Saturday, March 31, 2007

The planet has reached a kind of cultural-culinary impasse, which may cause a disruption in the space-time continuum, or at least the breadbox.

Organic Oreos.

Yes, one of the junkiest of junk foods is now available in organic form. Why, Oreo cookies are now green, sustainable, renewable, pesticide-free, dolphin-safe, whole-grain, free-range, certified, natural, Earth-friendly. They leave no carbon footprint, emit no greenhouse gases and could possibly win the Al Gore stamp of approval.

It’s hard to tell.

“Organic” has come to mean many things.

Once the word was associated with ethereal hippies who favored barnyard granola matted together with honey the color of motor oil, evil-looking seeds and big, hard hunks of granular matter. The hippies had to use a ball-peen hammer to crush the stuff, but hey, man, it was organic. Yeah. Cool. “Organic” was riddled with hazy associations with Haight-Ashbury, Max Yasgur’s farm, dancing around in wheat fields at midnight and communal dinners composed of hummus and Yoo-hoos.

Organic, man.

Of course, all those hippies grew old, traded their Yoo-hoos for martinis and became “granola conservatives,” according to Rod Dreher, author of “Crunchy Cons.” But that’s a different story altogether.

We must get back to those organic Oreos.

The new package is emblazoned with the motto “Made with organic flour and sugar.” A cursory check of the ingredients reveals that, yes, there is organic wheat flour, organic evaporated cane sugar, organic brown rice syrup, organic cornstarch and organic vanilla, plus sea salt, palm oil and something called “expeller-expressed oleic safflower oil.”

But the old Oreo aura remains. A three-cookie serving still contains 7 grams of fat and 160 calories. But 160 organic calories. Maybe Nabisco should call them Organeos.

The phenomenon of organic Oreos is causing an identity crisis among those who take their organics seriously.

“Is this the beginning of the end of organics?” environmental writer Lloyd Alter asked last month in TreeHugger, a New York-based online journal.

Mr. Alter was referring to the Oreos.

“I know that we want to move organics into the mainstream and get it away from the brown rice and tofu image it had for so long,” Mr. Alter opined. “Seeing Oreo and organic on the same box just seems so wrong. Am I nuts?”

A survey of about 460 TreeHugger readers found them divided between those who felt that putting Oreos and organic together was a contradiction in terms versus those who reveled in the idea that vegans could eat junk food, too.

Mr. Alter’s purist sentiments may get overwhelmed because just about everything sports an organic designation: ice cream, peanut butter, dog food, baby formula, vodka, beer, wine, ketchup, mustard, soft drinks, pasta, chocolate, instant potatoes, coffee, soups, popcorn, steak, eggs, spices, salad dressings, cereal, snack cakes, laxatives, household cleaners, cosmetics, facial soaps, deodorants, feminine hygiene products.

The old hummus-happy hippies of yore would have stared dumbstruck at Nabisco’s new organic Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies or modest old Ritz crackers, now available in spruced-up organic form.

“Ritz. Organic. Far out, man.”

A cultural and culinary moment, indeed.

Even the old hippies of yore might not comprehend some “organic” products just arriving on retailers’ shelves: 2Xist soy underwear, Organic De-icer, Organic Bouquet’s $250-per-dozen “extreme roses” and the Electrolux Organic Cooker. This tabletop appliance uses radiant energy and some sort of vacuum device to cook food oil-free. Well, at least it contains a vacuum, in keeping with the old Electrolux tradition.

But inquiring minds want to know: Will the planet ever witness an organic Hostess Twinkie? Probably not. The newly published “Twinkie, Deconstructed” by Steve Ettlinger uses the beloved sponge cake as a metaphor for what ails ingredients in common packaged foods, from polysorbate to diglycerides and calcium sulfate. Even if Hostess managed to concoct an Organo-Twinkie, it most likely would be ignored by a public who may enjoy their polysorbate, particularly with a glass of milk.

But the siren call of organics continues. According to the Organic Trade Association, we spent $16 billion on organic foods last year and another $744 million on organic “non-food products” such as vitamins, clothing, cleaners and pet food. Sales of organic products have grown by 15 percent to 21 percent each year since 1997, and 57 percent of us buy organic at least part of the time.

This is not a bad thing, provided we purchase something that actually is free of conventional pesticides, fertilizers and dicey genetic modification. For example, a study by Emory University last year found that organic foods provided a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” for children who consumed them under controlled circumstances.

And organic Oreos? Oh, what the heck. Oh waiter, waiter — a glass of milk, please.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and old hippies for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washington or 202/636-3085.

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