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Twinkies Are Not Real: Seven Simple Considerations for Sustainable Food

Remember that contest we had long ago? Well, the books are here! Both the Chelsea Green Guide to Sustainable Food by Elise McDonough and the Chelsea Green Guide to Nontoxic Housecleaning by Amy Kolb Noyes are now available!

Here’s an excerpt from Sustainable Food:

Seven Simple Considerations for Sustainable Food

The basic hierarchy followed in this book, inspired by the Natural Gourmet Institute’s founder, Annemarie Colbin, is whole, seasonal, organic, local, fresh, real, and delicious. Let’s start our edible adventure by defining each of these terms.

Whole foods exist as close to their natural state as possible, and represent the simplest and most nutritious form of human sustenance. Increasing the amount of whole foods in your diet will instantly cut down on the amount of unhealthy additives you consume, while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint.

Whole foods arrive in their natural packaging, such as a peel or skin, which can easily be composted, along with inedible cores, seeds, or stems, thus reducing the amount of household garbage that ends up in a landfill. More importantly, by avoiding processed foods, you opt out of an industrial food-production system that converts wholesome ears of corn into industrial products like high-fructose corn syrup, and that considers synthetic food additives like aspartame, monosodium glutamate, and trans fats to be part of a balanced diet.

Grains are whole foods when they are minimally processed (brown rice, oat groats, wheat berries, etc). Fruit must have no edible pieces removed. For instance, apples are whole foods, but apple juice is not. In the kitchen, meals that are created from whole ingredients are considered “wholesome.” For example, a smoothie blended together from berries, bananas, cashews, and whole milk can be considered a whole food, since all of the ingredients qualify.

It’s easy to find whole foods in the produce section, bakery, deli, or dairy case on the periphery of your grocery store, whereas heavily processed, “packaged goods” typically rule the center aisles. When you must venture into the center of the labyrinth, consider leaving your cart behind, to discourage impulse buys.

Seasonal foods arrive in abundance at a particular time of year, such as pumpkins in the autumn, parsnips in the winter, asparagus in the spring, and strawberries in the summer. Adding seasonal foods to your own diet means challenging your palate with new dishes and connecting your kitchen to the larger rhythms of the planet.

Before our modern system of shipping and refrigeration, almost all food was seasonal, and you’ll definitely find this reflected in traditional recipes. For instance, pasta primavera translates as “springtime pasta,” and includes vegetables like fresh peas that ripen at that time of year. And while making roasted asparagus in the winter sounds like a delicious idea too, it’s less so when you consider all the extra fuel required to airfreight those tender spears from South America. Better to wait till spring and buy local.

Seasonal eaters also save money and get fresher food, since they buy perishable items when they are most abundant. To extend the season, you can preserve some of this bounty through methods of food storage like canning, pickling, drying, and freezing. Small-scale home canning and freezing efforts are much more energy efficient than industrial processing, once you take into account the energy required to transport these foods to your local supermarket, and from there to your pantry or home freezer.

Organic foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, milk, and cheeses, have been produced without the use of chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Removing these largely petroleum-based inputs from the food chain fights global warming, reverses soil degradation, and produces healthier, more sustainable foods. The USDA also rejects genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when awarding organic certification.

Originally, the organic farming movement sought not only to avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but also to address the myriad other drawbacks of industrialized agriculture by supporting small, diverse, local, and eco-friendly food producers. However, the success of organic products in the marketplace has attracted large corporate investment and government interference, both of which continue to transform the movement. It’s important to remember that, while the greater availability of certified organic products represents a victory for consumers, the struggle to secure safe, sustainable food for everyone remains far from over. One way you can help is to join the Organic Consumers Association, and help fight the agrochemical companies and corporate agribusinesses that constantly lobby the USDA to weaken existing organic standards.

Meanwhile, despite their recent, rapid growth, organics still constitute a very small sector of the overall food economy. Also, as just mentioned, large corporations have muscled in on this increasingly profitable market. On the plus side this means less pesticide pollution, and more accessibility and affordability for consumers; on the minus side it usually means a continuation of agribusiness as usual, such as factory-style, monocrop farming, and the long-distance transportation of organic produce from remote locales to markets.

According to the USDA, anything labeled “100% Organic” must contain less than 5 percent nonorganic material, while the “organic” label mandates at least 90 percent organic ingredients, and “Made with Organic Ingredients” requires 70 percent organic ingredients. Organic produce can have some pesticide residue on it, according to a 2002 Consumers Union report. While detectable residues were much lower compared to conventional items, some organic items can be tainted by pesticide drift from neighboring nonorganic farms. And organic meat or poultry may, in some circumstances, have been fed a certain amount of nonorganic grain or hay, or the animals treated, if sick, with antibiotics. When antibiotics are used on an animal it is removed from the herd and not reunited until all drugs are out of its system. In the case of organic dairy cows on antibiotics, their milk is not added to the food supply until they are healthy again.

The commonly accepted standard for local food means it was grown, gathered, hunted, or raised within a 100-mile radius of where you live. Self-described “locavores” refer to this area as their “foodshed.” A consumer’s dietary impact on the ecosystem is referred to as the “foodprint,” a riff on the popular “footprint” metaphor that measures an individual’s overall carbon impact based on their lifestyle. Purchasing local foods directly supports small-scale farms, giving the farmer more of your grocery dollar and keeping money circulating within the local economy.

Throwing a 100-mile dinner party offers a fun way to learn about the bounty of your own foodshed, while simultaneously spreading the word about the benefits of local eating, including freshness, value, reduction of energy consumption, and support for nearby farmers.

For optimal taste and nutrition, fresh food should be eaten as soon as possible after it has been picked, harvested, caught, or slaughtered. Avoid using frozen and canned foods whenever possible. Frozen foods consume tons of energy in order to stay below freezing until you’re ready to cook them. Canned foods are convenient and have a long shelf life, but they also rely on an energy-intensive production process.

Instead, when fresh food is not available or preferable, investigate traditional methods of food preservation—like drying, pickling, and fermenting—that can actually make food healthier! While canning and freezing foods requires energy, it’s still more efficient to preserve food at home with these methods if driving to the store to buy prepackaged frozen food is the alternative. “Putting food by” is a traditional and valuable skill for thrifty and eco-conscious families.

A Twinkie is a tangible item. It can be seen, touched, and tasted. So is it real? For the purposes of this discussion, it is not. “Real” food, in our definition of the term, will exclude any product of industrial refining processes, excluding not just junk food and fast food, but many of the packaged goods found in the modern supermarket—everything from what Gorton’s calls “fish sticks” to what Kraft calls “macaroni and cheese.” Those fake foods aren’t grown or even cooked like “real” foods: they’re imagined into being by a corporate marketing team, created in a lab by a food scientist, constructed out of refined ingredients, artificial flavors, and preservatives, and then heavily promoted and advertised.

The famous question organic farmers posed to the USDA certification program is “Can a Twinkie be organic?” Well yes, technically, because Hostess could start with organic ingredients and then highly refine or process them. But in many ways the concept of organic “convenience” foods is antithetical to the true spirit of the original organic-foods movement. So look beyond the label and don’t assume that highly processed “organic foods” (of which there are many) are good for us or for the planet.

Eating right for the planet isn’t about deprivation: it’s about gaining a new perspective on food and a better understanding of the role humanity plays in the greater ecosystem. The experience of cooking and eating should be one of life’s great joys, not a chore to dread or a routine to take for granted. Be mindful of tastes, and know that real, whole, fresh, local, seasonal organic food should be delicious food too!

Savor your food, chew thoroughly, and make time to eat without distractions. Appreciate the colors, textures, and beautiful forms of fruits and vegetables. Eating slowly brings increased satisfaction, and dining purposefully with good intentions makes food that much more pleasurable.

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