Organics, Additives and All the Rest
By Susan M. Leisner
When people talk about “greening” their lifestyle, their discussion usually comes around to organics. In agriculture, there are many different processes used to provide your family with a wide variety of food choices. A simple explanation of “eco-lingo,” along with some understanding of the pros and cons associated with the different terms, may help you decide which is best for you.

ORGANIC: A system of farming that avoids the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farms maintain a healthy soil balance and plant only crops that are appropriate for the climate with the end result being a healthy, strong plant that can naturally pollinate and fight off diseases and pests. If insect or critter control is needed, organic farmers use traps, fences and insect predators, such as bats, birds and ladybugs.

Pros: Organic foods require little or no processing and do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Organic produce that is picked is usually allowed to fully ripen before harvest.

Cons: It’s more expensive and has a shorter shelf life than processed foods.

PESTICIDES: Chemicals to control crop damage.

Pros: Allow for pest-free, disease-free crops.

Cons: Use is troubling, especially for children who, due to their smaller size, are more likely to suffer ill effects. Additionally, pesticides contamination is often found in the soil and groundwater long after the crop has been exhausted as well as in the air after application. Pesticide use affects ground animals, birds and flying insects, adversely affecting pollination of plants.

GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD: Food whose DNA has been scientifically altered to yield stronger, larger crops. Genetically engineered foods often have weakness bred right out of them, such as a tendency to attract certain plant diseases or insects. Foods have long been genetically altered through natural crossbreeding, but this method takes much longer and is limited. These foods can also be modified to improve nutrition content or improve safety. Commonly altered foods include corn, soybeans, cotton, canola (rapeseed) and rice (to improve vitamin A content).

Pros: Can handle certain pesticides that would normally have killed them, making crops bigger, more abundant and insect/disease free. This allows for lower costs.

Cons: Wind and insects can contaminate organic crops with genetically engineered pollens, corrupting organic vegetation. Because of the large percentage of corn and soy crops that are genetically engineered, you would have to buy organic if you wish to avoid GE foods. To distinguish the difference, look at the PLU code. Organic has five numbers beginning with nine, while genetically engineered food begins with a PLU of eight. Genetically engineered foods are still exposed to some pesticides.

GROWTH HORMONE and ANTIBIOTICS: Originally created to increase milk output in dairy cows, growth hormone is a synthetic, genetically engineered hormone found naturally in cattle. Known as rBGH (recombinent bovine growth hormone), this synthetic hormone is banned in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the European Union. It is, however, used extensively in the United States.

Antibiotics are widely used to protect animals from illness and are the same as those used for humans. Antibiotics use in animals allows for large farming conglomerations to raise more livestock because they allow for overcrowding without frequent illness. This keeps meat production up and prices down.

Pros: The United States has more milk and dairy based foods at cheaper prices thanks to rBGH as well as more meat at affordable prices than much of the world.

Cons: The United States doesn’t need so much milk, and many bacteria that cause illness in humans are becoming resistant to certain antibiotics. Additionally, many animal-rights advocates cite farm conditions as cruel, with animals packed into small areas from birth to slaughter.

IRRADIATION: Developed to combat new forms of harmful bacteria or those that have become resistant to antibiotics. Irradiation is particularly useful for reducing insects, parasites and certain bacteria that promote spoilage and is used to eliminate serious pathogens, such as E. Coli, from meats and poultry, making them safer for your table.

Pros: The FDA has determined that irradiation does not make foods radioactive and actually helps increase shelf life in certain fruits and vegetables, allowing for a wider variety of off-season availability. Irradiated foods must be clearly marked.

Cons: Those in opposition claim edible foods should never be exposed to radiation and that workers in plants where food irradiation occurs are at risk for radiation exposure, a variety of illnesses and cancer.

ADDITIVES: Most of us don’t remember a time when additives weren’t part of our diet, although many additives previously thought to be safe were proven otherwise and removed from the market. Specifically, additives include artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, texturizers, sweeteners and antioxidants, to name a few.

Pros: Additives improve shelf life, make foods look better and improve the texture so that it is pleasing to the mouth. Artificial sweeteners give diabetics more choices in their diet and allow for produce, grains, cereals and dairy products to stay fresh much longer.

Cons: There are many documented cases of human sensitivity to certain additives, such as learning and behavior issues with food dyes, and acute asthma episodes after eating sulfites on fresh produce. The FDA maintains a GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe) for thousands of food additives currently used in the United States, but additives are frequently dropped or added to the list, making it difficult to keep up.

FREE RANGE Refers to poultry and requires that the birds have access to the outdoors and some kind of yard. It doesn’t mean that they are unfenced or that they don’t get fortified feed.

The new food technology has certainly given us much more variety, less foodborne illness and improved storage abilities. But not everything about the technology is necessarily safer or good for health and the environment. Knowing exactly what these terms mean will make it easier for you to choose what’s right for your family.