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In an age when you can walk into a cafeteria and ask for the "low-carbon meal" special, eating green is no longer just the dream of hemp-wearing bohos in Northern California. It is a reality. It is mainstream. And the industry around it has gone from blooming to booming in less than 10 years.
With growth, however, comes complication. Now that climate change, water pollution, and other environmental issues are all being addressed, the most eco-responsible choice is not always obvious. The apples at the farmer's stand could be conventionally grown, while the organic Galas at the grocery store are from halfway around the world. That local farmer could be an hour's drive out of your way. Those pesticide-free apples might come in non-recyclable plastic packaging. "It is confusing when these different values are in conflict," says Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food. "It can be a real dilemma when they're equally defensible."
What's an Earth-loving eater to do? First and foremost, keep asking questions. Where does your food come from? How was it grown or raised? What exactly is the advantage of being grass-fed? "It's because we stopped wanting to know these things that we can have a situation as disastrous as cows being fed to cows and causing mad cow disease," says Joan Gussow, professor emerita of nutrition and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Ultimately, awareness can only lead to safer and more sustainable practices, in the way that the demand for healthier alternatives, prompted by beef recalls, resulted in regulatory change.
Plus, the more you know, the easier it'll be to make the trickier judgment calls. To help you start sorting things out, here, from leading experts, are the seven best food choices you can make.
If you change only one thing about the way you shop, experts agree, hands-down, you should go to the farmers' market when you can. You'll be decreasing the distance, an average 1,500 miles, that your food will have traveled to reach your plate, so fewer greenhouse gases will have been released into the air in order to feed you. Less known is the cascade of other great benefits: Vegetables and fruits grown nearby are not picked as early as produce that comes from farther away, so they "have longer to ripen, less need to be sprayed later with artificial growth enhancers or coloring, less time to deteriorate nutritionally -- and are picked at the peak of their taste quality," explains Pollan. "Just think about how you can barely get summer tomatoes or peaches home without bruising them. So imagine them on a truck from South America. It's not natural that they're in such perfect condition at your grocery store."
What's more, by supporting your local farmer, you're keeping him or her in business, which is to say, you are helping farmland stay in the hands of people who are likely to use earth-friendly, sustainable methods, says Pollan. (Nearly 300,000 midsize farms disappeared between 1982 and 1997, about 25 percent of such farms in the country.) Also, land that is farmland is not urban sprawl. As Pollan points out, this means shorter commutes, less traffic, and fewer fuel-burning emissions. In turn you have cleaner air, the preservation of natural habitats, more birds and wildlife -- a healthier ecosystem.
While some foods, such as packaged organic tomatoes and refrigerated soy milk, cost only a little more than their conventionally grown counterparts (14 percent and 21 percent, respectively), the price of other organic items, such as eggs and packaged fresh spinach, can be almost triple. "Future price changes depend on supply and demand, though prices for organic products are likely to decline as more appear in the market," says Carolyn Dimitri, PhD, of the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If you're concerned about toxic pesticides and fertilizers, one way to manage the expense is to limit your organic purchases to fruits and vegetables that have the highest chemical load when conventionally grown. The dirty dozen, so called by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization (starting with the worst): peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes.
It also helps to use a little common sense, says Susan Moores, RD, a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota. Buy organic versions of foods whose skins are highly nutritious, and that you're likely to eat. The same goes for fruits whose outer layer you don't tend to remove, like plums, and leafy greens such as spinach and kale that have a large surface area that could be exposed to synthetic pesticide sprays. Conversely, the thicker the peel or rind, as on a watermelon, the safer you probably are going conventional.
Generally, produce from the farmers' market is always what's in season. So for the same reasons that shopping local is eco-sound, sticking to your region's growing cycles is, too. For an even bigger impact, skip foods that are out of season when you can, since they are often imported from places as far away as Australia and China. Except in summer, the veggies and fruits in your supermarket that are almost always world flyers (and planes are the worst way for your food to travel, carbon-wise), according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), are asparagus, bell peppers, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cherries.
Something more to keep in mind about imports: "Other countries don't necessarily ban the same chemicals or drugs the U.S. does, or even if they have similar regulations to ours, they aren't necessarily enforced," says Gussow. Not sure what's in season when? Generally, the hardier the plant, like broccoli or brussels sprouts, the less sun it needs and the more likely it is to be harvested in winter and spring. It may also help to think back to your childhood and remember the foods you connect with each season -- pumpkins and squash in the autumn, corn on the cob and strawberries in summer.
If you can't imagine lunch without salad or veggie stir-fry without yellow peppers, at least try to buy domestic. Those hothouse tomatoes from the Netherlands aren't necessarily cheaper or better than the ones grown in hothouses here. "Corporate marketing has only told us they're more special," says Diane Bailey, a scientist at NRDC in San Francisco.
You don't have to give up your steak or pork chops. You just might want to eat them less often or in smaller portions. Aside from this being a good move for your health, it can take a lot of strain off the environment. "We devote well over half of our cropland to growing food for animals that we eat, and we're artificially watering these crops with water that can't be replaced. Additionally, the animal waste is not put through a sewage-treatment plant, so all the antibiotics and hormones given to the animals can end up in our streams and rivers," explains Gussow.
Another benefit of mixing it up is that with the money you save, you can probably afford to buy organic meat. Generally, all organic meats come from animals raised chemical-, antibiotic-, and hormone-free (hormones, by the way, are federally banned from all poultry and pigs). These animals also had room to move and exercise and were fed organic feed. For cattle, however, this last requirement is controversial, since they don't naturally eat grain, pesticide-free or not. It's difficult for them to digest, so conventionally raised livestock are given antibiotics and other drugs to prevent and treat infection. In addition to certified organic, shop for beef labeled 100 percent grass-fed, says Mary Jo Forbord, RD, an organic cattle farmer in western Minnesota. "The labeling law for grass-fed has become exacting in its requirements," she explains. "The animals have to be raised on a diet of 100 percent grass or forage and given continuous access to pasture."
In a perfect world, you would know every farmer who grew or raised your food, and you would be able to ask them if you didn't know what their practices were. Pasture or pen? Toxic pesticides or not? Heavy doses of antibiotics or minimal? Instead, we have the USDA certified organic seal, which is for those of us who don't have the opportunity to verify these things ourselves, says Forbord. This label assures that prohibited chemicals were not used and that a body of regulated farming practices (which depend on whether the food is plant, poultry, or livestock) were followed, and it maintains organic integrity from farm to table.
Federal standards, though, are not entirely spelled out, which is why there are other USDA-defined labels, such as "no antibiotics administered" or "raised without hormones." Still, there is a gap between federal regulations and consumer concerns. For instance, the word organic on a piece of fish means nothing, because there is no agreed-upon USDA standard for seafood. Similarly, "free-range" chickens aren't necessarily getting any exercise -- the door to their coop could merely be left open. As a result, third-party certification programs have stepped up to fill in the breach. "A lot of these smaller, nonfederal players are less known but still trustworthy," says Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy specialist at the NRDC in San Francisco. For example, there's the Marine Stewardship Council label for sustainable practices by fisheries, the Food Alliance certification for social and environmental standards and the Rainforest Alliance Certified label that regulates, among other things, the protection of worker health. One way to identify labels that are meaningful is to study up on the verification process and to research the organizations that are involved.
Of course, the one story of ongoing ecological destruction that is well known is what has been happening to and in the oceans. Oil spills. Coral-reef erosion. Dolphins getting trapped in nets meant for tuna. At this point, most people don't need to be told that fish are in trouble; many can even say which ones you should avoid: Chilean sea bass, swordfish, and ahi tuna. But fish is also one of the healthiest things you can eat, so let's talk about the ones you can enjoy without guilt.
"Your two best farmed choices, from an environmental point of view, are striped bass and tilapia," says Kate Wing, senior ocean policy analyst at the NRDC in San Francisco. Why? "Striped bass can be raised in tanks, reducing the pollution impact, while tilapia can be raised on a vegetarian diet, which means they aren't being fed other fish, and so you really are reducing the pressure on wild stocks," Wing explains.
If you prefer your fish to be higher in omega-3s, wild salmon, domestic mahi mahi, Pacific halibut, and sardines are pretty safe, for now. As to other kinds of seafood, you don't have to worry about eating oysters, clams, calamari, and American lobster.
The more informed you become, the easier it is to forget that food is a source of pleasure as well as nourishment. "It's a natural tendency when you're trying to eat right to get too cerebral -- and sometimes a little too strict," says Jesse Ziff Cool, author of Simply Organic and a restaurateur in Menlo Park, California, who has been dedicated to sustainable agriculture and cuisine for more than 33 years. "I've seen it happen often enough, and the people who get a bit fascistic aren't exactly happy." Her advice is to give yourself credit for the eco-conscious choices you do make. A good point, since it's not really feasible for most of us to go all green, all the time, right now. "If you want that In-N-Out burger, you should go ahead and eat it every once in a while," adds Ziff.
Hopefully, this piece has prompted you to recognize that all your choices -- of restaurants, of groceries, heck, even of the bags you carry them home in -- can make an impact.More on Sustainable Eating
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2008.