Everything You Need to Know About Sustainability and Food


There’s a growing emphasis on knowing where your food is coming from, how it affects the environment, and if healthy for the earth means healthy for your body. But in trying to eat a sustainability-conscious diet, we’re inundated with labels like wild-caught, grass-fed and free-range. For your average-Joe, how do you eat well, do your part, and not drain the bank?

According to Chris Hunt, Special Advisor on Food and Agriculture for the Sustainable Table, an outreach of the Grace Communications Foundation, sustainability is a very broad concept that covers issues ranging from animal welfare to environmental implications to personal health to fair labor.

“[Sustainability] is going to incorporate a lot of different elements, and different elements are going to matter more to different people.”

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As a consumer, the key is focusing in on which issues are priorities for you. Do you want to avoid pesticides? Ensure no animal cruelty? Support businesses that reduce air and water pollution? The difficult thing, he mentions, is that there aren’t great labels to differentiate all the different goals that fall under sustainable eating.

That’s where stores like Whole Foods Market step in. Jody Villecco, Global Quality Standards Coordinator for Whole Foods, and her team create labels and systems in their stores when there are not official designations. For example, for seafood, they only sell products certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, or rated green or yellow by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but produce doesn’t have such regulations. So, they’ve created a responsibly-grown produce rating system which labels products good, better, or best, so consumers know what they’re buying.

In other stores, Villecco recommends buying products with third party certifications, like certified organic products. Organic products are free from persistent pesticides, added growth hormones and chemicals, and encourages environmentally-friendly agriculture practices. If you’re just kicking off a sustainable-minded diet, buying organic is the easiest way to go, Villecco says.

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Something smells fishy

We have to wonder if these labels actually mean anything for our health. Are wild-caught salmon more nutritious than those raised on a farm? According to Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, wild-caught salmon typically have higher protein and Omega-3 (the good fatty acid) levels. Since farmed fish are raised in close quarters, they’re also often given antibiotics which may get passed on to humans during consumption. From an environmental standpoint, farm-raised fish are fed between two to five pounds of ocean-caught fish during their lifetime, which may lead to overfishing, she says.

The bright side, she mentions, is that wild-caught salmon comes canned for those looking for a budget-friendly way to consume those omegas. Other wild-caught fish like Atlantic Mackerel, Arctic Char and Sable Fish are also eco-friendly options with health benefits.

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Grass-fed is always greener

In 2006, the USDA required anything labeled “grass-fed” to have been fed grass or foraged plants for 99 percent of its food for the lifetime of the animal. The standard is high, but so is the payoff. A grass-fed animal maintains a stronger digestive system during its lifetime and produces less greenhouse gases, Farrell says. If pasture-raised, the animal is also helping restore natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats by naturally dispersing manure. And by buying local, grass-fed meat, you’re helping support sustainable agriculture and provide jobs to communities.

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The Chicken Debate

Chicken is where it gets complicated. Cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised and organic, are all labels that make their way onto grocery-store chicken and eggs. According to the Humane Society website, caged chickens have approximately 67 square inches in which to live their life, which means they can’t nest or spread their wings. Cage-free chickens are raised without cages, but they’re still confined to a building or room, and even so, there’s no guarantee there isn’t other animal cruelty. Free-range chickens have some access to the outdoors, but in colder climates that can be an unattractive option. Pasture raised chickens have the most freedom, as they have space to roam and forage, but also have shelter, which makes them the best option for consumers when available, says Farrell.

For the eggs, she doesn’t believe there is a true difference in nutrition, other than the Certified Organic eggs are free of pesticides and antibiotics, and those chickens are also fed a vegetarian diet.

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Where Marketing Takes Over

There are some sustainability terms that are misleading. Natural, for instance, is often confused for organic. But Farrell reminds us that natural foods are not necessarily grown organically—it means there are no artificial ingredients or preservatives, which says nothing of their sustainability.

Hormone-free meat is also confusing. All meat has natural hormones from the animal—hormone-free simply means additional hormones were not added.

And there’s genetically modified organisms, or the daunting GMO. The debate over the long-term effects of GMOs is still raging, so Villecco says Whole Foods has committed to label all products with GMOs until more scientific data is accumulated. Organically certified foods prohibit GMOs.

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So where to start?

Eating sustainably all the time seems a bit unwieldy, but there are some simple adjustments that people can make who want to dip a toe in the pollutant-free water.

Going meatless once a week is a great first step. Reducing meat intake can help curb obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but it also means a smaller carbon footprint and less water used to raise livestock. On the days you do eat meat, look for organic or pasture-raised options, says Hunt.

He also recommends referencing the Eat Well Guide to search for restaurants, grocers, and farms near you that support sustainable practices.

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On that list should be local farmers markets. Another great step towards sustainability is to start shopping there. Hunt says, “The thing that’s great about that is you can have a conversation with the farmer and ask about their production methods.”

For even more simplicity, Farrell suggests a co-op. By joining a farm whose practices align with your ideology, you can get fresh, sustainable products delivered to you on a regular basis. The random assortment of items in each basket will also force you to be a little more creative in the kitchen, which, Farrell adds, is a great way to impress a woman.

She adds a final note: “Somebody who cannot buy organic food, should not feel at a disadvantage.” Creating a diet rich in whole grains, colorful fruits and vegetables and lower in animal protein, will provide a first step towards a healthier and more sustainable diet.

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