Food Safety

10 Mindful Grocery Choices You Can Start Making Today

July 19, 2016

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.

The more you know, the less there is to eat in good conscience.

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.

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.

12 Comments

Michele G. August 14, 2016
The plastic cap situation is frustrating, e.g., our local recycling program does not currently accept plastic caps. Just FYI, there is a program called [email protected] I do not know precisely how the program works--I just recently discovered its existence after purchasing food storage items from Preserve Products--excellent quality, handy sizing, and made from 100% recycled plastics. (This company also offers personal care products--razors, toothbrushes, and other kitchen and tableware, all made from recycled plastics.) I know glass is the better alternative for food storage, and I try to use it as much as possible, but I can't always handle glass to and from the fridge safely because of arthritis. Thanks for the article--I've saved it!
 
Annette July 24, 2016
Spot on... As a European who travels the US often and usually also gets out and about (not just a hotel dweller), I view this conversation with more than just a fleeting interest.<br />The US had organic food in stores before any body else officially did: I can remember that back in the 80ies, when organic in Europe was still almost a hall mark of "general inability to make a living so I go and grow organic or even better organic-dynamic", in California you could already get all those things in stores... <br />Having said that, go ask someone aged 80+ today how they did the food shopping when they were young - you will find out it was totally organic and local before the 50ies saw the advent of cans, tins, convenience and fast food.<br />Mass is typically the end of any attempt at sustainable quality: The fact that large masses of people tend to not watch out for quality but for quantity is as prevalent in Europe as it is anywhere in the world. So from my point of view, the corporate brainwash that tells exactly these growing masses "it's ok - if not even essential to your well-being - to consume as much as possible and keep wanting new stuff every day" is the root cause of most of these issues described in this article and the comments.<br />So, consume what makes sense, throw away less and learn to plan, conserve and reuse and get rid of the constant flow of TV ads running in between the needed news casts and global political coverages :-)<br />So, by that same toke, as "organic" becomes a mass market, it runs into the very same issues as non-organic mass market produce. Which is what you so well described in your article.<br />Here is an idea: If you happen to be a business person like myself, why not go over to the next farmers market (usually Wednesdays or Saturdays), grab yourself a couple communicative people and figure out if you can help them be more efficient in producing and marketing without losing quality and therefore support a sensible organic movement on a broader scale.<br />Get involved! <br />All the best (currently from Mumbai)
 
Mary A. July 24, 2016
Your article was most informative, I've bookmarked the entire article.<br /><br />With that said, I have a small container graden, growing corn, eggplant cucumbers, tomatoes and all the usual vegetables that amateur growers grow. I am amazed at the amount of pests aphids, beetles and so on are present. I refuse to use any type of chemical and have dealt with problems as they crop up and use homemade insecticidal soaps. It makes me wonder however that if you are a commercial farmer it would be impossible to deal with these problems as I am. As I said, all this just makes me concerned. Once again, Thank you!
 
PHIL July 19, 2016
I guess that is the perception because the corporations control seed, processing, chemicals etc.. But don't actually "farm"
 
Rachel July 19, 2016
I actually don't buy organic as a general rule (unless I am looking for an ingredient that the store is out of with conventionally raised produce). One of my friends works in DC for the EPA as a chemist. His office produces the data that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) uses to create their "clean fifteen" and "dirty dozen" lists. The kinds of pesticide or herbicide residue they come up with when they are testing produce all over the country is orders of magnitude below the relevant thresholds. Most of the time, if they find anything at all, the residue is in the parts per million or parts per billion range (when the actual levels required to spark any kind of action is in the parts per thousand or even parts per hundred). However, the EWG uses that data and, I believe, grossly distorts it to the average consumer who does not understand what it takes to get food from a farm to their table. <br /><br />Run off is another issue altogether. Conventional farmers are required to have applicator licenses and take complex classes in using chemicals, and they also routinely employ buffer strips of grass between fields and streams and to prevent erosion and runoff. Homeowners have no such knowledge or training... most of the time, they can dump anything they want to on their lawns and backyards (if some is good, more is better mentality) and end up using several times the recommended safe amounts for their pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc. on their lawns. Also, organic pesticides and herbicides oftentimes require much more in terms of application and their use can be even more ecologically damaging than their synthetic counterparts. Organic pesticides/herbicides are not processed like synthetics, it not necessarily mean that they are less harmful to the environment. Because farmers avail themselves of the latest technology when it comes to agriculture, it seems that a lot of people believe that they just don't care about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of farmers want to ensure the health and safety of their waterways, soil, and ultimately their crops. Their livelihoods depend on it.
 
PHIL July 19, 2016
I Agree the amounts are minor and I am sure farmers care but many of these farms are corporate owned too. Also look at all the talk about the use of Roundup. Homeowners grass causes problems too. NY Times just had an article about algae blooms causing problems in Florida and elsewhere
 
Rachel July 19, 2016
I forgot why I came down here in the first place.... I should've posted my comment above in the article that was actually about organic produce. <br /><br />I meant to say, Sarah, spot-on about the shrimp. Most of the shrimp sold in the US comes from Malaysia and Thailand, and has been frozen in ice blocks for about eight months before it makes it to the grocery store. In addition to the fact that slave labor is employed quite routinely, the growing conditions, themselves, for the shrimp are usually appallingly filthy. Since shrimp are filter feeders, reports of shrimp farms using hog manure dumped into the ponds have been coming up in the media now and again. Hopefully, consumers are getting educated about especially the shrimp industry and its problems. Thanks for highlighting it in your article.
 
Rachel July 19, 2016
Actually about 97% of farms in the U.S. are family owned according to the USDA's last census (http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2015/03/0066.xml&printable=true this press release has some links that lead to some very interesting statistics). A lot of people believe that the farms are no longer family farms, but it's simply not the case (thank goodness) While there are some farmers out there that don't have the "mindful stewardship" mindset; the vast majority of them do. My mom, who is a farmer and all around amazing person, being one of them :) <br />
 
Betsey July 22, 2016
Most of Minnesota's waterways are not safe to drink or swim in because of farm runoff. I think you overstate how much farmers know or are doing to curb pesticide/herbicide misuse.
 
Risottogirl July 19, 2016
I am SO FORTUNATE to live in San Francisco where I have access to reasonably priced locally grown organic produce and meats and eggs all year round. we buy milk and bananas at the supermarket that's pretty much it. And the milk is local Northern California organic milk!<br />Fish is more of a quandary but we are Guided by the Monterey Bay aquarium's guidelines. we haven't purchased Asian farm-raised shrimp in years so consequently we eat a lot less shrimp!
 
PHIL July 19, 2016
I was just in Bodega Bay last fall , unfortunately the crab season was delayed but there was lots of good local seafood to be had., and of course wine which was the reason we were there
 
PHIL July 19, 2016
I eat a lot more organic and local or at least I try to as much as I can. The benefit to organic goes beyond the health animal or us. By eating organic you reduce the chemicals getting in to the environment i.e. farm runoff, and you create demand for these products helping to reduce their costs. I also find the products last longer and taste better. Seafood is a much complicated situation, many times it is mislabeled. I have been buying more seafood from Whole Foods as they seem to have a better handle on it than most stores.