New York Magazine's July cover story, "The Neurotic Eater's Grocery List," is intended to stoke paranoia: "After all, worrying is half the fun," pronounces the last line of the introduction, which then opens up to overwhelming spread after overwhelming spread, laid out by aisle, of the dangers lurking at the grocery store.
No food is safe—not asparagus, not shrimp, not cabbage, and certainly not bacon—and the article plays into these fears, even to the point of parody, poking fun at typical food safety headlines: "Berries are misogynist"; " There's listeria in your ice cream"; "Canned vegetables will kill you in a dozen ways."
The very point of the article (and its online version on Grub Street, NY Mag's food and restaurant blog) is to overwhelm: From the design to the dramatic language, the story is as much about providing information as it is about simulating, in article form, the experience of being bombarded with information, and consequently paralyzed by fear, about what's in your food.
At the same time that American consumers are increasingly concerned about transparency—the Hartman Group, a market research firm, reports that 64% of consumers want companies to communicate the ingredients in food or beverage products and 43% want information on source of those ingredients—it's increasingly hard to know what's in our food. But the closer we look, and the more widely we read, the more scared we get.
Even when things seem to be looking up, the downside emerges. See artifical sweeteners, see the low-fat craze, see cage-free eggs: Yes, Walmart, Costco, McDonald's, and other big names in the market have committed to transitioning to cage-free eggs in the coming years; but, as the New York Times reports the common alternative to cages—aviaries—results in higher rates of hen mortality, as well as worse environmental and working conditions.
In the case of food transparency, the more you know, the less there is to eat in good conscience. By the time you get to the end of the NY Mag article (if you make it there), you'll either be resigned and apathetic or despondent and newly converted to Soylent. Because there's just no way to remember all of this information or to make the "healthiest," most moral choices one-hundred percent of the time unless you devote your entire life to obsessing over it. Most of us don't have the time, or the brain space, for that.
And the authors of the article, Nick Tabor, James D. Walsh, and Adam Platt (who wrote the introduction) understand this: "What can a rational, thinking person do to survive the Great Terroir Terror?" they ask.
"The first step," they say, "is fully understanding and then weighing the consequences," which is why they've created labels that indicate when a particular food is associated with labor and political issues, animal cruelty, general grossness, environmental destruction, or all of the above—so that you can prioritize your concerns.
That, too, is a daunting task, yet we wanted to leave the article not feeling dejected but rather a sense of purpose—in the form of a few key action items for future grocery shopping.
Here are 10 relatively easy takeaways:
Most come down to this: Take action to learn as much as you can about where your food comes from and to buy local whenever possible. But of course, it's important to keep in mind that not everyone can afford to make these choices—both in terms of time, money, and access.
1. Buy shrimp that comes from the U.S. (usually from the Gulf Coast or Alaska).
That might mean paying a bit extra, but it also means you'll avoid supporting Thailand's human-trafficking industry, which is now responsible for providing a huge percentage of the world's shrimp.
2. Bookmark these resources and refer to them before you shop.
- For help choosing your seafood, use the Safina Center's rating program (which details overfishing, catch method, mercury levels, etc.) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide.
- For meat, consult the Environmental Working Group's meat eater's guide and look for the labels Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane when you're at the store.
- The Organic Egg Scorecard ranks egg brands by the amount of space each bird gets, the farm's mortality rate, and other criteria. Check Vital Farms' interactive map to locate eggs from pastured hens around the country.
3. Invest in a reusable water bottle.
If this weren't reason enough, in many areas of the country, the caps aren't recyclable at all: "They often up in the oceans; an estimated 90 percent of seabirds eat plastic, much of it in the form of bottle caps." It also takes huge amounts of fossil fuels to produce and ship the bottles.
4. Opt for bread from the farmers market or a local bakery rather than a supermarket package.
Look for packages with the shortest ingredient lists and the fewest preservatives (an all-around rule of thumb when buying processed food). The authors recommend looking for bread in the supermarket refrigerators and seeking out 100% whole grain or, even better, sprouted grain or sourdough loaves.
5. Make your own—granola, condiments, energy bars, etc.—when you can.
It's the best way, after all, to know exactly what the food contains (and to pass on artificial dyes and excessive sugars).
6. Grate Parmesan cheese at home; prepare your own lettuce; and do as much other "processing" as is reasonable for your life.
Grating your own Parmesan cheese will guarantee there's no wood pulp filler. Buying whole heads of local lettuce (instead of bagged leaves) makes it less likely that you're supporting companies that violate workers' rights (plus, you'll bypass excess packaging).
7. For chocolate, seek out these labels: Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, USDA Organic, non-GMO.
But, warn the authors, don't think of any label as an end-all. Consider investing in bean-to-bar chocolates, in which the same company handles all steps of the production process.
8. Boycott the overfished bluefin tuna.
This article recommends Albacore, skipjack, and yellowfin from the Pacific ocean instead—ideally, pole- or "troll"-caught varieties.
9. Buy whole snapper whenever possible.
One-third of seafood in the U.S. is mislabeled and the statistics are worse for snapper: In 2013, researchers found that 87% of fish labeled red snapper was not what it claimed to be. The simple solution? Seek out the whole fish, steering clear of any that comes from Brazil. (The authors also recommend not buying fish priced well below market value.)
10. Organic chickens are less likely to be housed in extreme proximity.
Organic chickens have been raised hormone-free and fed 100%-organic diets. "While there are no guarantees 'organic' birds are raised on a pasture," the authors report, "the requirement that they be antibiotic-free means farmers are unlikely to coop them in tight quarters." If you want to buy birds that were free to forage during the day, look for "pasture-raised" (not yet a legal term); "free range" and "free roaming" chickens have demonstrable access to the outdoors, which, obviously, covers a wide range of conditions.
What changes have you made to your shopping habits, if any? (Which won't you make—and why?) Tell us in the comments.