Some “Organic” Foods May Not Be Organic After All

While customers may be willing to pony up more money for foods that are labeled “organic,” in many cases the food isn’t coming from a small farm – it’s coming from the same producers that make soda and boxed macaroni and cheese.

Many consumers may not realize how much organic food giant corporations or large agribusiness controls. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, considering how much more people are willing to pay for something with “organic” stamped on the box, bottle or bag. Between the time when the Agriculture Department came up with proposed regulations and the time that they went into effect in 2002, large corporations went shopping themselves.

Many brands – from Honest Tea to Odwalla “Naked” juices – were scooped up by corporate titans. In that time period, both Heinz and Hain purchased over 19 organic companies. There are some holdouts, however. For instance, Eden foods is still independent, but the founder says that he fights off offers every week from private equity firms, venture capitalists and even people who made millions from Super Glue.

Which brands are owned by large companies? Kashi, Bear Naked and Wholesome and Hearty are all owned by Kellogg. Odwalla is owned by PepsiCo, and Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics are owned by Hain Celestial – who is affiliated with Heinz. Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen and Small Planet Foods are owned by General Mills.

So what exactly does that mean and how does it affect the consumer? The effect is that many non-organic ingredients are sneaking their way into foods that are supposed to be natural. For instance, this spring a large group of members of the organic food industry held a meeting to decide whether or not carrageenan should be allowed into foods that are labeled as organic. Carrageenan (while technically “organic” because it’s derived from seaweed) on a molecular level is very similar to plastic and has been linked to types of cancer in rats.

Organic food fans find these types of shortcuts troubling. Today there are more than 250 non-organic substances that are allowed in organic food – up from 77 in 2002. Consumers (especially with food allergies) need to pay less attention to the words “organic” on the packaging and really read the ingredient list on food to make sure that they are getting what they pay for.

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