True Colors

September 28th, 2015

by Jérôme Rigot, PhD

Read package labels carefully to spot
non-organic colors and other ingredients
in organic processed foods.

Surprising Facts about Colorings and Other Non-Organic Ingredients in Organics

Colors?!? Why would organic food need color? In fact, the original colors in prepared foods are often modified or destroyed during processing; thus, food manufacturers feel the need to add colors to their products to ensure their appeal to customers.

As an example, let’s look at certified organic Strawberry Cobbler Multigrain Cereal Bars, manufactured by Health Valley Organic, which is owned by industry giant Hain Celestial Group, Inc.

Many people know that when you cook strawberries, their color changes to a dark reddish brown — the natural color may not be eye-poppingly appealing. But customers certainly want a vibrant strawberry-red color like the one on the package, don’t they?

PrintSo what to do? There are at least two options. One is to use the cooked strawberries as is (unthinkable!). Another would be to add color — in this case it would have to be a “natural” color because artificial colors are prohibited in organic products. If you look at the ingredients list (right), you will see that red cabbage extract was added for color. Red-cabbage-colored strawberry cobbler…what a feast!

But all humor aside, this is cause for concern. The red cabbage extract used for color is derived from conventional cabbage grown with toxic agrochemicals. Yet it appears on the National List, the itemization of all synthetic and non-organic substances allowed in organic production. Why?  Because at the time it was petitioned to be added to the National List, there was no commercially available red cabbage extract in organic form.

Red cabbage extract: is it so bad? Let’s look at the health and environmental effects of cultivating red cabbage conventionally. A database maintained by Beyond Pesticides indicates that there are 49 pesticides with established toxicity used for growing cabbage: 32 are acutely toxic, creating a hazardous environment for farmworkers; 47 are linked to chronic health problems (including cancer); 15 contaminate streams or groundwater; 44 are poisonous to wildlife; and 25 are considered toxic to honey bees and other insect pollinators.

Another cause for concern is that pigments derived from agricultural sources are highly concentrated. They are also most often extracted from parts of fruits or vegetables likely to contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. Examples include grape skin extract, beet juice extract, purple potato juice extract, and red cabbage extract, all commonly used for color in processed foods.

Why do people want organic food? Because producing it has minimal negative impacts on the environment and human health, and there are demonstrably lower pesticide residues.

Is this what you, the concerned customer, are getting when you purchase processed organic foods that contain “natural” colors or flavors?

To avoid potentially toxic color in your food, one of the most effective approaches is to stay away from any form of processed food. Home-cooked meals made from scratch are so satisfying. But if you must use processed foods, look at the label carefully. Only organic colors, which are becoming more readily available, should be listed. When possible, avoide organic food that lists a vegetable extract without specifying whether it is organic or not.

Other Allowed Ingredients

Colors are only a few of the highly questionable and controversial ingredients, synthetic or “natural,” allowed for use in organic processed foods.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) looks poised to keep many of these ingredients on the National List, even though, in many cases, they are not essential to the manufacture of the food or organic alternatives exist.

Ironically, unlike the USDA’s organic program, a number of corporations that manufacture and sell conventional processed foods are listening to their stakeholders—that is, their customers. KRAFT, General Mills, Hersheys, Nestlé, Kellogg, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Subway, among others, have announced that they will remove a number of artificial ingredients, preservatives, and food processing aids from their products.

One of the most notable examples of this corporate responsiveness is Panera. In May, the popular bakery-café chain published its “No No List” identifying all of the ingredients it refuses to use or plans to remove from its food by the end of 2016. Surprisingly, some of the ingredients Panera has banned from its products are currently on or being petitioned for addition to the National List! (See sidebar at right.)

It is obvious that the corporate organic food industry is pressuring the USDA to keep ingredients in organic processed food that should not be there. That is why Cornucopia’s policy and scientific staff will be at the next NOSB meeting, October 26–29 in Stowe, Vermont. You can count on us to keep you informed as to when your voice — farmers and consumers together — can make a difference.


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