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Food Science Babe: Cut the crap, Organic Valley

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If you follow my social media pages, you know that many food companies employ fear-based marketing tactics to make their products seem superior so that they can sell them for a premium. Organic Valley is one of those companies — and, in my opinion, is one of the worst offenders. Not only are scientifically literate consumers and conventional farmers calling them out for their ridiculous marketing tactics and blatant misinformation, but even some of their farmers are getting sick of it, too.

The amount of pseudoscience and just completely false information all over Organic Valley’s product packaging as well as their website, especially in the section titled “5 Reasons to Eat Organic,” is so frustrating for those of us actually trying to educate consumers about agriculture and the food industry.

Here is their fallacious list and the actual science-based information to show you exactly how they are duping consumers into paying more for their products:

1. “Because leaving out the bad stuff makes more room for the good stuff”

“Research shows that organic foods are higher in antioxidants and other nutrients, like omega-3 and CLA essential fatty acids. And organic crops have been shown to contain significantly less concentrations of cadmium—a toxic metal on par with lead and mercury. Organic food really is better for you.”

To back their claim, they’ve cited one very flawed meta-analysis and one study comparing conventional milk to organic milk, however, one needs to look at the entire body of research, not just one or two studies in order to get a clear picture of what the evidence shows us. They seem to have omitted the hundreds of studies showing that organic foods are no safer or more nutritious than conventional foods and are likely banking on the fact that their consumers won’t look at the studies and/or won’t understand how to evaluate them properly and will just take their claims at face value. So, lets look at the studies, shall we?

The study they’ve cited comparing conventional milk to organic milk showed that “organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.” That information doesn’t mean much without knowing the absolute increase. The difference was 25.5 mg/100g in organic milk to 15.9 mg/100g in conventional, so that’s an absolute difference of 9.6 mg/100g. Considering that salmon contains about 2,260mg/100g and the recommendation is 250-500 mg/day, you can see that the 62% more claim is insignificant as milk isn’t even a significant source of omega-3s to begin with. Just to put things in perspective: You’d have to drink 5.5 gallons of full-fat organic milk to equal the omega-3 content of one 8-ounce piece of salmon. There’s no evidence that one type of milk is better than the other, although I’m sure these deceptive claims help to sell a gallon of Organic Valley milk for 234 percent more than the average store brand.

The meta-analysis they’ve cited for their claim that “organic food is better for you” used very open criteria, therefore, included more lower-quality studies than other meta-analyses. Secondly, they claimed that antioxidants have proven health benefits, however, the effect of antioxidants on health is more complex, and higher antioxidant levels are not necessarily beneficial. The study also found that organic produce has lower levels of protein, fiber, and nitrates, but this information was omitted from the abstract and conclusions. The results are incredibly misleading as they only tested for conventional pesticides, so of course there are more of these on conventional produce. They didn’t even test for pesticides used in organic farming. The cadmium issue is misleading as well. Levels were higher in conventional produce, but they were still well below safety limits.

So, what does the entire body of research show? Three other large systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the same research on the nutritional content and safety of organic vs. conventional produce all came to the opposite conclusion as the one study they cited.

A 2009 review by Dangour et. al. concluded:

“On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.”

A 2010 review also by Dangour found:

“From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.”

A 2012 review by Smith-Spangler et. al. found:

“After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance).”

Older reviews by other researchers came to the same conclusions that organic foods are no safer or more nutritious than conventional foods.

2. “Because chemicals are bad for you.”

“Organic farmers use sustainable methods of pest-control. Non-organic farms use toxic pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals are really harmful to wildlife and human health, contaminating our food, air, and water, and accumulating in our cells. Organic farming practices, however, strictly forbids the use of these chemicals—making bees happier and food more nutritious.”

Oh, come on Organic Valley. Everything is made up of chemicals and the dose makes the poison applies to ALL chemicals. Organic farms also use pesticides and herbicides (herbicides are pesticides BTW) that have toxicities that overlap those of synthetic pesticides. There is a large variation in pesticide toxicity and environmental impact, within and between organic and synthetic pesticides. Organic pesticides can be just as harmful or even more harmful to wildlife and human health, and they can also contaminate food, air, and water. There is no evidence that the incredibly small amounts of synthetic or organic pesticide residues from foods “accumulate in our cells” either. I’ve already covered above how organic foods are not more nutritious, and they are not more nutritious for this reason either because ORGANIC USES PESTICIDES TOO, and there are similar, negligible levels of pesticides on both organic and conventional foods. Lastly, organic farming doesn’t “make bees happier,” in fact, organic farming uses more land to grow less food, thereby displacing more of their natural habitat, which bees probably aren’t too happy about.

Of course, they also cited this study, which they falsely claim shows that “five days on an organic diet is all it takes to purge kids’ bodies of poisons.” The sample size was a whopping 23 children and guess what? They only tested for pesticides used in conventional farming, so of course they were only found in the children’s urine after eating conventional foods. This is what we call “junk science.” Not to mention the fact that they were able to detect the incredibly small amounts in the urine, which means that they passed through the body and that the mere detection wasn’t associated with any symptoms whatsoever.

3. “Because our cows and kids should grow at their own pace.”

“Synthetic hormones and antibiotics are frequently given to non-organic farm animals to change their reproductive cycles and speed up their growth. We believe cows are healthiest and happiest when they’re allowed to live without being pumped full of chemicals—it helps them produce the highest quality milk we pride ourselves on.”

Why did they even mention kids here? No farming practices involve giving growth hormones to kids. It’s so obvious that they’re trying to appeal to the emotions of parents, and it’s disgusting. Here are the facts: First of all, no animals are being “pumped full of chemicals.” The USDA banned added hormones in both organic and conventional pigs and poultry in the 1950s. Hormones are allowed to be provided to beef cattle so that they grow quicker and, therefore, require less feed. A recent study examined the environmental footprint of beef production with and without hormone implants and found that the use of hormones reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5 percent. The meat from these animals is safe for consumption at any time since the hormones that they naturally produce are at much higher levels than the amount added. There is no nutritional difference between meat from a steer that’s had a hormone implant and one that has not, because the actual difference in hormone levels is a fraction of a billionth of a gram. rbST, a cow growth hormone that increases milk production, can be used in dairy cows in the U.S., but is rarely used. rbST has not been shown to impact human health, which is why anything labeled, “Milk from cows not treated with rBST (or not treated with artificial growth hormone),” is required to also have the following statement, “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.”

The FDA has approved antibiotics for only these three uses in food animals: 1) Disease treatment for animals that are sick. 2) Disease control for a group of animals when some of the animals are sick. 3) Disease prevention for animals that are at risk of becoming sick. All animal farming must obey strict rules to ensure no antibiotics are in the animal’s system before it can be slaughtered for food. Therefore, there are no antibiotic residues in your food regardless of whether that animal received antibiotics during its lifetime or not.

The fact that organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics is concerning. Although Organic Valley believes that “cows are healthiest and happiest” when not allowed antibiotics, I really don’t see how withholding proper treatment from a sick animal could make that animal happy. Their logic is very backwards. If the entire food supply chain mandated “no antibiotics ever” treatment regimen, there would be a real welfare dilemma in terms of what to do with sick animals.

4. “Because antibiotic-resistant infections are very real.”

“When non-organic farmers feed their animals antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, they kill many of the pathogens—but not all of them. The germs that survive go on to reproduce, leading to antibiotic-resistant infections that pose a real threat to animals and people alike. Instead of relying on antibiotics, our organic farmers use natural holistic measures to promote and maintain animal health—keeping everyone healthier in the process.”

See number 3 as to why not using antibiotics on sick animals is problematic. Antibiotics along with other management and health factors go into animal welfare — if they can’t be used, animals will get sicker. That last sentence of theirs should read, “Instead of relying on antibiotics, our organic farmers rely on conventional farmers to take in our sick animals and give them proper treatment with antibiotics when our natural holistic measures don’t work.” The reality is that organic farming relies on conventional farming to treat their “rejects” so that their value-added (i.e. more expensive) product can carry an absence label for what is an essential tool in their own production system.

According to the World Health Organization-funded 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis, “There is currently no consensus regarding the effect that antibiotic use in food-producing animals has on antibiotic resistance in the human population. Furthermore, the effect of interventions that restrict antibiotics in food-producing animals on antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans is somewhat unclear.”

As of 2017, medically important drugs, those that are important to human health, are no longer allowed to be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency in the U.S. The CDC supports responsible use of antibiotics in people and animals, and strongly supports the important work that the FDA and USDA are doing to improve antibiotic use in veterinary medicine and agriculture.

5. “Because we’ve all heard ‘GMOs are bad,’ but do you know why?”

“That’s because genetically engineered crops are a relatively recent invention with potentially harmful impacts on the ecosystem and on human and animal health. We still don’t know a lot about them and organic standards forbid the use of genetically engineered seeds or animals—including clones.”

What a bunch of rubbish. Here is the International Scientific Consensus On Genetically Engineered Food Safety:

  1. All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.
  2. There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization).

More than 280 scientific and technical societies have reviewed the data surrounding transgenic crops, each concluding that GMOs are as safe as other crops. In other words, GMOs are just as safe and nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts. Over the last 20 years, GMOs have reduced pesticide applications 8.2 percent and helped increase crop yields by 22 percent. GMOs also allow more farmers to adopt no-till or conservation tillage methods, which increases soil biodiversity, decreases soil erosion, and decreases greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, 64.9 billion pounds of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by conservation tillage and decreased fuel use made possible by GMOs. That’s equal to removing over 18 million cars from roads for one year. So, the fact that the organic standards forbid the use of GMOs is just another reason why organic farming is actually worse for the environment than conventional farming. The only reason a company would tout that as a benefit is if they are clueless and/or they believe their consumers are clueless when it comes to the science behind GMOs.

So, when we look at Organic Valley’s claims from a scientific perspective, we see how incredibly false and deceptive their marketing actually is. Their claims are just a bunch of pseudoscience and misinformation that sounds good to the average consumer, but even their farmers are fed up with it. On one of my Facebook posts where I called Organic Valley out for perpetuating the myth that organic doesn’t use pesticides, I actually had a grower for Organic Valley state the following:

“As a grower for Organic Valley, we have been extremely disappointed in some of their marketing choices. We have expressed this dissatisfaction to them with no resolution. As organic growers, we certainly do use a number of pesticides. We just have to follow the set guidelines, which are best practice anyway…whether you farm certified organic or otherwise. We never make the claim that we do not spray pesticides or that those products we do use are not toxic. While there may be some organic farmers who truly do not use pesticides in their practices, that is NOT the definition of set forth by the USDA Organic certification. Unfortunately, no thanks to such ad campaigns, that seems to be a common misunderstanding.”

Cut the crap Organic Valley. Misinforming consumers may be beneficial to your bottom line, but you’re really not doing them or your farmers any favors by perpetuating myths about agriculture and fears around perfectly safe foods.

 

Food Science Babe is the pseudonym of an agvocate and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our food. She has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for more than decade, both in the conventional and in the natural/organic sectors.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
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