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.