Organic Addictions Help Us Justify Our Vices

I see a lot of substance abuse within the yoga and sustainability communities I’m a member of, and it’s nearly always of the organic variety.

My love affair with organic food began when I was nineteen, working as a cashier at Wild Oats while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. I remember returning home during holidays and summers, judging the contents of my parents’ refrigerator while waxing poetic about the benefits of organic milk and green tea, insisting they should drink more water.

Consistent with my school’s party reputation, I was drinking heavily at this time, though my friends and I opted for craft beers like Fat Tire made by local breweries. I was a social smoker, though exclusively bummed American Spirits because they were “natural,” the yellow package creating a bond between strangers with presumed shared values. In my 20s and early 30s, my tastes evolved to organic Pinot Noir, dark chocolate and super-premium coffee. My favorite beer was Chimay, brewed by monks with company revenues devoted to social service. I turned my nose up at people who drank Red Bull and smoked Marlboro Lights.

In hindsight it’s clear that I was consuming addictive substances and using the “organic” and “natural” labels to minimize guilt and fuel righteousness, allowing me to avoid looking at myself, understand the reasons why I was reaching for these things to begin with, and justify continued consumption. Sound familiar? The data supporting increased consumption of organic addictive substances is both powerful, and concerning.

According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic beers sales between 2003 and 2009 more than quadrupled from $9 million to $41 million. U.S. sales of wines made with organic grapes reached $80 million in 2005, a 28 percent increase over the previous year, with sales spiking to $169 million by 2010. Organic distilled spirits totaled sales of $8 million in 2010, an 8 percent increase over the year prior. Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, which manufactures Natural American Spirit cigarettes, saw a whopping 41.3 percent growth in operating income in 2011, and experienced a 13.5 percent growth in shipment volume.

An article published by the New York Times in April of 2011 asked the question, “Is Sugar Toxic?” and provided significant evidence to support that, yes, it is, explaining one reason why consumers may be moving towards less guilt-inducing sweets. In 2011, premium chocolate sales in the U.S. rose 10 percent to $2.7 billion, while imports of ethically produced cocoa rocketed up 156 percent. Let’s not forget caffeine. In 2009, nearly 1.7 million bags of organically certified coffee were traded, a 335 percent increase from 2001 (Trends In The Trade Of Certified Coffees, 2011). 5-Hour Energy shots, a product that’s marketed as being a more natural energy alternative given added vitamins, controlled 12 percent of the overall energy drink market by 2011 with an estimated $300 million in profits.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is consuming these substances in an addictive fashion, nor do I intend to disregard the benefits of supporting sustainable agriculture or the local organic movement. But I do see a lot of substance abuse within the yoga and sustainability communities I’m a member of, and it’s nearly always of the organic variety. Begging the question: How sustainable are substances that are inherently addictive? Does the increased availability of these products do more harm than good? It’s a complicated issue and I don’t have the answers, but during this holiday season, when overindulging can easily feel like the norm, it strikes me as a question worth asking.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user stevendepolo.

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