Get the Facts
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.
When to Choose Organic
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.
Eat In Season
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.