Have We Been Misled? 5 Organic Foods That Should Make You Think Twice

Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011. Follow Max on Twitter: @livingmaxwell.

I spend an inordinate amount of time learning about the healthiest and newest organic food products available. Through my research at the various trade shows (Natural Products Expo East and Natural Products Expo West are my two favorites), talking to industry contacts, roaming supermarket aisles, speaking with as many well-informed food people as I can and reading books, I have come to the following conclusion:

You can take almost any food in the world and some health expert will have something good to say about it while a different health expert will have something bad to say about it.

So, what I do is educate myself as much as I can and then make my own decision about whether I should be eating it or not.

The following five organic foods seem to be the most controversial. While books could be written on all of the foods below and by no means am I covering all of the pros/cons of each, I will try to highlight the most salient points.

TOFU

Tofu is huge in the vegan world as a meat alternative. Similarly, it is something that has been eaten in Asia for a long time and many people automatically say “Well, if they’ve been eating it in Asia forever and they’re healthy, how bad could it be?”

Many people have doubts about whether tofu is healthy or not because it contains phytoestrogens, which may disrupt the hormonal balance in both men and women.

There is even disagreement as to whether tofu is fermented or not. Fermentation seems to be the measuring stick as to whether a soy product is healthy or not.

My take: I used to eat a ton of organic tofu because my naturopath told me at the time that it was fine to eat. I have since switched my stance on this and almost never eat it now. I figured that with so much controversy, I was better off avoiding it.

The one exception is when I go to Sacred Chow and have the grilled Western tofu there. I’m sorry but I just can’t help myself. My good friend and chef/owner Cliff Preefer makes tofu better than anyone in the entire country.

If people are going to eat tofu, they need to quadruple check that they are eating organic tofu. Non-organic tofu is almost guaranteed to be genetically-modified and sprayed with tons of toxic chemicals.

PEANUTS

This one may surprise people. At the 2010 Natural Products Expo West Trade Show, Kris Fillat, the founder of the GoodOnYa Bar, gave me a whole education on peanuts as she puts them into two of her bars.

Our government allows a certain level of aflatoxin on peanuts. This means that a certain level of mold (yes, mold) may be present on the peanuts that are sold to consumers. This is for both organic and non-organic peanuts. Mold on peanuts can be mostly attributed to the humid climates of Georgia and Virginia, where many peanuts are grown.

Kris only uses Valencia peanuts. 90% of the world’s Valencia peanuts are grown in New Mexico, where it is very dry, and according to Kris, “You can almost be guaranteed that there won’t be any mold on those peanuts.”

My take: Just because a peanut is organic doesn’t seem to make it safe. Where it is grown matters equally as much, maybe more. As a result, I never eat peanuts unless they are organic Valencia peanuts.

Even still, I rarely eat them. Maybe the whole salmonella scare did a number on me but I have a very strong preference for Brazil nuts.  I LOVE Brazil nuts, and that is what I use in my nut milks.

KOMBUCHA

Next to coconut water, Kombucha might be the fastest growing drink in the beverage sector.

In case you don’t know what it is or haven’t been part of the craze, Kombucha is a fermented tea that many people believe has antimicrobial and and antioxidant properties. Some say that it improves hair, nails, and skin. Mostly, it is known for having “good bacteria” that aids in digestion.

Kombucha comes in very cool colors and flavors, and the most dominant brand is called GTs (above). The founder’s mother had an aggressive form of breast cancer and started drinking Kombucha every single day. According to the company’s website, the cancer stopped spreading, largely attributed to the Kombucha.

Many critics question the health claims. Noted physician Dr. Andrew Weil says that he has never seen any scientific study backing up the health claims made for it. He thinks it could have some antibiotic activity. This means that you could be “drinking” antibiotics, which could encourage development of resistant strains of bacteria.

My take: Since it has trace amounts of alcohol and I am not a drinker, I don’t buy it. Even if the alcohol concerns were not an issue, Kombucha has a good amount of sugar, which is required for the fermentation process. Refined sugar is something I try to avoid – it negatively impacts my mood and gets me depressed.

Some people are concerned about the Kombucha culture going bad and becoming a toxic fungus. Also, if Kombucha is prepared in non-sterile conditions, contamination may occur. This appears to be less of an issue if you are drinking Kombucha from one of the major, well-known brands.

SOY MILK

Soy milk is a very popular dairy alternative, and proponents point to its abundance of protein, fiber and isoflavones.

Like tofu, soy milk contains phytoestrogens. Additionally, every health expert I’ve ever talked to or learned from has said that all soy products must be fermented. Soy milk is not fermented.

My Take: Even if it is organic, I wouldn’t touch soy milk with a 10-foot pole.

Parents who are giving their kids soy milk, because of a desire to avoid dairy, need to investigate this very, very thoroughly. In my view, rice milks or nut milks are much better dairy alternatives.

AGAVE

Agave is the nectar that comes from the agave plant, which can mostly be found in Mexico and the surrounding areas. Agave looks like honey and is an alternative sweetener.

The are two main controversies around agave.

1) Raw foodists claim that there is a raw version of agave (no heat above 118 degrees is used in the manufacturing process) but many people have serious doubts about this. They do not believe that the nectar can be extracted from the plant without a serious degree of heat.

2) The more important issue is whether agave is healthy or not. Gabriel Cousens, MD, who runs the retreat center Tree of Life and has reversed Type II diabetes in patients in 30 days by putting them on a raw food diet, thinks that agave is just as bad as high fructose corn syrup. He believes that it is very, very high on the Glycemic Index.

My Take: I have cut way, way back on agave and only eat foods that have agave, notably some raw chocolate, on a very infrequent basis.

As a sugar alternative, I use and love coconut palm sugar. It is both sustainable and lower on the Glycemic Index.

Palm sugar was one of my Top 5 Organic Food Trends for 2011, and I believe its popularity is going to really take off this year.

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44 Comments

  1. Very insightful, thank you for shedding light on the possible confusion familiar food items and the real deal!! Superb!!

    Written by R. Gunter on February 2, 2011 @ 4:21 pm
  2. I don’t like the way peanuts hang down as they grow. I have a much better feeling about almonds and hazlenuts, both of which I experience as being the ultimate in health foods, and therefore… for me, ‘comfort food’. i carry them in bags when travelling and they perk me up.

    Written by Lisa Attias on February 2, 2011 @ 4:45 pm
  3. Max,
    Great list. You took a different tact than I’d expected and really provided some info to ponder. You’re completely right about being able to find “experts” who can argue either side of a debate. I find this is true in my business. We’ve developed a brand of personal care products that are pure, free from potentially harmful chemicals, and proven effective (Puristics. http://www.puristics.com). We’ve done our best to research our ingredients and those in other personal care products so that we have meaningful standards. We’re in a very good place, but as you know, the science is ever-changing. I encourage everyone to read and investigate for themselves so they can make the best choices for themselves and their families.
    On a side note, my sister used to make kombucha tea from a big nasty fungus. Thank God it didn’t make her ill.
    Thanks for the info and keep up the good work.
    M’lou

    Written by M'lou Arnett on February 2, 2011 @ 5:11 pm
  4. I am confused about a remark attributed to Dr. Cousens. That he “believe’s” that agave’s GI is high. How is a items’ GI determined? I had assumed that is is via a scientific process similar to determining an items caloric value, and therefore “belief” isn’t relevant. Does anyone know for sure? Thanks.

    Written by Peri on February 2, 2011 @ 5:28 pm
  5. R. Gunter,

    Thanks so much for your kind words! I very much appreciate them.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011 @ 7:09 pm
  6. Hi Lisa,

    To be honest, I don’t have any idea in which direction nuts grow or hang.

    Probably my favorite nuts are Brazil nuts. Do you eat those as well? Or, do you not like them? Are they popular in England?

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011 @ 7:10 pm
  7. Hi M’lou,

    I very much appreciate your feedback. What tact did you think I was going to take? Just curious.

    I agree with you. As I have said, there are experts that will say one thing is bad while another thing is good. We have to do our own research and make a judgment for ourselves.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011 @ 7:12 pm
  8. Hi Peri,

    More info about the Glycemic Index can be found here http://www.glycemicindex.com/

    Essentially, it is an index that ranks foods on how they impact our insulin and blood sugar levels.

    I hope this helps.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011 @ 7:17 pm
  9. Tx, for the frontier exploration, Max. Am w. you on tofu, allergic to nuts, don’t drink Kombucha (just a lot of org green tea), and am cutting down on both soy products and agave for about 2 mos now. Am organic for many yrs. Keep stepping! I am listening.

    Written by Robin on February 2, 2011 @ 7:19 pm
  10. Hi Robin,

    Lots of people have trouble with nuts. I strongly believe it has a lot to do with all the genetically-modified food out there. I don’t have any scientific proof but just my theory.

    Great to hear you’ve been organic for many years!!! Love it!!!

    Thanks for your words.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 2, 2011 @ 8:11 pm
  11. FYI, peanuts do not “hang” anywhere as they are growing. The nuts form beneath the soil. When they are mature, they are dug up and allowed to dry.

    Written by Jane on February 3, 2011 @ 6:17 am
  12. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for your feedback/info about the nuts.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:56 am
  13. Good stuff! Two errors I feel like commenting on:

    1) Agave syrup-mostly fructose which is actually very low (not high) on Glycemic Index (GI)! The problem with it is that fructose digests much more like a fat than a sugar so although it does not directly raise blood sugar level, it does cause inflammation esp in the liver and increases insulin resistance which is the real cause of type 2 diabetes.

    2)”I don’t buy it. Even if the alcohol concerns were not an issue, Kombucha has a good amount of sugar, which is required for the fermentation process. Refined sugar is something I try to avoid – it negatively impacts my mood and gets me depressed.”

    While true that Kombucha requires sugar for the fermentation process, nearly all of that sugar is used up (by that very process, as food for the bacteria) and no longer present in the final product. Read the “nutritional information” in the little box on the label for grams of sugar…

    Written by Geoffrey Levens, L.Ac. on February 3, 2011 @ 11:20 am
  14. Hi Max,

    I just linked here via the NY Times article – congratulations! Really enjoyed this post – great points on tofu and soy milk, and nice rec with the coconut palm sugar (I’ve been using it in my whole grain baking with terrific results). It’s always exciting to discover a well-written healthy living blog, and looking forward to exploring more of your posts — I’m a natural foods chef in nyc and definitely on the same wavelength!

    In good health,
    Nancy

    Written by Nancy on February 3, 2011 @ 11:29 am
  15. Max;

    Kudos on the NY article today…And, I’m with you on the soy and peanut thing. I used to drink a lot of soy milk and have switched to almond milk. And I gotta admit… There have been many, many nights of standing by the fridge and downing a vat of peanut butter! Now my go-to is raw almond butter. Trader Joe’s: THANK YOU.

    -J

    Written by Judy on February 3, 2011 @ 11:50 am
  16. Very interesting post. Would you know anything about the green soyabeans edamane and their phytoestrogen content? I see they are eaten widely now in restaurants and you can buy them deep frozen by big name food producers too. I was always under the impression, as you write above, that soya had to be fermented in order to be safe to eat, so am puzzled by these….

    Written by Jo on February 3, 2011 @ 12:35 pm
  17. Lisa and Max: Peanuts don’t hang. The peanut grows under the ground. They are dug, not picked from a tree like typical nuts. Peanuts are a legume.

    Written by smslaw on February 3, 2011 @ 1:20 pm
  18. Any thoughts on a possible connection between organic food and celiac disease? My daughter had adhered to a gluten-free diet for several months since her diagnosis, and she is still suffering. Is there any evidence to support going organic as a way to get on the right track with celiac?

    Written by Tam on February 3, 2011 @ 2:40 pm
  19. Just read an article about you and your site in the NY Times. For the past six years I’ve been trying to eat as much organic food as possible (since high school) so I wanted to say thank you for having this site and spreading the word!

    That’s disheartening to hear about the peanuts though…I eat Maranatha peanut butter almost everyday so I’ll have to see where they get their peanuts.

    Written by Lauren on February 3, 2011 @ 4:16 pm
  20. Tofu is made by adding a coagulent such as mineral salts to heated soy milk, the curds from the milk are then removed. (Similar to making cheese with a coagulent to concentrate dairy proteins). Soy milk with curds form silken tofu. Okinawans eat a veggie rich diet, with a small amount of fish and soy products and have among the highest longevity in the world. They were subjects of a 25-year study on longevity. For starters, see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawa_diet

    Written by Sam on February 3, 2011 @ 4:49 pm
  21. Hi Geoffrey,

    Thanks for providing your detailed feedback about those two products I discussed.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:19 pm
  22. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for your really nice words!! I agree with you. Palm sugar is on the rise!!

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:21 pm
  23. Hi Judy,

    Thanks so much!!! You are an almond milk fan while I am a Brazil nut fan. Do you make your own or buy it in the store?

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:22 pm
  24. Hi Jo,

    Thanks so much!!! I am sorry I can’t help you here with the edamame question about phytoestrogens. Maybe someone else here knows.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:24 pm
  25. Hi SMSLAW,

    Thanks for your input.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:28 pm
  26. Hi Tam,

    I’m sorry but I can’t help you out with that celiac question. There is a massive gluten-free community on Twitter. See if you can network with some of these people, maybe they can help.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:31 pm
  27. Hi Lauren,

    The info about the peanuts was news to me as well. Let me know what you find out.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:32 pm
  28. Hi Sam,

    I don’t know for sure if eating tofu is good or bad yet I do have my reservations. One thing that does not get discussed is the amount of tofu that we eat here versus the much smaller amounts of tofu that Asians eat. That could have an impact.

    Nevertheless, I sincerely doubt that the Okinawa study will convince (a majority of) those people who think tofu is bad to switch their stance — just like The China Study is not going to get Sally Fallon and her followers to give up red meat.

    Sam, I am a big fan of your work and Organic, Inc. was a really well-done book. I enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for stopping by.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 3, 2011 @ 10:44 pm
  29. Hi Max! Great bit about you in the NYT – congrats on that. One item to add to soy controversy, it’s not so much the phytoestrogens one should be concerned about but the glutimates. Lots of these harmful chemicals (nayurally occuring may they be) found in processed foods, soy & soy sauce included, so that is why I avoid those items now. Please read up on the glutimate controversey, for starters http://www.msgtruth.org/avoid.htm and you can find more I am sure if you search around. Seems like the substance is similar to nutrisweet and causes similar adverse effects.
    I love my Almond milk now and actually I still eat & drink reguler ol’ dairy (cow). And what? No PB?! Not sure about that one…But I’m with you on the rest of your list, always have been. It is the soy I once consumed that I categorically avoid now.
    What’s your take on Stevia? And have you heard about monk fruit? http://www.biovittoria.com/Live/biovittoria_1_1.php
    Keep up your drive and dream and best of luck to your success!

    AC

    Written by AC on February 4, 2011 @ 3:46 am
  30. Dear Max,
    Great blog. I’m a soy milk drinker. Didn’t know about the “no drink philosophy” from you and some of your readers. Could you please enlighten? Or refer me to an earlier post of yours where you explain why.

    I learned about you from NYT article. Look forward to following you from San Francisco.

    David

    Written by David Hay on February 5, 2011 @ 10:29 pm
  31. Hi AC,

    Thanks for that bit of info. PB: For me, that is just a preference.

    Stevia: Generally, I have heard good things about it, as long as it is organic. For a sweetener, I prefer organic palm sugar.

    Monk fruit: Nope, never heard of it but thanks for letting me know about it.

    Thanks for your support.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 7, 2011 @ 9:41 am
  32. Hi David,

    I appreciate your words and for following me from San Francisco. Soy milk: From everything I have learned and been taught, soy needs to be fermented and soy milk is not fermented. That is just my perspective on it. Do some research, see what you come up with.

    Thanks for your support.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 7, 2011 @ 9:49 am
  33. Thanks for the accuracy about peanuts. I was making an emotional statement about not liking something about the way they grew.. basically having a bad feeling about them.

    Written by Lisa Attias on February 7, 2011 @ 1:02 pm
  34. No worries Lisa. I greatly appreciate your involvement here.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 7, 2011 @ 1:22 pm
  35. I read with interest your comments on soy and wanted to provide some additional information based upon the scientific literature in this area. Results from human clinical studies conclusively show that soy isoflavones do not have meaningful effects on hormone levels in men or women, nor do they exert feminizing effects on men.

    With regards to fermented vs. unfermented soyfoods, both are healthy choices providing equivalent amounts of isoflavones and readily digestible soy protein. For more information including references, please visit: http://www.soynutrition.com/ourexperts/ourexperts-answered-questions/does-consuming-soy-affect-hormone-levels/.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Andrea Carrothers, MS, RD
    on behalf of SoyNutrition.com

    Written by Andrea Carrothers, MS, RD on February 22, 2011 @ 6:17 pm
  36. Hi Andrea,

    Thanks so much for your input and for the link to the site.

    Readers need to be aware, however, that this site is financed by a soy company. In my view, any research that is published on this site will have a bias and will not give a completely objective view of soy.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 24, 2011 @ 11:28 am
  37. It’s a very good idea to question even healthy foods. However, I don’t agree with the comments regarding kombucha. I don’t detect any sugar in my home brew. If fermented correctly, most of the sugar should be ingested by the culture. I like some of the store-bought brands, but they’re much too expensive, and brewing my own is easy. Am I worried about the culture becoming tainted? No. The chance that my homemade ferments are going to capture a bad bug, or become infected with mold without my notice are slim.

    Written by Elisabeth Gibson on May 10, 2013 @ 2:57 pm
  38. Hey Max

    Update on the peanuts. You know the last major recall was from valencia peanuts. I, like you, am reading and learning and paying attention. I have found over and over that with foods that are unprocessed and from nature have the best chance of doing something positive in our bodies.

    I have found that it’s almost more important to know and trust your source than concentrate on what food is and isn’t good for you. Peanuts for example are an amazing source of protein and vit e. Most of the vit e you buy in stores is from soy.

    Also lots of other crops have aflatoxin, peanuts just take most of the wrap for it for some reason. I think b/c peanuts in general are such a HUGE crop in the US, and in products like Skippy and Snickers that when you get that big with something the quality is going to go down. So again, it’s about trusting your source, knowing your farmer etc.

    B/c you are so right, people have all these different opinons about what is “good” and what is “bad”. I believe hands down, 1000% that organic is a must and then go from there, b/c that is the best we have right now to get food without most chemicals. Even though the NOP is far from perfect.

    Here is a great example, check out how GOOD peanuts are in this article. :) I mean have you ever heard of “piceatannol”. ???

    :)

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-kirkpatrick-ms-rd-ld/weight-loss-tips_b_1838082.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living#slide=1450459

    Written by Kristen on May 12, 2013 @ 8:00 pm
  39. Interesting about the peanuts, I will have to keep Valencia peanuts in mind for the future.

    Written by Dee on July 9, 2013 @ 6:43 am
  40. Hi Dee,

    Interestingly, I recently heard that Valencia peanuts have had problems as well. Probably not as severe as those in the South, however.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on July 10, 2013 @ 5:50 pm
  41. I make my own kombucha. My mother scobys are very healthy & multiply weekly. It relieves upset stomachs & is great for hangovers!
    My mom has stage 4 lung cancer. She drinks my kombucha everyday. She was diagnosed to die before the second week of July 2013… Today is Aug 29, 2013 & she’s kickin cancer’s ass.

    Written by Juls on August 29, 2013 @ 4:26 pm
  42. I have been eating and over eating tofu and soy milk for well over 20 years.
    I have not seen any of the negatives so widely discussed with this product.

    I have cut back on soy milk since I started making my own nut milks. Will have to try using Brazil nuts.

    Written by THeDude on August 29, 2013 @ 5:29 pm
  43. First of all, Kombucha is extremely beneficial for many reasons. And you mention sugar- the serving size on most of the GT Kombuchas are about 3-4 grams of sugar. That is DAMN GOOD.

    Second- please research and read further on ORGANIC NON GMO TOFU- it can actually be decent and beneficlal. Here is a good source:http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/08/06/how-soy-can-kill-you-and-save-your-life/#close

    Third- you need to take into account that most big name brands and the big boys of the industries(meat, tobacco, sugar, corn) are all controlled and work with Monsanto, and together will do what it takes to cover up the truth about truly healthy and good for you foods. Can you imagine the loss in millions of $$$$ if tofu was truly shown and proven to be a highly effective source of protein compared to dead carcasses such as beef, chicken and the likes? You need to look at who is ball-blocking these benefits, and also, what sources these claims are coming from. Are they just taking into consideration gmo-based foods and products? If so, then corn can also be claimed to cause sickness and cancer, meat can be claimed to do so, and the list will go on- because so many foods are now GMO based.

    The moral of the story? Eat organic, non gmo foods as much as possible, and yes, go vegan, it will do your body WAY better than having dead bodies further rot in your system and do gosh knows what inside!

    Written by Sonia G. on October 18, 2013 @ 1:36 pm
  44. I’m with you on the whole list EXCEPT for GT’s – I have at least one a day and some of them have very low sugar content. My favorite – Trilogy – has only 4gms sugar in the whole bottle.

    Ing: raw kombucha, raspberry juice, lemon juice, ginger juice (all organic).

    This stuff got me off of soda! It’s amazing and only gives me energy. Surprised it made the list :(

    The rest of the foods I don’t go near.

    Written by Merle on October 26, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

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