Saturday, October 30, 2010

Actually looking into where my food comes from... novel concept, right? (2nd post in food series)

I adapted an essay from my Local/Global Food and Farm Systems class, where we had to write a Food Diary:

I am a vegetarian, so I let some of my food habits slide because of the many ways that vegetarianism avoids environmental problems associated with factory farming. I have not yet admitted to myself that processed vegetarian foods also have negative environmental impacts and can also be part of the industrial animal-abusive food chain. I eat many unprocessed foods, like salads and vegetables, but they are rarely local, and often eaten with other processed foods like salad dressings.
Most of my food is organic or otherwise labelled as eco-friendly and targeted to concerned consumers like me. I have to look beyond the images of trees and the claims of "natural" and "green." For example, instead of butter, I use Smart Balance because it is labelled as healthier, yet its ingredient list is filled with names I cannot decipher, and one I wish I couldn't: “TBHQ for freshness,” a form of butane described by Pollan as  “the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget.”[i]

My Morningstar Farms veggie bacon strips, what I like to call fakin’ bacon, also contain TBHQ, along with these items made from corn: modified corn starch (a binder), citric acid (a preservative), monocalcium phosphate (a leavening agent/ antioxidant), and caramel color, whatever that means. I tried to contact Morningstar Farms, yet received a message that the information I sought was “considered confidential and proprietary to our company.” Interestingly, Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg, which represents the food industry’s monopolization; it was the 10th largest international food company in 1999, according to Jason Clay.[iii]
Silk Almondmilk is similar to Morningstar Farms—it markets itself as environmental and sustainable, although it is following the trend of increased monopolization and processing. It is owned by WhiteWave Foods, which is a subsidiary of Dean Foods (whose website says: “Created by Nature. Delivered by Dean”[iv]). Dean Foods has been sued for being monopolistic, like the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit filed earlier this year[v]. According to the Cornucopia Institute, once Silk got bought by Dean Foods, they started calling the food “natural,” not organic.[vi] According to the Institute, which represents family-scale farming, “Dean Foods is an $11 billion agribusiness giant and the largest milk processor in the United States”—it uses factory farms to milk its cows, and was not transparent during the Institutes review of their practices, unlike Eden Foods and other soy food brands.[vii]
Silk’s customer service representative was not very knowledgeable when I called on Tuesday September 20. I found out little more than what the website had already told me, which was rather frustrating. The almondmilk in my carton was processed at a plant in Bridgeton, NJ and the representative thought that most almonds come from farms within 150 miles. The problem with this statement is that all US almonds are grown in California. I think she just knew the definition of "local" food--within a radius of 150 miles--and told me what I wanted to hear.
My best experience with contacting companies came when I looked into Eggland’s Best, which produces my eggs. When I called, I was immediately connected to John, a Quality Assurance Lab Manager who answered almost all of my questions. He explained that they voluntarily certify their cage free and organic products as humane by American Humane and Humane Farm Animal Care (one of the qualifications is having two square feet per bird). Apparently, for eggs to be certified organic the chickens must be cage-free and have access to the outdoors, but “cage free” is a term without much regulation or any certification.
Up until the beginning of this year, Eggland’s Best used to list the individual farm where the particular carton of eggs came from, but now they just list all the farms that produced the product. From the code on my carton, John was able to tell me that the eggs were packed in North Carolina, probably from a nearby farm in Virginia or North Carolina. Usually the farms are at the packing facility but cage free and organic eggs are usually collected from smaller family farms because of the space requirements. The website says “locally delivered to the store within 24-48 hours of laying,” so I asked about that, and he explained that trucks deliver to a DC Safeway distribution center to deliver to all the stores.
The hens have a special vegetarian feed, whose basic ingredient is corn—John assumed the corn was local for the egg producers. It is ground up in a traditional mill, and so is not very processed.[viii] The strange part was the ingredients they put in specially for Eggland’s Best: vitamins and minerals added in. It reminded me of Pollan’s concept that food scientists consider themselves above nature, making food that is even healthier than natural food. They provide not just a commodity but also a “service,” adding value by selling “an idea of purity and health.”[ix] It seems to reflect what Pollan calls the “fourth age of food processing, in which the processed food will be infinitely better… than the whole foods on which they’re based.”[x]
The whole experience was also disheartening. It seems like the system is set up against product transparency. But there's one positive side to frustrations about consumption: as consumers, we all have the power to make some better choices about our buying more from farmers markets. Here's a site to learn more about DC farmers markets: Fresh Farm Markets and two sites where you can type in your zip code to find out more information about local food near you: Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest. Good luck, and let me know if you have any more food for thought! 

[i] Pollan 113
[iii] Clay 35
[vii] ibid
[viii] Pollan 86
[ix] Pollan 96
[x] Pollan 97


Clay, Jason. 2004. World Agriculture and the Environment. Island Press: Washington, DC.

Pollan, Michael. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Group Inc: New York.


  1. Really interesting post. I'm a vegetarian too, and it's true that you can be a vegetarian and still make a lot of environmentally unfriendly choices. I get the veggie burgers at Leo's all the time, but they're Morningstar, too, and the list of ingredients is also pretty depressing.

  2. Great post, Mara! That class must be very interesting.

    What I've always thought is a good rule of thumb is that if I were given all of the ingredients, could I actually make it from scratch myself? If the list is too long or if there are words I have never seen before/can't pronounce, the answer is a clear "no."

    Although veggie burgers, when house-made at a restaurant, are often good in and of themselves (and not attempting to look or taste exactly like meat, I have an issue with fake meat products. To me, the idea of fake meat products is like diet soda---you want soda but don't want the sugar, so you drink an overprocessed version of it with questionable chemicals rather than drinking water or another healthful beverage. It's the same for most faux meat products; I find it more enjoyable to see what I can make with what exists naturally because it often tastes a lot better. There's a restaurant near me back home that is vegetarian(vegan on request) that does not use soy, seitan, or any other meat substitute in any recipe, and they have some of the best tasting dishes I've ever had. It really does encourage creativity.

  3. Well, the good thing about meat substitutes is that it makes it much easier to transition into being a vegetarian, which is still probably the most environmentally friendly thing people can do at this point. But then I think the next step (besides relinquishing all animal products, or at least non-local animal products) is to start to cut down on processed foods.