Interview: Dr. Oz Responds to Uproar Over Time Article, Clarifies Stance on Organics and GMOs

Dr. Mehmet Oz has taken a lot of flack lately about a recent Time magazine article, in which he seemingly reversed his position on organics and genetically modified (GMO) foods. In a phone interview yesterday, I got the straight dope on this sudden shift in opinion, directly from the doctor. 

On his show, Oz has frequently expressed the superiority of organic fruits, vegetables, and products, citing the high toxicity of their pesticide-laden non-organic counterparts. But in the Time article, titled Give Frozen Peas a Chance - and Carrots Too, Dr. Oz used terms like "food snob," "elitist," and "snooty" to describe organic foods and the people who buy them. The pesticide content he so frequently disparaged, along with the other side effects of conventional produce (pollution caused by pesticide runoff and the mysterious effects GMO foods have on health, for example), were notably omitted from the piece, prompting many health-conscious media outlets and consumers to accuse the doctor of having sold out to the nefarious food giant Monsanto. Below, read how the doctor explained his apparent flip-flop, and what he thinks we can do to further the healthy food revolution in 2013.

Beet Reporter: With January being weight loss month [on your show], I would imagine that a tip that would help a lot of people would be to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in their diets. I've seen you through time talking often about the benefits of eating organics. You've often pointed to the high toxicity of non-organics, and it's well known that organic farming avoids the environmental harms of conventional farms through sustainable practices, and skips the genetic modification, which some studies have linked to illness. Also, a lot of researchers just say we don't know enough about [GMO foods] to eat them. And then in a recent Time article, you mentioned that organics are elitist, that [only] the "1%" has access to these foods, and that it's snobbish and unnecessary to eat them. So I'm wondering if the point of that is that eating any fruits and vegetables is preferable to eating none, or whether you truly believe that one is as good as the other.

Dr. Oz: It's the former that is true, not the latter. There is no question that if you can afford organic food, it is better for you. It is certainly much better for the environment. I call [what I talked about in the article] the "99% Diet," because I'm actually in the 1%. I'm blessed with the ability to buy [organic] foods. My wife's vegetarian, and we eat meticulously at home. 

But I give that advice on the show all the time, and when I travel the country as I am now, I talk to a lot of people who don't have the wherewithal to go to the kinds of markets where these products are widely available, and they can't eat in those kinds of restaurants. Well, then they put their hands up in the air and they say "If I don't have access to good quality food, then I'm not going to bother trying." 

I was trying to be self-deprecating [in the article]. That was the whole point --- which obviously didn't hit the target for some folks --- by saying people like me are wrong to say that the only way to get where we are is to be on target with every single dish we're having. There's no question: everyone who can, should. But let's just give an example. If you are a mom with two kids, median income $35,000, typical TV audience, and you have a choice between buying organic berries, which can be expensive and which can lead to wastage, because if kids don't eat the berries in time, they go bad, they get mold, whatever. When you buy frozen berries, because they're harvested when they're ripe, they have 85 percent of the nutrient content of the organic berries that we eat at my house. There's no wastage. They're very inexpensive because there's no spoilage for the vendor either, so they can sell them for cheaper. The mom doesn't have to throw them away. And you know what? I think America's big battle is not between your buying the highest quality produce available on the market, or the boxed, frozen variety. It's whether we're eating fruits and vegetables at all. And that was the point I was trying to make. 

Canned foods, because canning technology is improving, there's less salt required in them. Many vegetables are pretty tasty that way. Canned asparagus is terrible out of a can, in my opinion. But corn is reasonable coming out of a can. And a mother should feel comfortable, if it's a low-sodium variant, having corn come out of a can as opposed to giving her kids some muffin, which is also inexpensive, but doesn't have any nutrient value to it. That was where I was trying to push some buttons on that article. 

I don't want us to throw our hands up as though we're helpless in this process. In this country, we've been blessed with relatively affordable, high-quality produce. We have to take advantage of that. 

Everything you said in your preamble: 100-percent on board. You talked about it seamlessly. You mentioned genetically modified foods. One of the most popular shows this year has been that topic. I was surprised, because I thought a lot of folks would have made their minds up and wouldn't care that much about it. But there is a huge interest in America in genetically modified foods. And in a nutshell, I spoke out openly about the fact that I think we deserve as a nation to know if a food is GMO. Doesn't mean that we shouldn't eat GMO foods, but as you say, we don't know, really, what the impact of these foods is going to be across our population, so at least let me know! And right now the only way I know of to be sure -- there are very few labeling campaigns for GMOs --- in most cases, you just have to buy organic. And I think there's an opportunity for American buyers, especially the moms of America, to make a decision, and they deserve the right to know. 

Beet Reporter: New Year's resolutions are all about change, and a lot of the time we focus on the individual as far as change goes. But as I see it, there needs to be a lot of change in the food system and the way that food choices are presented to us. We see a lot of ads for "foodertainment," horrible foods that are promoted on the television, and in agriculture, a lot of crops are subsidized that are not the most beneficial for humans, creating food costs that are out of proportion, as far as vegetables costing more than meats or nutritionally-deficient foods. There seems to be a lot of change coming, though, and I think that your show is one of the best ways that people can see this food revolution in progress, and it's one of the most mainstream ways they can [access] it. So my question to you is, in changing the system in this new year, do you think that change is going to come from individuals at a grassroots level, from Big Agriculture, the government, or the media? 

Dr. Oz: I think a grassroots change has already started. I can see food vendors reacting to that, but can I speak very openly about the pressures I think food vendors have? I'm very tough, as you know, on some of the vendors you stated. They sell products that have more salt than they have to have, they're devoid of nutrients... Why do they sell that stuff? Well, a lot of these guys, when I confront them with it, say, "Well, we tried to make healthier versions. Beverage companies are out there trying to sell tea and people won't buy it. They want sugary drinks. So they say "We have to stay in business. We can't keep pointing people to drink stuff they don't want to have." So the big opportunity we have is to realize that we vote with our pocketbooks three times a day. And so if we vote wisely, vendors will make healthier food. 

I'll tell you a story. A major vendor of products, a commonly eaten noodle for kids, and I confronted him. I said "You have all this salt in there." And he was very quiet about it, and I kept hitting him harder and harder and harder, and finally he broke down and said, "Listen. I took all the salt out. We have one-third the salt in our product than used to be there." I said, "You're kidding me. Why didn't you tell me about this?" He said, "Because if we told people it was healthier, they wouldn't eat it." So they have an uphill battle, too. 

What we have an obligation to do in the media is to make it clear that you do have the power to change, and you're not fighting an uphill battle. Coca-Cola just wants to sell beverages. They're not bad people. They're hard-working folks, and they sell a lot of tea in Asia. But if Americans will only drink Coca-Cola, they'll sell Coca-Cola. If they'd be willing to try low-sugar teas, which do very well in Asia, then they'll sell them in America. And they're out there, so we just need to make the choices. Our goal, I think, in the media, is to move people an inch to the right or to the left of where they put their hand up on the shelf. That's what it's all about. You move from the food that's not good, to the one that's a little bit better. That's all you have to do. And slowly but surely, you'll be moving in the right direction.   

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Camille Lamb
Contact: Camille Lamb