Category Archives: Marketing

Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself: Birke Baehr (11 years old)

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The marathon was great! Not only did I set a PR (personal record… a mere 2 minutes faster than my previous fastest, but a PR nonetheless), but I also thoroughly enjoyed the race which, in true Disney fashion, included entertainment throughout the whole course (bands, DJs, singers, dancers, comedians, Disney characters, and signs with jokes or interesting facts). What better way to celebrate a birthday than a PR at the Most Magical Marathon on Earth?!

finish

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Today I have a video of 11 year old Birke Baehr talking about what’s wrong with our food system.

If you can watch the video, I recommend doing that (his southern accent is so cute), but for those who can’t, here is a transcript (with some reference links added by me and my favorite part bolded):

Hello. My name is Birke Baehr and I’m 11 years old. I came here today to talk about what’s wrong with our food system.

First of all, I would like to say that I’m really amazed at how easily kids are led to believe all the marketing & advertising on TV, at public schools, and pretty much everywhere else you look. It seems to me like corporations are always trying to get kids, like me, to get their parents to buy stuff that really isn’t good for us or the planet. Little kids, especially, are attracted by colorful packaging and plastic toys. I must admit, I used to be one of them.

I also used to think that all of our food came from these happy little farms where pigs rolled in mud or cows grazed on grass all day. What I discovered is that this is not true.I began to look into this stuff on the internet, in books, in documentary films, in my travels with my family. I discovered the dark side of the industrialized food system.

First, there’s genetically engineered seeds and organisms. That is when a seed is manipulated in a laboratory to do something not intended by nature. Like taking the DNA of a fish and putting it into the DNA of a tomato. Yuck! Don’t get me wrong, I like fish and tomatoes, but this is just creepy.

The seeds are then planted, then grow. The food they produce have been proven to cause cancer and other problems in lab animals. [More on that here, and here.] And people have been eating food produced this way since the 1990’s. Most folks don’t even know they exist!Did you know that rats fed genetically engineered corn have developed signs of kidney and liver toxicity? These include kidney inflammation, and lesions, and increased kidney weight. Yet almost all the corn we eat has been altered genetically in some way. And let me tell you, corn is in everything!

And don’t even get me started on the Confined Animal Feeding Operations, called CAFOs.

Conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuels that they mix with the dirt to make plants grow. They do this because they’ve stripped the soil from all nutrients, from growing the same crop over and over again. Next, more harmful chemicals are sprayed on fruits and vegetables, like pesticides and herbicides to kill weeds and bugs. When it rains, these chemicals seep into the ground, are runoff into our waterways, poisoning our water too! Then they irradiate our food, trying to make it last longer, so it can travel thousands of miles from where it’s grown to the supermarkets.

So I asked myself, how can I change? How can I change these things? This is what I found out. I discovered that there’s a movement for a better way. Now, a while back, I wanted to be an NFL football player; I decided that I’d rather be an organic farmer instead. [Loud cheers] That way, I can have a greater impact on the world.

I learned about this guy named Joel Salatin, they call him a “lunatic farmer” because he grows against the system. Since I am home-schooled, I went to go hear him speak one day. This man, this lunatic farmer, doesn’t use any pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified seeds, and so for that, he is called crazy by the system.

I want you to know that we can all make a difference by making different choices, by buying our food directly from local farmers, or neighbors we know in real life. Some people say organic or local food is more expensive, but is it really? With all these things I’ve been learning about the food system, it seems to me that we can either pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital. [Loud cheers] I know definitely which one I would choose.

I want you to know that there are farms out there, like Bill Keener at Sequatchie Cove Farms in Tennessee, whose cows DO eat grass and whose pigs DO roll in the mud, just like I thought. Sometimes I go to Bill’s farm and volunteer so I can see up-close and personal where the meat I eat comes from.

I want you to know that I believe kids will eat fresh vegetables and good food if they knew more about it and where it really comes from. I want you to know that there are farmers’ markets in every community, popping up. I want you to know that me and my brother and sister actually like eating baked kale chips. I try to share this everywhere I go.

Not too long ago, my uncle said the he offered my 6 year old cousin cereal. He asked if he wanted organic Toasted O’s or the sugar-coated flakes – you know, the one with the big striped cartoon character on the front? My little cousin told his dad that he’d rather have the organic Toasted O’s cereal because Birke said he shouldn’t eat sparkly cereal. And that, my friends, is how we can make a difference, one kid at a time.

So the next time you’re at the grocery store, think local, choose organic, know your farmer and know your food. Thank you.

Frankenfish

The FDA is eerily close to approving genetically modified salmon for human consumption.  These “AquAdvantage” fish, as the company that created them calls them, are Atlantic salmon that are genetically altered to contain a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic “on-switch” from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Normally, salmon do not make growth hormone in cold weather, but the pout’s “on-switch” keeps production of the hormone going year round. The result is salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years. 

Two salmon of the same age, fed the same diet, one genetically modified, one not.

Two salmon of the same age, fed the same diet, one genetically modified, one not.

The company that created these mutants assures the FDA that they are the “identical in every measurable way” (no pun intended, one assumes) to traditional farmed Atlantic salmon, but this is one giant (pun intended)science experiment I’m NOT willing to be a participant in.

This growth-enhancing genetic modification is already approved in chickens and there are scientists working to develop other genetically engineered animals, like cattle resistant to mad cow disease, or pigs that could supply healthier bacon. Next in line behind the salmon for possible approval would probably be the “enviropig,” developed at a Canadian university, which has less phosphorus pollution in its manure.

 

Layer hen (front) and broiler [meat] hen (back), same age, one genetically modified, one not.

Layer hen (front) and broiler {meat} hen (back), same age, one genetically modified, one not.

Please tell me I’m not the only one that has issues with this! Why do we insist on trying to “fix” things (the environment, our health, billions and billions of years of evolution, giant corporations’ pocketbooks) by creating these difficult, dangerous, and quite frankly, creepy “solutions” instead of just reversing the thing we did in the first place to cause the problem?!

 We pump out millions of pigs per second; their massive amounts of crap are ruining our planet; so doesn’t the logical solution seem to be to stop pumping out so damn many pigs? No, apparently we think it’s better to genetically modify something that nature spent billions of years perfecting so that we can continue our gluttonous habits and possibly kill ourselves with the side effects in the future. (Or maybe we’ll just genetically modify ourselves to be resistant to the effects of digesting genetically modified pig. Because that’s the American way.)

There has not yet been a generation that’s eaten genetically modified (GM) foods for their entire life, so we have no research to show the long-term effects of this on our health (which is why 30 countries have already banned GM foods). American children are the guinea pigs.

It is likely that the GM salmon will not be labeled (no other GM foods are currently labeled), so you will have absolutely no way of avoiding the GM salmon, should you choose to eat salmon. One would assume that organic salmon guarantees no genetically modified organisms (as I’ve previously explained the strict regulations on organic labeling); however, the organic program does not currently have standards that pertain to seafood. “We may someday address aquatic species. It just hasn’t happened,” says Joan Shaffer, National Organics Program spokeswoman. Then why is there salmon with “organic” labels in our stores? The USDA regulates only the use of the organic seal, not the use of the word “organic,” so companies are free to place the word “organic” on their products whether or not they have been certified. Just another deceptive marketing tactic used by the food industry to mislead the public.

Plus, what happens when these unnatural fish get into the oceans? (And, yes, they inevitably will.) It is already speculated that they would out-compete wild fish for food and mates, spread their modified genes (which we do not know the effects of) throughout the population, and I imagine this could seriously alter some food chains.  (And surely we all know the dangers of altering seemingly unimportant food chains, right?)

How far will we take this? At what point does “playing God” become a bad idea?

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Breakfast: Smoothie with banana, mixed berries (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry) and cauliflower (strange choice, I know, but I had some in the fridge & gave it a shot – it worked out well!)
Lunch: Tomato soup and crackers
Dinner: Spaghetti with meatless meatballs

The NEW Four Food Groups

Most of us grew up with the USDA’s old “basic four” food groups, first introduced in 1956:

1) Protein: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts
2) Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt
3) Grains: bread, cereal, rice, pasta
4) Fruits & Vegetables

In 1992, the USDA created the Food Pyramid Guide as a visual aid:

USDA_Food_Pyramid

The Food Pyramid has continuously generated controversy among health experts.  For example, certain dietary choices that have been linked to heart disease (such as three cups of whole milk and an 8 oz. serving of hamburger daily) were technically permitted under the pyramid’s guidelines. The pyramid also lacked differentiation within the protein-rich group (“Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts”).

Some of the recommended quantities came under criticism for lack of clarity. For instance, the pyramid recommends 2-3 servings from the protein-rich group, which is intended to be a maximum. Yet, the pyramid recommends 2-4 fruit servings, but this is intended to be the minimum.

The fats group as a whole have been put at the tip of the pyramid, under the direction to eat as little as possible, which is largely problematic. Under the guide, one would assume to avoid fats and fatty foods, but fat is essential to our health. Unsaturated fats from a natural source can actually aid in weight loss, reduce heart disease risk, lower blood sugar, help brain function, and even lower cholesterol. These fats can be found in olive oil, nuts, seafood, and avocados.

So, in 2005, the USDA revised its dietary recommendations and created the MyPyramid, which re-arranged the food groups, adjusted some recommended serving sizes,  and also included the importance of exercise (that’s the figure walking up the stairs).

newfoodpyramid

There are claims that the USDA was (and continues to be) unduly influenced by political pressure exerted by food production associations in the creation of the MyPyramid. Food industries, such as milk companies, have been accused of influencing the USDA into making the colored stripes on the MyPyramid larger for their particular product.

The milk section is clearly the easiest to see out of the six sections of the pyramid. This makes individuals believe that more milk should be consumed on a daily basis compared to the others. (More milk than fruit? Really?) Furthermore, the inclusion of milk as a group unto itself implies that is an essential part of a healthy diet, despite the 60% of people who are lactose intolerant (not to mention the number of cultures that have historically consumed little if any dairy products).

The Harvard School of Public Health states this about the new MyPyramid:

“The recommendation to drink three glasses of low-fat milk or eat three servings of other dairy products per day to prevent osteoporosis is another step in the wrong direction. Of all the recommendations, this one represents the most radical change from current dietary patterns. Three glasses of low-fat milk a day amounts to more than 300 extra calories a day. This is a real issue for the millions of Americans who are trying to control their weight. What’s more, millions of Americans are lactose intolerant, and even small amounts of milk or dairy products give them stomachaches, gas, or other problems. This recommendation ignores the lack of evidence for a link between consumption of dairy products and prevention of osteoporosis. It also ignores the possible increases in risk of ovarian cancer and prostate cancer associated with dairy products.”

Since the introduction of the “basic four” food groups over 50 years ago, we’ve learned quite a bit more about nutrition, including the importance of fiber, the health risks of fats and cholesterol, and the disease-prevention powers of nutrients found exclusively in plant-based foods.  We’ve also found that that plant kingdom provides excellent sources of nutrients once only associated with meat and dairy, namely protein and calcium. And with all the controversy (nutritional and political) surrounding the USDA’s Food Pyramid, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) developed the NEW four food groups.  This no-cholesterol, low-fat plan supplies all of an average adult’s daily nutritional requirements, including a substantial amount of fiber.

The New Four Food Groups

PCRM_new 4 food groups

1) Fruit
3 or more servings per day
1 serving = 1 medium piece of fresh fruit, 1/2 cup cooked fruit, 4 oz juice)

Fruits are rich in fiber, vitamin C, and beta-carotene. Be sure to include at least 1 serving per day of fruits that are high in vitamin C – citrus fruits, melons, and strawberries are all good choices. Choose whole fruit over fruit juices, which do not contain much fiber.

2) Vegetables
4 or more servings per day
1 serving = 1 cup raw vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked vegetables

Vegetables are packed with nutrients; they provide vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, fiber, and other nutrients. Dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens, chicory, or cabbage are especially good sources of these important nutrients. Dark yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin provide extra beta-carotene. Include generous portions of a variety of vegetables in your diet.

3) Whole Grains
5 or more servings per day
1 serving = 1/2 cup rice or other grain, 1 oz dry cereal, 1 slice bread

This group includes bread, rice, tortillas, pasta, hot or cold cereal, corn, millet, barley, and bulgar wheat. Build each of your meals around a hearty grain dish – grains are rich in fiber and other complex carbohydrates, as well as protein, B vitamins, and zinc.

4) Legumes
2 or more servings per day
1 serving = 1/2 cup cooked beans, 4 oz tofu or tempeh, 8 oz soymilk

Legumes, which is another name for beans peas, and lentils, are all good sources of fiber, protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and B vitamins. This group also includes chickpeas, baked and refried beans, soymilk, tempeh, and texturized vegetable protein.

*Note* It is important to include a good source of vitamin B12, such as fortified cereal, fortified soy milk, or a vitamin supplement.

Try the new four food groups and discover a more healthful way to live!  The largest killers of Americans – heart disease, cancer, and stroke – have a dramatically lower incidence in those consuming primarily plant-based diets. Weight problems – a contributor to a whole host of health problems – are also reduced by following the new four food groups recommendations.

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Breakfast: Cereal and rice milk
Lunch: Amy’s Macaroni & Soy Cheeze
Dinner: Tempeh cooked in Trader Joe’s Island Soyaki sauce
with loaded baked red potatoes (loaded with: Tofutti’s vegan sour cream, Daiya vegan cheese, bac’n bits, and fresh chives grown on my balcony)

food 003

A Brief History Lesson

At the end of WWII, our munitions plants were morphed into plowshare factories and began turning our ammonium nitrate surplus into chemical fertilizers (if you follow that link, start reading about half-way down, at the paragraph that starts with “Unfortunately…”). But fertilizers and machinery are not the only things linked to war. Most chemical warfare is actually pesticide in a much stronger dose (if you follow that link, read the “WWII” section). Some chemical warfare agents were discovered when trying to create pesticides and some pesticides were discovered when trying to create chemical weapons. (We are eating this stuff!)

Between ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nerve gas pesticide, the corn and soybean yields skyrocketed shortly after WWII. Some politicians saw this as a valid reason to dismantle the New Deal policies that had helped farmers weather the economic uncertainties inherent in their business. Over the next few decades, nudged by industry, the government re-wrote farm policy on commodity subsidies (corn & soy) so that these funds no longer protect the farmer, but instead guarantee a cheap supply of corn and soybeans.

These 2 crops, formerly food for poor people and animals, became something entirely different: a standardized raw material for industry, not very different from logging or mining. Mills and factories, as complex as those turning iron and aluminum ores into cars, soda cans, and antiperspirants, were developed. But, these were turning piles of corn and soy into high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and thousands of other starch and oil based chemicals.

Cow, pigs, and chickens were brought in off the pasture into Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where corn and soy (which is not part of these animals’ natural diet) are used to cheaply and quickly fatten them. Corn and soy now run all the way down our industrial pipeline into soft drinks, burgers, and all the other processed foods on which our nation runs (or sits on its butt, as the case may be).

This is how 70% of all our Midwestern agricultural land shifted into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each one of them, on average, the size of Manhattan.

Thanks to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and highly mechanized production systems, US farmers now produce 3,900 calories per US citizen per day. That’s twice the amount we need and 700 more calories per day more than they grew in 1980. Commodity farmers can only make ends meet by producing their maximum yields, so they do.

And here is the shocking plot twist: as farmers produced all those extra calories, the food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn’t really want to eat 700 more calories a day. That is the well-oiled machine we call Late Capitalism.

Most of the calories that enter our mouth are hardly recognized as corn or soy or even vegetable: lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum (for example) are all manufactured from corn. So are beef, eggs, and poultry, in a different but no less artificial process. Soybeans also become animal flesh, or else an ingredient called “added fats.” Remove every product containing corn or soybeans from the grocery store and it would look more like a hardware store (though the light bulbs would not be in boxes since many packaging materials now contain cornstarch).

With so many extra calories to deliver, food packages have gotten bigger. The 8 ounce Coke bottle of yesteryear morphed into 20 ounces of high-fructose corn syrup and carbonated water. As serving sizes increased, so did the American waistline. US consumption of  “added fats” has increased by one-third since 1975 and HFCS consumption is up by 1,000%.

True, no one held a gun to our head and forced us to super-size it, but humans have a built-in weakness for fats and sugar that evolved from caveman days of sparse food sources and a necessity for survival. Food marketers know these weaknesses and have exploited them to no mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in a meeting room and discuss ways to get all those surplus calories into people who did not need them nor want them.

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Breakfast: Bagel with jelly
Lunch: Tofurkey sandwich
Dinner: Veggie burger, homemade mashed potatoes, and cantaloupe
megan & rob's wedding 033

Carbon Footprint Of Food

A Swedish fast-food chain, called Max Burger, is trying to discourage people from eating too much meat by publishing the carbon footprint of each item on its menu.

From the methane produced by the cows, to the machinery used on the farm, through to the emissions produced by the slaughterhouses and the trucks that deliver the meat all over the country – the weight of CO2 represents the carbon footprint of that meal.

Beef production emits high levels of carbon dioxide when compared to other foods. So why on Earth does a restaurant chain that sells mainly beef want to advertise how bad its products are for the planet?  They insist they are not “shooting themselves in the foot” and are quick to point out the “less-meat products” on the menu, such as a falafel burger and a half beef/half soy burger.

“We think you need to be honest with the customer. We hope to change the whole of the fast-food industry by this,” their spokesman said.  “We want people to eat less meat.”

Max Burgers’ carbon labels are getting them a lot of publicity and seem to epitomise the country’s enthusiasm for environmental food labeling.  A recent survey in Sweden found that 92% of people wanted more information about the “green credentials” of the food they were buying.

Currently, two food organizations in Sweden are working on “climate labels” that are designed to set a simple environmental benchmark for food production in Sweden.  If the new Swedish labels are a success, they fully expect to see them copied in other countries around the world.

Carbon labeling on products began four years ago in Britain:

carbon labeling

FYI:

carbon footprint

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Breakfast: Oatmeal
Lunch: Vegetable soup & saltine crackers
Dinner: Chipotle veggie bowl (no meat = free guac!)

High Fructose Corn Syrup

I’ve seen this ad SO MUCH lately! It is one of three commercials that the Corn Refiners Association created to “change the conversation about high-fructose corn syrup.”

The ad features a mother delivering the Corn Refiners’ message about high-fructose corn syrup, “It’s made from corn, doesn’t have artificial ingredients, and like sugar, it’s fine in moderation.”

Let’s take the Corn Refiners’ points one by one:

1. “It’s made from corn.” True. High-fructose corn syrup is indeed made from corn. But you won’t get the same beneficial nutrients in it that you would from eating an ear of corn.

2. “Doesn’t have artificial ingredients.” Partly true. The claim about artificial ingredients is a tricky one, since high-fructose corn syrup is processed using artificial agents. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that if the artificial agents do not come in contact with the corn starch, it can be considered a “natural” product. (By the way, it’s distinctions like these that lead the Consumers Union to consider the “natural” label not meaningful.)

3. “Like sugar, it’s fine in moderation.” True, BUT… most foods are fine in moderation. It’s too much that causes problems. And one would probably argue that with high-fructose corn syrup in so many products, to truly enjoy it in moderation you’d almost undoubtedly have to alter your eating habits.  (Challenge: check out the ingredients of the foods you buy from the center aisles of the grocery store – basically anywhere other than the produce, butcher, and dairy sections – and be shocked by the number of them that contain high-fructose corn syrup.)

So what has happened to “the conversation about high-fructose corn syrup” in the first place that led its manufacturers to want to rehabilitate its reputation?

In 2004, researchers from the Louisiana State University and University of North Carolina published a paper that theorized that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in beverages could play a role in the obesity epidemic. They looked at the correlation between the 1,000% increase in HFCS consumption between 1970 and 1990, and a correlating rise in obesity rates. Because of the way the body metabolizes fructose from beverages, the researchers argued, it likely plays a role in the obesity epidemic.

High fructose corn syrup has become one of the boogeymen of processed foods. It has been implicated in a rise of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.  However, HFCS and white sugar are almost identical chemically; each is about half fructose and half glucose.

The association between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity may reflect that we consume so much of it. Nearly all sugars add empty calories to our diets. And because HFCS is the main sweetener in soft drinks and is used in most processed foods (including breakfast cereals, salad dressings, cheese spreads, yogurts, jams, peanut butters, canned fruits, canned soups, frozen foods, bottled juices, and so many many many others), most people consume more of it than any other sugar.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s definitely no added risk from fructose in general. For example, a new study of rats by researchers from the University of Florida suggests that a diet high in fructose may lead the body to develop a resistance to a protein called leptin, which helps control appetite.

We do know that Americans can stand to cut back on sugar. According to the USDA, the average American should consume no more than about 40 grams of added sugars a day (added sugars don’t include those that occur naturally in fruit and other foods) but the average American consumes more than three times that. People who want to limit their overall sugar intake would be wise to cut down on products that have added sugars, including high-fructose corn syrup, listed among the first several ingredients (which are listed in order by proportional weight).
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Breakfast: English muffin with jelly (which lists “high fructose corn syrup” as well as “corn syrup” as ingredients)
Lunch: Veggie sub from Harris Teeter
Dinner: Chickenless nuggets and homemade fries

Eat Food

It sounds easy, right? But, it’s increasingly harder as our grocery stores continue to fill up with edible-food-like-substances. We are continually drawn in by the “no trans fat margarine” and the “low fat, omega fortified cheese,” but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that products with health claims on the packaging indicate that it’s not real food. All of these food-like-creations just cause confusion about one of the most basic fundamentals of life: what to eat. (PS – No other animal needs professional help to decide what to eat!)

Between the nutritionists, food manufacturers, food marketers, and even journalists, there are a lot of people who have a lot to gain from the latest health craze (just think of all the buzz around carbs, trans fats, omega 3’s, antioxidants). In fact, it’s an industry that thrives not only on change, but also on consumer confusion.

Ironically, the professionalization of nutritionism didn’t make us healthier, it made us significantly unhealthier and significantly fatter. In fact, 4 of the top 10 causes of death in the US are chronic diseases that are linked to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. (These diseases remain rare in areas where people don’t eat the way we do.)

Due to food industrialization, instead of fresh fruits & vegetables, westerners are consuming highly processed substances, refined grains, chemicals used to raise plants & animals (who are raised in huge monocultures), an abundance of cheap sugar & fat calories, and all on a base of 3 staple crops: corn, wheat, and soy.

Human populations have thrived on a variety of diets: high fat, low fat, high carb, all meat, all plant, so we know that the human animal can adapt to different diets, but the western diet is not one of them. Yet, instead of returning to the basics (real food), we continue to tinker with the processed stuff by lowering the fat, raising the fiber, adding omega-3’s, removing saturated fats, etc, etc, etc.

In the 1960’s, the height of food industrialization, it was nearly impossible to buy vegetable or meat without chemicals, but today we have a choice. And, this choice has real consequences to our health, to our environment, and to our animals. (It just so happens that the best ethical and environmental choices are also the best for our health.) The more eaters who vote with their fork for real food, the more commonplace it will become. So, eat food!
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Breakfast: Peaches & cream oatmeal
Lunch: Tomato soup, crackers, and sliced cucumber
Dinner: Veggie burger (from the frozen aisle) and salad

Buzz Words

It is difficult to reject industrialized farming practices when we don’t understand what we’re buying. The educated consumer can put their money where their values lie.

Organic – Certainly this is the biggest buzz word in the supermarket today, yet most people don’t even know what it means. Most basically, ‘organic’ means that fruits & veggies were grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation, and that meat, dairy, and eggs are from animals that were not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or “animal protein products” (aka feeding dead animals back to live animals).

However, not all organics are created equal. The USDA (who wants their farmers to profit) has 3 official categories of ‘organic’:

100% Organic – All ingredients were raised/harvested in a fully organic way

Organic – Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

Made With Organic Ingredients – Made with at least 74% organic ingredients and restrictions on the remaining 26%, including no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is important to realize that ‘organic’ does NOT indicate grass-fed or free-range. Organic meat, eggs, and dairy sold at large-scale suppliers (like Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, HEB, etc) are most often fed a diet of organic corn and raised in CAFO-like conditions (many animals crammed into a small space, etc).

At the beginning of the organic movement, organic was hyped as better for the environment, however this is now hotly debated. Most research suggests that organic agriculture has marginally lower carbon emissions than conventional methods, but the results depend on the crop, the soils, and the skill of the farmer.

The quality of organic foods over conventional foods is another debated issue. Some studies have shown that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients, but there are also claims that this is not true.

Grass-Fed – This one, at its basics, is fairly self-explanatory: the animal is fed grass, not corn. Because the animal is eating what it was designed to eat, the meat and dairy products produced from grass-fed animals is healthier for you. There is no debate about this. It has less total fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, and fewer calories. It is richer in antioxidants including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and richer in healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids.

However, ‘grass-fed’ does NOT indicate ‘organic’. These animals could still be treated with antibiotics, hormones, or may be eating grass treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. At local farmers’ markets, this is generally not the case, but at grocery stores, check for both ‘grass-fed’ and ‘organic’ labels just to be sure. The USDA is currently working on official regulations for ‘grass-fed’ product labeling.

Vegetarian-fed – Indicates that the animal was not fed rendered “animal protein products.” This does NOT indicate ‘organic’ nor ‘grass-fed’.

Natural – One of the biggest marketing ploys out there. Many people associate ‘natural’ with ‘organic’ or ‘grass-fed’. Don’t fall for it! Most ‘natural’ products do not contain synthetic ingredients, but there are no regulations on what can be labeled ‘natural,’ they’re just trying to leech on to the organic movement by confusing consumers.

Free Range/Cage-Free – Another deceiving term. Do not be fooled into thinking these animals live on an open field. The USDA does not have any regulations on ‘free range’ labeling, except with regards to poultry. The official USDA regulations on ‘free range’ poultry state that the chickens must have “access to the outdoors” to be labeled free range. Unfortunately, this leads to farmers having a small door in their chicken coop, that they admit is kept closed for the beginning of the chicken’s life and only opened after the chickens are used to being crammed in the hen house, so they don’t even try to go outside once it’s opened. And this is labeled ‘free-range.’ Similarly, ‘cage-free’ may indicate a lack of wire mesh, but the animals are still crammed far too many to a coop.

For beef, pork, and other non-poultry, there is absolutely no criteria, and the USDA relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.” Uh, right. Once again, claims of free-range and cage-free are much more believable at a local farmer’s market, than in the grocery store.

Buyers beware.