Produce | Grains | Dairy | Poultry & Eggs | Beef | Seafood
Organic labeling is federally-regulated with strict standards that are made to ensure ecological integrity in the ways our agricultural farms operate. Certified organic foods are free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and are made without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A product labeled “100% Organic” contains only certified ingredients, excluding salt and water, which cannot be certified as organic. A product labeled “Organic” must be made with at least 95% ingredients; the other 5% must be approved ingredients. See "What's in the organic label".
Consumers should note that while organic foods may help to protect and restore the quality of our environment and the things that grow there, they do not assure that the food is: natural, local, nutritious, or fairly traded. Take a box of organic cookies, for example. While the ingredients may be certified organic, the cookies are still refined sugars and empty calories, and the food may have been shipped from thousands of miles -- if not overseas -- where there is no guarantee that the workers have been paid a fair wage for their labor. For this reason, organic is not a pure panacea for eco-consciousness, although is it certainly a vital component of a green pantry.
The average food travels 1,500 miles to get to the average consumer in America these days. The average organic food still travels 1,200 miles to a consumer -- not much better! These food miles add up to increased fuel usage and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprint and support their own communities are turning inward to the local marketplace. Farmers markets are a great avenue to find local foods that are in season, and dollars spent go straight into the hands of the farmer. In addition, community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a growing phenomenon these days, whereby consumers buy a stock of produce from their farmer for the season, and in return are given a share of the harvest each week or month.
There are a number of excellent resources on the Internet for finding local foods in your neighborhood. Local Harvest, Eat Well Guide, and FoodRoutes are a few places to get started in the hunt for local shopping.
What are grains? Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, or any other cereal grain are grain products. Grain products include pasta, bread, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, and tortillas, to name a few. When selecting grains, it is important to remember that whole grains are preferable to refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, while refined grains (such as white bread or most pastas) have been processed, and the bran and/or germ has been removed. The refinement process gives these foods a finer texture and prolongs their shelf life, but it also removes important nutrients like B vitamins, fiber, and iron. Some examples of whole grains include: brown rice, oats, corn, amaranth, wild rice, quinoa, millet, barley, and buckwheat. Some examples of whole grain products include: popcorn, whole wheat cereal, muesli, 100% whole grain bread, 100% whole grain crackers, and 100% whole grain pastas. Some examples of refined grain products include: crackers, white flour tortillas, white pasta, pitas, white bread, cookies, pastries, and white rice.
Carbohydrates are sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starches (complex carbohydrates) found naturally in foods like grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. When we ingest refined carbohydrates, (those that are processed and are missing their original nutrients) our body seeks to draw out missing nutrients, but is unable to. Eating white flours, sugars, and refined grains leads to loss of B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and other nutrients.
If you are fortunate enough to live close to a grocery store or market where bulk grains are available, these are highly recommended. Buying your grains in bulk will save an enormous amount of money on your grocery bill: an 8-ounce box of quinoa can cost up to four dollars, while buying quinoa from the bulk bin can be as cheap as two dollars a pound (quinoa is miracle grain and delicious, try some quinoa tacos, using the grain as a replacement for hamburger meat). In addition, the bulk bins will contain fresher grains, as the turnaround of products is faster and the grain is shipped directly from the source or wholesaler; boxed foods can sit in shipment facilities and stores for months, if not years, before they get to your table. Why not try a few small bags of different grains you had never eaten, such as millet, quinoa, or buckwheat, and experiment with new recipes at home? It’s a great way to try a little food at once without breaking the budget.
Watch video on shopping for less waste packaging, with a lot of tips on buying in bulk.
From childhood, we have all been taught that drinking milk equates to healthy bones. Yet today’s standard dairy products come with a few environmental and health considerations
Modern dairy has been linked to asthma, mucus, infections, acne, and stomach disorders, and many food allergies. Because of the way that modern dairy is refined, its natural nutrients like vitamin D and calcium are lost; to compensate for this loss, milk is fortified with those same nutrients. But there is conflicting information to support how effective this supplementation is in preventing bone loss in the long term. In addition, there is controversy over how effective milk’s calcium is at preventing osteoporosis. Countries that have the highest intake of milk consumption, such as the United States and Holland, also have the highest rates of bone fractures and osteoporosis. Healthy bones need not only calcium; they need a healthy balance of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, and other minerals., which are found in various leafy greens, tubers, and other plants.
Commercial cows are fed growth hormones to encourage fast and robust growth in confinement, but there is controversy as to how these hormones affect humans that consume this milk. The FDA reports that there is no harm from the hormones in treated milk, but skeptics warn that over-consumption of hormones can lead to early development for women and affect hormone levels in both males and females.
Greener options for dairy include hormone-free and antibiotic free dairy products, which can be found at most grocery stores these days. Consumers can additionally choose organic milk, which will also be free of pesticides -- and as of February 2010, the government ensures that these cows feed on real, green pasture.
Free-range eggs and chicken labeling means that the animals have been exposed to the outdoors during their lives. While the USDA regulates this label, there is a wide margin for how much access an animal actually receives in some of these “free” operations. However, it is still a better alternative to traditional store-bought eggs and poultry, which are often raised in constricted confinement and never see the light of day.
Organic chicken is chicken another viable option when considering poultry. These animals have only been fed organic grains without the application of pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics, or hormones. The animals must also be given free range with access to outdoors and be treated properly.
The average American consumes 67 pounds of beef a year -- certainly enough to merit a discussion on what types of beef are on the market. In the past, cattle were raised in small numbers on vast, open pastures where they grazed on naturally growing weeds, grasses, and brushes. Since the 1950s, however, our meat industry has slowly converted over to a system of factory farming, by which we raise our animals in large-scale operations on densely packed feedlots. The diet of these animals has been switched from natural grasses to corn, grains, and soy. This grain-fed diet has been shown to have a taxing impact on the environment, the health of the animals, and quite possibly the health of humans.
When animals are fed a grain diet, or even fed grains before they are slaughtered, their composition is altered. Important nutrients like conjugated linoleum acid (CLA) and omega-3 are dramatically decreased in the animal’s tissues, which ultimately limits our intake of these important nutrients.
Looking for a greener beef? Here are some options in the marketplace:
Generally speaking, this definition should mean that cattle have only eaten grasses during their lives, but many companies will label their beef “grass-fed” when they have actually finished the animals on a diet of grains for up to 160 days before slaughter, which serves to fatten them up quickly.
This definition holds more meaning than “grass-fed.” With “grass-finished” beef, cattle are fed grass throughout their whole lives, including the last 160 days of fattening before slaughter. This is the preferred choice of all the grass-fed beef products if you are looking to avoid beef that were fed grain during their development.
There is a growing interest in sustainable seafood these days, and rightfully so. Currently, about 80% of our global fisheries are being overfished, and we have lost about 90% of our top predators in the oceans. Mercury and pollutants are contaminating our waters and our supply of wild seafood. Yet farmed seafood, the alternative to wild-caught fish, can be just as polluting and threatening to our health. What to do! Farmed fish or wild fish: which is better?
With so many of our fisheries being over fished these days, it’s important to consider which wild species to choose for our meals. In general, the larger, long-lived animals, such as sharks, Chilean sea bass, and orange roughy, have fallen victim to overfishing in recent years, as they are slow to mature and have difficulty rebounding from heavy fishing pressure. Smaller species, however, like sardines and herring, proliferate quickly and are more resistant to fishing pressure. They also have fewer contamination issues as they are short-lived and don’t accumulate toxic metals in their tissues like longer lived animals (tuna, for example). When choosing wild seafood, aim for those that are not overfished.
Just like our land-based farming operations, no two farms are alike. What animal is being farmed, where it’s being raised, what it’s being fed, and how well the farm is managed are al factors that dictate how green and healthy the final product will be. In general, farmed salmon and other carnivores are the least green options of farm-raised fish right now. These fish farm (or aquaculture) operations can be highly taxing on the environment as they pollute the ocean with animal waste, chemical outflow, and disease transfer to wild fish populations. Land-based fish farms, where animals like trout, catfish, and tilapia are raised can be much more sustainable. When managed properly and fed a green diet, these aquaculture operations have little impact on the local environment and can produce a clean, healthy fish. Choose fish that are farmed in the United States over those coming from overseas, where management is lacking and fish farms are often polluting and damaging to local habitats.
For specifics on which species to choose and which to avoid, consumers can download seafood wallet cards from several organizations that promote sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great program called Seafood Watch that aims to promote sustainable seafood around the nation. Check out their website to download a wallet card -- you can even get an iPhone app to let you know which seafood is green!