"Organic" milk, stripped of its natural fats and goosed up with a synthetic additive.

Dean Foods is by far the largest U.S. dairy processor. According to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dean processes 40 percent of fluid milk consumed in the U.S., which it distrubutes in a dizzying array of brands. Its dominance extends to organic milk, too — Dean’s Horizon brand is the largest supplier of organic milk.

Dean’s Horizon organic milk generates plenty of controversy. For years, Horizon has been sparring with the watchdog group Cornucopia over its farming practices, like use of conventionally raised heifers on its certified-organic farms. Cornucopia also goes after Dean for putting additives in its “organic” products. The latest dust-up is over a new Horizon product called “Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3.”

According to Cornucopia, the DHA in question is a “synthetic additive” banned under organic standards. Horizon counters that it has been using the synthetic DHA for years in its organic baby formula other organic-milk products [see correction below], with the approval of the USDA. Cornucopia shoots back that DHA-laced formula has been shown [PDF] to cause adverse reactions in babies — and adds that USDA recently acknowledged [PDF] that it was “incorrect” to allow synthetic DHA in organic products in the first place.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to referee the latest dispute between Dean and Cornucopia. Rather, it’s to question the vision for organic being promoted by Dean with its Horizon products.

The organic-farming movement in the West was galvanized 70 years ago by the great British scientist Sir Albert Howard. His theory of agriculture can be summed up like this: healthy soil produces healthy plants and animals, which in turn nourish healthy humans. In short, there’s no need to tart up properly grown food with all manner of synthetic additives to make it “healthy.”

In his In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan showed that the practice of isolating and synthesizing certain nutrients and adding them to food is a mug’s game, a marketer’s trick. It turns out, we don’t understand all that much about human nutrition, but we do know that eating foods in their whole state tends to be healthier than loading up on isolated nutrients in the form of supplements and additives.

labCan synthesized fats be better than the stuff made by cows eating grass? Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that cows fed on grass produce milk with a healthier fat profile than grain-fed cows — higher in the very kinds of Omega-3 fats that Dean is injecting into its “organic” milk in synthetic form. “Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3″ is a deeply absurd product — the natural fats have been stripped out, replaced by ones conjured up in a lab. In promoting such concoctions, Dean is straying away from a solid notion of organic, and moving into the marketing-driven, hyped-up world of “functional foods” — which is probably where a company of its vast size belongs, anyway. It’s a free country, but I don’t see how Dean should be allowed to use the USDA organic label as a fig leaf for its latest move away from organic principles.

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Correction: Originally, I reported that Horizon had used synthetic DHA in the past “in its organic baby formula.” I wrote that based on a misunderstanding. Horizon doesn’t produce baby formula. Horizon has used DHA in other milk products, though. The above text has been amended accordingly.