This March, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness about sustainability issues, released their annual "Dirty Dozen" list, which highlights the amount of chemicals used on conventionally raised produce in the United States. The same month, the group released another rather alarming report. "Organic: The Original Clean Food," took a deep dive into the chemicals being used by manufacturers in both organic and conventional processed foods.
You may be surprised to learn there's a list of 40 approved chemicals that can be used as additives in organic products. Compared to conventional processed foods, however, that number is actually miniscule—the EWG's report found that over 2,000 additives are commonly used in these products—and some of these additives been found to be toxic.
Processed food has more of an encompassing definition than you may expect—this food group isn't limited to frozen meals or convenient snacks like pretzels and beef jerky. The EWG reports that federal definitions cast a "processed" label on any food that has had something done to it after it was harvested. Products like instant oatmeal, which may contain added sugar, flavors, or added preservatives, would be considered processed, but what about a canister of organic, steel-cut oats? It's also considered processed. The difference between the two products is how federal regulatory bodies, including the Food and Drug Administration, monitor their production.
Certified organic foods are required to be free of artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors. When the label is applied to processed foods, there are less than 40 synthetic additives that can be used in production, and the list of these additives are closely reviewed by independent and government experts every five years, according to the EWG.
Conventional packaged foods are not as closely regulated: These food products can contain artificial preservatives, colors, and any flavorings, as well as chemicals, preservatives, and other additives that organic producers cannot use.
The EWG's report highlights how the FDA doesn't actually review many of these additives. Legislation passed by Congress in 1958 created a list of additives that were deemed safe, and chemicals on that list aren't moderated by the FDA today. Additionally, there's a second list of additives known as GRAS ("Generally Recognized as Safe," per the FDA) that contains approved items by FDA officials, a food industry trade association professional, or by a food or chemical company themselves. But, according to the EWG report, one-third of the items on this list haven't been reviewed by FDA officials, which creates a loophole for manufacturers to ask scientists to review their products and deem them as safe.
What exactly are the additives being put into packaged processed foods, you might ask? Things like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which has been listed as a carcinogen in the state of California and as a endocrine disruptor by the European Union; or sodium benzoate, which can lead to developmental toxicity and has been implicated as a trigger for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The full report contains tables of synthetic preservatives and other substances that are often found in processed food that hasn't isn't organic.
While the EWG has earned a reputation for investigating brands or products, this report doesn't include specific recommendations for organic products to buy. Instead it aims to educate consumers with a detailed summary of how additives end up in conventional items. It's the latest evidence that buying organic items when possible could be more about just quality—it seems that organic items are "the only commercial option backed by enforceable standards," the EWG says.