Avocados and the City

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My parents arrived in NYC in 1975 with little money, few friends and no jobs. Our first apartment would have been cramped if we owned anything and it was 12 flights up (which proved to be a force during the 1977 blackout and the elevators went out in the 100 degree heat). If this home did nothing else for me, it’s open door policy to all things creepy and crawling got me pretty impervious to insects (aka cockroaches). In short, things were rough and tight for us, but my parents hit the pavement, found jobs and in time, built a life for us which included a house in a kid-friendly neighborhood, two cars that only sometimes broke down, some Cabbage Patch Kids for me to adopt and wholesome home-cooked meals every single night of the week…but no avocados. Seriously - I don’t even think I knew what an avocado was until the middle of college. Alas, sad times.

College was an exciting time for me with my friends introducing me to hummus (amazing!), white cheddar, OJ with varying pulp percentages and sandwiches served in pita vs regular bread (my mother only cooked proper South Indian food at home, so my staples included tamarind, chili peppers, bitter squash, pumpkin, lentils, rice and freshly made yogurt, while my after-school American food stockpile was made up of the usual suburban suspects of processed cheese, packaged chips, juice in a box and frozen fish sticks…you know, for a special treat). My mother categorically did not buy fancy (“expensive”) food. I remember the legend of when avocados entered the premises and my father made guacamole. Upon seeing the green mystery, my mother dumped it all out, fearing it was a bowl of fungus. That loss and the prohibitive cost ended what could have been my avocado education until I moved into a city overrun with young people who like to eat fancy green things that confuse their parents (then it was avocado, now it is kale).

One day, a friend gave me some avocado for my hummus pita and I just couldn’t believe what was happening. A split, a stab of the knife, a twist and a slice, and the creamy dreamy richness was just beyond anything I could imagine and I was furious as to how I could have gone so long without one.

Me: Mom? What’s up with that? Avocados are really good!

Mom: Are you kidding me? Do you know how much one of those things cost?

Well, no matter. I was an almost adult and could buy all of the avocados my wallet would allow, and it didn’t matter that I lived in NYC where nary is there an avocado tree but there are a whole lot of bodegas. 

Many years later, having thrown down pounds of avocados, I am at a place in my life when I am seriously thinking about the food I eat - about what it’s doing to me and what it’s doing to others. Every Saturday, I go to my local farmers market and fill my bags with in-season vegetables and fruits, all that inspire my creativity and enthusiasm in the kitchen. It feels good to support the old lady who sells me the freshest eggs around or the cheese woman who pretends I don’t ask for a sample every single week or the cool Tibetan crew who plays Hindi music while slicing off my carrot greens. The gnarly veggies in oranges, purples, reds and greens are so vibrant and flavorful that a little salt, pepper and olive oil are all I need to enjoy such gorgeous food.

Admittedly, I never got into the organic food thing (I know, blasphemy), mostly because when I graduated college (and grad school, for that matter), I was a broke artist who just couldn’t afford to shop that way. I wanted to, but the cost, short shelf-life and my mother’s voice in my head made walk away from Whole Foods and towards my local family-run grocer. I figured, at least I was helping someone with my eating. Years later, I still vibe the small business model, but am doing so by eating seasonally and locally because while organic is good for the world and for you - buying locally is still the better option (local and organic is the absolute best option). Aside from giving back to the producer, local food is fresher and tastes it, generally costs less, encourages biodiversity, is often pesticide-free (and if you shop at the farmers market, you are able to get to know the farmers and their growing practices first-hand) and unlike my avocados, does not leave a heavy carbon footprint when traveling to your plate. Just as we all ate once upon time, eating what is near and at hand is really how it should be.

So, back to avocados - maybe it’s my shifted perspective, maybe I’ve seen much of this love affair out, but I haven’t been buying them lately at all. In the moments when I get a hankering for mashed avocado slices on sourdough with salt, chili and olive oil (is there an end to this food trend?) - I choose organic because until I move to Mexico or Central America (which, actually, I would jump at the chance to do), these gorgeous green gems will cost the world too much to satisfy me and at the end of the day, if that cost is prohibitive, my mother definitely would not approve. 

The Test of Taste

“…what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients…” -Dan Barber, The Third Plate

Good afternoon, all. As one of the newest members of the HowGood team, I’m extremely excited to start contributing to our blog. When coming up with an idea for a series to write, I was struck by Dan Barber’s concept in his book, The Third Plate, that nutrition and taste are correlated. “Sustainability is also about resurrecting flavor,” notes Krista Tippet, from American Public Media, in an interview with Mr. Barber. If this is the case, would we be able to blind taste where food products fall with relation to the HowGood sustainable food rating system? My thought? Of course we would! Growing practices, ingredient sourcing and profile, food processing, distribution range, and a whole host of other industry specific metrics measured by our research team are without a doubt interrelated, and my hypothesis going forward is that the members of our team here at HowGood will be able to taste the difference between sustainable and environmentally and socially sound food products and their counterparts. Let the games begin!

Our experiment starts with dark chocolate. I conducted a blind tasting of eight different dark chocolates: two earned ratings of GREAT from HowGood, two earned ratings of VERY GOOD from HowGood, two earned ratings of GOOD from HowGood, and two earned no ratings from HowGood. I presented the chocolates in two different tastings, with one representative from each category in each tasting. This is information that I made sure to give my colleagues prior to the tastings. The two tastings were set us as shown below:

B. Endangered Species (GOOD)           F. No Rating Earned 

G. Theo (VERY GOOD)                          D. Green & Black’s (GOOD)

C. Alter Eco 73% (GREAT)                    H. Alter Eco Dk Velvet (GREAT)

A. No Rating Earned                              E. Divine (VERY GOOD)

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The results ranged from spot on to somewhere in the middle, but my findings showed that the two chocolates that earned no rating consistently fell in the bottom 50% when it came to my colleagues ranking them. In other words, they may not have been able to pick out precisely where chocolates ranked on the HowGood scale (GREAT, VERY GOOD, GOOD), but on average, they were able to decipher and taste which chocolates belonged in the bottom tier with no rating. Looks like so far, so good with my hypothesis; taste and sustainability seem to correlate. My plan is to keep conducting blind tastings with a wide variety of food products, and I’ll revisit my initial prediction three months from now. Next up, I think I’ll try for some dairy… Yogurt, maybe? Milk?

Until next time,

Jess

 

Hangry and Willing to Eat Anything: But Should I?

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Like a typical millennial, I was raised to believe that I could change the world for the better and, like a typical millennial, I’m continually aghast to find that positive change isn’t as easy as it should be. Food, however, is one of the parts of life where our actions have impact not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, children, and the tangible world around us. Every bite and sip we consume is a vote and, like any vote, has fallout. This fallout can be inspiring - every time I visit my local co-op and pick up some Ronnybrook milk, I know that money is supporting hardworking dairy farmers in upstate New York who take good care of their cows and use good practices. Those dollars I’m spending on that milk is a vote for those people and those practices. It is a vote for a better, more equitable food system. The fallout can also be damaging - I found myself without any groceries for dinner and pressed for the time the other night and decided to grab a quick egg and cheese sandwich from a local bodega. The dinner-time breakfast sandwich from the bodega is a distinctly New York gem but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m fairly certain that egg came from some truly horrific conditions. How else would it be so cheap? In spite of the satisfying eating experience, that money I spent on that sandwich was a vote for something pretty disgusting.

So, why would I, as someone who works everyday to make the food system more sustainable, make such a purchase? The real answer is that I got lazy. And it was there. And I was hungry. This is certainly not a sufficient justification, but it is so often the case with our worst-case purchases that we simply allow ourselves to put our more immediate needs before the long-range goals we have for the world around us. This tendency towards laziness is made much worse by all the factors that go into our food system that we don’t even think about as a choice, because they are so ingrained in our day-to-day. This fascinating recent piece in the New York Times delves into the world of food refrigeration. Refrigerators are something that we take for granted because they have absolutely had positive impacts in terms of our ability to keep food fresh and ward off illnesses that result from unfresh food. But the question we need to be asking around all of our food practices is at what cost?

There are several, and they are distressing. First, refrigeration contributes to global greenhouse-gas emission both generate power and fuels the heat-exchange process and currently consumes nearly a sixth of global electricity usage. Second, the physical refrigerators aren’t doing us any favors; some of them leak refrigerant into the atmosphere and some of these are known as “supergreenhouse gases” because they are thousands of times more warming than CO2.

But in addition to the environmental impact, refrigeration has actually changed the way we perceive food and the way we eat it. Most striking for me was the fact that “Americans have become so used to associating refrigeration with freshness that soy-milk manufacturers have actually paid extra to have their product displayed in a refrigerated case, despite the fact that it is perfectly shelf-stable.” As a result of the fact that we can cool our food, we eat far less pickled, dried, and cured food items (which is having an impact on gut bacteria) and we place less urgency around seasonal and local eating. I can get my berries shipped in any time of year, so I don’t need to cherish and savour them when they are actually in season in my neighborhood. Refrigeration has detached us from our food.

The article I’ve linked to above talks through China becoming a refrigerated nation and it is completely compelling. But, what can I take away from this as an individual consumer? Should I get rid of my refrigerator in an effort minimize my environmental impact and get back to interacting with my food as nature intended? Unlikely. That would involve altering my relationship with cheese in a way I’m simply not prepared to do. So, what can I actually DO to make our food system better?

I can fill that fridge (and, by extension, my dinner plate) with better products, products that actually reflect the world I want to create. I can put my money towards food grown well, harvested by people earning a decent wage, traveling as short of a distance as possible to get in my shopping cart, and containing only quality ingredients. I cannot control the fact that China’s rising middle class is taking to refrigeration in the same way we did in this country, but I can control what type of world I vote for with every bite.

(Not so) Natural

“The food industry now sells almost $41 billion worth of food each year labeled with the word “natural,” according to data from Nielsen. And the “natural” means, well, nothing.”

Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in seeking out the best food for themselves and their families. People across the country are attending farmers’ markets in record numbers, getting education on issues surrounding genetic modification, and reading ingredient lists like never before. This increased awareness is awesome - but is also leaves room for manipulation. Food products with the word “natural” slapped on them are doing just that. What, exactly, does it mean if a food item is labeled as natural? According to the FDA:

“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

Right. So, the word means nothing. But it is still immensely powerful - $41 billion worth of buying power, to be exact. HowGood exists precisely to address this problem. We give those well-intentioned consumers something real to hang their hats (and their buying power) on.

The Strawberry Debacle

I think that summer is finally here! With temperatures in the 80s this past Memorial Day weekend, it’s definitely time to break out the apron and BBQ tongs. Welcome to grilling season everyone (a.k.a. one of the best times of the year)!

As I think about fresh salads, roasted corn and burger toppings, I often find myself wandering around the produce section of the grocery store mesmerized by the rainbow of options. When it comes to selecting fruits and vegetables, I try to buy organic as often as I can. When I’m looking for something specific (for whatever new recipe I’m attempting…emphasis on attempting) and there’s no organic option available I do my best to adhere to EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Even though I prefer to buy organic, I must admit that it wasn’t always a vital purchasing qualification — until a recent trip to the grocery store. I was just perusing the berry section, minding my own business when suddenly the strawberries caught my eye (these would be great with some watermelon and mint). They were so red and juicy that they dazzled among the darkness of the blueberries and blackberries. So I walked over and sifted through the containers to find the ones marked with the little USDA Organic seal of approval. When I finally found them, the difference between the organic and non-organic strawberries was striking. Although the organic ones were just as red and shiny as the conventional ones, they were not even half the size of these monsters. Then I thought to myself, “what is going on here?” As an aside: I was a biology major in college and I remember a conversation we had about strawberry breeders making strawberry plants that contain as many as eight duplicate copies of the genome which produces gigantic berries, sounds tasty right? Anyway, so after bearing witness to the contrasting containers I put the organic ones in my cart and wheeled on.

From the look of it, I’m not the only one who’s noticing the difference between organic and conventionally grown produce and shifting my buying practices because of it. According to the Organic Trade Association, retail sales of organic products grew to 11.5% in 2013. This is the strongest growth that the organic market has seen in five years. What’s even more exciting is that eight out of every ten families in the United States buy organic products, a number that I can only assume will increase as the price differential between organic and conventional products narrows (read more here).

My strawberry debacle was definitely eye opening experience. Based on the sheer magnitude of the conventional berries I thought what are these farmers doing differently to create these fist-sized berries, and more importantly, why? My organic ones were just as sweet and delicious as the conventional ones, if not more. Next time you’re at the grocery store, think about choosing organic over conventional because, at the end of the day, what are the differences that you can’t see?

Organically Yours,

Lauren

HowGood & Michael Pollan

These past few weeks have been rather busy here at HowGood. We moved into a brand new office and have had our hands full putting together new furniture (why does Ikea furniture come in a million pieces?!), stocking office supplies, figuring out our new phone system, and of course investigating all the near-by coffee options in our new neighborhood.

So, it was with a sigh of relief and a sense of having earned it that we headed out on a HowGood field trip last night. Michael Pollan, guru of the food movement, was speaking at the 92nd Street Y and we couldn’t pass that up. For the uninitiated, Mr. Pollan has been writing about our environment and food culture for the past twenty-five years. He is one of those rare talents that can take complex and incredibly important issues and make them accessible and palatable in written form; he manages to accomplish this without watering down his content. I was thrilled to discover that Mr. Pollan achieves the same with his public speaking.

The appearance was a part of a tour promoting “Cooked,” his most recent book that delves into the history of cooking and brings said history into his own, modern kitchen. One of my favorite bits of “Cooked” and a passage that he shared with us last night tells the story of a cheese-making microbiologist nun who performs an experiment on the vessel she used in her cheese production. Traditionally, her particular variety of cheese was made in wooden barrels. A health inspector informed her that in order for her production to be up to code, she’d need to use stainless steel instead because it would be more sanitary. So, she put his belief to the test. She created one batch in her traditional wood and one in stainless steel and then inoculated both with E. coli. She then tested each batch a few hours later. The batch in steel was absolutely riddled with E. coli but the one in the wooden barrel was almost free of it. She found that the “good bacteria” - lactobacilli had created an environment where the E. coli could not survive. Those wooden barrels were doing good work by housing that bacteria deep within their grain and protecting cheese consumers from disease - something that is lost when we shift to “cleaner” stainless steel.

This captures one of the major lessons that Michael Pollan teaches in his writing: when we change the way that we produce our food, we often end up with consequences for that food and the people who eat it that we don’t anticipate. Considering the full scope of how a food item is grown or produced is difficult to do, but essential if we want to avoid negative consequences of bad or ill-informed practices.

If you want to hear more of Mr. Pollan’s thoughts, and I encourage you to because he’s awesome, you should check out his website. I’m particularly fond of this article about the bacteria who seek residence on and within our bodies (gives a whole new meaning to living off the land). It’s amazing how something so small can be so impactful.

PARTNERSHIP BRINGS NEW RATINGS TO INFRA-MEMBER GROCERS

HowGood Announces New Partnership with the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA)

Brooklyn, NY - HowGood announced the launch of a strategic partnership with the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA) effective April 10th, 2014. HowGood and INFRA will partner to make HowGood ratings available to the member stores of INFRA. INFRA stores will have the option of implementing HowGood’s program for a discounted rate which will be exclusive to INFRA members.

HowGood anticipates that this will make their sustainability ratings more accessible to a group of stores seeking to bring high-quality natural and organic food to their communities. This partnership represents a valuable step towards more consumers being armed with comprehensive information about the environmental and social implications of their food choices.

“We’re thrilled to begin partnering with INFRA,” said the CEO of HowGood, Alexander Gillett. “The caliber of stores they attract and the conscientiousness of their customer-base will allow HowGood to have a deeper impact on the food system.”

About HowGood:

HowGood independently researches and rates the environmental and social impact of food. They comprehensively research products on 60-70 different indicators and distill the research into a simple rating. Partner grocers display the HowGood ratings on their shelves, making the research accessible and usable for customers.

About INFRA:

The Independent Natural Food Retailers Association is owned and governed by independent natural and organic food retailers of all sizes working together to leverage their voice in the industry. They unite their members for the purpose of providing operational support, leveraging purchasing power, and engaging in other marketing activities.

Contact:

Meaghan Jerrett

Director of Sales, HowGood

504-655-0988

meaghan@howgood.com

86 India Street, First Floor

Brooklyn, NY

 

The Mysteries of Milk

“Milk: It does the body good” was just one of those refrains cycling in the background of my 90s childhood. In my parents’ house, kids were not allowed up from the dinner table until we’d finished our full glass of milk. Even if it was a hot August evening and the glass of milk had got really, really warm. I took it for granted that milk, in whatever form it came in, was Good for You.

But milks are not all created equally, and not all should be considered good. As the process of getting milk from the cow to your glass at the dinner table became industrialized, the product we think of as milk changed significantly. The average dairy cow today produces six to seven times the amount of milk she produced 100 years ago. She lives through an endless cycle of artificial insemination, pregnancies, and hormones to increase her milk production in order to meet the demand for milk and milk products.. The milk we drink today might be skim, 2%, fortified, ultra-pasteurized. It might have been produced by a hormone-riddled cow. It might have powdered milk mixed back in to give it a creamy consistency, without having to list powdered milk as a separate ingredient. Modern milk is much further from the farm than we’d like to think.

This doesn’t sit well with me. I may not accompany every dinner with a glass of milk, but I do still put it in my coffee, in my baked goods, and on cereal, and I, like a lot of other dairy-consumers out there, want to know where my milk is coming from. A recent piece on Modern Farmer provides great insight into the history of dairy and sheds some light on a few dairy farmers, including New York’s own Ronnybrook, who are breaking out of the industrial dairy production mold.

Hints at Changing Attitudes in Our Farm Bill

Now that the dust has settled after the fight to get a farm bill passed, we can step back and take stock of what it actually means. The bill is always problematic; it represents one of those head-scratching political alliances between the agricultural industry and the anti-hunger lobby. They aren’t actually ideal partners for each other, with each side reluctantly taking on the other’s political baggage simply because they are stuck together in this bill. Yet, once we cut through the usual issues, there is actually some good going on as well.

If you look closely, you can definitely see that change is on the horizon for how we deal with food in this country. Traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30% while funding for fruits, vegetables, and organics programs increased by more than 50%. Fruit and vegetable farms also finally have access to crop insurance. Another noticeable growth area is in the funding for programs that help food stamp recipients get access to fruits and vegetables. Organic programs also now receive support from both parties, rather than just their historical support from Democrats.

As much as we can criticize the bill for the poor structures that remain in place, it does give us a bit of insight into what future farm bills could look like. People are starting to expect that fruits and vegetables be treated like…..well, food. Our apples and eggplants may still be considered “specialty crops” but the government is ever so slowly starting to respond.

 

What lurks in your water bottles (and everything else)? —- We’re not talking about BPA.

Ever since the scandalous reveal that eco-touting Nalgene was making their bottles out of toxic plastic, BPA has become a household term. Since then, we’ve all been wary of BPA in our water bottles, pacifiers, and tupperware. But a new hard-hitting investigative piece by Mother Jones suggests that our efforts may have been in vain. The article shines a spotlight on horrifying industry practices around the other potential estrogenic elements in plastics. Even in plastics that no longer contain BPA, there are still a slew of other chemicals that are linked with negative outcomes (turning male frogs female and caused obesity, rare vaginal tumors, infertility, and testicular growths among those exposed in utero just to name a few).

The most disturbing part, aside from the fact that under US law, chemicals are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise, is that one company in particular - Tritan - took advantage of the public’s newfound concern about safety after the harmful effects of BPA came to light. They marketed their plastics specifically as safe for children, while burying the evidence of estrogenic effects from their products. With tactics similar to those used by the tobacco industry, plastic companies are redefining what it means to be dodgy. And consumers are the ones who will suffer.