Is Refined Food Really Organic?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2012

1. Core Values of the Organic Movement

In this chapter I compare the core values from the pioneer phases of the organic movement with the present situation in regard to wholefood versus refined (see Glossary of the Key Words) .

1.1 Journey from Whole to Refined

From 1988 to 1998 I have been active in the promotion and development of organic agriculture and natural foods in Slovenia. In those years there were no any certified organic farms in Slovenia, but there were individuals and groups of gardeners, farmers, and consumers who already started to make practical steps towards production and consumption of natural foods. It was the pioneering phase, full of people with high ideals and great enthusiasm for the core values of the organic movement. And in spite of the fact that in those times there existed plenty of disagreements between different ‘fractions’ of the organic movement in Slovenia, I did not meet anyone who would promote Refined Foods as organic. Quite the opposite, white bread and white sugar were symbols of the fast food culture we were opposing.

Our understanding that organic food should be as natural as possible was due to different influences. One important influence was Fritjof Capra [1]. In his book The Turning Point he gives the following description:

"The basic features of a healthy diet are well known. To be healthy and nutritious, our diet should be well balanced, low in animal protein and high in natural, nonrefined carbohydrates. This can be achieved by relying on three basic foods – whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Even more important than the detailed composition of our diet are the following three requirements:

These dietary requirements are extremely simple, and yet they are almost impossible to follow in today's world." [2]

Natural products from our bakery in Slovenia

In the bakery which I started and ran for six years in Slovenia, we could not meet all these requirements, for there were no Slovenian certified organic ingredients available. But we were getting our grains from ‘organic’ farmers we knew, we had our own miller who used stone mills to grind our flour, we used mainly wholemeal flour, or a mixture of wholemeal and brown flour (but never any white flour), and for sweetening mainly barley malt, concentrated apple juice and minced raisins. We promoted our products as natural. But on many occasions it happened that a consumer seeing our dark brown products commented: "Oh, you sell organic food!"

It was evident that in public opinion organic was (and in Slovenia still is) associated with the brown, wholemeal products, not with refined ones. Such an attitude was confirmed with the following event. In September 1995 I participated in the international workshop Introduction of Organic Agriculture in Selected Danube Countries & the Three Baltic States which was held in Croatia (organized by Dutch foundation Avalon). There were mainly members of organic movements from former communist countries (i.e., from the pioneer stage of their organic movement), and only a few representatives of organic movements from western countries (i.e., from the advanced phase of their organic movement). One day two members from Slovakia presented a project of growing organic sugar beets and producing white sugar. This caused quite some agitation amongst participants, even some laughter on the part of Slovakian members. There were no voices in their defence; that means that the vast majority of participants were of the opinion that white sugar and organic farming are not compatible.

So far – in twenty-four years of my involvement with the organic movement – I haven’t heard about any pioneer of the organic movement that did not include Wholefoods as an essential feature of natural foods. In The Origins of the Organic Movement are presented many such pioneers. Among them was Edgar J. Saxon, editor of Health and Life magazine (starting in 1920), who established the first health food restaurants, called 'Vitamin Cafés', between the wars. One paragraph from the book describes his understanding of a healthy diet:

"For Saxon, true health was wholeness. Diet was central to its cultivation, and he worked to create a public demand for ‘honest food.’ By this phrase he meant whole foods, home-grown without artificials and without having been refined, adulterated or processed. He commented on the British people's ‘curious notion that purity is the absence of colour,’ which led to the popularity of tasteless and devitalised substances like white bread and sugar. Chemists were the beneficiaries, and the financial system was the culprit, judging wealth not by people's health but by ‘its ability and willingness to buy third-rate stuff in shops." [3]

According to Phillip Conford, the author of the book, Edgar J. Saxon "has been almost completely forgotten in comparison with McCarrison and the Pioneer Health Centre" (another pioneer and another initiative of the organic movement in UK).

What about the Pioneer Health Centre which has supposedly not been forgotten? The founders of this initiative, Scoot Williams and Innes Pearse (and I can assume also other founder members of Soil Association) shared "concern about the British people's poor health and inadequate diet, high in white sugar and white bread." [4] "The Pioneer Health Centre was an ambitious experiment, concerned ultimately with changing the nature of society and nutrition." [5]

There is no doubt that the consequent work of the members of Soil Association was in the direction of the improvement of the quality of "the British people's poor health and inadequate diet". There can be listed many achievements and positive results of their work. But what about the improvements of the consumption of Wholefoods? Do the British people today consume less white sugar and white bread? Here is one answer:

"Despite much promoted health benefits, only one of twelve loaves of bread in UK are made from wholemeal flour, a staggering 92% of bread still being white." [6]

And according to the UK Nutritional Statistics 2005 "only 5 – 25% of British adults are consuming the recommended levels of fibre." So where does the organic movement stand today in regard to Wholefood vs Refined? Where are the initiatives inside our movement to improve consumption of Wholefoods?

1.2 Story of Infinity Foods

In 2011 Infinity Foods Cooperative celebrated forty years of its existence. On their website we can get a glimpse into the very beginning of this cooperative (italics mine):

"Infinity Foods began in 1971 with a small shop in Brighton, England. In 1985, as a result of the increasing demand for bulk wholefood orders a group of members set up a separate wholesale branch of the business… Over the years, as the wholefood market has grown so too has the wholesale division of Infinity Foods. What started as a small outlet at the rear of the shop is today one of the UK's leading national distributors of high quality, organic, fairtrade and natural products. "We have a very firm commitment to promote Organically Certified products, indeed we have been at the forefront of introducing an organic choice to the British consumer. Over the years our reputation for quality and choice has really established The Infinity Foods range as UK's leading brand of essential organic foods and produce." [7]

Where do they stand today in regard to Organic Wholefoods? This is their answer: "In recent years people's attitudes towards their health, the environment and issues surrounding food production have changed enormously, with far greater awareness of the implications of all of our actions. Here at Infinity, our core principles of sourcing locally grown and produced, organic, non-GM, fair-trade, vegetarian foods have been matched in equal part by the increasing demand for these same foods from our customers." [8]

As one can notice their very first shop was selling wholefoods and later expansion was still serving the needs of ‘wholefood market’. But when the cooperative lists their present core principles in the above quote the word ‘wholefood’ is not mentioned anymore. No surprise if one looks at their catalogue [9]. Among many wholefood products they have also many Organic Refined Foods. For example:

There are many more Refined Foods in their catalogue among chocolate products, jams, juices, cordials, etc. But, contrary to the above facts, in the same catalogue are advertising that they ‘manufacture and distribute wholefoods’:

The above wording is such that customers can get an impression that Organic and Wholefood is the same. For if it were not the same then it would be written "we also manufacture and distribute wholefoods." This impression is confirmed by the next statement (italics mine): "Our extensive Infinity Foods organic range is certified by The Soil Association, the UK's leading organic charity. Soil Association certification is your guarantee that the products meet with the highest standards of integrity across all sectors of the organic market." [10]

In fact, the members of Infinity Foods cooperative have the following opinion about their own beliefs (italics mine): "We believe that it is our responsibility to provide food that is as far as possible, natural and unadulterated, free from GM and hydrogenated fat, organic and ‘Fairtrade’ accredited and sourced from companies with high ethical standards." [11]

It seems as if they do not notice any disparity between the core values and quality standards in regard to wholefood versus refined in spite of the fact that (italics mine): "Back in 1970, two friends opened a macrobiotic café at the University of Sussex called "Biting Through", which led to a demand for the ingredients they were using in their cooking. The following year, they opened a small shop in a converted terraced house in Church Street. Here they sold basic vegetarian whole foods and freshly baked products." [12]

The above referred two friends initiated their whole business inspired by macrobiotics (see Appendix 2: Macrobiotics Stand to Wholefood vs Refined). Are they not capable of seeing that their story is not just ‘40 Years of Good Stuff’ but it is also a story of how in 40 years the core values and quality standards in regard to Wholefoods have been diluted to an extreme degree?

1.3 Deadly Threat to Organic Integrity

In 2001 the president of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, gave an overview of seven deadly threats to organic integrity. He lists the following ones: certification wars, price wars, compromises on food quality, agricultural establishment ignorance, the food standards agency, own label products, and consumer ignorance. In the Conclusion of his article he wrote: "Those who have nurtured the growth of the organic movement must be ever vigilant that, like so many radical movements, it does not, as a direct result of its success, become its opposite. If we successfully resist these threats we could transform our food culture." [13]

From my personal experiences as a regular consumer of organic foods the most dangerous threat of all is the compromise on food quality. I’ve been too many times negatively surprised with the bad quality of particular organic food which I have eaten. Quite a few times I was even shocked with the extreme low quality of particular organic produce.

But there is something more to this. Until a few years ago I was convinced for some good reasons that in spite of the many Organic Refined Foods that I could see around there was no chance that organic organisations would ever allow the existence of organic white sugar. Then in April 2008 I saw the first one! This prompted me to start my investigation; since then I have discovered more and more examples of white and other types of highly Refined Foods hidden inside organic products.

White rice, white bread, and white sugar have been the examples of Junk Food in the pioneer stages of the organic movement. Now they have become an integral part of it. Is not this a case of dilution of core values of the organic movement ‘par excellence’?

Now I am concerned whether there are still enough people who carry the core values of the organic movement in regard to Organic Wholefood against the opposing forces of "vested interests (that) seek profit before principle." [14] For we need such people who will "advocate constant vigilance against the dilution of organic standards" [15] more than ever before.


If we look at the Core Values of the Organic Movement versus the fast food culture we can see the following main food attributes:

New Food Culture Fast Food Culture
Natural Food Altered/Adulterated Food
Organic Food Food with Chemical Residues & Additives
Wholefood Refined and/or Enriched Food

Thus we can see that in the beginnings of the organic movement natural food, organic food, and wholefood were synonyms – presenting three different aspects of the same thing. But now it is different: the split has happened. Inside the organic movement are still those who are adhering to these core values. Beside them are those who have been accepting the existence of Organic Refined Foods as something ‘natural’.

Regardless of the reasons behind the dilution of these core values it is fact that nowadays Organic does not mean Wholefood anymore. Now we can even buy Organic White Sugar – the utmost symbol of the fast food culture!


  1. Fritjof Capra (born February 1, 1939) is an Austrian-born American physicist. He is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, and is on the faculty of Schumacher College. He is the author of several books, including The Tao of Physics (1975), The Turning Point (1982), Uncommon Wisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996), and The Hidden Connections (2002).
  2. Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point, Flamingo, London, 1983; the book was translated into Serbo-Croatian and thus easy accessible in Slovenia.
  3. Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, Floris Books, 2001
  4.  Positively Peckham, Living Earth, Spring 2007
  5. As above
  6. Graham Sherwood, April 2008,
  7., May 2012
  8., May 2012
  9. Infinity Foods Catalogue – Organic & Natural Foods, May – June 2012
  10., May 2012
  11., May 2012
  12. See note 8
  13. Patrick Holden, The Seven Deadly Threats to Organic Integrity, Living Earth No 209, 2001
  14. Interview with Patrick Holden, Living Earth, Summer 2006
  15. As above