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Part One of our series on Conscious Consuming

One of our basic precepts at The Alternative Consumer is the idea that we can all make a difference – both in our own daily lives, and those of the larger community – by being conscious consumers. Today’s consumer landscape has seen stratification into several groups. One group, let’s call them the Whole Foods Crowd, tends to shop for the healthiest, sustainable, organic products and foods with limited concern for price. The other end of the spectrum is the Big Box Crowd – those intent on getting the best deal and the most bang for their buck – folks who like to refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck”. In between we find crossover consumers who look for the best combination of price, quality and healthfulness – checking cost per unit prices and ingredient labels to find the best deals both economically and from a quality of life perspective.

It’s a massive topic, but we will endeavor to provide some tools for differentiating the good, the bad and the ugly of consumer products. Today’s topic: food.

We know in today’s challenging economic environment many folks struggle to make ends meet, as the price of daily essentials continues to rise. Affluent communities (the Whole Foods Crowd) may have more organic or eco-friendly shopping options because they aren’t constrained by the same economic realities that face the Big Box Crowd. Lower middle class or less affluent communities in both urban and rural areas frequently don’t have the retail food buying options available to upper middle class and affluent areas. Companies do extensive market research before they open a store in a community, so your economic demographics may not prove attractive to Whole Food or Trader Joe’s. You may even reside in an urban community in what is referred to as a “food desert” where your only local alternatives are McDonald’s, Seven Eleven, KFC and supermarkets that primarily feature processed food products defined by price, utility and large scale production rather than quality, organic ingredients and sustainable local production – this may preclude making decisions based on some of our criteria, but here goes.

Read Those Labels
Food packaging labels are all about marketing. Labels are designed to get you to buy a product – not to inform you about pesky details like unit weight, cost per ounce or the fact that those cookies might be loaded with palm oil, GMOs or high fructose corn syrup. You have to pick up that product and look behind the price tag – start reading, and hopefully the FDA has mandated that the maker of that product prints on that label the info your require. Here are some ingredients and issues you should factor into your food purchasing decision.

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup – the moderate consumption of processed sugar is a major cause of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, dementia and more. The problem is that HFCS is in almost all processed foods. Read product labels and you’ll find HFCS is an ingredient in everything from ketchup to brownies. The big processed food companies are fighting to keep it on the supermarket shelves because it is a critical component of mass food production – though it may be killing you. Everyday more products that don’t contain HFCS are hitting store shelves – read the label and make the right choice. You just might live a little longer and avoid costly health expenses.  
  • BPA – Make sure the canned goods and beverage containers you purchase are BPA-free (studies have found major health concerns surrounding BPA) – more and more canned products are being packaged without BPA – but you have to read that label. The BPA (Bisphenol A polycarbonate plastic or epoxy resin) that lines canned goods, beverage cans & bottles, and plastic food storage containers can leach into your food and be ingested. BPA is suspected to have negative effects on the brain, behavior, hormones and glands.
  • Gluten-free – Wheat is a major ingredient found in literally millions of processed foods. You may have someone in your family who has been diagnosed as gluten intolerant, has celiac disease, or who you suspect to be allergic to wheat products. As this issue rises in importance to both consumers and health practitioners, entire product lines and companies are being developed to address the demand for gluten-free products, ranging from quinoa pasta (it’s different) to cookies and frozen fish products. You can now find gluten-free products in many stores – Whole Foods has a dedicated section – reading those product labels can help you avoid gluten and find affordable alternatives.
  • Less Meat – Cows (and their farts) produce about as much greenhouse gas as cars do in the USA – regardless of the stats – it’s a lot of gas. Cattle’s grazing also degrades much of our grassland and can contribute to habitat degradation and erosion. In addition, red meat can contribute to many health problems. In conclusion: eat less meat.
  • Palm Oil – Unsustainable palm oil production in impoverished countries like Indonesia and Malaysia is responsible for a massive reduction in old growth rainforest (think climate change) and animal habitat. In addition, unlike most plant oils which have health benefits, palm oil is high in saturated fats, calories and cholesterol – all things that are bad for your heart and overall health. Unfortunately palm oil is a key component of cheap, mass-produced processed foods. Look at the label of many cookies (yes Oreos), snacks (Triscuits), soft drinks (Dr. Pepper), apple juice (Mott’s) and many ice creams – it’s even in low-fat dairy products, soaps and cosmetics. Read those labels and choose one of the many alternatives that don’t contain palm oil or try to find products that contain sustainably harvested palm oil. I know it’s a tough task – it’s everywhere – almost 50% of all packaged food contain the stuff. Be aware the palm oil can be disguised as ingredients with palmitate in the name, hydrated palm glycerides , OPKP and PKO, among others.
  • Re-program Your Taste Buds
    Our taste buds have been trained for decades to crave salty, sweet and fatty processed foods. Our body is trained to want this stuff, the more you eat the more you crave. Let your brain steer you aware from this processed junk and the inches it will add to your waistline. Read those labels and reprogram yourself. You can find tasty, satisfying alternatives.
  • Buy Local
    Buying local protein and produce can be a cost-saving, health-improving endeavor that also helps the economy of your community and keeps your neighbors in business. If you always head to the local big box to save a few bucks you’ll eventually put your local small producers out of business. You’ll also be supporting unsustainable business practices – like shipping an avocado 2,000 miles – and contributing to the continued proliferation of processed foods, while denying yourself the tasty reward of farm-fresh meats and produce, often organically produced. If you like consuming pesticides, GMOs, frozen fruit and unsustainably grown food then head straight to your local big box (though Target and Walmart are trying to go green).
  • GMOs – We really don’t know the full impact of ingesting genetically modified foods and won’t for some time.  If you want to avoid genetically modified produce, meats and poultry you’ll need to proceed in your product evaluation armed with the knowledge that corporate America and big the agri-business don’t want you to know the genetic details of what you’re eating. The giant agricultural lobby has killed GMO labeling initiative in several states, including presumably-green California. We are left to do our own research and buy products that bear the Non-GMO label.

Hope this was helpful to you. Feel free to chime in with any comments, suggestions or insights.

related: more green tips from The Alternative Consumer