Everybody knows that they should eat healthy, and a growing number actually follow through with it. As we watch health value, carb quantities, and cooking methods, we sometimes miss the most important part of a healthy diet: Starting with safe ingredients.
The American food system is huge and incredibly efficient. We can go to a local store and purchase items grown all over the world. They’re plentiful, pretty, and apparently safe.
But do we really know what has happened from the moment a food ingredient was harvested until it arrived in our grocery cart? Sometimes we do, but many times we have no idea. Large national brands source their product from wherever they choose, with an eye mainly toward cost and availability and less attention on quality and healthfulness.
As a rule, we seem to be okay in spite of this lack of knowledge. But bad things happen with food sometimes, and many of those bad things can be avoided if we just know a little bit more about where our food comes from. When we do, we can avoid some of the most common pitfalls.
Buying retail at a store carries a load of uncertainty. The labelling can tell you very little about where it came from, and knowing its origin still doesn’t equate with knowing how the product has been handled. A direct source like a Kodiak Fish Market does the harvesting, processing, and marketing itself, and you buy directly from them. If you have a question about the product or how it’s handled, you know exactly who to ask.
The same is true of local farmers’ markets. What better way to buy food than directly from the people who grew it. Local farmers rely heavily on their reputation to maintain their markets, so they can be counted on to do what’s right. And since they’re usually just a short drive away, it’s hard for them to hide from you.
The ingredient label is about the only thing you really know about what has been done with a store-bought food. You can’t ask if any pesticides have been used. You can’t verify organic labelling. You don’t know if the workers who harvested it were doing so using the approved Good Agricultural Practices. In short, you just don’t know enough about how your food has been handled.
Again, we look at buying direct as a route through this troubling problem. The fewer middlemen there are in the process of getting your food from farm to plate, the fewer facts are lost. A farmer can’t hide how he or she raises a product when you can stop in and visit. But the more repackaging, consolidating, and re-labelling a product undergoes, the more information is lost.
When berries come into season, stores are bursting at the seam with those vented plastic clamshells, loaded with shiny strawberries, blueberries, and countless others. It’s only when you pop that lid in your kitchen that you discover two rotted berries huddle among the better ones.
That’s the ugly reality of food being harvested and packaged, then sent on a journey that’s hundreds of miles long to the market. Commercial foods are picked early, then allowed (or chemically forced) to ripen in transit. How do you feel about your apple reaching the zenith of ripeness while riding in the back of a refrigerated truck?
Again, non-packaged, locally-grown goods are the best. You can peruse the offerings and set aside lower-quality items. And of course, the ever-vigilant farmer is probably already culling the bad fruits anyway.
Healthy foods need to be healthy in more than just their name. The entire process of getting them from their point of production to your point of consumption should favor freshness, safety, and quality. Educate yourself about the quality issues that matter to your food, and then shop accordingly.