Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Going green, living healthy: Food

This is part of a series of posts on Going green, living healthy. The first post is here. I'm not an expert on this subject, so if you find errors please let me know. I have tried to provide pointers to my sources where possible.

From my standpoint, "going green" with food means being more in touch with raw ingredients that go into making food and minimizing consumption of processed and packaged foods.  It takes quite a lot of effort to do that given the time constraints imposed by modern living.  Let's look at some of the things that I have found matter to me by look at the following 4 questions:
  • How is the food grown?
  • How does the food get to you?
  • How is the food processed or prepared?
  • How is the food packaged?
How is the food grown?

The most important thing here is to look for food that is grown without pesticides, without chemical fertilizers, and non-genetically modified.  There are local farmers that I've encountered that claim they don't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they can't afford the cost of organic certification.  At the same time, we have big businesses that will try to game the organic certification process by getting regulators to relax the requirements.  Obviously, the only way to know for sure what you're getting is to grow the food yourself or buy locally from a grower that you trust.  It's kind of hard to do that exclusively, but some ways to get going in that direction are shopping at farmer's markets, and looking at options for community supported agriculture (CSA).

There are several other types of farming that I've recently become aware of, but I'm not an expert on these to really know what they are all about and be able to compare them.

  • Veganic refers to food that is grown without any animal byproduct such as bone meal and blood meal that are permitted for use as fertilizers when growing organic produce.
  • Biodynamic farming seems to be about farming in a way that heals the earth.
  • Permaculture seems to be about sustainability and while it includes how food is grown, it goes beyond that aspect covering issues such as home building and landscaping.
How does the food get to you?

A closely related question would be "where is the food grown?"  Naturally there is a difference in the resources it takes to ship food a few miles versus shipping it thousands of miles across the globe.  Food that is local is likely to be fresher and I've heard from proponents of Ayurveda that it is healthier to eat seasonal, locally grown foods.  To be shipped half way across the globe, all sorts of extreme measures would be required including picking the produce before it ripens and possibly freezing it.

How is the food processed or prepared?

Unfortunately the nutrition labels on packaged and processed foods simply don't do justice because they typically only tell you what is required by law and no more.  Let's say for example we buy potato chips cooked in olive oil.  We know that olive oil heated beyond the smoke point becomes toxic.  While this is a simple example and is probably not a cause for concern, in general, the more the ingredients, the more one has to be careful about how it was prepared because combining certain ingredients and heating or cooling them a certain way could cause them to become toxic, or at the very least, something that is hard for the body to process.  Nutrition labels, for example, won't tell how the salt that is used in the product was processed and a variety of chemicals can be used in the processing of commonly available table salt.

In general, I try to buy foods that have the least amount of processing, but it's not always possible.  Got to satisfy those cravings for processed foods every once in a while.

How is the food packaged?

In general, less packaging is better because it's easier on the environment and we don't have to worry about the safety of the packaging materials.  Many canned foods, for example, have been found to contain traces of BPA.

A word about restaurants

Restaurants, at least in the US, depend a lot on processed and pre-prepared ingredients for their menus.  Even though the food that arrives at the table appears fresh, they are often made with sauces or other ingredients that are processed food.  This is the reason why they can maintain consistency of taste even across geographies and regardless of the chef preparing the food.

Additional resources

These here some organizations that bring us information on what is happening with our food supply.

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