FOOD: “Buyer Beware” In The Health Food Industry

Recently I was given a media pass to the Health Food Trade show, since I write about food for Synergy Magazine. During the 90s, I attended this trade show as an employee of a Nanaimo health food store. That was when I met our very own mile-a-minute Dirk….but I digress.

  As an old foodie, I really wanted to get a bigger picture of what “health food” meant to those who provide it to us. And if there were any new trends. 

  One trend was apparent: that being a fair trade company has become a priority. Health conscious shoppers are tuning in to the need for society to adopt compassionate values. We want to know our food is grown by workers who are paid fairly and treated ethically. A sales rep from a well-known organic chocolate company proudly reminded me that his company had the first fair trade item back in 1994.  

  The media kit I received reported that the Canadian health food industry contributes $3.5 billion dollars annually to the Canadian economy. The Canadian Health Food Association’s mandate extends beyond food to include green detergents, disinfectants, salves, hair products, cosmetics and other non-food items such as homeopathic and herbal medicines.    

  However, my focus at the show was food. As a proponent of sustainable agriculture, I saw clearly that GMO ingredients had infiltrated the industry. If bringing quality, uncontaminated food to our tables is the major goal of the health food industry, it had compromised its lofty intentions. This reporter was not happy to observe that many so-called “natural” foods contained some GMO corn, soy or canola. Moreover, their labels claimed the products were “natural”. This begs the question how anyone (other than a company out to make money from our ignorance) can claim that genetically modified foods, which alter our DNA, are natural?

  It became apparent that the term “natural” has become meaningless. Advertising a “natural” product is as easy as saying so, aided by the relaxation of the qualifications required to label a product “natural”. I was disappointed in what I perceived to be a general lack of awareness concerning the dangers of GMO foods, in an industry supposedly devoted to healthy food.

  In the past, most food was healthy and unadulterated, before the advent of industrial agriculture, also known as The Green Revolution. Then, it became policy to spray food in the fields with chemicals. Thus, it became “normal” for people to ingest chemicals through eating such food, which of course became our only option in supermarkets. For those who wanted to buy real, wholesome food, health food shops became a lifeline. As well, people responded to the chemical assault on our food supply by planting organic gardens, all the while learning about the importance of maintaining the health of our topsoil. 

  Fast forward to 2010 when protecting our topsoil, and stopping its further degradation, has become a priority worldwide (along with fresh water resources). How very sad that supposedly health-conscious companies at a health food trade show have such little appreciation for sustainable agricultural practices, evidenced by their use of GMO ingredients. Toxic, industrial agriculture is already bad enough; the fact that the health products industry (with exceptions) has so relaxed its standards as to allow the use of GMO ingredients in their food products, and still have the nerve to call them “natural”, is dismaying. To me, it glaringly demonstrates the large disconnect between how food is grown and actually putting food on the table. Are we not complicit in contributing to the depletion and poisoning of our soil by perpetuating the acceptance of foodstuffs containing GMO ingredients?

  While it may be impossible to eat totally pure foods, it is possible to protect ourselves from toxins in our food supply, by shopping at local farmers’ markets, health food stores, and now even larger stores with organic sections. We can educate ourselves about the food we buy and reading labels is a good place to start. If we have time and energy, we can also research food companies – and who owns them. (Look up Cargill, a major food distributor, if you are curious. Monsanto is not the only rogue out there). If we do not like the activities a company engages in, we can refrain from buying the product, which sends a message to both the manufacturer and the retail stores. When we exercise our purchasing power, we take responsibility for rejecting what is unhealthy and destructive in favour of truly green principles.

  As we become more savvy, we may notice that a product is portrayed as healthy even though some of its ingredients are not-so-healthy. There is a term, called “greenwashing”, which describes efforts by corporations and small companies to portray themselves as environmentally responsible, and to appear virtuous, in order to mask environmental wrongdoings. Greenwashing is the logical outcome of the advertising industry (not known to be ethical)  tuning in to the demand for products that are green, clean and natural.

  In this vein, we will look for organic food to buy. The “certified organic” label does tell us that the food was not genetically modified or irradiated. But unfortunately, organic standards have degraded in the health food industry. It is another sad industry trend as of 2005, when the US Congress legalized the adulteration of organic food with basically any toxic additive a manufacturer may want to use. Consequently, we can no longer trust the organic USDA label anymore. This includes substances that do not appear on ingredient labels. At this point in time, there are hundreds of permitted chemicals and “allowables” in the USDA National Organic Program. (To go deeper, one can look up details online). The message from this is “buyer beware”. The only way to be sure we are buying true organics is to learn which companies do continue to produce to high standards.

  One such company is Eden, established in the late 60s. When I spoke with the sales reps at the show, they lamented how the industry has twisted organic standards to become so much like conventional foods, with additives and preservatives. Because of lowered organic standards, this company tests the authenticity of food that carries an organic seal, choosing not to use the USDA seal on their food, “because it does not begin to represent their standards, in practice or in spirit.” It was reassuring to learn they stayed true to their roots and original founding principles. I sampled some delightful sour cherry juice, later reading from their catalogue that they buy all food from farmers directly, grown near their plant, and pay in a sustainable manner. All of their soy foods are non-GMO and also organic since 1993. Their plant committed to using 80% recycled steel, forged within 500 miles and uses energy-efficient lighting and insulation. All their canned foods are free of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A. And, in addition to these conscientious business practices, the food itself tastes the way real food is suppossed to taste. 

  What will it take for all companies providing health food to act with such diligence?


Tsiporah is a Gabriolan of 35 years and keen observer of our times and evolutionary potential as compassionate human beings.