July 13, 2012

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.


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.


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!    :)