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Organic Foods Are the Only ‘Clean’ Packaged Option for Consumers

Insights + Opinion
A supermarket's organic section with fresh and packaged foods. Keith Brofsky / UpperCut Images / Getty Images

Unlike organic packaged foods, conventional packaged food contains thousands of poorly regulated food chemicals, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

"Although many consumers choose organic to avoid toxic pesticides, few know that federal rules dramatically limit the use of synthetic substances in organic food," said EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, one of the authors of the report.


It is widely known that certified organic fruits and vegetables have far lower pesticide levels than conventionally grown produce, thanks to federal regulations. But many consumers do not realize that fewer than 40 synthetic ingredients are allowed in organic packaged foods like salad dressing, cereals and snacks.

By contrast, at least 2,000 chemical preservatives, colors and other chemicals are used in conventional packaged foods, EWG found.

What's more, many consumers are unaware that food manufacturers don't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration for many of the chemicals added to conventional packaged foods.

"The same companies that manufacture food chemicals are allowed to declare them safe," said Melanie Benesh, EWG legislative attorney, a report co-author. "It's like the fox guarding the hen house. For those consumers seeking 'clean foods' free from toxic chemical additives, organic is really your only option."

Substances added to organic food must be approved by government and independent experts every five years. Those substances approved for use in organic foods must be proven safe for consumption, with no adverse impact on the environment.

Since 2008, 72 substances have been rejected for use in organic food.

Many of the chemicals used in conventional food have been linked to serious health problems like cancer, including sodium nitrate and butylated hydroxyanisole. Many of these chemicals are not reviewed by independent experts but are instead deemed "safe" by chemical companies, food companies or industry trade associations.

Moreover, companies are not required to periodically rereview these additives so that new scientific research or changes in the diet may be considered.

"Consumers rightly assume their food is safe," Benesh said. "But many food chemicals with connections to cancer and other serious health concerns have been deemed safe by chemical and food companies, not by the FDA."

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