Tag Archives: local

A Food Culture, With the Capacity to Endure…at a Price.

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When I decided to go sustainable, I had to make some stipulations of what that meant, which went a little something like this:

1)    Local Trumps Everything Else – Organic farming practices are great for the environment, no doubt about it.  What’s not great for the environment is shipping food (grown organically or otherwise) to another side of the globe.  It’s estimated that food travels an average of 1300 miles from farm to table, which generates a huge carbon footprint.  So just because an apple was grown organically in New Zealand, that doesn’t mean I’m really being sustainable by buying it.  Importantly, eating locally produced food also supports your local economy, which is never a bad idea.  Ideally, I tried to buy local, organic foods.

2)    Eat Seasonally- This sort of goes hand in hand with #1.  We should all try to make a more valiant effort to do this, because if we’re eating out of season, that means the food is being shipped from far away, typically another hemisphere.  For me, that meant not eating apples, pears, citrus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc. because those are winter crops.

3)    GMO-free all (eh, most of) the way- This actually isn’t that hard to do if you’re eating organic food.  Organic food, by definition, has to be GMO-free.  However, when buying food from the farmer’s market, I didn’t really ask about the GMO status…because local trumps everything else.  All packaged foods, however, had to be GMO-free if they weren’t certified organic.

4)    No chain restaurants- This isn’t much of a challenge for me, as I prefer to eat at locally owned restaurants.  Had I eaten out much in Boulder for the month of August, I would have chosen restaurants that use lots of locally produced ingredients.  That’s not too challenging to do in this town; the restaurants here really cater to the sustainable lifestyle.  However, I didn’t eat out much in Boulder.  When I went to other towns in Colorado (Golden, Fort Collins, Denver), I made sure to not eat at chains (this is more of just an economically sustainable solution than an environmental one).  In Boulder, I mostly just went to coffee shops, but sticking to my criteria, this meant no Starbucks.  Shucks.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about my eating experiences for Sustainability month.  I will make note of a couple differences, though.  First, I didn’t notice marked differences in the flavor of foods, though I did notice that the organic grapes I bought were surprisingly sweeter than normal grapes (I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison of course, so this could be attributed to the varietal that I purchased), and I have noticed in the past that organic apples taste better as well.  Secondly, organic produce is going to spoil faster than conventionally grown produce.  Third (the most important issue, in my mind), just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  There are plenty of organic cookies, macaroni and cheese products, ice creams, and so on.  These can be just as high in calories, refined sugar, and sodium as conventionally produced counterparts.  Those nutrients don’t magically disappear just because you’ve slapped an organic label on the item and marked up the price 50%, but I think people have it in their mind that if they are eating organically, they are safe from the perils of obesity, diabetes, and so forth.  I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether or not organic processed foods are superior to their conventional counterparts; however, I will say that you are making a healthier choice by eating conventionally grown strawberries than an organic strawberry breakfast pastry (i.e. a Pop Tart) 100 times out of 100 times.

Shop til Your Bank Account Drops

The main topic I want to discuss is how to shop organically.  I shopped at a number of different grocers in order to determine which places had the best variety and prices for organic/local food.

1)    Lucky’s Market- This is Boulder’s independent grocery store, conveniently located across the street from my house.  Great variety, more local selections than anywhere else in town (except the farmer’s market), pretty pricey though.  The prices were roughly 20-30% higher than most other locations.  So while I like that it is a local option in every sense of the word and that I can walk to it, I won’t be doing my regular shopping there.

2)    Whole Foods Market- I hate Whole Foods more than is probably appropriate.  The reason for my distaste is that they abuse what they are via their pricing strategies.  Whole Foods is the largest national natural foods retailer, which is great.  However, their prices are so ridiculously inflated that I refuse to shop there.  On top of that, all the produce that I buy from Whole Foods spoils so much faster than from everywhere else (and this is a comparison to other organic options).  Plus, the people seem more pretentious at Whole Foods (which is saying a lot since I live in Boulder…by far the most pretentious community I’ve ever set foot in).  There are two things that will get me to go to Whole Foods. 1) Their bulk section is amazing and there are some grains/nuts/seeds that I can’t find elsewhere; 2) they carry my favorite flavor of Kombucha that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Here are more reasons to dislike Whole Foods.

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3)    Sprouts Farmers Market- This is my favorite place to grocery shop, in part because their produce and fresh food sections account for over half the store’s square footage.  The prices are extremely reasonable and they have a large variety of health foods.  I think one of the reasons that Sprouts has reasonable prices on their organic foods is because they also sell conventionally grown products.  When consumers can compare those options side by side (and when price is the driver for decision making, as it is for most people), the cost of these products are forced to stay relatively low.  Packaged foods are still fairly pricey at Sprouts, but I think that comes from the manufacturer more so than the distributor.  The down side: while they carry some local products, it’s certainly a small minority of all the available choices.

4)    Safeway- I never shop at large grocery chains like Safeway or King Sooper’s (Fry’s or Ralph’s in other parts of the country).  They are typically so big and offer so much of what I don’t buy – packaged foods, highly processed foods, and usually a small produce department with fairly low quality produce.  However, for the sake of the blog, I braved the Safeway in Boulder. Hel-looo! I was so impressed!  The produce, natural foods, and bulk sections take up 1/3 of the store, and the selection and quality is amazing.  Their organic produce section is just as large as the conventional produce section, and similar to Sprouts, prices aren’t through-the-roof expensive.  They had lots of local options, bulk nut butter and local honeys, as well as a make-your-own trail mix bar. Neat! This may be an artifact of being in Boulder, as there is certainly a market for these kinds of foods, but I’m wondering if this kind of selection is available in other Safeways.  Can anyone comment on that?

5)    Boulder Farmer’s Market- I’ve read in multiple articles about how to eat more sustainably on a budget that you should shop at your local farmer’s market.  Maybe that’s true in other places, but it’s definitely not true in Boulder.  The farmer’s market here is extremely expensive.  So while I like to go for the experience and to support local farmers (but mostly because the dumplings sold at one of the food carts are some of the best things I’ve ever tasted), it’s not somewhere that I can shop regularly.  I should try a farmer’s market in a neighboring town and see if these prices are a Boulder-specific phenomenon.

 Final Stats

Goal/ Normal

Baseline Data

Vegan

Paleo

WW

GF

Smoothies

DASH

Low Fat

Sustainability

Anthro
Weight

121-60

127.5

127.5

128.5

124

120

124

123.5

123

123

BMI

18.5-24.9

20

20

20.1

19.5

19

19.5

19.5

19.25

19.25

PBF

21-32

21.4

21.2

20.6

21.3

18.5

19.0

?

?

?

WC

<35

27.5

27.5

27.5

27.5

27.5

27.5

?

26.5

27

HC

38.5

37.5

38

38

38

38

?

36.5

37

W:H Ratio

<0.8

0.71

0.73

0.72

0.72

0.72

0.72

?

0.73

0.73

Blood Pressure

<120/80

113/77

101/69

105/72

110/70

93/65

92/68

91/68

103/66

103/68

Diet
Total kcal

2000-2200

1975

1809

1965

1900

1850

1980

1865

1780

1905

Protein (g)

77.5

57

100

75

78

80

70

89

Protein (%)

Oct-35

16

12%

20

16

17

17

15

22

19

CHO (%)

49-52

51

39-50

47

54

52

54

52

60

52

Fiber (g)

at least 25

26

42

32

27

29

33

30

23

25

Fat (%)

20-35

29.5

44-54

47

30

31

29

33

18

29

Sat Fat (%)

<10

7

8

8

7

7

7

8

7

8

Sodium (mg)

2300

2587

2138-2527

2132

2370

2250

2320

2147

2315

2282

Potassium (mg)

4700

3479

3959-4109

3742

3628

3658

3925

3874

3143

3746

Fruit/Veg (servings)

5-9

3-7

8-12

6-8

5-7

6-8

8-10

7-9

4-6

5-7

Cost

192.59

206.38

120.97

128.57

135.42

127.32

145.20

254.45

Clearly, no real changes in my basic health or diet intake values, but my bank account certainly felt the pains of eating sustainably this month.  Sadly, I wasn’t even 100% organic – there were a number of items that were so outlandishly expensive that I couldn’t justify the organic pricetag, namely eggs and cheese.  I was willing to pay the price for organic meat itself, but that meant that I only cooked meat 4-5 times the entire month.  Eggs came in around $5/dozen, so I went for the next best thing: eggs from chickens raised locally, cage free, and without antibiotics.  I only bought a very small amount of cheese (a small block of cheddar) that also came from locally raised cows because I couldn’t fathom paying the price for organic cheese.  I suppose the silver lining to paying this much for all of my food was that I was much, much less wasteful than I have been in the past.  When I’m paying $5 for a pint of raspberries, you can be damn sure I’m eating every single one, pristine, smooshed, or on the wrong side of ripe.

Final Recommendations

My main recommendation is to follow the Clean 15, Dirty Dozen list.  If your concern is pesticide content, this list will be your friend.  The Dirty Dozen are the fruits and vegetables that typically have the highest pesticide content, whereas the Clean 15 have very low pesticide residues.  Unless you’re a sustainability purist, it’s worth saving your pocket book and buying Clean 15 when you can.  Here is a list you can print out and keep in your wallet for easy reference.  Other than that, buy organic when you can and if your budget allows for it.  Buy local even more often than that.  Join a CSA (community supported agriculture; where you buy a “share” in a local farm and are delivered local, fresh food for a large portion of the year. Go to http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ for more info), if possible.

For September, I’m following the Fast Metabolism Diet.  I can tell you already that it will be the most challenging month of the entire year.  Yes, harder in many ways than Paleo.  Stay tuned…

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A Food Culture, With the Capacity to Endure (Plus a lesson in the fatal flaws of nutrition research)

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*I’d like to preface this post by stating that I am certainly not in expert in the field of organic food (farming or the study of its effects on human health).  As always, if you have any sound, scientific data (not just conjecture) that refutes what I’m saying, please send it my way.  The More You Know…

August has been my month of (attempted) sustainable eating. When I was trying to put my ideas of sustainability into words, I first googled “sustainability,” to gain inspiration… and maybe cheat a little.  Indeed, the first hit (high five, Wikipedia) defined it as “the capacity to endure,” which I think fits perfectly with my philosophy of sustainability- both from production and human health standpoints.

I defined sustainable eating as organic, GMO-free, and local.  Organic food is considered sustainable because the methods for producing the food are much more environmentally friendly than those used for conventionally grown foods.  As far as GMO’s are concerned, there is the belief that by tinkering with the genes in plants, we are eliminating the plant’s need and ability to respond to environmental pressures.  In doing so, the plant species can’t evolve, which can have some very bad long term effects on the food supply as well as the environment.  And lastly, eating local is a more sustainable food practice because a) it reduces the carbon footprint of food production since the food itself isn’t traveling nearly as far to get from the farm to your plate, and b) it’s sustainable from an economic perspective, as your money remains in your local economy.  Love thy neighbor.

Like most topics in nutrition, GMO-free and organic foods are topics that I try to avoid in conversation.  This originated from my strong mental “allergic” reaction to pretentiousness and dispositions towards food based on an inflammatory media that is not at all grounded in truth or data.  Many people claim to go organic/GMO-free because it’s better for human health, and that we have proof that the chemicals used in food production and genetic modifications of food are killing us.  Someone please show me that “proof.”

If you haven’t figured it out by now (have you even been paying attention?), I’m a stickler for the evidence.  We lack definitive proof that any of these things are adversely affecting human health.  What we have are a lot of theories that have yet to pan out.  One such theory is that organic farming yields foods with higher nutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) content than conventionally grown foods.  The reason for this is that foods grown without pesticides have to make their own defenses against the natural world, and they do so by increasing their nutrient content.  This is theorized to benefit the consumer because we will then ingest more of those nutrients.  It’s a nice theory, and I wish it were/hope it will one day prove to be true.  Studies that have researched this phenomenon do in fact show that nutrient content is slightly higher in organically grown foods.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to translate to human health.  This is probably because we don’t absorb all of the nutrients we ingest, and when you look at the scale of the human body and all the tissues to which nutrients get distributed, that small amount of increased nutrient content in an organically grown food is unlikely to have impact on overall human health.

That’s one example of the organic food debate, and there are many other claims that have yet to be proven.  Another issue that many people take with conventionally grown foods is pesticide content, of which organically grown foods have proven to have significantly lower levels than conventionally grown foods.  Now, conventionally grown foods do pass the US government’s standards for the max amount of pesticides considered safe for human consumption.  Granted, there are some issues with this, as I don’t know how that level was determined.  But what I’m interested in has to do with the mechanisms by which these pesticides could impact human health.  Some websites state that pesticides are “toxic” and slowly killing you.  How, though? How much does it take? Anyone know? Please share if you do.

Despite how it sounds, I’m actually not really a naysayer of the organic foods for human health movement.  I just want more information.  One of the reasons that we may not be showing an effect of organic food on health is because of the limitations of the tools we use to measure these effects.  The media, every blog, every tumblr/instagram/pinterest account will have you believe that we know everything there is to know about foods and human health (Cinnamon for blood sugar! Grapefruit for weight loss! Cherries for rheumatoid arthritis! It’s all hogwash.)  The fact of the matter is that nutrition science is subjected to a slew of inaccuracies from which we try to draw conclusions.

So let me give you a run down of the issues with studying nutrition.  Let’s say that we want to do an observational study in which we ask the question: Does eating organic foods decrease the risk of developing X (where X is a disease…let’s say cancer)?  Here are some things that we have to take into consideration:

1)    To what are we comparing organic food intake? If you were simply to ask people if they eat organic foods, those who reply yes are different than those who reply no in a variety of ways.  People who eat organic foods are likely to be fairly health conscious individuals, so in order to avoid contamination from any other factor, we need to compare them to people who are extremely similar, but don’t eat organic foods.  To give an idea of what that would look like, we would want to compare people who have the same average age, BMI, smoking status, overall diet (fruits and vegetables, fat, saturated fat, carb, protein, etc. intake), physical activity levels, etc.  As you can imagine, finding a difference between people who are similar in every other way other than organic food intake is going to be hard to do because you’re unlikely to have enough people (sample size) that you can appropriately test.

2)    Measuring dietary intake: This is the real zinger.  Despite all of the advances in technology, biotechnology, screening, and so on, our methods for measuring dietary intake yield an extremely rough estimate, at best.  If you want to look at a large population (which is what you would need to answer this particular question), you’re going to be asking people to report on their diet.  This in and of itself is flawed because people are flawed.  They lie (perhaps inadvertently), they forget what they ate, and they don’t know how to determine serving sizes. That on top of the fact that diet databases are limited by the number of items in them. Most of these databases are great for quantifying diets heavy in processed foods, but they can’t stand up to foods made from scratch and ethnic foods.  On top of that, they provide a rough average of nutrient content of foods.  As an example, the nutrient content of a vegetable can vary widely based on the time of year it was grown, soil conditions, how it was stored after harvesting, how it was prepared, etc. Take all of these seemingly small factors together, and you can see how widely varied our estimates of nutrient intake can be.  I’d say, on average, these estimates are accurate ±10%.  And then you want to compare people whose only difference in food intake and lifestyle practices are whether or not they eat organic? Good luck.

3)    Exposure. This is another important issue that could potentially explain why we have yet to show an effect of organic eating practices on human health.  On top of deciding what qualifies as eating organic vs not (<50% vs ≥50% of intake? I don’t know), what time frame is sufficient to see an effect? It’s likely that if there is a beneficial effect of eating organic on human health, it will take years to decades to determine.  And I don’t think that organic foods have been widely available for long enough to see that effect.

That’s me up on my scientific soapbox about why we probably don’t know much about the impact of organic food intake on human health.

However, there are a few things that we have some evidence to support:

  • Organic food intake may actually be beneficial in infancy and into the toddler years in terms of allergic manifestations.  One study showed a nonsignificant reduction in eczema in toddlers fed a strictly organic diet (1).
  • Organic animal products probably give you the most bang for your buck: In that same study, when the researchers looked strictly at organic dairy intake, that reduction in eczema became significant (1).
  • Organic farming practices are better for the environment.  Screw human health–this is my reason for why people should go organic.  We’re talking about the health of our planet here, and that’s something with which I can get on board. If I weren’t a nutritionist/physiologist, I would be an ecologist.

So, as usual, my issue with organic food isn’t with the food at all, it’s with the consumers of the food.  I think it’s great that people are taking a deeper look at where their food comes from and that there is this vast movement towards responsible consumer practices.  However, it’s equally important to not be so anti “the man,” that you lose sight of reason and the value of evidence.  For some additional reading, I recommend this article entitled A Hippie’s Defense of GMO’s.  She makes a great point about food issues that are probably a lot more important than keeping GMO’s out of the kitchen. Definitely worth the read.

I’ll post my final stats and my take on sustainable eating in a few days (hopefully).  Spoiler: it’s expensive.

1.  Kummeling I, Thijs C, Huber M, et al.  Consumption of organic foods and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands. Br J Nutr 2008; 99:598-605.