Buying good food is oddly complicated today. Aside from simply choosing what you want to eat, there are dozens of certifications, food guru recommendations, and environmental issues that can be considered before you make your purchase. While Shae and I are certainly a part of the sustainable food world, we get overwhelmed by the swarm of choices too. What follows is the practical wisdom we have gathered so far on how to navigate the grocery store and farmers’ market. This is certainly not an exhaustive guide, but we have had so many people ask for our opinions on this or that food, that we wanted to share how we approach grocery shopping, and hopefully hear back from some of you on what priorities you have when buying food.
Vegetables, Fruits, and Grains:
When we are shopping for flora, the biggest considerations we have are how local a product is and whether or not it was grown organically. With plants these two factors are of particular importance because they can go a long way towards helping us predict the safety and flavor of a food. To us, locally-grown produce is safer. The fewer brokers and miles a product has to be traced back through, the better. When farmers know that they are responsible for the quality of their product and that their lettuce will not be anonymously packaged along with lettuce from thousands of other producers, they tend not to cut corners when it comes to the health and cleanliness of the food they sell. Locally grown produce is also more flavorful. Transportation is particularly hard on fruits and vegetables and many varieties that you find in big grocery stores are selected for how well they travel or look, rather than how they taste. If you need any proof for this just compare a home-grown tomato with one you buy at the store.
In terms of organics, we think that plant foods are usually worth the added costs. Organic fruits and vegetables are first and foremost not grown from genetically modified seeds. Health concerns alone make GMOs worth avoiding, but from a political standpoint they are absolutely repugnant. While I could spend a whole post reeling about the mistreatment of farmers and the travesty of allowing living organisms to be patented, I’ll simply leave this point by reflecting that the companies that produce GMO crops are the true standard bearers for an agricultural philosophy driven by “conquering” nature, and we choose not to support them.
The organic certification also limits the amount and types of poisons that can be used to fight pests on food crops. Anyone familiar with the story of DDT will see that the assurances that certain agricultural poisons are safe that come out of the USDA, EPA, and FDA are at best occasionally misinformed and at worse routinely corrupted by the financial and political influence of the giant agribusinesses that produce these poisons.
Dairy is a tricky issue. So much goes into producing biologically active, delicious, and healthy dairy that I hesitate to provide a list of what to look for because things will undoubtedly be left out.
The most curiosity about our farming experience is usually derived from our work at the dairy where we made 100 % grass fed, raw (unpasteurized) cows’ milk cheeses. Working with raw milk was a radical shift in our food consciousness in a very positive way. There are two reasons we like raw dairy products. First, they are easier to digest. The active cultures help a calf digest the milk, and that benefit is passed along to our digestive systems too. Second, the purpose of pasteurizing milk is to create a biological “clean slate,” and unfortunately that’s very close to a petri dish. The natural bacterial cultures in raw milk create a healthy bacterial defense that, given the right conditions, has the ability to fight off bacteria that would be harmful to us. Pasteurized milk doesn’t have this defense, and so is extremely vulnerable to the incursion of any harmful bacteria. That said, both raw and pasteurized dairy products have the potential to carry serious food-borne illness, and as such we respect any choice about dairy that comes from a thoughtful place.
The first thing I look for is cleanliness. Dairymen are rumored to be the original inventors of sanitation and I can certainly understand why. While working in cheesemaking it was obvious that what we were doing was simply manipulating and cultivating bacteria. Dairy is full of beneficial live cultures that lend different tastes, textures, and even digestibility to each product. A lapse in sanitation or vigilance can mean that the wrong cultures (the dangerous ones we haven’t co-evolved with) will grow in the product instead and get people sick. As such, I look for a dairyman whose habits border on OCD.
In terms of how the animals are raised, I think 100% grass-fed is the best way to go. It’s out there if you search hard enough, but sometimes it’s just too far away to be a practical part of your diet. Grain is certainly not the enemy. Many superb dairies still feed grain as a small percentage of their herd’s diet to meet the high calorie needs of their animals. This is not a particularly terrible practice and in many ways is absolutely necessary with certain high-producing breeds. All-in-all, I’d say look for cows that are predominately grass-fed and appear lively, clean, and healthy.
The last note on dairy is regarding rBST, also known as rBGH. These are artificial hormones given to cows to increase their milk production. While the official FDA stance is that these hormones are safe, several reputable studies have shown that these hormones are incredibly dangerous for human consumption, as well as devastating to the health of the cows that are given them. While ShaeLynn and I do the best we can to buy grass-fed dairy products, the one things we do not compromise on is rBST-free. You can tell a dairy product is rBST-free if it says “rBST/rBGH/Hormone free” or sometimes ShaeLynn thinks it’s easier to look for the “*No significant difference has been found” phrase, which the FDA requires grace the package of any product that also says “rBST-free”.
When we have a chance we’ll add some information about how we choose our meat products. We’d love to hear your priorities, or answer any questions you might have.