BS-not-BS is a new column where NYU Local asks which health trends are real, and which are made up by evil marketing geniuses who want you to pay $10 more for the privilege of having your burger sprinkled with holy water. This week on BS-not-BS, we help you interpret fresh, identifiable food.
Natural: Bullshit or Not Bullshit?
It can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going in our mouths. No, dad, this isn’t that kind of essay. But to illustrate what we mean, let’s take food you see in the supermarket labeled “natural” – the logo is probably green, and there’s probably some faux burlap somewhere (I’m looking at my roommate’s Natural Skippy, which is an oxymoron). The FDA has no official set of standards for deciding which products can market themselves as natural, and their FAQ page on “natural” usage reads like Cher Horowitz wrote it for debate class:
What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
If we take my roommate’s “Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread” again, the jar lists its ingredients as roasted peanuts, sugar, palm oil, and salt – in that order. Palm oil and sugar, while not “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” do not need to be in peanut butter, even if, as the label helpfully points out, there’s “no need to stir!” like there would be if it weren’t soaked in palm oil. The label also tells us that the peanuts were harvested in Arksansas, but as for the other three ingredients in the product that only requires one ingredient, their lips are sealed. So no, just because you bought the Natural Mountain Dew last week does not mean that GOOP is going to be proud of you. “Natural” doesn’t mean anything. BULLSHIT
For the Not Bullshit version, just buy the one with the fewest ingredients.
The USDA actually does have some standards to define organic, and while in an ideal world we’d all like to buy whichever version of our food wins that label, organic foods can be much more expensive, and when it comes to processed food, still don’t mean that you’re getting the freshest, least Frankenstein-ed thing on the shelf. The best policy to follow when grocery shopping is to check out the label and count the number of ingredients. If it’s more than you’d use at home, or if the ingredients don’t make sense (why should there be xantham gum in tomato soup, anyway?) don’t buy it! Get the thing with the shortest story. That means it’s probably spent the least time in a factory, the least time on a truck (no preservatives = ticking time bomb) and therefore must use the freshest, highest quality ingredients. If there are only 4 things in the product, there’s nothing to cover up a “meh” or moldy flavor.
Locally Grown: Bullshit or Not Bullshit?
In restaurants and supermarkets alike, “Locally Grown” seems to be stamped on everything. Just like “natural,” there’s no federal definition of “locally grown” either. Chipotle’s 15 million pounds of “locally grown” veggies (lettuce, onions, peppers, oregano, and tomatoes) come from within 250 miles of each of their 20 distribution centers. Some states, like Vermont, impose a limitation on the distance food can travel while still being marketed as “local,” but NYU Local couldn’t find one for New York (although Cuomo is very excited about this craft brewery legislation). Locally grown also implies organic, small business origins, but hey – I’m sure within 250 miles of your front door (from New York to DC, for example) you’ll find plenty of factory farms and other creepy places. As a rule of thumb: if it doesn’t say organic – which the federal government does have to approve – and the vendor can’t tell you the name of the farm – forget it. And learn what actually grows locally and what’s in season: if you are being sold some locally grown strawberries on Christmas, wiggle your little eyebrow.
For the Not Bullshit version:
Even if the basil plant you bought at Trader Joe’s is dying, you can still get fresh, locally sourced food. Let the farm come to you! There are about a zillion farmers markets and green markets in New York, where by definition a farm has to be a reasonable driving distance from Fort Greene. If you don’t have the time, there are also co-ops, community gardens, and farm-to-table restaurants that can actually tell you something about where the thing getting stuck between your teeth is from (his name was Colin). Or, make a weekly pickup at NYU’s very own CSA, which works with a farm upstate. You have options!