(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?
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.”
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.
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.
Director of Sales, HowGood
86 India Street, First Floor
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.
Superbugs aren’t cool. Antibiotic-free chickens are.
Consumers are powerful. Recently, American consumers have been exercising that power in their demands for better practices in the food system. A major area of concern is the pervasive use of antibiotics on healthy animals in our factory farm system. As consumers learn more about the negative fallout from this practice (including the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria), they have begun to speak up and demand meat free from antibiotics. And industry is answering.
Last week, Chik-fil-A announced that it will phase out the use of chickens raised with antibiotics within five years. In a year, all of Perdue’s chicken hatcheries will be free of antibiotics. This pivot in practices by two powerhouses in the world of poultry show us what consumers can accomplish when they make their preferences known; businesses seeking their dollars will shape up.
A Farm Bill, Finally
The old Farm Bill expired back in 2012 and many in the food and anti-hunger realms have been anxiously awaiting the new one. This week, Congress passed the bill and sent it on to President Obama, who is expected to sign it today. Modern Farmer got it right when they said, “If there is one word to describe the nearly 1000-page bill, it’s compromise. No one is entirely happy with the results, but just about everybody is happy to have results”
Notably, farmers markets will be able to become more accessible. Unfortunately, $4 billion was controversially cut from conversation programs which may have wide reaching negative impacts for our environment and wealthy farmers continue to be subsidized.
This compromise of a bill may be the best we can hope for in our current political climate. See the financial break-down here.
HowGood is Your Orange Juice?
Juicing is all the rage these days, especially among the soda-eschewing healthy-conscious set. But, not all juices are created equal and some swilling those brightly-colored beverages are getting more than they bargained for. For example, take Coca-Cola’s “Simply Orange”. A recent investigative piece by Bloomberg Businessweek looks into how they produce orange juice and calls their product “hyper-engineered and dauntingly industrial.”
From sitting in storage tanks for up to 8 months to the nitrogen blanket sitting on top of the juice to prevent rot to the practice of adding fragrances and flavors back in to compensate for what was lost during processing, this is not actually “simply orange” at all. This is why it ends up with the rating it gets from HowGood.