Is Refined Food Really Organic?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2012

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5. Evidence of Health impacts

In this chapter we are going to focus on the question about the health impacts of Refined Foods (see Glossary of the Key Words) in comparison with Wholefoods, regardless of how they were grown. As we could see in the previous chapter, the process of refining carbohydrates causes great loss of fibre and other vital nutrients regardless of whether food is grown organically or not. For that reason all evidence about the health impacts of eating predominantly Refined Foods which has been gathered so far, can be regarded valid – maybe with very slight reservation – also for the regular consumption of Organic Refined Foods.

For better understanding of the essential difference between consumption of Wholefood vs Refined I recommend visiting my website and looking at two fundamental principles:

Of course, for proper holistic understanding one needs to make an effort of looking at things from various viewpoints, as many as possible – in the meantime avoiding the fast forming of judgements, and instead allowing time for the emergence of more comprehensive understanding. Nevertheless, the above fundamental principles of nutrition can offer some insights into the mysterious relationships of food substances and the human organism in regard to our topic.

Now we will take another route, a short journey through some of the available evidence from various authors addressing this issue. The list does not intend to be a comprehensive list of all evidence, but it is my personal choice from the literature which has been available to me.

5.1 An Overview of the Existing Evidence

In 1924 Rudolf Steiner, one of the pioneers of the organic movement, gave in a lecture the following explanation in regard to the consumption of carbohydrates. "When someone eats (food which contains carbohydrates) it also goes first into the mouth and then into the stomach and there it is transformed into starch through the effort of the body. Then it passes through the intestines. But in the course of further digestion, in order to get into the blood and from there into the head, it has to be transformed into sugar by the further effort of the body; only then it can go into the head. So all this needs more effort… If I expend energy inwardly – that is, if I transform carbohydrates into starch, and starch into sugar – then I become stronger… It is not a question of filling oneself up with food but of food developing forces in the body… (Grains) also contain carbohydrates but in a form that man can transform into starch and sugar in the best possible way. By means of the carbohydrates in grains he can strengthen himself as far as it is possible. Think how strong country people are, simply because they eat a lot of their own bread which is made from grain… Rather coarse bread is the healthiest food, if one can stand it, but you have to have a healthy body. Then through the transformation of starch and sugar body becomes particularly strong." [1]

With the help of this explanation one can get one of the essential insights into the digestion of carbohydrates, which helps to understand many modern problems of nutrition. Here we see an example how only through an insight into yet hidden laws of nutrition (which I call ‘fundamental principles of nutrition’) one can really understand the large amount of details provided by science and facts of life. Of course, Steiner provided many more such insights, but this one helps to understand why regular consumption of predominantly Refined Foods will inevitably sooner or later – depending upon individual constitution and other influences – result in the weakening of digestive forces and consequently in the various manifestations of health problems.

In 1939 Dr. Weston A. Price published his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diet and Their Effects. [2] The conclusion of his research was that people from traditional cultures who still eat natural, unrefined food from their local environment have excellent teeth and very good general health. As soon as modern diet – including refined foods such as white rice, white bread, and white sugar – is introduced, physical degeneration began in a way that is evident within a single generation.

In 1946 was published the book Children's Diet Based on the Conclusions of Modern Nutritional Research written by Dr. Bircher-Benner. In it he writes: "All sorts of bread made from finely milled flour are unsuitable for children's diet: white bread, rolls, buns, biscuits, rusks… They no longer contain the vitamin and mineral substances of the grain, so that the body cannot use them to build up bone substance. The taking of such foods will with mathematical certainty destroy the balance of the diet… Even if all the other constituents of the diet correspond in every respect to the requirements of the laws of health, they would still be powerless to redress the balance in the struggle against the white flour products. Children will be exposed by such a diet to a hidden form of pre-beriberi… Wholemeal bread is much more nutritious than white and a smaller quantity of it provides better nourishment than the customary amount of white bread." [3]

In 1956, in the book Feel like a Million by Catharyn Elwood, one can read: "We who seek Feel-Like-a-Million health and strong resist­ance to disease, that our lives may be harmonious and crea­tive, eat by the motto: "No calories without vitamins!" Consequently, the following foods are taboo. They are ‘out’ because they do not completely nourish, having lost something your body needs for excellent health.

In the introduction to the above book Dr. Fred D. Miller writes: "Your health is largely a result of your daily habits of living. It isn’t what you do once or twice a week that hurts you – it's what you do twenty-one times a week that will pro­tect you. Your daily food and drink habits, your total food in­take must meet all the body requirements, and you just can’t, with safety, leave it to chance. You have to learn certain fundamental facts. You don't have to become a chemist, biochemist or a nutritionist, but you must learn what food is; what foods are food and what ‘foods’ are foodless; and why processing, refining, milling, pasteurizing, and preserving removes or destroys many essential nutrients which a wise Creator assembled in natural foods for the nourishment of man, and tends to change vital food into foodless food."

In 1962 was published the book Nutrition in a Nutshell written by Roger J. Williams, "a foremost authority on the science of nutrition". In the chapter Good Nutritional Advice he writes: "Although each of us is a distinctive individual with distinctive needs, there is some advice which is applicable to all. For people in general, I will list these pieces of advice under five main headings." [5]

The fourth main heading is "Avoid too much refined food: By refined food is meant refined sugar, alcohol, highly milled rice, and to a lesser degree, products made from white flour, even though it is ‘enriched’… For children the restrictions on refined foods should be relatively severe… The basic reason why we should avoid excessive refined foods may be explained by an analogy to an outboard motor which is designed so that the fuel and the lubricant (oil) are put together in the same tank. The fuel makes the engine go; the lubricant keeps it in condition. The fuel which we human beings consume is carbohydrate, protein, and fat; while the minerals (and) vitamins … may be likened to lubricants. The enzymes into which they enter are, in a fundamental sense, lubricants … (which) lubricate chemical reactions and allow them to take place rapidly."

In 1974, in the book The Saccharine Disease by T.L. Cleave [6], we are presented with the concept of a single ‘Saccharine Disease’ due to regular (over)consumption of Refined Foods, with various manifestations in individuals, dependent on their personal make-up. We are told how evolutionary, historical and medical evidence not just supported, but dictated the development of the concept of underlying, primary ‘Saccharine Disease’.

 In 1975 the book Sugar Blues [7] exposed the detrimental effects of refined sugar on human well-being and it became a number one health bestseller with over 1.6 million copies in print. The author William Dufty presented valid arguments for his conclusion that refined sugar is as addictive and poisonous as nicotine or heroin, and responsible for modern plagues, including diabetes, cancer, depression, and obesity. In it we can find the following description of the harmful effects of refined sugar (taken from an article written in 1957 by Dr. William Coda Martin): "The body cannot utilize this refined pure, refined carbohydrate unless the depleted proteins, vitamins, and minerals are present. Nature supplies these elements in each plant in quantities sufficient to metabolize the carbohydrate in that particular plant. There is not excess for other added carbohydrates. Incomplete carbohydrate metabolism results in the formation of ‘toxic metabolite’ such as Pyruvic acid and abnormal sugars containing five carbon atoms. Pyruvic acid accumulates in the brain and nervous system and the abnormal sugars in the red blood cells. These toxic metabolites interfere with the respiration of the cells. They cannot get sufficient oxygen to survive and function normally. In time some of the cells die. This interferes with the function of a part of the body and is the beginning of degenerative disease." [8]

In the same book there is also a very interesting debate before the USA Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs as to whether sugar is a nutrient or antinutrient – that is, a substance that interferes with the utilization or metabolism of any other nutrient (see Appendix 4: White Sugar as Antinutrient).

In 1976, in the book Taking the Rough with the Smooth [9], dr. Andrew Stanway has presented the evidence about the link between lack of fibre in modern diet and the occurrence of dental caries, obesity, diabetes, gallstones, coronary diseases, and bowel diseases, such as constipation, bowel cancer, appendicitis, haemorrhoids, etc.

In 1980 was published the book Diet, Crime and Delinquency [10] written by criminologist Alexander Schauss. In it he clearly and concisely documents the links between junk food and antisocial behaviour. Among others he presents the evidence of the link between over consumption of white sugar, hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar disease), and the rate of criminal behaviour of those who suffer from this underlying and more hidden health imbalance.

In 1987 the book Nutrition and Mental Illness was published. In it Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, a pioneer in the field of nutritional research, reveals his experiences with using nutritional therapies in abating and even overcoming many psychological disorders, from anxiety and depression to phobias, schizophrenia, epilepsy and autism. In his extensive research into the connection between nutrition and mental illness, he has clearly shown that a proper biochemical balance within the body is the key to maintaining good mental as well as physical health. He presents the following reason for the disruptive effect of sugar consumption on this biochemical balance:

"Sugar cannot be stored or used without minerals: Many vitamins and trace elements, including vitamin C, the B complex of vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, chromium, manganese, and phosphorus, are involved in glucose metabolism and the activities of the endocrine glands. The recently discovered glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which contains chromium, B3, and three amino acids, is essential for the proper functioning of insulin and is necessary for proper carbohydrate metabolism." [11] The amount of these substances is severely compromised with refining. For that reason his treatment is based on wholefood diet with addition of large doses of essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. He had great success rates in his treatments without any use of anti-psychotic drugs.

In 1987, in the book Nutritional Medicine – The Drug-free Guide to Better Family Health by Dr. Stephen Davies and Dr. Alan Steward, we can find a summary of the health effects of modern Western diet: "In the West, undernutrition tends not to be a problem… However, malnutrition can occur anywhere as a result of wrong food choice and a dependence on large amounts of heavily refined foods. If nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains and unprocessed foods (including vegetables) are replaced by pro­cessed foods that have been stripped of essential nutrients, there will obviously be an alteration of the nutritional status of the person who eats them. The health-food ‘cranks’ of the past who insisted on plenty of whole grains, fresh vegetables and so on have been proved right by modern science… It has been said that many people in the West are overfed yet undernourished. The concept behind this statement is that although our total energy intake is excessive, the quality of food is often so poor that the actual nutrient intake in terms of vitamins, minerals and certain amino acids is inadequate and can produce disease." [12]

In 2000, in the book Health Hazards of White Sugar, [13] one can find the following summary of the broad spectrum of health problems related to regular intake of refined sugar:

In 2006 The Whole Grain Diet Miracle was published by two American doctors. As a preparation for writing the book they surveyed over 80 scientific studies documented over the last 30 years, all supporting the health benefits of whole grains. In the book one can read: "Due to the quantity of research data, the US Food and Drug Administration in 1999 approved a health claim for foods containing whole grains that states: "Diet rich in wholegrain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk for heart disease and certain cancers." [14] One can imagine that there had to be really strong evidence to force the FDA to approve such a statement. Of course, they somehow ‘missed out’ sugar; nevertheless here we have an official recognition of the negative impact of consuming Refined Foods in the form of white bread, white pasta, white rice, baked products made from white flour, etc.

In the Soil Association document Organic Farming, Food Quality & Human Health: A Review of the Evidence, we can find the following summary of health problems related to the lack of minerals in our diet: "The common underlying cause of many degenerative diseases is increasingly recognised as chronic multiple micronutrient malnutrition. Dr Helen Fullerton observes: ‘Micronutrient deficiencies are only recognised as scientifically proven when they are acute and cause a specific condition or disease (for example scurvy, beriberi, pellagra), but there has been a failure to recognise the symptoms of marginal deficiencies that contribute to reduced fitness and underachievement due to lowered vitality’. Common sub-clinical deficiency symptoms of various nutrients … include (the following) mineral deficiency symptoms:

In 2009, in the book Suicide by Sugar, [16] we can find a list of 140 reasons why refined sugar is ruining the health of those who are regularly consuming it. The author also provides a list of scientific medical resources for each of these 140 impacts of regular consumption of sugar (see Appendix 5: 140 Reasons Why Sugar is Ruining Your Health). Although the author puts all types of sugars and sweeteners in the same category, it is a fact of life that the vast majority of sugar produced and consumed nowadays is white. For that reason we can rightly assume that the 140 scientific papers listed in the appendix do not prove that the moderate consumption of whole sugar and other natural sweeteners is harmful, but they do prove without any doubt that regular overconsumption of highly refined sugar is detrimental to human health and well-being.

In 2009 David A. Kessler, the man who took on the tobacco industry, published his book The End of Overeating where he addresses the obesity epidemics. In his investigation of this topic he visited top universities and research centres in USA and thus presents a great body of scientific evidence pointing to the addictive nature of sugar, salt and fat, which the food industry puts into just everything it sells. The following passage from the book is a kind of summary of the whole book (the ellipses are in the original text): "Just as a compulsive gambler can’t place a single bet and feel satisfied, many people can’t stop after a few bites of hyperpalatable food. We have become conditioned to seek more reward. The barricades to repetitive behaviour have been toppled. We keep looking for the next big wow. That's what the (food) industry has engineered, with food built layer upon layer to stimulate our senses. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, and the cues that signal them, promote more of everything: more arousal … more thoughts of food … more urge to pursue food … more dopamine-stimulated approach behaviour … more consumption … more opioid-driven reward … more overeating to feel better … more delay in feeling full … more loss of control … more preoccupation with food … more habit-driven behaviour … and ultimately, more and more weight gain." [17]

5.2 Avoidance and Ignorance of the Evidence

In spite of all available evidence about the negative health effects of eating predominantly Refined Foods, we can still find people, organizations, and producers inside the food sector who do not want to confront such an unpleasant truth. There are three main tactics which are used with this aim:

There might be still some people around who are not really aware of the problem, but not among those who are producing and promoting Refined Foods, for they would not use the above tactics if they were not aware of the problem.

Here is an example of a sophisticated form of denial by the leading supplier of sugars in the UK, who supply more than half of the country's sugar requirements:  "In today's health-conscious society people are concerned about the increasing obesity epidemic and the impact that food has. British Sugar is committed to putting sugar in perspective and explaining the role of sugar in a balanced diet. Sugar is a natural, wholesome food and plays an important part in a healthy balanced diet. Food is currently an emotional issue and generates much political debate. Everyone has an opinion on what is ‘good’ for you about particular foods. The evidence from many years of research is not so straight forward. No food is either good or bad. What matters is our overall eating habits (our diet), the lifestyle and activities we adopt. At British Sugar we would like to address the speculation and commonly asked questions, with answers based on current scientific evidence, to explain the valid role of sugar in a healthy balanced diet." [18]

One could even agree with some claims if they were referring to the consumption of moderate amounts of whole sugar and other types of natural sweeteners; but they are referring to the general term ‘sugar’ – which means mainly white sugar. It is also possible that sugar can be ‘a natural, wholesome food’ if it is produced by traditional processing method, resulting in whole sugar (e.g. Rapadura, etc). But the vast majority of sugar produced by British Sugar is very likely pure white sugar.

Tate & Lyle Group, a world-leading ingredients company (which also sells some organic sugars), chooses more emotional approach. "The importance of a balanced approach to your diet is key to a happy and contented relationship with food. That's why Tate & Lyle and Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist and author, have gotten together to produce Taste & Smile, a booklet full of helpful information and simple, great tasting recipe ideas. Dr. Linda Papadopoulos is a respected psychologist who successfully manages her media and academic roles to ensure that she can give considered and practical advice to the nation. Linda's philosophy gives a common sense approach to food: "The search for happiness is not about cutting out the things in your life that make/leave you feeling guilty; it's about being able to achieve a sense of perspective. My food philosophy has always been that ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’. Incorporating the foods you like into your diet, rather than denying yourself completely, is important not only to your emotional well-being but to your physical well-being too." [19]

One might just ask Dr. Papadopoulos: "Have you ever heard about whole sugar? Is ‘a little of’ whole sugar not good ‘to your emotional well-being (and) to your physical well-being’ – not just in someone's fancy, but in the reality of life?

Here is the last example from the mainstream, one quite twisting form of a denial – starting with the acknowledgement of the difference and finishing with the denial of any substantial difference: "Because of its molasses content, brown sugar does contain certain minerals, most notably calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium (white sugar contains none of these). But since these minerals are present in only minuscule amounts, there is no real health benefit to using brown sugar. The real difference between the two are taste and the effects on baked goods. The bottom line is: nutritionally, brown sugar and white sugar are not much different." [20]

One cannot be really surprised by such examples of ‘not-wanting-to-see-the-truth’ for they are coming from the mainstream food market which is inevitably influenced by corporations whose primary objective is always profit. More surprising and worrying is that there exists the same tendency among members of the organic movement. Amongst them I have not encountered any attempt to deny the evidence; but there are enough examples of avoiding and ignoring it.

 The first example from the organic movement is an article published in the magazine Coronary & Diabetic Care in the UK. In its conclusion we can read (italics mine): "When the two sides of the argument for organic food are bought together, what is absent from organic food and what is present at higher levels, it becomes apparent that organic food has the potential to make a genuine impact on an individual's health. A predominantly organic diet reduces the amount of toxic chemicals ingested, totally avoids GMOs, reduces the amount of food additives and colourings whilst, conversely, increasing the amount of beneficial vitamins, minerals, EFAs and antioxidants consumed. Therefore, whilst difficult to prove due to the scale of epidemiological study required and lack of a readily definable ‘organic consumer’ group, a predominantly organic diet does appear to have the potential to lower the incidence of common conditions such as cancer, coronary heart disease, allergies and hyperactivity in children." [21]

The most striking character of this otherwise very good article is that the author either avoids or is ignorant about the existence of Organic Refined Foods. The absence of any reference to the issue of Wholefoods vs Refined is even more surprising when we see that this article was written for people who work in coronary and diabetic care. Is there not more than enough evidence that eating Refined Foods is not beneficial for such conditions? And how can eating predominantly Organic Refined Foods increase significantly "the amount of beneficial vitamins, minerals … and antioxidants consumed"?

An example of avoidance to deal with the existence of Organic Refined Foods we can find in Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health, so far probably the most significant review of evidence in favour of organic food. In the whole document there is only one single, very general statement about Refined Foods: "The most significant influence on the nutritional quality of bread and other cereal products is refining. When, for example, wheat is refined to make white flour, bread or pasta, some 50–96 per cent of the fibre, vitamin and mineral contents are removed." [22] To address the effect of refining on food quality in such a light manner is the same as not addressing it at all.

Ignorance of the problems related to the consumption of Refined Foods can be found among plenty of organic producers. I will present just one, for illustration, from a private company which produces a range of organic chocolates, Montezuma's . On the company's website one can read: "In our view, eating something that makes you feel good and makes you happy has to be a good thing, just follow mother's golden rule, "everything in moderation"! If you really want to get down and dirty with the good stuff wrapped up in your Montezuma's chocolate then sure enough you will find antioxidants aplenty, in fact every 100 grams of dark chocolate has about 13,000 ORAC units and blueberries have only 2,400! Of course not everything in chocolate can be claimed as good for you per se, but then again we aren’t claiming anything of the sort." [23] Is this not just another version of Dr. Linda Papadopoulos’ philosophy of ‘a common sense approach to food’? With an addition: "We maintain our approach of using only the finest ingredients with flair and passion together with our founding principles of ‘trading fairly’ to bring ‘the food of the goods to mere mortals’ in the words of one of our co-founders." [24]

After such examples of ‘blindness’ in regard to the negative health effects of regular consumption of Refined Foods, it is no surprise that we can find in Organic Living in 10 Simple Lessons the following warning: "The birth of ‘unhealthy’ organic movement is a cause of concern. It is easy to see where the problem lies. For example, if your diet is based on refined products (white bread, biscuits and cakes), tinned foods, red meat, sweets, crisps, soft drinks and chocolate, you will not be getting the nutrients you need for health and well-being. As all of these products are now available organically, it is perfectly possible to have an unhealthy organic diet." [25]

We need to recognise that the above presented examples from the organic movement are, in their intrinsic nature, the same as the presented examples from the mainstream food market. Avoidance and ignorance of the all available evidence about health consequences of consumption of Wholefoods vs Refined are just more refined forms of denial. For that reason they go against the grain of what we should be doing.

CONCLUSION

There is more than enough scientific, medical and statistical evidence about the health benefits of wholefoods being rich in fibre, vitamins, and trace minerals. In regard to human health, Wholefoods are without any doubt superior to Refined Foods.

There is also more than enough scientific, medical and statistical evidence about the detrimental effects of eating predominantly Refined Foods. So far I haven’t heard any evidence about the positive health effects of consuming refined foods on the regular basis. In fact, it could be said that the three greatest negative impacts on human diet in modern time are caused by the introduction of:

While the last two are harmful because they introduce into the human diet artificially-made substances which should not be part of natural food, the first one is also harmful because it deprives human beings from natural substances which should stay as an integral part of human diet.

And while the last two groups of substances are not tolerated – for very good reasons – inside the organic movement, we are at the same time tolerating Refined Foods.  Can we, members of the organic movement, continue our good work with the existence of such disparity?

And above all, can we tolerate the methods of manipulation of consumers by avoidance and ignorance of the evidence of negative health consequences of regular consumption of Refined Foods? Maybe it is time for a truly independent consumer organisation which will expose such unhealthy practices inside the organic sector?

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NOTES

  1. Rudolf Steiner, lecture to the workmen building the first Goetheanum in Dornach, on 31st July 1924; published in the book Nutrition and Stimulants, Bio-dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, USA, 1991
  2. Dr. Weston A. Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diet and Their Effects, 1939; available on www.journeytoforever.org/farm_library/price
  3. M. Bircher/Benner, M.D., Children's Diet based on the Conclusions of modern Nutritional Research, The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd., Great Britain, 1946
  4. Catharyn Elwood, Feel Like a Million, Pocket Books, New York, 1972 (1956)
  5. Roger. J. Williams, Nutrition in a Nutshell, Dolphin Books, New York, 1962
  6. T. L. Cleave, The Saccharine Disease; www.journeytoforever.org/farm_library/cleave
  7. William Dufty, Sugar Blues, Warner Books, New York, 1975
  8. W. C. Martin, When is a Food a Food – and When a Poison?, Michigan Organic Press, 1957
  9. Andrew Stanway, Taking the Rough with the Smooth, Pan Books, London, 1981 (1976)
  10. Alexander Schauss, Diet, Crime and Delinquency, Parker House, Berkeley, California, 1980
  11. Carl C. Pfeifer, Ph.D., M.D., Nutrition and Mental Illness, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 1987
  12. Dr. Stephen Davies & Dr Alan Steward, Nutritional Medicine, Pan Books, London, 1987
  13. Lynne Melcombe, Health Hazards of White Sugar, Natural Health Guides 22, Alive Books, Vancouver, Canada, 2000
  14. Dr. Lisa Hark, Dr. Darwin Deen, The Whole Grain Diet Miracle, DK Publishing, New York, 2006
  15. Soil Association, Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health: A Review of the Evidence, 2001
  16. Nancy Appleton, PhD & G. N. Jacob, Suicide by Sugar, Square One Publishers, New York, 2009
  17. David A. Kessler, The End of Overeating, Penguin Books, 2009
  18. www.britishsugar.co.uk/Information Resource: Health & Wellbeing, April 2008
  19. www.tateandlyle.com, April 2008
  20. A. O’Connor, The Claim: Brown Sugar is Healthier than White Sugar?, June 2007, www.nytimes.com
  21. James Cleeton, Organic foods in Relation to Nutrition and Health, Coronary & Diabetic Care in the UK, 2004
  22. See note 15
  23. www.montezumas.co.uk/Chocolate & Nutrition, May 2012
  24. The statement is taken from their range of Organic Chocolates in the year 2008. Since then they have changed the text on packaging. However the old version enables you to compare the opinion of one of their co-founders with the fact that their company is using the method of hiding highly refined sugar under the general term ‘sugar’. It might be even organic white sugar, but this I cannot tell, because this information is not available on their website, nor could I get it directly from them (see Appendix 7: Inquiry about Organic Sugars).
  25. Karen Sullivan, Organic Living in 10 Simple Lessons, Piatkus, London, 2001