Question: Should I buy produce from that truck I sometimes see parked down the road from my house?
Answer: If you’re buying more than an apple to go, probably not.
I was on my way to Whole Foods for the latest installment of this experiment when I passed a mobile produce truck. You probably know the kind – I used to see these in Washington, DC and Austin, Texas, and since I see them now in L.A., I have to assume they exist in most American cities. They have a vaguely Latin American vibe, and they seem impossibly inexpensive. Since I’d never shopped at one before, save to buy a serendipitous banana or pear on the go, and I found myself in the middle of this experiment, I thought I’d call an audible and see what a purchasing trip at one of these trucks would net me.
Curious? Read on.
Variety: I got a number of things I might not otherwise have gotten. Tomatillos? Chiles? Mangos – the good kind? I never buy these things at real grocery stores. However, you’ll notice that there’s only one vegetable in this whole group. That was partly due to the fact that this truck’s lettuce, for instance, looked like it was long past its prime. Which provides a good segue to the next two categories… 6/10
Selection: Necessarily limited. I mean, it’s the back of a truck. How many choices are you really going to have? The convenience factor is fine if you happen to be there, but otherwise, your choices are quite limited. There were no nice peppers, beans, mushrooms, or leaf vegetables to speak of. 2/10
Healthfulness: I’m really not sure. I mean, where did this stuff come from? How long ago was it picked? I have no idea, and I’m not sure there’s any way to find that info out if the vendor’s unwilling to share that info. Is this all resale from CostCo purchases? Is it leftovers from a grocery supply vendor? Did it “fall off the back of a truck?” I just don’t know. What I do know is that I didn’t buy any lettuce because it was pretty brown and wilted, and these two cucumbers were the only once that weren’t sad and tired. The grapes lasted less long than I expected, too. I ought to note that the mangos, even at the end of the week, were still outstanding… still, I’m concerned that these fruits and veggies were not quite at their peak. 5/10
Tastiness: Despite my reservations, I have to give credit here: the avocados were creamy and delicious, the mangos had great flavor and kept it for days, and even the pears – which I usually never buy, because they’re almost always hard and flavorless, or else mealy and off-putting – were the best pears I’ve had outside of Harry & David package shipments. The chiles had punch, too. 9/10
Value for the Money: Yeah, it was pretty cheap. I was able to buy everything there that I could want, and it still cost only $12. My grapes and cucumbers wrinkled up pretty quickly after I got them home… still, it was pretty cheap (had I avoided the mangos and avocados, this bounty would have been less than $8). 8/10
Final score: 6/10. Tasty, cheap, and quick, but you really can’t do your regular shopping at one of these guys. At least not if you actually do like to eat lots of veggies, that is.
Next week: Back to our regularly scheduled food programming: a brick and mortar store.
Question: How much money can I really save by growing my own vegetables?
Answer: I’ll keep you posted.
Eating organic can get expensive, fast – especially in a region where farmers’ markets are only running six months of the year. Add to the mix picky kids and a husband whose diet is more Paleo than not (and who gets wild hairs up his rear about health crazes on a regular basis), and there have been months where my grocery bill is comparable to my mortgage. Ouch.
This year, I’m trying to do something about it. I’ve gardened since I was a kid, have enough space to grow a decent amount of food in my yard (as long as I get creative), and located a friend who is eager to help with the gruntwork. I also have harnessed my minions, who are paying me back for having given birth to them by helping me plant seeds in recycled pots.
Because my family is trying to be more budget-conscious this year, I’m keeping track of my spending on this project. In years past, I’ve planted peas, corn, tomatoes, and some herbs. This year I’m going whole-hog, with a list of vegetables and herbs we can grow from spring through fall. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m also copping to a moment of insanity where I decided to buy three apple tree seedlings so I can grow them into a fence – my biggest expenditure so far.
You can find my expenses to date here – at about two-thirds of the way through my shopping list, I’ve spent $206.12 ($125.97 of which was apple trees). For the volume of seeds/seedlings I’ve purchased to date, I think the cost has been pretty reasonable. I’m shaking my head mostly about my lack of restraint regarding cucumbers and lettuce. On the other hand, nine varieties of tomatoes seem perfectly reasonable to me.
I didn’t count on the amount of space it takes in your house to start this many seeds. We’ve rearranged our dining room and commandeered our table to become our seedling factory, and there’s still no way we can fit all the seedlings we plan to grow in that space. Here’s hoping staggered planting times actually work. And if you have any suggestions about how to keep the crazy dog off the table, please let me know.
I haven’t harvested anything yet, though the onions I planted in the fall have been happily growing throughout this mild winter. Once I start getting produce, I plan to compare my goods to prices in the grocery store to see if I’m getting my money’s worth. Here’s hoping the deer don’t get to the goodies first.
Question: Should sugar-sweetened beverages be taxed?
Coca-Cola. Pepsi. Orange Crush. Canada Dry Ginger Ale. All of these items have something critical in common which shouldn’t surprise you. The main ingredient in each of these products is sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which by definition is a sweetener made by processing corn syrup.
In order to reduce and prevent obesity and associated health problems, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) has been proposed by the public health community. Revenue generated by such a tax would be used for obesity prevention initiatives and other health programs. Research suggests that a one-penny per ounce tax would impact the purchase of SSBs, causing a decline in its overall consumption among Americans.
There are a few problems with consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages that are well documented. First, SSBs contain little to no nutritional value therefore providing “empty” calories. Let’s use Coke as an example. The Coca-Cola website indicates that one serving of Coke contains 97 calories. This isn’t excessive. However, according to the industry, one serving = 8 oz. Unfortunately, a can of Coke = 12 oz. A typical plastic bottle marketed to one person contains 20 oz. I have yet to see someone purchase a bottle of soda and then whip out two or three cups in which to share. A Big Gulp product (sold at the national 7-11 chain convenience store) contains a whopping 40 ounces of soda, or five full servings. Let’s not even do the math for a Super Big Gulp. It’s clear that by consuming extreme quantities of a nutritionally deficient product, we are positioning ourselves to experience a host of health related problems including greater risk of obesity and associated chronic disease, dramatic energy swings related to sugar and caffeine, and limited consumption of healthier beverages such as water, low-fat milk, and 100% fruit juice.
The second problem related to SSBs is economic. Even by purchasing a single-container portion, SSBs are some of the cheapest and most widely available products in the United States. The soda industry spends millions of dollars marketing to youth and successfully claims a huge percentage of adolescent and young adult buying power. People of limited income spend a significant portion of tax-supported supplemental nutrition assistance dollars on SSBs. I visited a number of independently owned corner stores in my neighborhood recently, and found that nearly without exception the cost of a soda was less than what it cost to purchase the same quantity of bottled water.
I have a confession to make. I drink diet Coke. Not every day, and never more than a 12-oz can. But an occasional diet Coke tastes good to me, even though I am fully aware it’s not doing anything for me nutritionally, and may be even causing harm. A one-penny per ounce tax is probably not going to impact my purchasing decisions around SSBs. But what if I drink half dozen or more sodas every day? 12 cents x 6 sodas x 7 days in a week.... yes, the cost will make me consider a different option. Cost is a compelling reason to limit consumption.
But where do we draw the line? Beverages such as Gatorade or PowerAde meet the criteria of soda or sugar-sweetened beverages, but they are typically labeled sports drinks.
And what about beverages that use organically grown cane sugar grown by hard-working farmers?
And what about taxing other types of junk food that contain sugar?
It’s not a simple question. Join me next Monday as I continue to explore the benefits and challenges to taxing soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
More Blog Posts:
Sources for this Blog Post
In 2009, Rose Slam! Johnson wanted to create hummus, salad, salsa and pesto. She knew it would be more fun to share her delicious eats, so she developed a weekly bicycle delivery service and invited a few friends to come on what she dubbed a Community Supported Culinary Adventure (CSCA).
The service started with 10 customers and, through word of mouth, peaked at 17. In 2011 it was discovered that those ingredients fit perfectly on a corn tortilla. Enter: ApothoTaco Stand. With passion for both food and bicycles, it was only a matter of time before Slam! figured out the perfect collaboration. Enter: Hot Bike! A bicycle with a kitchen on the back. Having met her original goal on Kickstarter, she's happily accepting more financing to expand her vision and preparing for the design stage. Hot Bike! plans to be on the Bay Area streets by early May. For more information, visit her at www.Apothocurious.com or support Hot Bike! on Kickstarter.
Question: Should I become a food entrepreneur?
Answer: If the path chooses you, we all know there is only one option...
These are the various thoughts that run through my head as I ruminate on this question daily:
“Definitely not, this is a terrible idea.”
“I want to create food and I need to pay rent, can these two happen together?”
“This is a terrible idea, I’m not even good at cooking, I don’t like being responsible for the profits and losses, and I am working my ass off.”
“They say business is rough, I will do it differently, I won’t be stressed, I will live off my dream, it will be smooth sailing.”
I am constantly asking myself if this is what I want. Do I want to be a player in the game of capitalism, to bow down to the standards of cleanliness, taste, and appearance for food? Do I want to put my heart and time into creating something that requires a certain number of humans show up with money in their pocket and interest in their belly, in order to pay my rent next month?
Regardless of the answer to those questions, I know I want to create. I know I want to experiment. I know these creations and experimentations are much more fun and innovative when my community is involved. I also know that people get a sense of inspiration when they see others following their dreams and living authentically.
The barriers, hesitations, and fears are prominent in my head. They are especially present in the first hour of an event where I am selling food. “Did I make too much? Did I make enough? Is it priced too high, is it any good?” I am usually too busy for any of those questions to bother me for too long, but they are certainly present. They are what keep me on my toes, forever flexible and transparent with my product, plans, and systems.
I recently read an article on 3 reasons not to start a food business. The article didn’t stop me from continuing to develop my business plan, sell my fares, and fundraise for my next project, Hot Bike!, a kitchen on the back of a bicycle. While the article did little to deter me, the points are worth noting.
POINT ONE: THE MARKET IS CROWDED: I don’t know where you live, but there are plenty of food consumers in San Francisco and they are willing to step outside of the strict standards of the health department to try something radical. And lucky for me, they especially like it when it comes on a bike:)
POINT TWO: THE GROCERY STORE CHAINS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU: so what, I don’t care about them. We don’t need those chains to survive. In the Bay Area, I can source most of my goods from local co-ops and farmers markets, and I adapt my menu to do so. I also trade with many customers. The trade helps us utilize our relationships and resources and adds value to the work we do. Everyone walks away happier.
POINT THREE: YOUR CURRENT JOB IS EASIER: It is definitely easier (and more reliable) to work for someone else, but so much less fun! I have tried working on a regular schedule for other organizations, and I just don’t work as hard as when I am working for myself. Being a food entrepreneur is not the “easy route.” I am choosing the route that is fueled by curiosity, possibility, and excitement.
I don’t suggest this path for anyone, but if the path chooses you, we all know there is only one option.
Rose Slam! Johnson, calling all customers to Hot Bike!
Question: Is it all right to keep buying my groceries at the regular place?
Before I get started, I want to thank the readers who contributed comments on last week’s article on CSA boxes. One had this to say:
“[We love our CSA], Farm Fresh To You. They've got different options in terms of sizes, veg vs. fruit (‘ready to eat’ is one option), etc. They also have a good system that lets you 'veto' whatever you're tired of / don't like, are super flexible if you're out on vacation, etc., and finally, they delivery to our doorstep. (I haven't done the eco-homework to find out if this delivery is greener or not; I think it's roughly a wash.) Oh, and organic & all 5 farms are 100-miles or closer. So yeah, we're happy with them, and we're forced to eat our veggies. :)"
Thanks for that note. Another reader told me simply, “Rethink kale… [it’s] my favorite food now.” Duly noted.
Let’s keep this produce train rolling, shall we? Like I’m sure many of you readers did, I spent countless Saturdays and Sundays of my youth accompanying my parents to the store. Since I spent the first seventeen years of my life going to a plain-old grocery store and buying plain-old vegetables, I found myself a bit bewildered by all the hubbub over going local, organic, and green once I started making my own buying decisions. Couldn’t I keep going to a plain grocery like I always had? Would buying “regular”, once I’d seen my alternatives, feel like a step backwards? For my memories’ sake, I hoped not.
I spent $13.68 for the week of produce shown in the picture at right. Vigilant readers will note that, with the exception of the mushrooms, I selected for myself an entirely different array of foods from what the CSA folks gave me. Those same readers will also note that, left to my own devices, I buy a fair bit more fruit than veggies when I’m doing my own shopping. With the exception of the cabbage and the carrots, everything I bought that wasn’t a fungus was fruit (even the tomatoes, avocado, and zucchini squash. Does it have seeds? It’s a fruit.) Still, though, I’d be lying if I said I actively considered the gestalt of my purchases while loading my basket, I feel I did OK – I mean, this is clearly a grown-up’s shopping. I didn’t buy just $15 of raspberries, for instance. I’ve got whites, reds, oranges, yellows and greens, an assortment that informs me at a glance that I’m keeping my diet properly varied. Sorta. Let’s analyze.
Variety: Very good in many ways, but telling of my eating habits in others. For instance, most people don’t think of bananas and avocados as similar at all, but in fact, they are. They’re both fruity fiber-bombs packed with potassium. They’re both sweet, soft, and creamily unctuous, and they actually overlap quite a bit in what nutrients they provide. My sweet tooth really is evident here – carrots are a sweet vegetable, strawberries and apples are sweet, tomatoes are on the sweet side of the faux-vegetable tableau, and even cabbage cooks up a bit sugary once steamed or boiled. So, though I’ve got a pretty nice array, I also deep down know I could have done better. Where are the peas and beans? Where are the radishes? 8/10
Selection: Outstanding. I mean, it’s a grocery store. Ralph’s admittedly doesn’t have a very big organics section – and actually, nothing I bought save the apples is organic – but there’s just about as broad a variety of produce to choose from in a big old grocery as there is anywhere else a person could imagine. 9/10
Healthfulness: Fine, I suppose. I mean, we’re talking about fruits and vegetables here, not beef fat and shellfish, so maybe we ought to use a tougher standard. I have a decent variety of foods, and although I know the apples and bananas had to have been flown in from outside, everything else is California-grown and therefore fresh-picked enough to have not lost much nutritive value. So it’s local, mostly – maybe not 100-mile local, but at least in-state – and I’ve got a good mix of A, C, E, and some B vitamins. I’m a little low on Vitamin K and fiber with this mix, though. Plus, if you believe in the power of organic and small-farm (i.e., reduced chemical and chemical-free) growing, well, Virginia, I have bad news for you. 6/10
Tastiness: Excellent across the board, except for the tomatoes, which were pretty bland. But whatever, that’s what you get sometimes from a conventional grocer: pretty-looking hothouse produce without much in the mouth-zing department. (Those little cherub tomatoes are great, but at $4 per 12 oz., they didn’t fit into my budget for this experiment.) Everything else was great though. I was pleased. 9/10
Value for the Money: One wonderful thing about shopping at a high-competition, generic grocery store – and about doing shopping yourself – is that you can take advantage of sales. I did, and that really helped me stretch my produce dollar. Avocadoes were marked down to 47 cents each, and that big clamshell of strawberries cost a measly two bucks. That does wonders for my mind.
Ah, but what about the leftovers? Well, though everything got used, I had to cheat a little. That bag of carrots stared at me from the fridge until I brought it into school and shared it with my students. And as for the huge head of cabbage, I steamed it, but could only eat about half – really pushing myself – until it had been sitting around, cooked, for four days or so and it really had to go in the trash. That was a shame. So I got a lot of food, but maybe it was too much. Plus, all that bargain hunting takes time, and time is money. But now I’m nitpicking. I stretched that $13.68 quite a long ways, though I do lose a few points for tricking myself into buying things I’d never eat (and that’s something we all do now and then, I think). 8/10.
Final score: 8/10. This beat the CSA in selection and variety, but fell just behind in all the other categories. Still, if you have the time, care about choice, and want to make sure you save your dollars, the traditional grocery is just fine for you.
Next week: Whole Foods? Trader Joes? Or something unexpected? Stay on your toes and stay tuned.
Today is our day to Occupy Our Food Supply! Many inspiring events are taking place throughout the nation today to educate and promote food justice and food access to policymakers and others who make critical and life changing decisions about the way in which we grow, raise, prepare, preserve, vend, and consume food and beverages.
The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will improve federal farm bill programs that support local and regional farming and food systems. Local food systems build the economy by increasing income to farmers and creating jobs. Local food systems create long-lasting and meaningful connections between consumers and the land and people who grow their food. The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will provide significant benefits to all Americans, including greater access to fruits and vegetables through critical support services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).
This Act currently has more than 65 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and eleven in the Senate, but more work is needed to ensure that key provisions in the Act become a permanent part of upcoming Farm Bill legislation.
How you can help:
1. Call your Representative today and ask him/her to co-sponsor the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act.
Find your Representative’s name and direct number by going to Congress.org and typing in your zip code. You can also call the Capitol Switchboard, provide your Representative’s name and be directly connected to their office: (202) 225-3121.
2. Give them the message:
I am a constituent calling to urge Senator/Congress(wo)man __________ to co-sponsor the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act. This legislation is about to be introduced in the House and Senate. It will help boost farm income, improve access to healthy foods, and secure funding for critically important programs like the Community Food Projects (CFP) Competitive Grant Program.
Can I count on Senator/Congress(wo)man_________ to be a co-sponsor?
If your Senator will co-sponsor or wants more information: Tell them to communicate with Senator Sherrod Brown’s office.
If your Representative will co-sponsor or wants more information: Tell them to communicate with Representative Chellie Pingree’s office.
Question: Does a gluten-free diet have benefits for someone who is not sensitive to gluten?
Answer: Probably Not
I first heard of Celiac disease from a good friend of mine. Emily’s been a confirmed Celiac sufferer since the age of 2, which means she predates the current gluten-free craze by well over a decade. For Emily, eating gluten-free isn’t trendy or optional; it’s a way of life and it’s a part of her identity. When I told her I was trying out a gluten-free diet for a week, she was mostly supportive, but also a little bit territorial; “all these suburban moms who are putting their kids on gluten-free diets…they don’t have to do that,” she told me. For people with Celiac disease, gluten destroys the lining of the small intestine, which can prevent vital nutrients from being absorbed. It also causes a number of unpleasant symptoms—from headaches, to lethargy, to diarrhea. So how has this pesky little protein, thought to be fairly harmless for about 99% of Americans, become so notorious? Why is there an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to its eradication?
According to recent hype, a gluten-free diet may have numerous health benefits for the general population. Among other things, sticking to a gluten-free lifestyle is said to contribute to weight loss, improved mood, increased energy, and may even alleviate conditions as diverse as autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia. These claims seem to be shaky at best, so I decided to investigate for myself. In addition to some online research, this meant going gluten-free for a week. (I later found out it takes a full 6 months for the body to rid itself of gluten completely.)
I couldn’t care less about using only gluten-free corn bread mix or avoiding salad dressings with gluten in them. What was a struggle for me was cutting out bread, pasta, cookies, beer, and did I mention bread? Over the past year or so I’ve become a somewhat competent amateur bread-baker, and I polish off several meals a week with a slice of toast. I’m a gluten-eating machine, so I hoped going cold turkey would produce some miraculous result. Perhaps I would suddenly have the urge to run 4 miles or write the next great American novel. Maybe my concentration would at least improve?
Unfortunately, my foray into gluten free-dom had little effect on my body, mind, and general sense of well-being. Before beginning, I checked my weight and did an inventory of how I was feeling both mentally and physically. At the end of the week, I repeated the process in an attempt to create some semblance of objectivity in my one-woman, highly unscientific study. I may have actually gained a pound. However, it did teach me a thing or two about how incredibly addicted I am to carbs, particularly wheat products.
As they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I may be stepping on a lot of toes here—I know there are many folks without Celiac disease who swear by the gluten-free lifestyle. I suspect that a gluten-free lifestyle really can improve one’s health if it also results in an overall reduction in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and other known health threats that are often associated with gluten-filled products. However, there is little definitive evidence about the health benefits of merely eliminating gluten, at least for those who do not suffer from gluten intolerance. Just as fat-free diets swept through in the 90s and low-carb diets ruled in the 2000s, is gluten-free just another “magic bullet” that we peg our nutritional hopes to, only to be disappointed? The jury is still technically out on this one, but for now, I’m stocking up on Girl Scout Cookies and taking my chances.
Gluten Sensitivity may not be limited to Celiac Disease: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/04/12/gluten.free.diet.improve/index.html
Should you go gluten-free? http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/g-free-diet
Sources for this blog post:
Question: What happens behind the scenes of a local Farm to Table restaurant?
Answer: Trial and error and a lot of research
In my last post I wrote about visiting The Piggery in Ithaca, NY, and how this local Farm to Table restaurant came to be. This week I’m writing about the part the customer doesn’t get to see: where the pigs live, what they eat, and what kind of red tape is involved in running a small butcher shop.
The pigs Heather and Brad (the owners) raise are all heritage breeds. When they first started out they decided to also raise some more ‘modern’ breeds, to see what was different. The modern breeds, being bred to be raised in large feed lots, inside, etc. Did not take well to pasture. They got sunburned, stayed really lean, the meat quality wasn’t as good, and they did not seem to be as intelligent and interactive as the heritage breeds.
Their pigs live in pasture (some open, some woods), and are moved daily to different plots of land. This is called Mob grazing, and is reputed to be better for the grass and better for the animal. Heather told me that their pigs responded better to this method than to traditional rotation grazing where they have more space but are moved less often. Now when they go out to move the pigs every day the pigs are happy and excited. In the past when they moved them less often, the move seemed to result in some orneriness and confusion.
When Heather and Brad went to choose feed for their animals they ran into a big issue with organic feed. When dairy farmers started converting their cows to organic feed (so they could produce organic milk), it sent the prices of organic, non-GMO corn and soy, soaring. The price of these grains quadrupled. So Heather and Brad cracked the books - books from the 1800’s that talked all about feed trials farmers used to do. Based on the information found there, and what they could get that was affordable, sustainable, and best for the pig, they decided to feed ‘small grains’ - non-GMO wheat, barley, triticale. Pigs are omnivores, so they also eat whey (the liquid you pour off from milk when you make cheese), and the occasional pumpkin. This diet results in a healthier pig, better tasting meat, and a business owner who is happy not to be supporting the corn or soy industries.
I was curious about how much red tape is involved for an individual, small farm to raise pigs, do their own processing, and bring them to market. The biggest challenge, Heather said, has to do with the USDA licensing for meat processing. You have to have one to wholesale. They use a USDA facility for slaughtering, but want to do their own butchering and processing (turning the meat into sausage, etc.). New York State is one of the few states that has a state license they can use to sell direct to the consumer, but they would need USDA certification to sell (for example) at the local co-op or grocery store. Between that and the challenges of meeting demand vs. working through the whole hog (see my previous post on this), the small hog farmer is pretty much limited to starting their own butcher shop or a meat CSA . Expansion into wholesale means bigger hoops to jump through, and a less sustainable model where supply and demand may not have as symbiotic of a relationship. To me this says that a larger business means a potentially less stable one.
Next up: Part III: What it takes to make all this work and the resource The Piggery couldn’t survive without.
Previous Posts on this Topic:
Agriculture and food systems: Cornell University Extension
Heritage breeds: Sustainable Table
Mob grazing: Mississippi State University Extension Newsletter
Kate Gardner, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist, food blogger and mythbuster specializing in whole foods for optimal health. She focuses her work on local food and sustainability, and she answers nutrition questions with a common sense approach that we like a whole lot...so much, in fact, we invited Kate to join the Digging Deep team. We're tickled Kate's agreed to sign on as our official "Resident Nutritionist". Kate will help answer our nutrition questions and offer regular Guest Expert posts on topics of interest we share. She also blogs daily on her site, Kate Gardner Nutrition.
Today, Kate's agreed to educate us on a question that comes up often: Sure, it's growth without pesticides but is organic food really more heathy for us? Turns out it may be...
Q: Does organic really have more nutritional benefits than conventional?
Answer: Yes, no or maybe so. The term ‘organic’ is associated with a variety of popular terms these days. The easiest way to answer this question is to address each food category separately. So, here we go!
1. Produce: Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or other chemical sprays. They haven’t been exposed to synthetic fertilizers, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or other ‘conventional’ farming methods. With regard to chemical sprays, research clearly indicates that organically grown plant foods (including grains and beans) have fewer pesticide residues. Is that healthier? Well, no one knows for sure. Even the pesticide residues of conventionally grown plants are well below the ‘safe for consumption’ EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards. However, one question still remains: do small amounts of pesticide residues accumulate in our bodies over time enough to have negative health consequences? Maybe – more research is needed.
Nutritionally, organic produce has been shown to have higher amounts of vitamin C, some minerals, and some antioxidants. However, the amounts are negligible, so the impact on your overall nutrition would be minimal. At this point, it’s safe to say that a higher nutrient content would not be a good reason to eat organic produce.
There’s on more issue to consider about organic produce: genetically modified (GM) foods. In theory, organic produce is not supposed to contain and GM pollen or seed. There’s little that famers can do to prevent GM organisms from infiltrating an organic crop. While a group of natural food producers began an effort to verify ‘non-GMO’ organic foods, there’s still no guarantee with all organic produce. Plus, the cost incurred by farmers that test crops and verify non-GMO status, is so high that it’s nearly impossible to expect small, local farmers to afford it.
Verdict: Some organic produce clearly contains lower levels of pesticide residues. If you’re interested in purchasing organic, non-GMO verified products, visit www.nongmoprojct.org.
2. Fish: Organic fish is a more difficult term to outline. Wild fish eat whatever they want, and given agricultural runoff and pollution in the world’s water, it’s impossible to know what wild fish have eaten. Farmed fish are still tricky to define. Theoretically, a fish could be termed organic if it was fed organic feed. However, carnivorous fish (i.e. salmon), are often farmed in netted areas, so some of their food just swims right in and becomes lunch. Defining plant-eating fish as organic is slightly easier because fish farms can more tightly control what feed is available.
Verdict: At this time, purchasing sustainably caught fish is probably a better bet than organic fish. Sustainably caught fish means that the species are not overfished or at risk of extinction. The debate deeming farmed fish ‘organic’ is complicated and the current guidelines are loosely defined. Check out www.seafoodwatch.org for more information about safe-to-eat fish.
3. Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy: Organic meat, poultry and dairy is defined as free of pesticides, synthetic growth hormone or antibiotics; in addition, the animals must be raised on organic, GMO-free feed. In the last couple years, regulations have become stricter on animals’ access to pasture. It used to be that animals merely needed ‘access to pasture’ to be called organic. These days, they must graze for at least 4 months out of the year and 30% of their diet must be from grazing.
Nutritionally speaking, organic animal products contain more omega-3 fatty acids (including CLA, a type of fatty acid) and more antioxidants; they are also lower in calories and fat. Animals raised organically have lower levels of IGF-1, a hormone associated with cancer.
As always though, the term ‘organic’ doesn’t encompass certain important aspects of animal farming. For instance, ‘organic meat’ does not indicate if the animals were slaughtered humanely, if they were uncomfortably confined during their 8 months indoors, or whether or not their feed is part of their natural diet (i.e. organic cows can be fed organic grain, even though their natural diet is grass).
Verdict: Choosing organic meat is the better choice than conventionally raised animals. For more information about meat and poultry claims, check out this guide from Mayo Clinic.
Is organic worth the extra cost? Maybe. Given your personal financial situation, there are some organic choices that are probably worth the cost. Check out page 4 of the WebMD article cited below to make more informed organic choices.
Overall Recommendations from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/organic-food-better
1. Non-GMO Organic: www.nongmoprojct.org
2. The Dirty Dozen (12 fruits and vegetables worth purchasing organic): http://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/dirty-dozen-foods
3. Organic Fish: www.seafoodwatch.org
4. Organic Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/free-range/MY01559
Sources for this blog post:
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/29/business/29instincts.html
USDA, Organic Aquaculture: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/aquaculture-and-soilless-farming/aquaculture/organic-aquaculture
Organic Trade Association: http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html
Question: How will the new EU-US organic trade deal impact us?
Answer: In a good way (we think)
In case you missed it, the United States and the European Union signed a landmark trade deal regarding organic food last week. Christine Bushway, the Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association is calling this agreement an “historic game changer” –a pretty big claim, if you ask me. Since the agreement has yet to go into effect, the impacts remain speculative, but here are a few things I found out when I looked into it:
The basics ~ Under the EU-US Organic Equivalence Cooperation Agreement, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and the European Union Organic Program will be considered equal starting June 1, 2012. This means that products that are certified organic through the EU Organic program will now be able to be marketed in the United States as “organic” – and vice versa. Before now, if an organic grower wanted to market their produce in both the EU and the US, they would have to be certified by both systems –which is often redundant and always costly. This important new deal will, as the agreement claims, “expanded market access, reduce duplicative requirements, and lower certification costs for the trade in organic products.”
The deal will only apply to products that originate, or are ultimately processed and packaged, in the European Union or the United States. It will not benefit organic growers in other countries that market their goods in either the EU or US. The two parties did agree, however, to future collaboration and cooperation regarding control and approval in third-party countries.
Most disparities in organic production standards between the regions are minor and will be disregarded for trade purposes. The major exception is antibiotic use. In the US, organic apple and pear farmers are permitted to use certain antibiotics to control a disease called fire blight. In Europe, animal farmers are required to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, whereas in the US, any animal treated with antibiotics is prohibited from being sold as organic. These standards will not change under this new agreement. All meat sold in the US will still have to be antibiotic free, as will all fruit sold in the EU.
What this means for farmers~ Both regions are experiencing growing demand for organics, which, when combined with less complicated export requirements, could make it significantly easier for farmers and manufacturers to find a high-value markets for their goods on either side of the Atlantic.
Expanded markets will hopefully make organic farming more profitable for some. In all likelihood, large farms that have a production scale amenable to transatlantic export will be the biggest beneficiaries. However, the U.S. hopes that the deal will also benefit smaller operations as well. “Larger operations can compete quite easily [already], but I think that this deal will make it easier for small and medium-sized organic producers to access new markets, because we are removing…barriers,” said Isi Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative.
Because expanded market access and reduced certification costs are likely to make organic farming more profitable, the new trade deal might provide incentives for conventional growers to switch to organic production. Fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers contaminating our air, ground, and water? Yes please.
What this means for consumers~ An exciting element of this trade agreement is its impact on selection and availability of organically produced food. Since Europe basically shares our growing season, it is not likely to make a huge difference for everyday fresh produce. However, for manufactured products that European countries specialize in, this could mean a real difference for US consumers – think olive oil, chocolate, and wine (oh, my!).
In addition to greater access and variety, consumers will also benefit from better knowledge about their food choices. The European products we are ingesting may already be produced organically, but are prohibited from being marketed as such due to current regulations. The agreement will hopefully allow us to make more informed decisions about our food choices.
Sources For This Blog Post
Coming Soon To Your Grocery Aisle: Organic Food From Europe (by Dan Charles for NPR’s food blog, The Salt, February 15, 2012)
EU, US Ink Organic Food Deal (AFP, February 15, 2012)
EU-US Sign Historic Organic Trade Agreement (Farm Futures, February 16, 2012)
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