These days, the topic of what’s in food is probably less important than what you’re likely to hear about food. People can go for years without discussing their diets, but it’s practically impossible to go a day without hearing terms like organic, omega, or carb. Upon hearing one of these terms, you’ve found evidence that advertisers have used their market research tools and, thus, determined that they need to shove these words down your throat, especially since you probably have no idea what they mean. You see, as long as you don’t know what they mean, they can spin them however they like. Spin: it’s not just for politicians anymore. But these terms do have meaning. And once you understand them, they can help you make smarter food choices.
Foods without labels
Some foods don’t require a label, which makes them harder to spin. These are mainly very fresh and haven’t been tampered with so, in general, they are your healthy alternatives. The spin doctors here play both sides of the fence. When it comes to non-labeled foods, the important issue is how these foods were raised. When it became clear that the reason certain companies could offer lower-priced goods was because they used inferior raising methods, those who didn’t use inferior methods began using terms to help distinguish themselves. When this affected the business of the former, they jumped into the fray and the spin games began. But that’s getting ahead of our topic. Let’s begin by defining which foods don’t require labels.
First are foods like apples, oranges, broccoli, and many other things that you can buy in the state that they come from the earth. Known as fruits, vegetables, and herbs, they’re entirely different than that soda you just bought with “real fruit flavor.” These foods have parts that aren’t really foods, either. Called fiber, it’s the indigestible part of a plant. It has no nutrient value, but it’s still an ultra-important part of your diet because it does all kinds of things, including cleaning out our digestive tract and soaking up excess cholesterol. It’s very important that our diets feature plants. They are loaded with nutrients and fiber and have no man-made ingredients (okay, some have pesticides, which we’ll get to in a minute). When we do things like cook or make juice from these items, they lose their nutrients and fiber, and get a label.
Next are grains and legumes. Things like rice and beans—also plants—these foods have more protein and calories than fruits and veggies. They are less easily found in their natural state. Rice, for example, often has its shell stripped, so it’s white. Grains get turned into breads and crackers, often at the expense of their healthiest ingredients. Beans get smashed and have things added to them. As a rule, the closer you can get a legume or grain to its original state, the better it is for you.
Finally, we have meats and dairy products. Nowadays, unless you live on a farm, you probably have to buy these with labels. That’s mainly due to suspect growing and harvesting practices. This topic is mainly one for Politics class, but we’re going to look at the consumer end of it next. Hey! What are you rolling your eyes at? Yes, you, the guy in the white suit taking up two seats. What are you dressed like that for? Going to the Kentucky Derby after class? Well, pal. I believe that this subject concerns you more than anyone, so pay attention.
These animal products are loaded with protein, vitamins, and sometimes carbs and healthy fats. But we need to be careful with them because meats (other than fish) and dairy products have a lot of saturated fat. You can buy all of these products with much of this fat removed. For the most part, this is recommended, which we’ll cover in the “fat-free” portion of the lecture later on.
Organic and other terms for natural foods
Now it’s time to get to some good jargon. You’ve heard all of these terms, probably while you’ve been considering buying any of the aforementioned food items. But just what do they mean?
Organic means living, so organic foods are supposed to be alive or, at least, recently alive. Originally, “organic” meant produce that hadn’t been sprayed with inorganic things, like pesticides. But now you’ll see “organic ingredients” in boxed, jarred, and canned foods, which can be confusing. Organic was once a term used only by the folks who showed up at your weekly farmers’ market. Then, word started to get out about large-scale farmers spraying nasty pesticides on their crops, pesticides that would still be on those crops when we bought them. Most people are pretty sure they don’t want to eat something made to kill animals, so when the little “organic” guys’ businesses started to feel the impact, the big guys just started slapping an “organic” label on anything, until the government had to step in.
Now we have an imperfect system. Organic rules can be fudged to some degree, but it seems to be getting better and not worse. It’s made the large growers a bit more cognizant about what they add to or spray on their crops. Organic has also trickled up. So now packaged foods using “organic ingredients” are labeled as such. But be prudent because the fine print will tell you how much is organic. Lobbyists haggle over how much organic stuff needs to be in a product for the word “organic” to appear on the label, and the amount has changed and will continue to change. So you can see a product with a big “organic” on its label with very little organic inside.
Also, many farmers claim that organic growing remains behind the times. They argue that their products don’t seem to grow as healthily using organic standards because the classification needs reworking. This is no doubt true, as we’ll probably never be able to create a perfect system.
Bottom line: “Organic” on a label is probably better, but you should read the fine print. The more concerned the farmer or rancher, the more information they want to provide. A company that spends a lot of effort to list its practices is probably better than one that won’t go to the trouble. As a general rule, those going out of their way to meet organic standards probably care more. It’s not perfect, but buying “organic” still stacks the odds in your favor.
Cattle were once all grass fed. They lived on prairies and ate grass, ’cause that’s all there was to eat. On the prairie, that grass is nutrient rich because of the soil. Cattle that ate it grew big and strong, and when we ate them, we grew big and strong. Then, some guy figured out that cattle, if they had to, would eat grain. This meant he could build houses and strip malls on the prairie, put the cattle into little fenced areas and feed them grain, and make a lot more money. The downside was that grain didn’t have the same nutrient value (like eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead of broccoli), so the cows weren’t so big and strong. To make them look like they once did, he started shooting them with things like steroids, so that the cattle started looking like Jose Conseco, and all was good in the world. Except that when we ate the cattle, they didn’t have the same nutrient value. This meant we ate the same calories with less nutrient value. When this happened, we got fat.
For a while, we were none the wiser. Then, people started getting sick and dying because some genius, low on grain, started feeding cows parts of other cows mixed with the grain to make more money. Cows aren’t carnivorous, like animals with sharp teeth, so this didn’t work well and bad stuff like E. coli started showing up in meat. Anyway, feeding cows other cows is now against the law, but lobbyists were also able to make a deal in which it’s nearly impossible for meat companies to be sued, so who knows what they’re actually up to.
Bottom line: Even though meat lobbyists have been hammering away at the “grass fed” requirements, it still means that the meat is likely to be much better in quality.
Cattle weren’t the only animals out on the prairie. Birds were there, too. In fact, birds were all over the place because they have wings and can, you know, fly. This became problematic when folks decided they wanted to raise them on farms. You listening, Colonel? Figuring that if birds couldn’t fly and, well, they would then need no space at all, “farmers” started loading them all together in tiny little pens. Irritated—naturally—the birds would peck at each other and cause general turmoil, so good ol’ Foster the farmer put them in little cages wherein they couldn’t get at each other—for their entire lives!
Since this isn’t Animal Cruelty class, let’s just talk about how healthy these birds are when they grow up and we eat them. When you get out and exercise, how does that help you? Hmm, since some of you can’t answer this, I’ll tell you. You get healthier. Your body systems work better and you get more muscle. Muscle is meat, like the part of a chicken that we want to eat. If you sit in a small room for a long time, how do you tend to look or feel? Answer: You get fat. You get sick. You die young. Take two chickens. Let one run around and eat stuff it finds growing out of the ground. Put the other in a 2-foot-square box and feed it junk food. Which one do you want to eat?
Bottom line: Only eat free-range fowl, which is harder than ever to find now that new grades of distinction have surfaced. Again, to stay on top of it, you’ll need to stay educated. To reiterate, the more concerned the company, the more likely they will want to educate you.
This term has to do with fish. For those of you who are confused, that is natural. Fish live in water. We live on land. How the heck do we farm them? The obvious answer is to put them in big aquariums, but that would be too expensive. Instead, they raise fish in fenced-off areas and treat them a bit like the birds mentioned above. This tends to cause a lot of damage for the ecosystem in general, but this isn’t Environment class. We don’t offer environment classes because they don’t help your standardized testing. Anyway, the effect on the fish depends a lot on the type of fish. Some, like catfish that naturally live in sluggish conditions, do okay, while others, like salmon, do terribly. In fact, salmon are migratory and swim for most of their lives. Keeping them in a “tank” wreaks havoc on their lifestyle. Farm-raised salmon don’t even have red meat, like they do naturally, and are dyed red for market. Do you really want to eat fish that’s been dyed red?
Bottom line: Avoid farm-raised fish when possible. Always avoid farm-raised salmon.
Some of you are no doubt wondering why this rather boring-sounding label is taking up more shelf space lately. After all, isn’t the gourmand taught to eat from exotic and far-off lands? Who, with ample means, wouldn’t always opt for Maine lobster, Norwegian caviar, and water from New Zealand?
One concerned for the health of the planet might be the obvious answer. You don’t have to be Al Gore to deduce that using 500,000 gallons of gas so that you can sip from a melting glacier near Christchurch might create a ripple effect with negative implications for the planet. Buying locally allows us to play watchdog. It’s easy to check out your local dairy. Just ask around. You don’t even need to research. Good businesses tend to get talked about in the community. And if you suspect that a local business is wielding a bit too much power and influence over your neighbors, that’s probably all the information you need. But your local Chambers of Commerce, Better Business Bureaus, and independent news organizations are keen to help out should your scuttlebutt network not be broad enough.
Bottom line: Local companies should always be considered first.