Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Internal Debate Rages

This organic thing is still an issue for me. I promise not to do many more (or maybe even any more) entries on this subject, lest my two readers become bored and abandon me, but I’m still mulling this whole thing over. Some reading I’ve been doing on the subject, along with some detective work I did this morning, have raised some questions for me.

There’s an article in the New York Times this morning about a phenomenon called “greenwashing.” (I’d provide the link, but I think the Times requires registration—that opportunity for you to protect your privacy by giving phony information so it looks like a male World War I veteran in Toledo, OH is reading the Times Online; that’s what I do at least, but I’m kind of evil that way, and can’t understand why the Times needs to know my birthday. Should I expect a card? Age range I can handle, actual date of birth is none of their business.) “Greenwashing” is the practice employed by food companies to make their products look wholesome, environmentally friendly, and socially correct. They may use images of rolling fields, huge dew-wet vegetables or fruits, perhaps a barn in the background, and maybe a tractor to convey the impression that the product has a strong connection with the land. Anthropomorphic animals may also play a role—dancing cows, instrument playing insects, and what have you.

The text on such packages may also perpetuate the myth. It often uses the word “organic,” frequently talks about the company’s philanthropic efforts, and uses the recognized catchphrases we’ve all come to associate with “green” products. Words like wholesome, all natural, earth friendly, responsible.

This whole movement is not unlike the use of green packages to convey “fat free” or “reduced fat.” Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when Nabisco introduced the Snackwell’s line, they used a kelly green box. Go to the grocery store today, and many of the fat-altered products are in green packaging. Healthy Choice is the other obvious example. Even products like Sara Lee pound cake will have a green banner or ribbon with the fat reduction indicator. That bright green is a form of shorthand for consumers—“I am low fat: pick me, pick me!”

So the first question is, without actually calling, or looking up on the Internet, all these companies that make allegedly organic and healthy foods, how can one sort them all out? Even if I were to do all that research, there’s no assurance that the information I’d get would be completely reliable, provided as it would be by the company’s own marketing people, who obviously have a vested interest in my thinking highly of them. There’s the USDA Organic seal, but that doesn’t mean whatever it is will actually be good for you. I mentioned organic tortilla chips and cookies in my last rant on this subject.

Then there’s the question of organic versus local. Again, I refer to my previous driveling regarding “organic” foods that are hauled into my local grocery store from faraway places. I checked out the organic section of my local Safeway this morning (because I didn’t have much else critical to do at 7 a.m.) and found a wide range of origins. The closest items came from Oregon, with some coming from California. That’s tolerable, I suppose. However, when I got to the (out of season) blueberries and raspberries and saw “Product of Mexico,” I had to cringe. That was only the products that listed origins. Most did not. Those carried under the Safeway O Organics label merely designated themselves as being “Distributed by Safeway, Inc.” and had the company’s address in California.

So I ask myself again, what’s better? The advice I’ve read is local organic is best, imported organic is second, local conventional is next, and imported conventional is the least desirable. I’m not sure I’d agree—I think I’d put local conventional ahead of imported organic. I guess that’s my choice to make.

Lastly, I’m noticing all these bogus health claims on food labels more and more now. Frankly, they’re starting to piss me off. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the food labels showing the little red tractor and the dancing chicken, but the fact that the food industry thinks I’m such a dope that I’ll fall for the “No Cholesterol!” banner on every single thing I buy is starting to grate on my nerves. Of course olive oil has no cholesterol. Cholesterol comes from two sources—animal meat, and the human body. Therefore big letters proclaiming that my olive oil has no cholesterol in it (or is “sin colesterol” as my package actually says, since it’s a product of Spain) is kind of an insult to my intelligence. Unless a cow fell into the olive oil processing equipment, it’s physically impossible for olive oil to have cholesterol.

Cholesterol is the big offender, but trans fats are close behind, along with things being a “good source” of this or that. I checked out a bunch of stuff in my kitchen—peanut butter, bread, olive oil, cereals, crackers, applesauce, Hostess donettes (don't ask). With the exception of the donettes, every single product made some health claim or other. When I read the nutritional information and ingredients on the donettes, I began to realize why they kept quiet. Partially hydrogenated this, enriched that (which of course means that the healthy stuff was stripped out and then put back in using chemical versions), genetically modified this other thing. I’m just waiting for the day when Hostess pumps donettes full of powdered milk and is allowed by the government to announce that they’re “A Good Source of Calcium!”

Once again, how do I weed through all these health claims and find what’s actually healthy? I suppose following the advice of a million diet magazines and nutritionists and “shopping the perimeter” of the store is the way to go. This advice, in case you haven’t heard it, recommends that most of what goes in your grocery cart come from the outer edge of the store—in most store layouts, this includes the produce, dairy, meat and bakery sections. Reasonable advice, but now there are more and more ways to trip up, even there. Organic milk? What brand? Evidently there’s quite a bit of debate over the claims that Horizon, one of the largest suppliers of organic milk, makes regarding the treatment of its cows. Free range eggs? Cage free eggs? Is there a difference? As a matter of fact, yes—free range means the chickens do get to go outside and scratch, whereas cage free just means they’re not confined in cages with nine birds in a tiny cage; they may never see the light of day, but they’re not as inhumanely confined, either. Free range chicken? Kosher chicken? Don’t even get me started on cheeses.

So I continue to mull all this over, and I’m starting to actually get tired of thinking about it. I’m not going to throw in the towel and go buy a box of Twinkies and a frozen pizza. I’ll come to some kind of a conclusion. I think, however, that that conclusion is going to primarily consist of my resolving to just do the best I can, and let it all come out in the wash. I think that’s about the only way I’m not going to send myself (and everyone around me) completely up a wall on this subject.

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