I love to eat. But not just anything. I like to eat responsibly. Consciously. Good food, and good-for-you-food. And I love to cook. I consider myself as an amateur chef. But I didn’t always use to care about what I ate. There was a time when I wasn’t aware of the implications that came along with industrially produced food.
I think it was about 2006-07 when the major transformation occurred. I read several Michael Pollan’s books that were eye-opening. For those unfamiliar, Pollan is an American author, journalist and a professor. He writes about food – choices, production and industrialization, preservation, transportation and consumption. Then ensued a series of other readings that literally changed my life. I realized that every bite I take has an effect on our surroundings. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) treat animals inhumanely and produce tons of toxic waste that pollutes water; vast monocultured fields of vegetables contribute to pest-resistant insects, and load the produce with toxins that end up in our bodies; fish stocks are depleted and those that are not are suffering from heavy metals loadings that we put into water… What are we doing? What am I eating? I knew then and there something had to change.
The first thing I did was stop eating fast food. Even though I rarely ate it, I said: “never again”. And that was not a problem, or so I thought … until I went to China on a school trip. I was not a fan of Chinese food, I can tell you that. It was ok at the beginning, interesting to guess every time I had a meal what exactly was on my plate. But after two weeks of that, it was a hunger strike or some good old western food. So, my professor took me across Shanghai on one of those bicycle carriages to a McDonalds. I had a Big Mac and fries and I would be lying if I said it did not taste good. It did. I mean, that food is chemically engineered to appeal to our taste buds. So hey, I failed but it was delicious.
To me eating responsibly is as important as eating healthily. In many cases the two overlap. But not always. So, maintaining that balance of good for you and good for the natural environment is not always easy. In the beginning I used to stand in front of a meat and fish section in stores for tens of minutes, examining it – how was the animal raised (in a CAFO, or roaming freely on pastures); was it treated with growth hormones and antibiotics; how far away did the meat come from (or in other words, how much CO2 was emitted into air to move that piece of food to my local store); how are the employees of that meat producer treated; was the meat treated with nitrates or any other post-production chemicals…
And then comes the fish – was it wild caught, or farm-raised; what species is it and what is the stocks status of that species (close to being depleted or not); how was it caught (was the ocean bottom floor dragged obliterating all other life along the way, or was it caught by hook and line…); how high or low it is in the food web (high means high bioaccumulation of heavy metals, such as mercury).
Would you like to start thinking about what you eat? You can start in a simpler way. We all have different priorities in life. Some of us will care more about ethical issues, and some about the environment, or our health. Take a look at the table below and depending on what you care about the most – ethics, environment, or health – start there.
So, there you have it – that was my grocery shopping, every time. A bit overwhelming. It was exhausting, but it made me think and it made me learn. I almost gave up on various occasions. When I was too tired I just skipped that product altogether. But over time, as I researched and learned more, purchasing became almost automated – I knew who the trusted producers were and things became easier.
Luckily in the US, labels are informative on most products. They at least tell you who produced your food and where it came from. The rest is all in the Apps and iPhone. Searching, analyzing, and weighing the options – what would I rather have – a fish polluted with heavy metals or a fish close to extinction, or no fish at all?
Honestly, all this can be a struggle – between my principles and desires; between wants and means; between me and society that surrounds me… Struggle for time, struggle for ideas, for persistence. But to me, it is worth it, and more importantly, it is achievable. Trust me, it is.
Some people like to count calories, some give points to their food… In the end, it all comes to – think twice, or thrice before you shove it down the throat.