October 26, 2010

All Natural

Those terms on a label seem pretty clear, right? Don't be too sure.

Over the years, struggling to understand ingredient lists, reading what I can on how things are processed, whether or not something starts natural and remains so after processing, how products earn their "organic" labels, so on and so forth, I've learned that just being able to read a label and know what the ingredients are isn't good enough anymore. 


No purchase is life or death, unless we are talking medicine, which we aren't. So before you make a purchase you should read the label and then:

1. Find out what the ingredient is (i.e. formaldehyde in shampoo). Formaldehyde is an organic compound with the formula CH2O...
2. Where does it come from? Formaldehyde is a by-product of combustion from gas. Formaldehyde is produced industrially by the catalytic oxidation of methanol...
3. What is the role of this ingredient in the shampoo I'd like to buy? Preservative.
4. Are there any health concerns associated with this ingredient? Carcinogen. There is scientific evidence that formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer in humans...

Searching out information on formaldehyde might seem a daunting task but actually that was the easy part. Now try looking into the words "All Natural" and/or "Organic." Trying to understand those two can be exhausting. After all, most natural ingredients are no longer "natural" once they are processed for use and organic... that term deserves even more scrutiny.

I recently came across a company that claimed to sell organic soy candles. I immediately remembered an article I'd read stating more than 90% of soy beans are genetically modified. The wheels in my head turned and I wondered, how can something be organic if it is GMO? Isn't that against "organic" labeling standards? This candle company didn't say they were using non-GMO soy wax. Maybe the producer of these organic soy candles assumed consumers knew that if it is organic then it isn't GMO? Hmmm... So I did a little search and it turns out that not only is there no such thing as non-GMO soy wax to be sold in the U.S. there aren't organic soy candles either. Turns out, the processing required to turn soy into a wax renders it NOT ORGANIC (yup, chemicals are involved).

I had to wonder then, why are so many people selling either "organic" soy candles or "non-GMO" soy candles. Surely I must be missing something. I understand the part where you can't process organic soy beans into wax without rendering them non-organic but what about non GMO soy wax. Try googling and you will get dozens of companies that sell non GMO soy wax candles and yet several candle supply sites I've visited claim there is no availability of non GMO soy wax on the market yet. Being the skeptic that I am, I assumed those suppliers just aren't willing to pay the price for this non GMO soy wax because, after all, why would people misrepresent their product. So I searched and searched and searched for one single company that sold non genetically modified soy wax to candle makers and I haven't found a single one. I did find these tid bits of information though:

"Soy refineries that have an excess of soybeans produce soy wax by “cracking”, hulling, flaking and extracting the oil from the beans using the solvent hexane. It is not by most natural food standards a natural or pure product because it contains synthetic chemical solvents. No European countries bother making wax out of tiny soybeans. Soy refiners can’t certify that their wax is “non-GMO.” The DNA of the soybeans has been modified with DNA from other organisms. Genetically modifying the seeds make the plants more resistant to weed killers. We worry about the people spraying the chemicals. Grains, beans and oils that are GMO either have been or will soon be banned in European Union countries. Soy wax will never be certified organic because it is chemically distilled and then hydrogenated which also introduces synthetic chemicals. Soy is a commercial row crop that does not encourage biodiversity or sequester carbon. All the tillage is not sustainable for the soil." SOURCE OF QUOTE

Are there any organic or non-GMO soy waxes?

The short answer is no. Only a very small percentage of the total US production of soy wax is organic. About 98% of the soybean harvest has been either genetically modified (GMO) or non-GMO mixed in with GMO soybeans. All of the soy wax in the US is made by just four companies, and none of them currently process organic soy oil into candle wax at this time.
We will carry certifiably organic non-GMO soy wax if and when it becomes available.

Are soybeans used to make soybean wax GMO-free (GMO = Genetically-modified organism)? Probably not. According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS), 91% of the soybeans planted in 2009 and 93% of the soybeans planted in 2010 were resistant to herbicides or insects or both through biotechnology. (Reference: Acreage 6-30-2010, from http://www.nass.usda.gov )

So I now know that soy wax is not pure and natural (thanks to that chemical processing) and it is questionable as to whether or not the wax is non-GMO (I'm still looking for those suppliers) which means it certainly fails miserably in the organic category. Conclusion? Why would a company label something organic or natural when it isn't? There are only two reasons:

All mislabeling is deliberate if the producer of such product knows what they are doing is wrong. The moment you call your product something that it isn't or say it has or does something that it doesn't, you are consciously mislabeling.

Here is one obvious "wrong" that companies often perpetrate that consumers should be getting wise to.

ORGANIC: If a product contains one organic ingredient and the label reads "organic" shampoo, lotions, lipstick, etc... across the front, that is deliberate mislabeling. One organic ingredient doesn't make a product organic but one non-organic ingredient does render a 99% organic product not organic.

One direct misuse of the word "organic" that comes to mind is on a honey label. There is no such thing as organic honey, something we covered in my beekeeping course at the U of M. Bees travel far and wide (up to 2 miles) to forage for nectar and pollen. We can't control where our bees choose to venture. Sure, we can treat honeybee diseases naturally but they still pick up pesticide laden pollen on their legs and bring it back to the hive. I like this article on honey labeling gone wrong CLICK HERE.

"Like other foods from free-roaming, wild creatures, it is difficult -- and in some places impossible -- to assure that honey bees have not come in contact with prohibited substances, like pesticides," said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a national advocacy group for the research and promotion of organic food.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture research, he said, shows that the average hive contains traces of five or more pesticide residues.

As for that "natural" honey. All honey should be natural. It comes straight off the frames from the hive. Labeling it "natural" is just... funny, and... ALL beekeepers know there isn't such a thing as "organic" honey.


ALL NATURAL:. I used to believe that labeling something all natural when only natural ingredients were used was honest labeling but the more I've researched the less I believe this to be true. As manufacturers of a product it is our responsibility to know where our ingredients come from and how they were processed. Consumers assume we do this type of homework. I know I use to believe companies like Johnson & Johnson, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, etc... did this type of research so why should small body product companies be held to a lesser standard? The problem is, we can do extensive research into the ingredient we are buying (i.e. oils, colorants, fragrances, etc...) but our research will only be as good as our suppliers allow it to be. Just because I read about essential oils, what parts of a plant they are extracted from and what that process entails doesn't mean that my supplier carries that pure type of essential oil. So how honest we are really depends on the knowledge we've acquired through research and also how honest our suppliers are. If I label something as phthalate free only to learn that my supplier was dishonest about their essential oils being phthalate free, am I to blame for this mislabeling? No. If I use an essential oil that I know for a fact is ALWAYS solvent extracted (using chemicals like petroleum ether, methanol, ethanol or hexana) am I responsible for lying on the label when I call it "All Natural?" Absolutely!

The case of non-GMO soy wax is a good example of possible honest labeling by a company when the supplier may not be forth coming. It is quite possible that some of these candle companies have purchased what they believe to be non-GMO soy wax (they've trusted their supplier). We've read that 93% of soybeans in the U.S. are GMO which implies that 7% of soybeans are not. We could dig deeper and find out how much of the worlds soybean crops are actually processed into wax but that still doesn't tell us if that non-GMO soy wax is truly non-GMO. Only the supplier knows that or should know.

What does it all mean? Those of us that create body products for sale or personal use are at the mercy of the companies we buy our ingredients from so I would say it is essential to develop a good relationship with your supplier. Individuals who buy their products off the shelf at the supermarket or from an online small business shop are at the mercy of their own knowledge. Sadly, this doesn't amount to much in a world full of greed, manipulation and shady labeling practices. As consumers we have to put some faith in those we buy from and also do a little research of our own because there isn't a higher power or Federal Agency that is staffed well enough to oversee and enforce all the regulations. We aren't going to see GMO on the label but if we see non-GMO on the label, we can almost assume the counter part of the product we are buying has GMO ingredients (Corn anyone???).

If after reading this post you have no idea what I am babbling about. Let me just say this... learning about GMO's this past month has me miffed and I'm on a mini crusade to help people understand the importance of truth in labeling.

Now I will close as I am famished and want to eat my salad that I've been craving. The one I'm hoping is truly ORGANIC like the label says (BTW/beware of organic food you find on the natural food store that comes from China... it isn't organic). Grrrrr!

Non GMO Shopping Guide
Essential Oils:Premium Quality
Anne-Marie said...

Thanks for the great info and diagram on the different levels of organic. There is so much to learn about the requirements of organic labeling. Thanks :)