Friday, February 4, 2011

Prepared Food Products: What should we know?

We all know it is better to make our own food from scratch. That way we know exactly what is in it and we are not creating more garbage by purchasing a packaged product with a wrapper that may be added to the landfill.  Making our own homemade foods can be fun and they usually taste better than what we can purchase. However, many of us still purchase a prepared food here and there. How can we pick the healthiest of these foods? How can we also support companies with good intentions? How can we make sure we are not supporting mega-corporations with questionable intentions who have bought out our favorite organic food companies?

When we purchase food we are purchasing the story (history/herstory) behind that food. Sometimes the story behind the growth of that food or the processing of that food does not fit into the picture of what we want our world to be like. It is important we get as much information about our food as possible and only purchase from reputable companies. The more local the company the more you can really know about that company.  Try to purchase from local companies as much as possible to support your community and decrease waste involved with transport. Local food also means fresher food for your body.

Here are a few things to check when looking at a prepared food. 
• Look to see if it is a local company listed as the supplier. 
• Next look at the type of packaging containing the food.  
• Are all the ingredients organic. If not and you are still willing to purchase that item, make sure it at least is GMO free. 
• Does the list of ingredients contain any words you are unfamiliar with? If there is a word listed you don't understand, find out what that ingredient is before purchasing or eating it. Do you really want to eat something that contains ingredients you have never heard of?
• Are the ingredients healthy ingredients you would use if you were making that prepared food?

A company that cares about your health also cares about the planet. Do you know the company making the food? What are their environmental practices? Where are they located? A local company will often care more about your immediate environment than a non-local company.

So how do we know if the packaging is the best choice for the environment. What is that packaging made from? Is it made out of something that will leach into the food? Some plastics containers will leach toxins such as bisphenol A into foods. Some metal containers such as aluminum cans will leach aluminum into the product it contains. To stop the aluminum from leaching into the food some manufacturers are using aluminum cans with plastic liners which of course just creates a plastic leaching problem. Does it look like a paper product, plastic, metal etc? Could they have used a different type of packaging that would have been better for the environment or safer for the consumer? If it is plastic does it say it is recycled? Some packaging is deceptive. Here is an example of packaging that I think is pretending to be something it is not: Seeds of Change (now owned by M&M Mars) has enclosed their chocolate bars in a cardboard wrapper. When you look at all the other choices of chocolate bars on the shelf theirs stands out as it is not only organic but it has a cardboard wrapper rather than plastic. If you purchase the candy bar you will find inside the same type of plastic wrapping around 3 individual pieces of chocolate candy. The same type of wrapping that is around all other types of candy bars. So looks sustainable on the outside, but not on the inside and it is even worse as they wasted that cardboard wrapping that was just extra material conveying the idea of being sustainable packaging.

So what about the name of the product. Be careful is all I can say. The name can be deceptive. An example is Newman's Organics Pet Food. (I will post specific information on dog food in the future.) Some of Newman's Organics Pet Food is organic and some is not. The word organics appears in their trademarked name and makes it appear you are buying an all organic product when you purchase any of their products.   In reality they have products with this name in large letters on the front of their packaging while on the back in the ingredients list some of their products have non-organic items listed. Always read the list of ingredients. Another dog food example would be Organix dog food which sounds like it might also be all organic but the ingredient that is the second largest percentage of the contents is listed an non-organic when you read the ingredient list. Here is another example: Back to the Seeds of Change chocolate bar again. They have a bar that is called Dark Chocolate With Cherries and Vanilla. You would guess this is an all dark chocolate bar from the name but not if you read the ingredients which show milkfat as the 4th ingredient in the list of the chocolates ingredients.

What if you read the ingredient list and don't know what some of the ingredients are. You can ask the grocer if the product is in a store you respect for their attempts to sell good food. (Hopefully you only shop at such places. Why support them otherwise?) You can also look it up on the internet at home before purchasing the product or at least before eating it. Remember you can take food back to the store. People rarely do this, but you can. It will really send a message to the store if everyone starts returning food that has questionable items in their product list. However, it is better to read the list at the store and if you feel the item should not be offered at the store, tell the person in charge of the store or that department. Most stores have a form you can fill out for the manager. Fill it out and tell your friends to also fill a form out with the same complaint or suggestion next time they visit the store. Find a product that the store should carry in its place and list that on the form as an alternative.

It is easy to tell if your product is organic as there are certifying bodies that kind of watch organic companies and make sure they fall within the guidelines of organic growing and processing. (These guidelines are not as stringent as they use to be due to megacorporations getting them changed. That is a whole different blog to write.) Sometimes you will have a local company that is not certified organic but you know they are organic. That is great as long as you are sure. If it is not an organic certified product and you do not know the company, do you know if it is GMO free at least. Is it labeled as GMO free? Does it contain any of the known GMO foods?  I gave the following information in a previous blog on GMOs back in December but feel it is important to list it again for your use. If you wish to see the entire blog on GMO's the link is here. 

Here is a list of the GMO foods you commonly find in supermarkets and when you go out to eat in a restaurant. I have listed the percent of each foods chance of being GMO when you purchase it.
Soy 91%, corn 85%, cotton 88% and canola 80-85% (Canada) are all genetically modified if not organic (they are considered the big 4- if it says one of these on the label and does not say organic, assume it is GMO. Of course this includes high fructose corn syrup, corn sweeteners. Maltodextrin, dextrose, soy lecithin, soy protein isolate etc. As of 2008 sugar in USA is made from GMO sugar beets. Some zucchini and crook neck squash are modified, most papayas from Hawaii, potatoes, and tomatoes may be modified.  Others: A cigarette called quest, milk from treated cows, aspartame, chymasin in hard cheeses (used in 80% of hard cheese in US).
Some companies are writing GMO free on their ingredient list. Since there are no labeling laws currently about GMO's you have to know the company to know if you can trust their word. You can also look for the NON GMO label. As time goes by more and more companies are using this label. Click on this link here to see what the Non GMO label looks like.  This label gives a guarantee that the company has had their product examined to assure their product is really Non GMO.

All organic food is not allowed to contain GMO's. So if you eat certified organic food you can be more assured it is not GMO. Why can't you be assured for absolute certain? Well, the problem with GMO crops is that the pollen is picked up from GMO fields and transported to non GMO fields  including organic fields by pollinators. This is why we should not allow any GMO food to exist anywhere on the planet! For more details on why GMO foods are bad for us all, click here.
Also pay attention to changes in the food you have purchased over time and trust your sense of vision, smell and taste.  I noticed a change in color, consistency and smell in the organic canned dog food I had purchased from Newman's Organics and thought it was strange that it coincided with Paul Newman's death. My dog also noticed a change as she did not like it any more. Always call, write or email companies about problems with their food, packaging etc. This is how we make change. A company assumes for every person who contacts them there must be hundreds of other people with the same complaint who never bothered to contact them. This means your response is very valuable to them. They do pay attention. When critiquing their product or packaging make sure you do it in a way that they can understand, give them suggestions of how to do it better and even positive examples of other competing companies who are doing a better job may  be helpful. Try to be positive about your criticism so it will be easier for them to hear it. We are not just complaining, we are attempting to change the way they do business.

It is equally important to talk to your grocer. If you want more organic foods, less GMO foods available, tell them. For example: I was in a local health food store that had two kinds of non-organic dried candied ginger and no organic candied ginger. I showed them the problem, let them know I would only buy organic and they said they would remedy the situation. It was on their shelf a week later and they have offered it ever since. If we all do these little things we can make big changes together.

Pay attention to who owns a product also. Just because a company is large does not mean they are bad. However, watch what these companies do in the world. Also remember just because a company is small and local does not mean it is a good company either.

Many small well intentioned organic companies and sustainable companies have been bought out by big non-organic/non-sustainable companies. Here are some examples of smaller companies that have been purchased by larger companies.

• Kraft , the country's largest food processing company owns Boca Foods and Back to Nature
• Coca Cola owns Odwalla juice and Honest Tea
• M&M Mars bought Seeds of Change
• Procter and Gamble bought the organic dog food Karma which is part of Natura Pet Foods
• Colgate Palmolive owns Toms of Maine toothpaste
• Cadbury Schweppes owns Green & Black's chocolate
• Hershey owns Dagoba chocolate
• General Mills owns Cascadian Farm as well as Muir Glen
• Kellogg's owns Bear Naked's granola, Kashi, Morningstar Farms
• Heinz owns Hain Celestial which includes many subsidiaries such as Garden of Eatin, Celestial Seasonings, • Sunspire, Spectrum organics etc
• Dean owns Horizon, The Organic Cow of Vermont, White Wave/Silk

Some of these companies have increased their commitment to organic principles, however some firms are working to cut costs by merging operations and using fewer organic ingredients in prior all organic or mostly organic food,. The organic ingredients tend to be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts so if the companies can get rid of the organic ingredients without you noticing they can sell the food for the same price and make more money. Many companies have started using the word "natural" to try to fool people into thinking the product is as good as organic although these non-organic products contain ingredients grown with chemicals usually. They may also have questionable preservatives, colorings etc in the product.

To get more information on the organic industry structure go to this very informative link: 

To wrap it up: When purchasing prepared food products buy local company brands that have a good reputation for being friendly to the environment and their employees, supporting local farmers and providing healthy food. If there are no such companies locally, consider starting your own company. You would be surprised how many food companies begin with a good idea out of someones kitchen. Someone just like you!