This weekend I watched the live Tedx conference on “Changing the Way We Eat”. It’s a consortium of wonderful speakers changing the world in the areas of everything from feeding the hungry, to trends in growing, to advocating crickets as a protein source, to a south Bronx elementary school teacher teaching his students to farm indoors.
There is some really inspiring work going on in the field and I posted a lot about it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds (shameless plug to “like” my FB page if you haven’t already).
One statistic I found interesting is that only 1% of our food is consumed from farmers markets. Given how many I see, I would have thought a lot more! It’s concerning how much we don’t know about our food, where it comes from and how it makes its way to our plates.
It’s especially a sin that we don't have access to clear information to make informed decisions while at the market. So today, I’m going to give you some simple tools to help you out!
Truly, one could go crazy analyzing all of the guidelines and legal jargon (most meant to confuse us by marketers).
First things first: start to acquaint yourself with ingredients on the products you purchase. You may be very surprised to find that “natural” product has a list of 10+ unrecognizable items in it! As Stefanie Sacks, one of Saturday’s speakers said, “If the list reads like a short novel, don’t buy it.”
Just because it says “no sugar/trans fat/sodium/etc.” doesn’t mean it doesn't have any! In many cases, if the product has less than .5 grams, then it can still be labeled as “no ____”. And unfortunately, “natural” doesn’t mean what you think it does (you can read about that here).
Here’s a disturbing one: recently corporations such as General Mills have changed the name of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to fructose, touting their product as “HFCS free.” This is especially challenging news for diabetics who may be in for a surprise thinking they purchased a product without HFCS to find their sugar levels spike because it’s been renamed!
Okay, now that you’re reading labels, what do some of those things really mean? I’ll just touch on a few.
Those coded (PLU) stickers on your fruits and veggies do actually denote something beyond what the cashier rings up:
If the sticker has only 4 numbers it’s grown traditionally with use of pesticides. These usually start with the number 3 or 4. For ex, a banana is labeled 4011.
If it has 5 numbers and it starts with the number “8”, the item was genetically modified (GMO). A GMO banana is labeled 84011.
If it has 5 numbers and starts with the number “9”, the produce was grown organically. An organic banana would be 94011.
But let’s face it, buying organic is expensive. So how do you prioritize?
Thankfully a consumer group called the Environmental Working Group analyzes pesticide residue testing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to develop a ranking of popular fresh produce items. Every year they release a list of the “dirty dozen” and the “clean 15”.
Apples, for example, have consistently been high on the list so I always buy them organic (same with strawberries and domestic blueberries – imported blueberries are much lower, #24). Pears are #19, so I’ll buy them traditionally grown, and be sure to wash them well.
Click here for a handout defining food label claims such as organic, hormone free, grain fed, healthy, natural, and other common terms.
Now, let’s talk “whole grain” breads, in particular Whole Grain English Muffins, which many think a healthy choice. Sure it’s got whole grain wheat, but as you can see here there are so many other non-whole ingredients. Well, at least they list their ingredients on their website!
I tried to look up Wonder Bread and Nature’s Own and not surprisingly, they listed nutritional “positives” on their website, but no ingredients. Take it from a marketer, what’s touted on the package is meant to hook you, and assumes you won’t dig deeper! Do!
If you’re confused by the term “whole grain”, you’re not alone. The good news is that the Whole Grain Council put out a handy list of definitions to help you navigate that, and even have a stamp you can look for.
Should all this information and more be more transparent at the market? Absolutely! Unfortunately, between lobbies, government subsidies and regulatory agencies, it will be a long time before it is.
So I share all of this with you not to exasperate you, but with the hope that you will start to take the time and responsibility to know what you’re consuming.
The great news is we can change this. We can demand better quality food. We can inquire as to how our food is prepared.
If you want to know how that cow was treated, the vegetable grown, whether there is soy in the dish, or the food sourced locally -- ASK. Ask your server, butcher, grocer, and caterer. They will appreciate that you want to know, and you will have an opportunity to influence what they offer in the future.
The reason organic food is so expensive is that the demand is growing faster than the supply. We can influence the supply!
Food Politics Marion Nestle published a list of organizations doing great work in this area, as well as government representatives you can contact. You can also follow Food Policy Action to see how your state and politicians fare on policies.
The bottom line is that we need to be our own advocates. I encourage you to be alert and make an effort to understand what you’re consuming, as well as champion the issues that touch you.
Feel free to share any surprises you might find, and help others around you educate themselves.
As one of the speakers said on Saturday “If we don’t plan for eating healthfully, we better plan for illness.”
Marjorie, Chief MOJO Maker™