Is Organic Elitist?

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiothoracic surgeon who parlayed his gig as Oprah’s favorite guest health expert into his own daytime television show, peeved the organic world recently with a column in Time magazine that referred to organic diets as elitist.

Although “food snobs” would have consumers believe that the organic leaf spinach at their local farmers market is healthier than the icy green slab in the supermarket freezer case, that is not true, Oz wrote.

“You don’t need to eat like the 1 percent to eat healthily,” he claims.

So organic proponents are 1-percenters and elitist food snobs? Did we also mention he calls organic food “undemocratic?”

Gee, no wonder they’re angry.

Not surprisingly, the doctor’s critics have called him a willing partner in the agrochemical industry’s media offensive against the organic industry. We have no proof of that.

But they also point out that Oz once promoted organic foods.

Indeed, in a 2010 column in Time, Oz referred to himself as a proponent of locally grown organic food and said, “When it comes to food, buy organic if you can afford it to help the planet. If not, you can still eat healthily with a few precautions.”

And as recently as a few months ago, he took issue with a Stanford University study that found no nutritional difference between organic and nonorganic food.

Now, he is suggesting that consumers “save the cash” and try the 99 percent diet.

Besides his rather callous delivery, the problem isn’t really with the points he makes, but with the points he misses.

In truth, Oz offers some very practical advice for consumers.

In the column that sparked the most recent controversy, Oz spends a great deal of space explaining canning and freezing processes, what to look for on food labels, how to find nutritious canned meats, and the healthiest ways to prepare burgers and chicken.

He also explains the goodness to be found in some guilty pleasures such as ice cream, chocolate and salsa, and reassures readers that even the least nutritious of foods are OK in the right situations.

Amen to that. A little common sense goes a long way when it comes to food choices.

That Oz’s main concern is helping people eat healthier and on a budget is clear. Bravo for that.

Where he goes off course is in his generalized characterization of the organic industry.

First of all, to imply that people should just as readily buy frozen as go to their local farmers market discounts the fact that buying at a local farmers market is also supporting the local economy. Not to mention that not all that local food is a higher-priced organic variety. And much of it is grown by similar standards as organic food, simply without the official certification to go with it.

For those who truly want to buy organic, there are also ways of doing it at less cost — one of which is buying local. Many store chains also now have their own more reasonably priced organic brands. Another option is getting together with a group of friends and buying in bulk.

As for that elitist food snobbery claim ...

Well, let’s face it, there are myriad businesses — from high-end restaurants to high-end pet food companies — that tout everything from $100-plus organic entrees to high-end organic dog treats.

There are businesses that deliver high-end organic foods to your home. There are high-end organic cotton mattresses and high-end organic soaps, too.

And Oz is correct. No one should feel they have to live any less healthily if they can’t afford that “high-end” lifestyle.

But what is lost in all this is that organic, at its most basic, isn’t really about high-end anything. It’s about avoiding pesticides, building healthier soil, protecting the environment and supporting local farmers — none of which should be dismissed as elitist snobbery.

From a practical and financial standpoint, there is nothing wrong with showing people they can live a healthful life on conventional foods.

But those average, middle-class consumers who simply embrace the basic tenets of an organic lifestyle would have been better served had they been shown ways to make those purchases on a budget — something Oz has addressed effectively many times in the past.

Oz wrote in his column that “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.”

If that’s the case, then we shouldn’t be showing people how to avoid healthy food, we should be figuring out ways to change the perception and make it more affordable.

So here’s the question: Has Dr. Oz single-handedly created a false image of the organic movement or is he simply responding to a mindset that already exists thanks to those “high-end” entrepreneurs who have used “organic” as an effective marketing tool?

If that latter is true, then maybe when the understandable anger settles, the organic industry should take at least some of what he says to heart.

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