Food shopping puzzles

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I have been talking recently to several friends who are – like me – keeping a keen and wary eye on the contents of their shopping baskets and on their (and especially their kids’) dinner plates. We were discussing things we have to be careful about when shopping and what we are watching out for.

We were ourselves impressed when we realised how long this list actually is:

  • Allergens labelling – for one of my friends, whose kids are allergic to several usual ingredients (such as beef protein and soya) this is a must. I have been surprised that even products that seem harmless have often the label – has been packaged in a workshop working also with soya and nuts for example, thus making it improper for consumption by someone allergic. Shopping for her is difficult and very very time consuming in a supermarket, where she has to read all the labels in detail (a good magnifying glass comes in handy), but she is also almost excluded from shopping in most markets, or from eating in restaurants or ordering take-out.
  • GMO labelling – fortunately we are living in the EU, in Belgium, where GMOs are labelled (from a  certain % of content), so we can make an informed choice. For me, the problem with GMO is not so much health. At least until the opposite has been demonstrated, and I believe this may still take decades to see as the introduction of GMOs in our diets is still fairly recent. The problem for me today is the very real threat of reduction of biodiversity in food production (and in the wild), possible environmental disruptions and contamination of non GMO populations (who are already under a lot of strain) on one hand and further industrialisation of food production, its concentration of power in the hands of a few companies who (will) make the choices based on what is good for them and not for the consumer and in the end the reduction of consumer choice for “healthier” or just simply “other” alternatives, by crowding these out of the market or changing the rules and rights of other producers through legal action (like taking away from farmers the possibility to sow their own seed). And I am not even talking about underhand techniques involving patenting life, international pressures to expand US type intellectual property rights to the rest of the world, “humanitarian” initiatives aimed at expanding the use of GMO maize at the expense of native varieties under the veil of “bringing a solution to world hunger” and generally the predatory behaviour of GMO specialised companies. It is good to remind oneself that Monsanto is first and foremost a chemical company – part of an industry converted from producing chemical weapons for the WWI and WWII to production of fertiliser and pesticides and their GMO corn for example has been developed to boost their pesticide/herbicide sales. It is sold as a package with their main product – Round-Up. So actually, currently marketed GMOs, instead of bringing us healthier and more resistant varieties with real benefits for the consumers – pushes for increased use of herbicides and pesticides, thus benefiting the Supplier of these pesticides – Monsanto & Co. (for more information on this, watch World According to Monsanto)
  • organic/non-organic –  I for one, having worked on agriculture policy, am conscious of the many “inputs”used in modern agriculture. And as we eat a lot of fruit and veggies at home, I am trying to reduce our consumption of pesticides as best I can, where it makes sense. I have found this little list useful when deciding what to buy in organic form and what not, but a general rule of thumb is – if we eat it with the peel or if it’s difficult to wash, I try to buy it organic. Another reason for buying organic is if the food is for my small daughter or if we consume a lot of it (like milk, eggs and lemon). I do not believe that organic is always better for health, that the animals are treated significantly better or that it even tastes better (well, the eggs do, actually), but I think that it is more “responsible” overall and fits with my view of what the direction of our agriculture should be – I consider it my way of voting with my money for something I believe in… For meat, I have been looking at reducing the amount of meat we eat anyways, and as we are not eating meat everyday, we can splurge on nice organic beef or poultry and enjoy it more. I also had to explain to my parents, that when something is organic, it is not automatically healthier as such – as there can be a lot of fat or sugar in it. There is also a lot of organic “junk food” out there…
  • “diet” versions of foods – this is one I find annoying. It happened to me a few times by mistake to take a “diet” version of a food we usually buy – skimmed milk, or low-fat cheese or 0% yoghurt with starch to make it less watery or O% sugar jam… I beware of diet versions of real food – there seems to be increasing evidence that they are no real use for weight loss, in the case of dairy they actually hinder the absorption of calcium from it, and many low-fat foods just add extra dollops of sugar or even worse sweetener to keep the taste more or less palatable. Low sugar products are heavy on sweeteners and I am not even going to go into my loathing and mistrust of chemicals like aspartame, with possible links to cancer and other illnesses, because it would just take too long. I am in principle opposed to sweeteners as they just trick your brain to expect an energy (sugar) dose when none is forthcoming, leading you to eat more in the end. Yuk and yuk and yuk!
  • finally, to summarise under one heading the other undesirable ingredients in foods we find in the supermarket – monosodium glutamate alias MSG alias E621 (for other names check here), palm oil (because of its high content of saturated fat) also called vegetable fat on labels (and that you can now find even in baby formula !!!) , high fructose syrup also referenced as glucose-fructose, isoglucose and glucose-fructose syrup, and even plain old sugar in products where there should be none like bread… (also under the names of caramel and other names ending in -ose such as glucose, etc.). I am sure I could find more, but I think I have scared you enough.

Further reading/learning:

  • On GMOs there is a lot of literature out there, so do your research, focussing on what the consumption, marketing and labelling rules in your country are… if you are in the US, good luck if you want to shop and eat GMO free…
  • On Palm oil, I suggest you check the Palm Oil in disguise page or read about environmental destruction linked to palm oil-producing plantations (Indonesia is just one of the countries that is hit the hardest).
  • On sugar, I would look here to learn how to spot it and here to listen to Sugar: the bitter truth by Dr. Lustig I personally found very informative.
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