What Are Synthetic Nutrients Doing in Organic Foods?

by Jan Cho

Back in 2011, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan apologized for a loophole in the organic standards, which, according to the Cornucopia Institute, “led to the indiscriminate and illegal addition of synthetic nutrients to organic foods.” The USDA thereby proposed to close the loophole in January 2012, a move that at first garnered support from both the organic community and corporate food manufacturers who own organic brands.

In a series of meetings earlier this year, however, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rejected corporate petitions for eight synthetic nutrients. This was not at all the decision that food manufacturers had expected, since, as the Cornucopia Institute reports, “in the past, the NOSB has all too often sided with corporate lobbyists in a desire to ‘grow’ the organic market.”

Rather than concede defeat and abide by the NOSB’s decision on the eight nutrients, food manufacturers have simply disregarded it. Moreover, at their urging, the USDA may now leave the loophole intact, as it were, allowing the indiscriminate addition of unapproved synthetic nutrients to organic foods to continue. The USDA is seeking public comment on this policy through December 26, 2012.

The addition of synthetic nutrients to organic foods is a legal as well as a philosophical issue. Simply stated, food manufacturers are breaking the law by incorporating them into organic foods. As explained by the Cornucopia Institute, “the law prohibits the use of a petitioned synthetic material if it is found to be non-essential to producing organic foods, or to endanger human health or harm the environment, or if natural or organic alternatives exist.” It’s in accordance with these criteria that the NOSB voted against the use of the synthetic nutrients in question. While the USDA cannot override the NOSB’s decision, it has elected to ignore it by declining to close the loophole in organic standards.

What’s wrong with synthetic nutrients?

In addition to the legal issue, there is a philosophical issue to consider here. “One of the founding principles of the organic movement is the reliance on natural processes for healthy food production,” reads the position paper issued by the Cornucopia Institute. So vitamins and minerals in organic foods should be obtained by natural processes, from natural sources. Synthetic nutrients, however, are industrial substances manufactured in laboratories and factories, often using hazardous petrochemical solvents, and contain additives like artificial coloring, coal tar derivatives and preservatives. In other words, it’s everything organic consumers are trying to avoid by choosing organic foods. Food companies use synthetics because they’re cheaper and easier to come by.

Synthetic nutrients have no place in organic foods, yet many organic consumers don’t realize that they’re already in there. As one survey of 1,500 organic consumers showed, the vast majority (95.1 percent) of them either assume that the nutrients in organic foods are derived from natural sources or don’t know whether they are or not. The survey also showed that a majority (60.8 percent) would not buy foods containing a synthetic nutrient, and 30.3 percent would be “less inclined” to buy them.

To be frank, the whole business of adding nutrients to foods at all (but for a few exceptions like infant formulas) is one that I’m pretty skeptical about. The bottom line is that foods are fortified today because that’s what drives sales. The only reason for adding Vitamin C, 20% more calcium and 5 grams of fiber to products is because consumers are more likely to buy them. It’s a marketing gimmick, not a public health measure. In today’s land of plenty and variety, most of us can easily get everything we need from foods found in and provided by nature — unfortified, unsupplemented, straightforward food. The trouble is, we have lost our way over the years and no longer know how to prepare these foods to our best advantage and incorporate them into a wholesome, balanced diet.

As Barbara Kingsolver argues in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” what Americans could really use is a robust food culture. “We have yet to come up with a strong set of generalized norms, passed down through families, for savoring and sensibly consuming what our land and climate give us,” she writes. “We have, instead, a string of fad diets convulsing bookstores and bellies, one after another, at the scale of the national bestseller.”

These are fad diets that spin the latest research on nutrients and other discoveries into marketable schemes. I’d like to see us move past this unproductive cycle. I’d like to see us getting to know real food and using the wisdom of that experience to rebuild a food culture, take pleasure in our food and enjoy good health to boot.


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