Strong opinions, weakly held

Skip the organic, read the labels

Today’s New York Times has a long article about organic foods, more specifically, about how the FDA-approved “Certified Organic” designation has been co-opted almost completely by industrial food producers, diluting it to the point of meaninglessness. This does not come as a surprise to me. As soon as “organic” became an adjective that people would pay a premium for, it became inevitable that corporations in the food business would want a piece of the action. Now they’re busily diluting the definition of organic so that they can more easily adapt it to their industrial production methods.

Beyond doing things like going to the farmer’s market and buying food from the producers themselves, I have another trick for buying “whole foods” whether I’m at Whole Foods or any other grocery store. I read the list of ingredients. If it has ingredients that I don’t recognize, or don’t seem to belong in whatever it is that I’m buying, I skip it. Sometimes I wind up buying mass market brands, sometimes high end “organic” foods, and sometimes it’s store brand.

The first time I tried this approach was buying honey mustard. I was shocked to find that most of the honey mustards on the shelf didn’t even contain honey, most of them instead contained high fructose corn syrup and lots of other weird ingredients that I don’t recognize. I finally found a bottle of mustard that had a list of ingredients that included ground mustard, vinegar, and honey, and no strange ingredients we don’t have in the cabinet at home. To get back to mass market brands, French’s Mustard is delightfully simple (and awesome).

I realize that familiar ingredients can be produced in unpleasant ways, but there’s a limit to what can be practically achieved in our modern society. The best favor you can do for yourself if you’re not going to restrict yourself to food you or people you know grew is to stick to reading the labels.


  1. Who was it, Pollan? That said to stick to food that your grandmother would recognize as a way to guide your diet?

  2. I, too, thought that your recommendation sounded very Pollan-like.

    I have a friend who religiously buys organic food. And when I say ‘religiously’, I mean it: it’s a matter of faith for her, not reason, that organic food is better. The contrarian in me really like to try to poke her with a stick about it, but it really doesn’t do any good since her behavior is based on belief, not reason.

  3. I think it was Pollan-inspired, at least indirectly. I remember looking at canned black beans and finding that while some brands had beans, water, and salt, others had all sorts of odd ingredients, including HFCS. I don’t think that in terms of health effects, HFCS is different than regular sugar in any meaningful way, but I don’t want sugar or sugar alternatives in my canned beans.

  4. Good post Rafe! My wife and I call it eating “real food”. Each of us can nudge the market ever so slightly.

  5. I recently discovered that it’s impossible to buy cubes of chicken bullion that contain any chicken at all — they appear to be made of corn protein solids. I can see that, in terms of shelf-stability, but it creeps me out (and crushes my faith in the illness-curative properties of hot bullion!)…

  6. If it has ingredients that I don’t recognize, or don’t seem to belong in whatever it is that I’m buying, I skip it.

    Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t do much for understanding pesticide contamination, intentional radiation exposure, and presence of GM products (i.e., Monsanto frankenfoods) or growth hormones.

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