Guidelines for buying organic products

A few weeks ago, an article in The New York Times decried that organic food companies had betrayed us all by becoming big business. It was among the most e-mailed links on their website, and got a lot of people talking about how and why this could possibly have happened.  As a longtime consumer of organic fare, I was disappointed and disheartened to read about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of organic food production in this country – but I can’t say I was surprised. People start acting funny when money is involved, and organic food has exploded in the U.S. and is only gaining in popularity.

This trend had led “Big Food” – companies like Kellogg, PepsiCo, and ConAgra – to buy out small, organic companies like Kashi and Naked Juice. It has also, undoubtedly, led to confusion at the market: How are you supposed to know which products are comprised of natural, organically derived ingredients, and which brands are compromising their standards in the name of profit?

This question dogs every corner of the organic industry, from food to personal care products to cleaning supplies. The standards by which food ingredients are deemed “natural” or “organic” are in flux and at the discretion of a small group known as the National Organic Standards Board. In the case of cleaning supplies, no such standards or group exist at all. Either way, unless you are a terrifically informed shopper, the process of knowing when organic means organic and green means green is becoming more confusing by the day.

From personal experience, I can tell you that with green cleaning products, it is important to note whether an item is third-party tested and verified. This means an independent lab has certified that the product is as green as its label indicates. We do that at Greening the Cleaning® because we have nothing to hide and because I truly want the public to have access to the healthiest products available. Other companies may produce cleaning supplies that are called “green,” but have no means of validating this claim. It is important – and possible – to know the difference, at least in this domain.

When it comes to food, discerning between levels of organic-ness is not easy for the untrained eye. It involves not only a studied reading of ingredients and knowledge about the spraying practices at farms, but the ability to grasp complicated terms at a moment’s notice.

Terms like carrageenan, for instance. Have you heard of carrageenan? It’s a seaweed-derived substance commonly used as a stabilizer and thickener in foods. Sounds benign, but it has been linked to health problems like inflammation, cancer and gastrointestinal disease, according to The Cornucopia Institute, a not-for-profit group that promotes sustainable and organic agriculture.

Carrageenan’s safety is questionable at best, and yet it is on the list of approved non-organic ingredients that can be used in products bearing the “certified organic” label – proving that with so-called “organic” foods as with anything else, it’s ultimately up to the consumer to know the difference, and make the informed decision. The number of areas in which this is required of us is growing, and it is exhaustive.

At the very least, we should have faith that when we buy organic food, that’s what we’re getting. People who deliberately spend more money in the name of healthy eating ought not be cheated out of this commitment. Particularly as the industry soars to unprecedented heights, consumers need to demand better regulation within the organic food industry itself, and a system we all can trust.