business news in context, analysis with attitude

Got the following email about the much-speculated-about fat tax:

Your comments on the fat tax, and those of many people, are based on the assumption that fat is bad. Ancel Keys heart lipid hypothesis has never been proven and has many skeptics but it has acquired the status of dogma. If we go back to preagricultural times (10-13000 years ago depending on local and in some areas only 2000 years ago)and look at the diet of hunter gatherers the diet contained a lot of animal fat as the fat sections were consumed first. Obviously a lot of protein cam along with it. What was not in the diet was a lot of carbohydrates as only that which volunteered along their route of travel could be consumed.

I would argue that the diseases of modern civilization (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, strokes, Alzheimer’s) have a common cause and that is the tremendous increase in sugar consumption, the use of processed white flour, increase in carb consumption in general, and the change in fat consumption. The fat that was consumed was largely saturated (lard, tallow and coconut oil). The only oils used were olive and coconut. The use of supposedly heart healthy oils (such has corn, cottonseed, and the two deadliest of all - soybean oil and trans fats) has changed the composition of cell walls and hence cell permeability and has wrecked havoc on our health.

I would argue that we have been engaged in a huge experiment on the American populace and that the results are deadly. I prefer that people be allowed to eat what they want and taxes ought not to be used to try to modify our behavior in this regard. If *I* were to be forced to make a law taxing food items to try to make the populace healthier I would tax everything white and all manufactured oils. The tax on sugars, including high fructose corn syrup would be large; large enough to drive consumption down to civil war levels of 5# per person per year (from current levels of 150#). Every oil but olive, coconut and palm would be taxed heavily. Soy and flax (or rapeseed as it was formerly called) could go back to being paint stock oils (because they oxidize) as they were prior to the late 40's.

This is not the consensus opinion but before we sign on to a massive taxation scheme to try to force improvements in our health we'd better step back and look at the whole picture. The scheme may push us further aware from our ancestral evolutionary diet and cause a loss of health and a concurrent increase in health care costs.

MNB took note yesterday of a BBC report on a new study by the UK Food Standards Agency concluding that organic food is no healthier than so-called “ordinary food.”

According to the story, “Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at all the evidence on nutrition and health benefits from the past 50 years. Among the 55 of 162 studies that were included in the final analysis, there were a small number of differences in nutrition between organic and conventionally produced food but not large enough to be of any public health relevance, said study leader Dr Alan Dangour.

“Overall the report, which is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found no differences in most nutrients in organically or conventionally grown crops, including in vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The same was true for studies looking at meat, dairy and eggs.”

My view:

It seems to me that we’ve seen this movie before, and that it doesn’t make any more sense this time around.

I’m not arguing the nutrient issue. But it is hard to fathom how products made without additives, preservatives, pesticides, insecticides or antibiotics can be said to have no health advantages over those that cannot make that claim.

I will say this. I’ve seen this report publicized in a bunch of places this morning, and so it may be necessary for organic retailers and manufacturers to address it, to get aggressive about defining what they see as their differential advantages.

MNB user Annika Forester wrote:

It’s one thing for the ‘mommy-bloggers’ and TV news people to get it wrong all the time, but if I hear one more, otherwise knowledgeable and educated food-industry person espouse the notion that organic = no pesticides I’m going to POP! Please, do us all a favor and get this straight. You can start by reviewing EPA’s definition of the word “pesticide” - “A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for: preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.”

ORGANIC FARMERS DO USE PESTICIDES, and quite often. Get over it. We can’t grow food and make a living without making some effort to protect it from pests. What organic farmers don’t use are chemicals that are synthetic, that is, man-made. I know this is hard for folks to get their heads around (thanks to decades of misinformation spun by Natural ’n’ Organic’ marketeers), but, in fact, there are many toxic and dangerous substances found in naturally-occurring forms, and some of these are used in organic farming – a plenty. The notion that no pesticides are used in organic farming is simplistic, naïve, and just plain Pollyanna.

MNB user Steve Lutz added:

Your comment “it is hard to fathom how products made without additives, preservatives, pesticides, insecticides or antibiotics can be said to have no health advantages” underscores the fundamental misconception that most consumers have regarding organics. Organic has never meant additive, pesticide or insecticide free.

Organic foods get plenty of pesticides and insecticides…sometimes more frequent applications than the conventional alternatives. Organic means free of synthetic chemicals/products. A toxic pesticide that is “organic” doesn’t make it any more or less “safe” than a synthetic alternative.

What the science may be underscoring is the actuarial reality that the people who eat the most fruits and vegetables (97% of which are conventional, non organic) also live the longest. In my opinion, the debate of “which is better organic or conventional” detracts from the more important message that consumers should get which is, “regardless of your choice, just eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Another MNB user wrote:

I support organic farmers because I believe their growing practices are better for the planet, not because the nutritional value of organic foods necessarily justifies the cost. I agree with you that the benefit of not eating pesticides etc. is common sense, but it seems like the primary issue of sustainability is lost in the recent reports about health impact and vitamin content of organic vs. conventional.

MNB user Cheryl Lewis wrote:

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Plus, keeping pesticides off our food not only helps the food, it helps the soil, the air that we breath and all the critters and birds that breath that air with us. There have been articles in the National Wildlife Magazine urging people to only buy organic from certain countries because the pesticide usage is killing off the birds that nest there. So buying organic helps our health and the health of the Earth.

MNB user Amelia Kirchoff wrote:

Another example of a misleading study. They tested only for common nutrients. They did not test the level of antibiotics and pesticides. In general, nutrient levels in foodstuffs have been decreasing over the last fifty years. Nutrient rich food comes from healthy soil, full of organic matter and animal protein. The quality of our soil has steadily decreased as a result of erosion and bad farming techniques and with it the nutrient level of both organic and non-organic food.

Much of the food that is certified organic today comes from huge conglomerates. What needs to be compared is the level of nutrients of food grown on small farms using traditional techniques of maintaining soil fertility with that of agri-business. Plants cultivated in good soil are disease-resistant and animals feeding upon those plants are not as susceptible to infectious diseases. They do not need a daily dose of antibiotics. We need to restore our soils and recreate biodiversity. The loss has hurt ecosystems throughout the world and the nutrient level of our food.

We need to take more of an interest in where our food comes from, rather than it's organic certification.

Yet another MNB user chimed in:

I’ve been buying organic for over 20 years, I’m with you – I’m not fanatical, but I’ve done taste tests with family and friends, with organic vegetables and fruits – and it’s been consistent that the organic simply has more flavor as a rule.

Is it the lack of sprays? Chemicals used in growing? They can claim all they want about nutrient value, I just don’t want “the added ingredients”!

And with eggs- the organic high omega eggs have much darker yolks and better flavor! Just a fact. However, I don’t buy the ones that are fed fish, that is not their natural diet. Chickens eat seeds so that makes sense.

Milk, dairy products – I will not buy those that sourced from cows fed hormones if I can possibly avoid it! Not all are marked, which forever astounds me! I’ve called companies to ask this.

And I am a strong proponent of transparency about food irradiation. Simply mark the stuff and let the consumers decide what they want to buy.

I’m not arguing the nutrient issue. But it is hard to fathom how products made without additives, preservatives, pesticides, insecticides or antibiotics can be said to have no health advantages over those that cannot make that claim.

KC's View: