Is Refined Food Really Organic?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2012

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6. Promotion of Organic Foods

Development of organic agriculture and food production is without any doubt the only way forward if we want to sustain humanity in its further evolution. Therefore promotion of all existing and possible benefits of organic foods versus non-organic is more than justifiable. However there exists a basic condition for promotion of organic foods: this promotion should be based on objective facts and clear information which gives people proper understanding of each particular topic. All statements and viewpoints presented by any representative of the organic movement should be in accordance with all available evidence. The practice of the selection of favourable proofs and the omission of unfavourable ones should not be our way. The ethical promotion of organic foods should be based on the principle of truthfulness as much as it is in our power.

Now we will look at a few examples of the promotion of organic agriculture and organic foods, with special attention to the issue of Wholefood vs Refined (see Glossary of the Key Words).

6.1 Example from the Soil Association

Here are the front pages of two different leaflets issued by the Soil Association. They both contain evident claims that organic food is healthier than non-organic. This is one of the most used arguments in favour of organic foods – which make a lot of sense, for the basic aim of organic agriculture is to produce the best quality food possible inside wider geographical, social and economic circumstances. In the article Organic foods in Relation to Nutrition and Health by James Cleeton from the Soil Association, we can find another example of promotion of organic food on this basis: "The benefits of a diet rich in vitamins and minerals from fresh food are widely recognised. In an attempt to increase the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables the British Government launched an initiative highlighting the need for 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Worryingly, UK and US governments’ statistics indicate that levels of trace minerals in fruit and vegetables fell by up to 76% between 1940 and 1991. In contrast there is growing evidence that organic fruit and vegetables generally contain more nutrients than non-organic food. It is reasonable to assume that individuals could more readily consume the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals by eating more nutritious organic food." [1]

Now, if we have a combination Organic + Wholefood there is no doubt that such food can be promoted as healthier. If we have a combination Non-Organic + Refined Food there is no doubt that such food cannot be promoted as healthier. But the combination of Organic + Refined Food – as has been demonstrated in previous chapters – falls short of the general claims of the health benefits of organic food.

There is another way the Soil Association promotes organic foods: paper bags used in organic shops. On the back side is printed: Five reasons to buy organic food

  1. For health: On average, organic fruit and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamin C, essential minerals and cancer-fighting antioxidants.
  2. No nasty additives: Among the many additives banned by the Soil Association are hydrogenated fat, aspartame (artificial sweetener) and monosodium glutamate.
  3. Avoids pesticides: Over 300 chemical pesticides are routinely used in non-organic farming. Pesticides are often present in non-organic food.
  4. Care for animals: No system of farming has higher levels of animal welfare standards than organic farms working to Soil Association standards.
  5. Good for wildlife and the environment: Support a vibrant working countryside, rich in birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Choose local, seasonal and organic for fewer food miles, less packaging and pollution.

On the front side is the following summary of the above reasons:

Whenever I see this my reply is: People do not eat just fruit and vegetables, but also grains. I cannot trust the food which has been refined, regardless of whether it is organic or not!

6.2 Example from the Biodynamic Association

The leaflets, magazine advertisements and website pages of the Biodynamic (Agricultural) Association [2] are promoting biodynamic products as merchandise of very high quality. Here is one example:

In another leaflet is written: "Demeter – Food grown biodynamically has consistently been shown to be among the highest in nutritional value, flavour and keeping quality of any food on the market. The rigorous standards maintained by Demeter symbol holders ensure that the intrinsic value and life giving vitality present in the food is retained and enhanced." In one older version is written: "Demeter – The sign of pure natural food biodynamically grown."

The above claims are certainly true in many aspects of food quality – which I can also confirm from my personal experiences as a consumer. But for the very same reason I cannot put Biodynamic Refined Foods in the category of high quality food. For any product made from white flour and/or highly refined types of sugar is not PURE NATURAL FOOD – except if we accept the logic of those who promote white sugar as ‘pure natural sugar’. [3] Neither the removal of fibres, minerals, vitamins, and secondary nutrients through the refining process "ensure that the intrinsic value and life giving quality in the food is retained" and in this way "provide nourishing food for the whole human being." [4]

And finally I have a question: Can any Refined Food be called ‘Food with Integrity’? For "the word integrity means: The state of being wholesome, unimpaired (synonyms include words: wholeness, goodness, sincerity, virtue)." [5]

6.3 Promotion of Wholefoods

Grains were and still are the staple food of humanity. The average amount of carbohydrate foods is not insignificant in an average diet, for grains and grain products constitute the bottom of many dietary recommendations in the form of food pyramids. Here are three examples:

We can notice that all three food pyramids (two coming from American universities) promote eating ‘whole grains’, and not just ‘bread, cereals, pasta and potatoes (carbohydrates)’ [6] as is common practice in nutritional guidelines given by many governmental health authorities.

There are also some charities which are promoting the consumption of Wholefoods due to scientific evidence about their health benefits. You need just to look in the newspapers. Here is an example from the front page of a daily newspaper: "Ten Easy Ways to Beat Cancer: A simple guide suggesting 10 easy ways to avoid cancer could prevent 80,000 cases of the illness in the UK every year, a report by the World Cancer Research Fund claimed yesterday. Basic changes to what Britons eat and how much they exercise would prevent … many cases of cancer… Its report advises people to cut out sugary drinks, eat more fresh produce and consume less red and processed meats. (Among '10 Ways to Beat Cancer' were the following two):

Who else is promoting Wholefoods nowadays? Mainly companies who sell them. Here in England it seems that the main promotion is in the names and descriptions of organic shops, as can be demonstrated in this example: [8]

(For more examples see: Appendix 6: Organic Wholefood Shops in London.)

There is another practice of promoting Wholefoods: on the package of products. The example below is from The Weetabix Food Company which specialises in non-organic and organic wholegrain products.

There are more companies inside the mainstream food market which promote Wholefoods. In fact, the promotion of ‘wholemeal’ and ‘whole grain’ is a new trend. Below is another example: [9]

In regard to such developments it would be more than logical to expect the promotion of Organic Wholefoods from the core members of the organic movement. But it seems that there is not much going on in this area.

Such complacency among the core members of IFOAM is enough for serious concern. But even more worrying is that instead of promoting Organic Wholefoods, there exists the promotion of Organic Refined Foods. For example, in the leaflet Make a meal of it – Organic recipes from the Soil Association is included the recipe for ginger cake which is made from white self-raising flour. So instead of promoting baking with wholemeal flour Soil Association is promoting baking with the most refined flour – the white one. Is this not a message to the customers: Organic Refined Foods are all right? Just go for them!

Here is another example of such ‘opposite’ promotion:

Booja-Booja organic chocolate truffles received so far the following organic awards:

These awards were given to products which:

My personal opinion is that such products do not deserve to be promoted with the help of the organic food awards but should be instead labelled with the warning: "Eating excessive amounts of white sugar is associated with a multitude of health risks such as diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, cancer, and mental disorders, due to absence of natural minerals and vitamins which are lost through refining and which are essential for proper carbohydrate metabolism."

I will conclude this chapter with one positive initiative promoting more ‘wholesome school meals’ and consumption of ‘unprocessed foods’ in British schools run by Soil Association – Food for Life: [10]

Although the aims of this initiative are very praiseworthy – especially when one is aware of the kinds of (bad) food that is available on menus in British schools – there are also a few things in the leaflet which are rather surprising. The first thing is: in spite of promoting ‘wholesome school meals’ and ‘unprocessed food’ the whole leaflet does not contain any references to ‘wholefood’, ‘wholemeal’, or ‘unrefined’. There are several references to the problem of childhood obesity, and one reference to "unhealthy amounts of refined sugar", and another to "increased consumption of processed fatty, salty and sugar foods."

Beside this we can see that under the group of ‘unprocessed food’ it is not clarified what kind of ‘cereal flours’ school children should eat. It could be wholemeal, brown, or even organic stone-ground white? One can only guess what exactly is meant by such broad expressions. I just wonder why there is such a reluctance to even utter the word Wholefood?


Promotion of organic foods as better quality and therefore healthier than non-organic is seriously flawed because of the existence of Organic Refined Foods. If IFOAM members want to continue to use such claims for the promotion of organic food, then they should either stop giving certifications to Refined Foods, or otherwise add the following disclaimer to their promotional materials "The claim of health benefits does not hold true for any Organic Refined Foods."

On the other side where are the benefits of consuming Wholefoods being promoted inside the organic movement? Is it not our task to promote what we recognise as good quality food? Is it not an inseparable part of our work to educate people in regard to food and nutrition?

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  1. James Cleeton, Organic foods in Relation to Nutrition and Health, Coronary & Diabetic Care in the UK, 2004
  2. In the meantime they have changed its name to Biodynamic Association.
  3. Leaflet: Biodynamics – an introduction, Biodynamic Agricultural Association, UK
  4. Leaflet: Refining and Processing Sugar, The Sugar Association, Washington
  5. Wikipedia/Integrity, December 2008
  6. Dr Joan Webster-Gandy, Understanding Food & Nutrition, Family Doctor Series, published in association with The British Medical Association, 2003
  7. Daily Express, November 16, 2009
  8. Wholefoods is a chain of organic shops in USA and UK.
  9. The picture from the front page of my report is taken from an example of such promotion of Wholefoods by company Allinson.
  10. From the leaflet Soil Association in Focus – Food For Life, no date