Monday, July 6, 2009

Why You Have to Read Those Labels

I remember reading an article in Time magazine last year titled "America's Shrinking Groceries" that discussed how the size of what we were buying in the grocery story was changing before our very eyes--and we were, for the most part, completely unaware of that change. The gist of the story is this: what you think of as a "half-gallon" of ice cream probably isn't. More than likely it is actually 1.5 quarts. A true half-gallon would be 2 quarts.

This is happening all over the grocery. The Time article points out that Wrigley's gum has gone from the 17-stick PlenTPack to a 15-stick Slim-Pack. That box of cereal that used to be 16 oz? Look closely, because now it's just 14. Even bars of soap weigh less. One of the experts consulted for the article, Harvard Business School Professor John Gourville, explains that people are more sensitive to changes in price than they are to changes in quantity. He said, "Most people can tell you how much a box of cereal costs, but they have no clue how much is actually in it." So rather than keep a product the same size and increase the price, the manufacturers make the packages smaller and keep prices the same. Most people won't notice a size difference, though they might notice the new packaging. And since the price didn't change, they are happy to go with the flow.

Now something similar is happening with organic foods. Most people don't know the difference between terms like "organic" and "natural." And Horizon, a division of Dean Foods best known for its organic dairy products and the brand with the highest dollar volume of any in the organic industry, is on the verge of taking advantage of that positioning and consumer ignorance. Just last week it was reported that the agribusiness giant intended to create an entirely new, lower-priced product category, "natural dairy," aimed squarely at pirating away organic customers.

In a press release issued by The Cornucopia Institute, Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, said the move comes at a particularly bad time for organic dairy farmers, who are in financial crisis due the glut of organic milk on the market. Kastel added, "Responsible participants in this industry are using their marketing strength to ramp up organic demand. Dean has instead chosen to profiteer at the expense of the hard-working family farmers who have built this industry."

In April, 2006, The Cornucopia Institute presented a research project entitled "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk" to the USDA National Organic Standards Board in which it called the domestic organic dairy industry a success story, but also pointed out that "this success story is now at risk; it is threatened by powerful economic interests that covet their share of the organic pie (now in excess of $15 billion in annual sales) and who are willing to twist, manipulate, and even ignore federal organic regulations in their rush to cash in. Some agribusiness giants are depending on consumers not knowing the difference between their product and those produced with ethics and integrity."

While it appears Horizon isn't actually trying to fool anybody into thinking something is organic when it isn't, it does appear that it is using its positioning as a well-known organic leader combined with the ambiguous food labeling we have in this country to its market advantage. What is "natural" milk? All milk, except that which is synthetic, is "natural." Horizon is clearly playing on it's position as an organic leader in the hopes that consumers will buy this new, cheaper product, thereby driving up Dean Foods profits at the expense of other, reputable, organic dairy producers.

This isn't the first time Dean Foods has hoped that consumers were too lazy to read the label or too stupid to know the difference in terms. In a somewhat similar move, the company recently outraged consumers with its switch from organic to conventionally grown "natural" (read: pesticide-sprayed and/or genetically altered) soybeans in its line of Silk soy milk products. And it isn't like they made a big public announcement about it, either. They just sort of slid it by, hoping nobody would notice.

Of course, Dean Foods would like consumers to believe it only has their best interest at heart. The OCA press release quoted Sara Loveday, a marketing communications manager at WhiteWave, as saying, "We've only been organic in the past and the majority of our business will remain organic. These are our first natural offerings in the marketplace, and Horizon always tries to provide great-tasting products for moms and for families."

Uh huh.

This is an ongoing problem within the organic foods industry. There is a growing demand for organic foods, but greed within the food-industrial complex continues to drive domestic organic farmers out of business. A recent USDA publication, "Emerging Issues in the Organic Industry," concluded that organic manufacturers and farmers are facing escalating competition from large conventional food manufacturers entering the organic market, and companies are increasingly looking to China and other countries to import organic foods and ingredients.

According to the USDA’s report, U.S. organic soybean production started declining several years ago despite steeply increasing demand for organic feed grains and consumer products such as soy milk. Interestingly, manufacturers complain that they cannot find enough organic products to meet demand, yet, if you look at the situation, as the Cornucopia Institute did, it becomes clear that they are by no means innocent victims of forces beyond their control, but rather they helped create these shortages by opting for cheaper organic imports instead of supporting domestic farmers with sustainable prices.

Two of the major findings of the USDA report are that "conventional food corporations taking over successful independent organic companies, and increasing dependence on imports" are not unrelated, suggests Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute and primary author of the organization’s study "Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Organic Soy Industry." When agribusiness corporations enter the organic market, like Dean Foods when it bought the Silk soy milk brand from a pioneering independent company, they sometimes look abroad for cheaper imports or abandon organics altogether, rather than maintain their commitment to supporting domestic organic farmers, Vallaeys notes.

So, once again, I am compelled to note the interconnectedness of food and politics, of my food choices and the world around me. Sometimes buying "local" might just mean buying domestic, as in Buy American. But we have to be on top of our grocery game because nobody is going to do this for us.

Label reading is crucial if you want to be sure you are getting what you pay for. And if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be aware that the brand you always bought and trusted, the brand that has always been organic, may not be anymore. Be aware that "natural" and "organic" are not synonymous. And be aware that nobody is going to look out for you and your family but you. And, really, that's the way it should be. It's up to us to take care of ourselves.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For those of you who may have followed my blog over on Vox, this is a repost from a couple of years ago. I just saw a friend at the grocery the other evening who mentioned how I was inspiring her to change her relationship with food (or something to that effect). It took me a minute to realize she meant she was reading my blog. It got me thinking that I have some older posts that new readers might enjoy. So I decided to look over previous posts and select a few to include here every now and then. This is an updated post about a trip Greg and I took and how it made a big difference in the way we saw the place of food in our lives.

Six years ago this month, Greg and I took a trip that literally changed our lives. Yes, I know the meaning of the word "literal." Our lives have never been the same since we returned from that trip.

Sometimes people ask us, "When did you start doing [something]?" The "something" usually has to do with our "simple" lifestyle--the way we eat, dress, spend our money or our time. So we look at each other and say, "When did we take that trip to Kirksville?" Like I said, the trip changed our lives.

Greg graduated from Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State) in Kirksville, Missouri. I had heard tale upon tale about the wonders of this small town (okay, mostly about the great pizza place there), and I felt it was time I visited my husband's alma mater. But it's a long drive, so I wondered if there might be something else we could do while we were in the area. Greg was coming up blank--he really didn't think there was much to do in good ol' Kirksville.

I got busy on the Internet and found that there were two (yes, two) intentional communities within just a few miles of Kirksville. I've mentioned before I was born 10 years to late and my kids swear I'm a hippie, so this appealed to me. Two real, live communes? I gotta see this! So we headed off to Kirksville, and the home of the intentional communities, Rutledge. One of them, Sandhill Farm, was a place that had an amazing impact on our lives.

At the time I thought I was a pretty environmentally aware individual. We drove an economical car (in fact, we're still driving it; as of 7/2009 we have 120,000+ miles on it). Didn't crank up the heat or dial down the air conditioner. Weren't excessively wasteful. Recycled our newspapers. We did our part.

And I was already making some changes in the way I approached food. We had a small garden and ate a lot of produce. I bought a few organic items at the grocery if they weren't too expensive, but I still figured it didn't matter too much. We bought whole grain bread most of the time, and tried to be somewhat thoughtful about eating a balanced diet.

Still, Diet Coke, Splenda, and packaged diet snacks were pretty much staples in my pantry. Convenience foods were, well, convenient. Fast food was fast. And meat was okay as long as it wasn't too fat--I stuck with chicken and lean cuts of beef.

And then we visited Sandhill Farm. We arrived on August 6, 2003, and were given a tour of the buildings and grounds by Kathe. She explained the way things worked there--how the group lives and works and makes decisions. She showed us where to pitch our tent and where we could wash up. And then we were free to just hang out the rest of the day and get to know the people and the place.

There was an outdoor shower consisting of a pallet to stand on, surrounded by sheets. (There were some pretty big gaps in the sheets.) Outhouses for doing your business in private, though you could just "step off the path" to take a pee. (No kidding--check out the web site under "visitor orientation" if you doubt me on that one.)

Lots of times it appeared clothing was optional. Especially when people were working in the garden, but sometimes in the house as well. (I have to admit, it was really hot.)

And people smelled! I mean, at one point, someone mentioned something was going bad in the kitchen and one of the women commented it wasn't something--it was someone. And she was right! I could easily have pointed out who it was. Hygiene wasn't a priority for some people. And did I mention it was really hot?

So this wasn't a bed and breakfast. We were in somewhat close quarters. We worked in the sun. There was no air conditioning. You had to shower outside, in quasi-privacy. Not everyone was all that friendly to the guests. This was their home and maybe they didn't feel like being polite to company that day.

And guess what? I really loved it!

Here are some excerpts from my journal at the end of our three-day visit:

Today I weeded around the propane tank from 8 to 10, then sliced carrots for canning until noon. Another good meal--salad, leftover noodles, Gigi's "leftover burgers," and tomatillo salsa. Homemade bread with honey and a cup of tea for dessert. The food is almost all grown here--wheat for the bread, the honey, all the fruits and vegetables.

My favorite things at Sandhill are the relationships you can have and the food. My least favorite things are the bathroom facilities (or lack thereof) and the lack of privacy I see.

G. and I are both inspired to get a little land so we can grow more food. I think we are ready to grow and process more of our own food, to be a little more self-reliant. I asked G. if he thought we ought to be eating fewer processed foods; he didn't comment. But I think we should. I am going to make that a priority when we get home.

What sorts of things would I want to incorporate into my life? The food--its cultivation and preparation and preservation--would be one. And keeping food and drink simple and local.

I have been thinking about learning how to knit or crochet, getting out my sewing machine to make gift bags, making cloth napkins, looking into making my own cleaners.

I want to make an effort to buy more organic foods, including dairy and grains. I need to find a balance somehow. Right now I eat too many processed foods, including artificial sweeteners.

Sandhill Farm is so real compared to living a "normal" life. I can see why people here say no to TV and share cars and limit trips to town. If you limit TV, movies, ice cream--whatever--then either you find you don't miss them or, if you do miss them, you appreciate them that much more when you get them. We are too much an on demand society--wanting what we want when we want it instead of waiting. What if we would set a limit to what we allow ourselves? Because without insisting on some sort of limits, our appetites just rule our lives.

So what did I start to do differently after we got home? Well, we didn't buy any land. We decided that for us, with our jobs at the university, staying where we are is the most environmentally sustainable choice. We can walk or bike to work if we choose, and if we need to drive, we only live a mile away. But we did create a much larger garden and have devoted most of our city lot to food production. We also preserve whatever excess produce we have.

We do eat fewer processed foods. And most of those we do eat are organic and/or whole grain.

I did learn to knit. I bought up a bunch of cloth napkins at yard sales and haven't bought a paper napkin in six years. I have made a few cloth gift bags for Christmas (but I have yet to learn to use that sewing machine. Update: Greg learned to use it this spring in order to make stuff to use in his beer brewing. So now I'm going to make him teach me!). And I have found we need very few cleaners, though I do buy natural cleaners on occasion.

We buy nearly all organic food. The exceptions I can think of are sugar and a few condiments, though I am finding organic versions of most of those now. I don't buy anything with artificial sweeteners anymore. We don't eat any meat.

More than these individual points, Sandhill brought about a big change in my personal philosophy about life and how I want to live. I think I brought home an attitude of "Yes, you can."

Yes, you can live differently.

Yes, you can be the person you want to be.

Yes, you can find people like yourself.

Whenever I feel like the world wants to suck me back into its consumerism and its rush-rush way of being, I just think about Sandhill and remind myself, "Yes, you can do this."

It was, literally, a life-changing trip for us. I hope we can go back for a visit someday and let them know how much it meant.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A hierarchy of food choices

I have come to the realization that there is nothing in my life that is isolated from any other thing, and that means my eating habits aren't isolated from my politics. As important as food is to our lives, the politics of food isn't something most people think about, but what we eat and the food choices we make are directly related to our health and the health of the planet.

Trying to make food buying choices that put my money where my mouth is (and vice versa), I realized I had developed a kind of hierarchy of food buying options. My first choice is to be actively involved in the production of the food I eat, so my husband and I keep a garden. My next choice is to know the people who grow our food, and support them in their efforts to bring good food to the community. When I can't do that, I make choices that have the least impact on the earth in one way (buying organic foods) or another (buying local foods). Barring that option, I choose to support the community in other ways (buying from local or regional stores) or to support other causes (buying organic food from other sources).

But because I also think that vitality involves being an emotionally healthy individual, I can't beat myself up for not following a perfect buying plan or a perfect diet. I just can't be one of those people who makes life miserable for herself or others based on rigid ideologies. There is no joy in that. If I go to someone's home and they invite me for dinner and they don't know I'm a vegetarian, I don't make a big deal out of it. Sure, I do my best to avoid meat; I'll eat bread and salad and avoid the entree if that's an option. But if that is just impossible—if, for example, the only thing to eat that night is a soup with meat in it—I'll eat the soup. It would ruin the evening to not eat while everyone else is sharing a meal. It would offend my hosts. It would take the joy of the evening.

The ethical and environmental choices we make do impact our health and vitality, but the fact is, sometimes we don't make perfect choices. We are not perfect beings. We do the best we can. If we make it an all-or-nothing game, most people will choose to do nothing. I want to encourage everyone to start where they can and build on that. As for me, I try to keep my food purchases somewhat local and in season. Sometimes the best I can do is keep my purchases in the United States and Canada. But I haven't bought a grape from Chile or a cantaloupe from Costa Rica in years. (We aren't going to talk about the bananas. Though I just saw an article on Grist that does talk about bananas. And coffee. And tea.)

Here I offer my own hierarchy of food buying options:

1. Grow it ourselves. My husband and I have a very narrow yard in town. We don't have a lot of space, but we have taken advantage of the space we have. Our motto is "Every plant earns its keep." If we are going to take care of something, it's going to give us something in return. So we have blueberry bushes, strawberry beds, a blackberry bush, rhubarb, and asparagus beds around the perimeter of the yard. We intersperse those beds with herbs and a few other plantings. Then we have four 4x10 raised beds for our main garden, along with a variety of pots that hold peppers or whatever else we decide to stick in them. We also planted two dwarf apple trees, two dwarf pear trees, and a cherry tree. The yard is starting to pay us back for the effort.

2. Buy locally grown produce. We visit the Farmers' Market and see what the local farmers have for sale. But I'm still rather picky about who I buy from. I watched my dad go nuts on bugs with pesticide and I want to know what these hobby farmers have been doing to the plants. One time I saw some imperfect apples and figured they must be organic. I asked the farmer if he sprayed them to find out. His reply? "Not as often as I'd have liked." I didn't buy those apples. So even at the Farmers' Market, I ask plenty of questions. We're lucky here because we have a few people who are organic farmers; they might not be certified as such, but if you ask questions, you get to know how they see things and you can feel confident that you share the same views on the food you are buying from them.

3. Buy organic produce and other organic goods from a local store. Locally, we have three grocery stores. One is a local chain, one is a regional chain, and one is a big box national retailer. I don't shop the big box store; I don't agree with their business practices or the way they treat their employees. But I'll shop the other two and buy organic when I do. I also talk to the people in the produce section, the dairy manager, the folks in customer service, and other store employees to tell them that I buy organic and that I appreciate the options I'm finding in their store.

4. Buy organic by mail. Some people really have a fit when I tell them I do this. But you know what? Stuff gets shipped for purchase one way or another. If I buy a case of something online and have it shipped to my house, how is that any different than if it was shipped to the store?

5. Buy organic from a distant store. Distant for me is Indianapolis—about 50 miles away. We go to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, stocking up on organic staples that will last for months. While we're in the Big City, we also visit several book stores and other specialty stores. My husband hits the beer-making supply place to get the goods to brew his soon-to-be-famous organic beer. We make sure to get lists from family and friends, and do shopping for them, too. Since we do this fewer than six times a year, I don't feel too bad about it. We look at it as an outing, not a shopping trip, and make a day of it.

6. Buy conventional food and non-local food. I still buy some things that aren't organic. And I still buy some things that aren't local. It's a process, not perfection. And life is just too short to beat myself up about the things that I haven't quite figured out.

Where do those bananas fit into the whole hierarchy? I guess they fall under #3. I buy organic bananas from a local grocery store. But I have to keep in mind that those favorite childhood fruits were shipped a long way to get to me here in Indiana. Maybe they will soon go the way of the long-forgotten Chilean grapes and the sadly missed Costa Rican melon. But for now, I still eat (organic, but imported) bananas. Like I said, it's a process, not perfection.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is the sweet life suddenly out of reach?

Most of us who are concerned with what we eat are aware of the questions surrounding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). At a minimum we are concerned with its presence in just about every processed food on the shelf. Take a minute and go to your pantry. Randomly select a couple of items and read the ingredients. It doesn't matter if what you are holding is cereal or salad dressing, chances are one, if not both, of those products lists HFCS among the first few ingredients.

Other concerns about HFCS surfaced January 26 when the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy issued a press release which stated: "Mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), according to a new article published today in the scientific journal, Environmental Health. A separate study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) detected mercury in nearly one-third of 55 popular brand name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second highest labeled ingredient--including products by Quaker, Hershey's, Kraft and Smucker's."

Of course there were immediate denials from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which issued its own press release on February 3. And since then the CRA has launched a massive ad campaign trying to redirect the conversation about HFCS started in part by author Michael Pollan, In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan points out that HFCS may be cheap in the supermarket, but its environmental footprint is very expensive. Not only does the American diet consists of too much HFCS (up to 20% of the calories in a child's diet, says Pollan in a Sierra magazine interview), but the corn monoculture is literally killing our natural environment.
If you care about your diet, maybe there are reasons to avoid HFCS. What other alternatives do you have? Sugar seems to be an option. Sugar was the sweetener of choice for food processors before the introduction of HFCS, and some still use it. One recent issue with sugar among "natural" food enthusiasts was the introduction of a genetically modified (GM) sugar beet by Monsanto, which saw its first harvest this past fall.

In May, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine released a position paper warning that GM foods "pose a serious health risk" and should be avoided. And in light of the recent GM beet harvest, more than 70 companies have signed a pledge promising to avoid using sugar from genetically modified sugar beets "wherever possible."
Next up is the latest sweetener to get a provisional nod from the FDA: stevia. Stevia has long been recognized as a health supplement by the FDA, and used as a sweetener by many natural food enthusiasts, but it has only recently been given the government's "generally recognized as safe" label, which allows it to be used in foods and beverages. Many feel this only came about because of pressure from big players like Coke and Pepsi, who saw the market for a "natural" sweetener in light of consumer movement toward more natural and organic products. Whatever the reason, stevia is now appearing in some drinks and is available in little packets right alongside the more familiar low-calorie sweeteners used for decades by weight conscious consumers.

On August 28, 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a press release in which it announced it had sent a letter to the FDA urging more testing of stevia before it was cleared for use in food and drinks in the United States. The CSPI asked that introduction be held off until further studies be conducted in light of short-term indications of possible mutations and DNA damage with long-term use and/or high-dosages of stevia.
Stevia has been used in Japan since the 1970s. In fact, it is the only legal low-calorie sweetener in use in Japan, and has apparently caused no ill effects. Those who are concerned with ill effects in the U.S. point to Americans' over indulgence in diet soft drinks, suggesting that it is the amount of stevia we would consume that might cause unforeseen problems.

The bottom line is probably something like this: Steer clear of most processed foods containing HFCS and sugar. The jury is still out on stevia. Avoid all of the artificial sweeteners. Most of this is plain old common sense. If you can figure out what it is without having to consult a chemist, then it probably isn't going to kill you if you only indulge occasionally and in moderation. Maybe the sweet life isn't out of reach after all.