Living in Los Angeles has enlightened me to the amount of people who think they know food and nutrition because they “heard about it on doctor Oz”, or something similar. One of these common misconceptions about food is organic versus non-GMO. I’ve heard countless times that organic and non-GMO foods require more resources to produce crops, are more expensive, and still use harsh organic chemical sprays on their crops. As a matter of fact, these are all untrue. After I talked with a local organic poultry and produce farmer, she clarified these points to me.
My partner and I go to a local farmer’s market every Monday a few blocks away from us. We started going when we moved into our first apartment together in the fall of 2020. After several trips, we quickly developed a relationship with the farmers there. They elaborated to us that they use chile water, ladybugs, and praying mantis to handle pests like aphids (we are growing plants and had frequent insect invaders so we asked for advice). The farmers use organic, or naturally occurring, pesticides rather than harsh chemicals on their crops, which have been proven to negatively affect human health after exposure. Think about DDT and the American bald eagles back in the 1940’s, when this insecticide was implemented to prevent disease spread among WWII soldiers. DDT ended up being absorbed by those insects and rain water, washing into the water system to be later introduced to bald eagles via marine life. The irony is DDT wasn’t banned until 1972, six years after the Endangered Species Act of 1966, recognizing the devastation on flora and fauna. If you think bald eagles were the only ones harmed from this, then you’d be mistaken. Humans are exposed to the same chemicals but have longer life spans and genetic codes, so mutations may look like cancer or kidney disease rather than a quick death. Now apply this concept to our food supply and how major modern agriculture practices permit the use of these chemicals on our food in order to preserve crop yields for feeding the masses. Chemicals that are easily absorbed through thin-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as apples, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes, end up being absorbed by our food. When plants are watered, this does wash off the chemicals, but they don’t just disappear — this goes into the soil, runs off into streams and rivers, even traveling hundreds of miles away from the source. So not only is modern agriculture ruining our topsoil land, but it ultimately hinders life rather than bolstering it.
This brings me to my second point. Seasonal agriculture and growing needs to be the majority practice globally rather than modernized farming. I don’t mean take away the tracker and watering machines, just harsh chemicals. If we take a deep dive into our nutritional anthropology, our ancestors planted, harvested, and commenced agricultural rituals according the seasons, moon phases, and other cultural beliefs unique to each society. One example of this is the Native American tribes native to the Northwest guiding the colonists of America on how to fish, hunt, grow, and cook as nature intended. Planting the Three Sisters (squash, corn, and beans) together in a dirt mound over recently caught and killed fish was a passed down tradition within the Native American tribes. The fish offered to the Earth was for Spirit to bring a bountiful harvest, and nourished the soil with decaying organic material. In ancient Mediterranean times, farmers would replenish nutrient drained soil after each harvest with manure or plant a tillage crop like alfalfa for nitrogen recycling. Since harvests came with each season, different foods grew different seasons, thus availability for certain foods may differ from region of the world and time of the year. Tomatoes, olives, and grapes were harvested in the from the end of summer through the fall, meaning these would need culinary transformation in order to endure throughout winter. Development of preservation by means of curing, drying, fermentation, and smoking increased the shelf life of food products for crops that would not normally be consumed outside of its harvest season. For example, grapes were left out to dry naturally before fermenting for winemaking; lemons and other fruits were packed into earthen jars and stored with sea salt to cure; cheeses, fish and meats were smoked and salted; many herbs, grains, and produce were dried for later application. People ate with the seasons, preserving and taking no more than they needed, allowing nature to guide nutritional intake. As a nutrition expert, I can honestly say eating seasonally would not change the macro or micronutrient component of the diet, only foods available. In our current state of human society, we can still achieve this grassroots living by supporting local agricultural producers and farmers in seasonal growing methods. Granted, this goal means we need to realize our food system was made to distract us from this seasonal, spiritual eating that our ancestors lived — no convenience snacks, no more store bought almond butter, no booze. Challenge your perspective to think this way and you may be surprised with the outcome.
As promised, I wanted to give my audience some tips for picking out produce at the grocery store or Farmer’s market, and then a guide on how to read a nutrition label. So first thing first, bring a list with what you want to buy. Second, pick produce that is grown locally and seasonally. If you are not sure of what that might look like, do a quick search online for where you live and the produce grown in the area. Third, get a feel for the produce — literally get your hands and feel what you want to buy. There is no better way to discern produce other than touch. Of course, don’t pick produce that is moldy, bruised, too soft or ripe, or GMOs. “Ugly” produce, or produce that is deemed unfit for store sales, is more often than not sold at your farmer’s market and is the same produce, just might look a little funny. If you want to, feel free to smell the produce too. Its apart of my grocery ritual, so I hope I’m not alone! One last note is to stay on the outside “ring” of the store while you shop, as all the pre-packaged goodies are in the middle isles while produce and whole foods are on the outside because customers go right to the isles. Funny how grocery store flow enhances product marketing.
Lastly, reading a nutrition label can be confusing but I’ve been teaching people from five to eighty-five for almost a decade on how to interpret them. First, you want to take a look at the serving size and the servings per container. These are different! Servings per container tells you how many are in that one item, so if it says two, then the one item needs to be split into two to make a single serving. Serving size says how big the serving weighs, or the volume of the serving. Next, I take a look at calories, ignore calories from fat unless you need to watch your lipid intake. Calories need to be multiplied by the number of servings per container. Take my example from earlier — 2 servings, and let’s say a serving is 250 calories. 2 servings * 250 calories = 500 calories for the whole product. Now, the label breaks down macronutrients, or our fat, carbohydrate, and protein sources. Fat is worth 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein are 4 calories a gram (alcohol is 7 calories per gram). With this knowledge, we want to pick out foods that have more carbohydrate and protein balance with fat calories, fat being no more than 30% of the total calories. To find out how many calories there are, multiply by 9 for fat or 4 for carbohydrates and protein. When observing contents of fat, choose products with no trans-fats and that contain poly and monounsaturated fats. Carbohydrate sources should be more from whole foods rather than refined flours and have at least a couple grams of fiber per serving if possible (we don’t have enough fiber as a whole population). Minimize added sugars when possible. Protein should come from sustainable sources, and be about seven grams per serving. One final note is to read your ingredients list — if you can’t pronounce a word/if you don’t know what a word is, then don’t buy it! The USDA does not require companies to include labeling of ingredients that are less than 0.5 grams a serving, so keep this in mind when purchasing food products you haven’t made yourself.
Thank you for reading — feel free to comment with a future topic to journal.