing something for the animals, who spend their whole lives tethered to milking machines as if they were machines & then get slaughtered when they can’t produce anymore. need calcium? get kale!

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      Jaimie, my friend Jeffrey Yuen has been saying the same thing about humans and cow milk. For years, I attended his classic Chinese medicine classes and he would talk about how humans are the only mammals the drink milk past babyhood. Guess it’s a form of comfort food, the symbolic need to be nurtured. But more and more, we’re learning about the price paid for indulging in milk.

  5. Betty, just wanted to say thanks for bringing these two articles to your readers’ attention! — DreamerX
    ps. I like the long posts, so I can sink into your writing. So keep ’em coming if you want. :)

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  6. Betty, I saw these articles, too. They really resonated. Glad you are spreading the word.
    The whole organic thing is definitely something to think about. I’ve been leery of organic in past few years for the very reasons that article clarified.
    I find that limiting dairy is really helpful to my overall health. I’m mostly dairy free, but like you, not rigid about it. This approach works for me. Interesting to see no less than Mark Bittman making similar changes.

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      We are evolving, Bria! In a world filled with social drinkers, there are now those of us who are social eaters! I’m really grateful to the Times for doing the reporting research to make these stories work. Wasn’t it a pleasure to open the paper and find these pieces waiting for us?

  7. I wonder what they call you when you’re a contrarian to a contrarian? Any way, the cow-human thing has been an on going relationship for fifteen thousand years or so. For certain ethnic groups, milk drinking is not only “normal” but is a evolutionary adaption that increases their fitness in the ecosystem they live in. The fierest warriors the world has ever know, the Mongols subsisted on a diet of mare’s milk.

    With a package of protein, fat and sugar milk is triple threat. There is lactose for quick energy, fat for sustained performance, and protein for building and maintaining mussel mass.

    Niether the fat nor sugar is bad in their selves, they only cause problems when consumed in excess. If you’re going after milk because of its sugar load, then you have to go after almost every fruit juice and fruit juice drink out there. As for the fat content, first there is non-fat / skim milk. Plus as said before fat in food is not the real issue, it is eating too much food that has too much fat.

    For those who can tolerate it, milk is a very convenient way to get both protein and calcium. You can munch down on Kale, but that is not as easy nor as convenient. As a matter of fact, getting most micro-nutrients other than vitamin A and K you have to eat a whole lot of vegetables to match the non-vegan alternative.

    I can see avoiding milk if one is lactose intolerant. I can see why mature adults might see no real need for the product. There are substitues for milk that work well in coffee and in cooking, but I at least could not even think of putting anything else than moo juice on cold cereal. Plus I find cheese just scrumptious. I have a Cabot cheddar and “country cheese” I picked up from Costco sitting in the fridge right now, and you will never convince me that Kale is an aceptable substitute for a Jarlsberg. Be realistic, no politically correct food will ever match a grilled cheese sandwich or Mac and Cheese when the situation calls for comfort food.

    As for the slow degradation of the label “organic,” why is anybody surprised? Welcome to the corporate nightmare, and the corruption it engenders. As this is not a political blog, I will stop right there.

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      James, your comments are always welcome! While I see your point about Mongols and milk, man, those folks live in rough country. Seems to me that their environment and needs are very different from our cushy, indoor lives larded with passive activities (watching TV, staring at the computer, driving around in our cars).

      As for comfort food, you’re right, there’s nothing like a grilled cheese sandwich and cheese in general! But the majority of us will pay a price for that love affair. Kale, seaweed, a bit of soy — welcome to the new world. Takes some getting used to but it’s possible to adjust. :)

    2. I agree with James. You are complaining about all of the sugar in the lactose, but do not mention that there are many companies producing lactose-free milk. And really, sugar is in almost everything that we consume, even in some vegetables – tons of it in fruit!

  8. Thanks for this post, Betty! I’ve been thinking over the past few years that we don’t have a clear, uniform definition of “organic.” The milk one surprised me.

    Am kind of in agreement with James’ last point: big business has a huge impact on everything we Americans consume and not just the stuff we put in our mouths.

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    Laura, “organic” ain’t ever gonna be clear and uniform! And I think we all kinda agree with James. Which is why I say, let’s not forget the little guys, the mom-and-pop businesses, the entrepreneurs! The underdogs and little dogs need us. :)

  10. Betty,
    If you are really worried about your food and where it comes from my sugestion is to “grow your own” and/or get to know the farmer. that is my solution. My grand Pa grew much of his own food all his life. He had a 1/3 acre plot to which about 1/3 was planted. his Squash plants ended up being perenial, that is they gre without planting them.My older brother, who has 5 kids, has a garden and chickens. When we were on vacation he told me that eggs in the store are usually between 6 months to as much as a year or more old! Yuck! He also learned, the hard way, how fast chickens can destroy your garden! He buys his beef from a local rancher who dosen’t shoot his cows full of steroids(to promote rapid growth) and excessive abounts of anti-boitics. They are also raised on the open range and eat clover before they are slaughtered. What an animal eats before it is slauthtered has a great effect on the taste. This is why Mule deer in the west tastes so “wild”.
    You already know I agree with Thomas. There are people who over centuries have adapted to eating milk products with great success. My friends daughter recently underwent a major sergery. He doctor percribed biotics as well as pro-biotics in the form of Yogert which contained an active.
    Russian Nobel Laureate Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, reciving his Nobel prize for descovery of the immune sysytem. Mechnikov also developed a theory that aging is caused by toxic bacteria in the gut and that lactic acid could prolong life. Based on this theory, he drank sour milk every day. He wrote three books: Immunity in Infectious Diseases, The Nature of Man, and The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, the last of which, along with Metchnikoff’s studies into the potential life-lengthening properties of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus), inspired Japanese scientist Minoru Shirota to begin investigating the causal relationship between bacteria and good intestinal health, which eventually led to the worldwide marketing of Kefir and other fermented milk drinks, or probiotics.
    My family currently has five living generations. We have had five generations for much of the past two centuries. The life expectency in my family is well into the 90’s. This I can prove as we have genelogical records that go into the 12’th century. (My older brother works for the LDS churches archives)
    But I agree it is a cultural thing. It is true that man dosen’t normally drink milk after ‘weening’. However, this tendency can be extingwished after time. Also, the pro-biotics The issue with heart problems is more due to the the milk being homoginated. Homogenisation is used so that milk can be stored for longer periods. Unfortunatly, it also makes the milk hard to break-down and more likely to lead to problems with heart deases.
    What is Ammonium nonanoate ? and should we be alarmed? Ammonium nonanoate is a non-systemic, broad-spectrum contact herbicide that has no soil activity (US patent 6323156). Ammonium nonanoate is made from ammonia and nonanoic acid, a carboxylic acid widely distributed in nature, mainly as derivatives (esters) in such foods as apples, grapes, cheese, milk, rice, beans, oranges and potatoes and in many other non-food sources. It sounds like a pretty safe thing to me. I wonder where tobacco is listed?
    Why would I bring up tobacco? Well mostly because it is a natural bug killer.
    I am happy that I can eat so many things without any food alergies. Not all are so blessed.

  11. wow, loving this conversation!!! soooooooo, james, yeah, cheese tastes awesome — no disputing that! but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. we’ve become enculturated to certain foods, & big agro, with its government subsidies (hello, high-fructose corn syrup! hello, cheap corn to feed animals that shouldn’t eat it, thus necessitating antibiotics!), has deepened those habits. it has been well documented that eating animal products is associated with some of the biggest killers we know: heart disease, diabetes, cancers. why? not because of the fat but because animal products create acid in the body, which in turn creates inflammation, which leads to all kinds of bad stuff. in arteries? well, that’s what narrows them, & is why arteries then get clogged with fat (cholesterol). it’s a big subject. a complicated one. & knee-jerk political correctness is not what it’s about — to say so is insulting. read the china study. see crazy, sexy cancer. see vegucated. see forks over knives. … as far as fermented milk goes, brian, that’s why fermented foods, like kim chi, tempeh, sauerkraut are so good for you — it’s not the dairy. … most of us are not eskimos or high-steppes nomads. we have the luxury of being able to make choices about what foods we eat & how those choices affect not just our health but the health of the planet. we have only one body & only one planet — let’s make them both last!

  12. The first clue to mark Bitterman’s article being more of a satire than something to be taken seriously, at least by me is his lack of knowlege of wights and measures (and perhaps of Science in general) Fluid ounces and weight are diffrent things entirely in the English system.Also Dairy products is not glasses of milk. It includes other prducts such as yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, Ice cream, Cream. There has been much research on the benefits of these products.
    There is also other “Data” that can be considered, namely the life expentancy and health of populations that have invetented and use these products, Namely Europe and North America. I beleive that it is no accident that people in Europe and North America live longer and are healthier. It is also no accident that some of the worst epidemics have come from other reagons of the world which do not consume such products. For example the three great pandemics in world history all have their origin in China.
    Most M.D.’s have no training about nutrition. They don’t even habe to take a course in it. In my own experiance my problem with GERD ended when I quit working at a job that sucked and gave me nightmares everynight. Something just wasn’t right about that place. I found out later they copromised national security.
    From what I have researched Yogart is probably the best “milk product” food due to the probiotics it contains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Probiotic)

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      Well! I’m glad you all are having such a good convo about this. Jaimie, thanks for weighing in. Brian, I do love my local farmers, very happy to shop with them. Growing food is beyond what I can do; tried it and I just am not a green thumb. I don’t know about the factual validity of your claims and dealing with them is beyond the scope of my blog. But thanks for weighing in too. The one thing I do know to be true in your comments is that nutrition has not been traditionally taught in medical school. Don’t know though, if that’s changing. Sort of doubt it.

  13. Betty,

    Hmm…

    I saw that same first article, and I too was shocked. Appalled, really, to the point that I sent it out to other people.

    But I think that organic is still better than non-organic. For example, chickens and eggs. The article says that one particular person voted that chickens with two square feet of living space be allowed to have the organic label (was she overruled?), but organic chickens still have to have access to the outdoors and be able to roam–that’s one of the USDA guidelines. Organic chickens and egg producers are never given antibiotics. Organic chickens only eat feed that does not use pesticides.

    So if you eat an organic chicken, you’re less likely to be ingesting pesticides and antibiotics, and you know that your chicken has had the ability to walk around outside of a cage. I can’t help but think that this has to be healthier.

    In terms of tofu, organic tofu is never genetically modified (and it usually says “Non-GMO” on the label too) to resist Round-Up. There have been studies that say non-GMO tofu is healthy, but almost all of those studies are funded by Monsanto.

    So I agree that there are some bad things going on, but I also think that organic labels still could serve a purpose. We’ve got so many kids these days suffering from food allergies and other health issues. Knowing the farmer, of course, is the safest bet. But if you don’t know the farmer, I think the organic label can still be helpful. Farming without pesticides and antibiotics is something we ought to support.

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      bigWOWO, totally agreed! The chicken issue is especially tricky because of the nature of these birds. Even if you give them the outside access, they tend to flock together and may not wander beyond the familiarity of their coop. Here’s a link with lots of info: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/chickens/

      I too would rather eat organic than total crap. I’m just disappointed by all the politics and additives going on. Wish “organic” would be simpler, purer. When I was at the farmers market the other day and paid $5 for a dozen gorgeous eggs, I asked the farmer if her chickens run around. She said yes, they’re totally free until they get into her garden — then she gets mad! Hear this made me happy.

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