I was completely exhausted after reading an article on Grubstreet titled The Neurotic Eater's Guide: The ethical, environmental and health problems of virtually every food in the grocery store. The title alone is a bit overwhelming. Taking all of the information to heart may make you stand in the grocery store aisle paralyzed with indecision. But, still, the information is worth reading.
The very, very long piece is "a guide to what’s morally squishy about so much of our food supply — and practical tips about how to make more informed, socially conscious choices about what you put in your mouth."
Almost every food has its issues
The guide separates food into "aisles," including:
- Dairy: cheese, eggs, ice cream, milk, Parmesan
- Seafood: caviar, crab cakes, lobsters, salmon, scallops, clams, oysters, octopus, snapper, shrimp, tilapia, bass, Chilean sea bass, cod, mahi mahi, catfish, halibut, pollock, trout, tuna, orange roughy
- Meat: bacon, beef, chicken, foie gras, hot dogs, lamb, pork, turkey
- Produce: alfalfa, apples, asparagus, avocados, bagged salad, bananas, cabbage, canned vegetables, cranberries, berries, corn, lettuce, beans, olives, potatoes, pineapples, pesticides, tomatoes
- Sundries: bottled water, bread, canned soup, cereal, processed cheese, chocolate, coconut water, coffee, energy bars, French fries, honey, hummus, maple syrup, mayonnaise, olive oil, orange juice, quinoa, palm oil, Pop-Tarts, salt, seltzer water, soy, spaghetti, sugar, sugar alternatives, wheat
There's a reason I listed everything from the guide; it's to let you see just how overwhelming it can be to figure out what's the most ethical, environmental and healthy choice for every product you need.
If your soup comes from a can, it may not be the best thing for your health. If it was packaged in a Tetra-Pak, it may not be the best thing for the environment. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Take a look at just one food from the list, canned soups. The issue with canned soup starts with the can, which most likely contains bisphenol A or BPA in the can lining. The soup is also often unusually high in sodium, sometimes more than half the recommended daily intake. The guide recommends looking for soup in Tetra-Paks to minimize health problems, but Tetra-Paks come with environmental issues because they're difficult to recycle. Aluminum cans, on the other hand, are easily recyclable.
So as with many of the foods on the list, there's no perfect choice when it comes to being good to your body, to the environment, and to the people who produce the food.
Still, you have to try, right?
When I first began thinking about how my choices at the grocery store affected the environment and my family's health (thinking about the ethical implications of food production came a little later), I did find myself paralyzed with indecision in the grocery store aisle — and frequently. An unlimited budget might have thwarted that paralyzation, but I didn't have one then and I don't have one now.
After having a total meltdown one day over whether I should buy a laundry detergent that was specifically environmentally friendly or buy coffee that was organic (because my budget wouldn't allow me to buy both), I finally decided I would rank products in an order that made sense to my family and then do the best I could with the money I had. I set these rules:
- I started with what my kids consumed most often. The item I ranked as the most important was milk. Whenever possible, I bought organic milk. Even today, if I can't buy organic, I make sure I buy rBST-free milk.
- I also decided coffee had to be a priority because of how much we consume. I found an organic brand I liked, and I've stuck with it.
- Bananas, apples, grapes — I buy organic versions of all the fruits my kids eat on a regular basis.
Over time, I've became better educated. As I learned the toll that beef production takes on the environment, I bought a lot less beef. When I do buy it, I try to get it from a local farm that raises grass-fed cows humanely. Instead of buying expensive, organic, frozen chicken nuggets (which are still processed and the kids didn't really like), I have created my own combination of breadcrumbs and spices to make my own chicken fingers using organic chicken. When I learned about the working conditions on many coffee plantations, I made sure to buy fair trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee, not just organic.
These changes, and the many others I made, took time. Going through the information in the Neurotic Eater's Guide will take time, too, but it's worth a look because it may help you prioritize what you buy and from where. Just don't let it paralyze you. Instead, figure out which food on the list you buy the most and start with that. The next time you go shopping, pick another food and learn about that one. Just keep on going.
The saying goes, "perfect is the enemy of good." It's good to buy products that are good for you, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced. But trying to buy all your products perfectly can make you neurotic — and probably isn't even possible unless you have an unlimited budget and maybe not even then.
So give yourself a break and start with small steps.