Holistic Health and Society: Supermarket Organics

There have been some interesting articles lately about the sustainability of the way we eat and the survival of the term “organic.” Most of them have something to do with the work of Michael Pollan, who wrote a book calledThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The New Yorker recently published an article about Whole Foods, “Paradise Sold,” by Steven Shapin, which referenced Mr. Pollan’s book several times; Mr. Pollan later wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine about Wal-Mart’s decision to sell organic food, called “Mass Natural.”

The food industry has seen how successful Whole Foods has been in marketing healthful, organic food. At a time when conventional supermarkets’ profits increase only by a few percent a year, and that probably only due to clever marketing (Does the amount that people need to eat increase every year?), the organic food industry is growing at a rate of something like 20% per year. This is where Wal-Mart comes in: they are cashing in on the organic food movement’s popularity and promising to sell organic foods at low prices.

The tricky part is that “organic” and “supermarket” started out as two different philosophies. Organic foods, by definition, cannot be genetically engineered, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, be grown with artificial fertilizer, or in the case of organic meat, fed with antibiotics or hormones. That’s what is required for organic certification. (I like to call it “Pre-WWII food.”) However, the organic movement, as Mr. Pollan points out in his article, also strives to represent sustainable, local, small family farming – a system for producing food that is much more appropriate for farmers’ markets than “super” markets like Wal-Mart and yes, even Whole Foods. It’s not that organic should remain a small niche market, eaten only by hippies and wealthy elitists (how did those two end up together?), but, rather, that it was just never meant to be corporate. The expense of the food has more to do with the fact that the dairy and meat industries (as well as the wheat, corn and soy industries, which are responsible for many of the ingredients in junk food and fast food) receive huge subsidies from the government, while organic growers of fruit and vegetables don’t see a dime (a fact not mentioned in any of these articles). The truest expression of the organic-food ideal is the more conservatively minded Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. In this arrangement, the members of the community pay the farmer up front for a share of his produce as it is harvested throughout the year. The organic farm remains a small, local operation, the food is seasonal, and the customers are given only what’s available – they are less likely to buy too much and waste their food. There is also no need to ship food across the country from California, Washington State, or even across the world – from Chile, Ecuador, etc.

This is the dilemma that Mr. Pollan outlines in his article – it’s great that people who shop at Wal-Mart can get food that has not been sprayed with poisonous chemicals like Atrazine. But to sell that organic food cheaply Wal-Mart must continue to use the economic methods that organic was meant to oppose in the first place. In other words, Wal-Mart isn’t going organic: organic is going Wal-Mart.

In “Paradise Sold,” Mr. Shapin points out similar flaws in Whole Foods’ approach to, well, whole foods. Both of these supermarkets are subverting the healthiness and positive environmental impact of the organic food that they are selling because they are doing it within the supermarket model. Walk into Whole Foods and look around for the organic food. You’ll see the word organic on a lot of their self-congratulatory banners and signs – along with even “local” and “sustainable.” But in the produce section, you’ll see a lot less organic food, less even than what they call “conventional” food. And you probably will not see any local food at all. Almost all the organic food will have been shipped out from California. For this reason, some of it won’t taste very good – if food is not fresh or local, the benefits of it being organic will be diminished with regards to how nutritious and how delicious it is.

Ultimately, though, the most important difference between the supermarket and the CSA isn’t necessarily organic/non-organic or even local/non-local. When Wal-Mart says they are going to go organic, part of what that means is that we’re going to start seeing more organic Oreos, Cocoa Puffs, and other foods that will eventually destroy your health, organic or not. Even at Whole Foods, many of the customers are not buying “whole foods.” They are buying packaged, pre-made, processed foods like cereal, chips, sugary vitamin water, frozen foods, etc., all that stuff that takes up the “middle” of the supermarket (tip from Dr. Andrew Weil, probably the best-known alternative health expert out there: always shop around the edges of the supermarket, try not to venture into the middle). How often do you see a person’s cart filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, animal products, nuts and seeds? That’s the real difference between the farmer’s market and the supermarket – in the former the focus is on the “whole foods” that, whether they are organic or not, are the foundation of a healthy diet. In the latter you will find the majority of the space taken up by processed food. In New York City, Whole Foods doesn’t even sell whole grains and beans in bulk bins. These foods – like organic crops – take more time and care to prepare, but are proportionately many times more rewarding, in terms of the nutrition and sustenance they provide. In this light, they turn out to be the cheapest – or, rather, the most economical – foods of all. The more we shift towards buy food that is not only local and organic but also minimally processed, the closer we come to a food industry that is both sustainable and provides Americans with inexpensive, healthy food.

If you’re interested in getting your food from a CSA, check out www.localharvest.org, which has a database of CSAs, Farmers’ Markets, health food stores and organic restaurants: you can search by zip code and then link to the farm that you find.

Sneezing Like Crazy: Pollen Allergies

I’ll just come out and say it: I have a loud sneeze. Something about my constitution causes me to really let loose when the wrong thing gets in my lungs. Like pollen. (Thanks to this peculiar characteristic of mine, I’ve been able to do a lot of accidental research on the psychological conditions under which people stop saying “bless you”: usually by the third sneeze).I’ve always had lots of problems with pollen, problems that manifest themselves very visibly as teary eyes, a runny nose, and a general bleary, cloudy feeling of fatigue that on most days last summer left me wading through the pollen-thick humid air half-blindly like a swimmer without goggles in an overchlorinated pool. I prefer not to take conventional medications like Claritin, so for many years I’ve just sneezed my way through the summer with some help from homeopathic medicines. But this year those allergies have been gone. Totally gone.

What did I do differently? Around May, when I started giving sugar blues workshops, I brought along some raw local honey as an alternative sweetener. After a while it occurred to me that, hmm, I’m recommending this to other people, maybe I should try it too. I started eating it right after a workout, the best time to consume refined carbohydrates. Then I started wanting to it more (yes…sugar is like that). After a few weeks I felt like I’d had enough, however, and it was then that I noticed that my allergy symptoms were gone.

Why did this happen? Raw honey contains all the pollen, dust, and molds that cause the allergies – local honey has the specific pollen that’s causing your specific allergies. Eating a teaspoon a day will cause you to build up immunity. I think it’s best if you combine this with some aerobic exercise so that the sugar gets put to some use. Honey also happens to be good for ulcers, bronchitis, coughs, and asthma. But I repeat – don’t get the filtered, processed kind – get the raw honey or honeycomb that is almost solid, and see if you can get some that is made in your state.

General Guidelines for Healthy Eating: Seasonal Eating

What makes a balanced meal? The standard theory shared by most nutritionists and dieticians is that it consists of a certain ratio of protein, carbs, and fats. The government’s website mypyramid.gov will give you more specific details based on your age and sex. Diet-book authors and diet gurus argue back and forth about whether you should have more carbs, no carbs, lots of protein, less protein, low fat, or gobs of fat. In truth, the amount of each differs for different people. And equally important is what kind of fat, carbs, etc., you eat. But there is much more to the story of balancing a meal than just these categories. There are many, many ways to balance a meal, and all that means is to put together some food that will make you feel good – or “balanced” – in terms of energy, awareness, strength, attitude, and health. You can take into consideration the season, the weather, your lifestyle, job, current state of health, the colors of the food, the tastes, the method of preparation, how hungry you are, even your mood. Is this starting to sound complicated? Well, don’t worry, because the choices you will make when taking these things into consideration are all very simple and intuitive and. Let’s take, for example, seasonal eating.

The theory behind seasonal eating is based on our experience of balance in nature. Plants grow and animals thrive in response to the conditions around them. Melons grow in the hot summer and are proportionately cool. The warming energy of root vegetables sustains them even into the winter. Aside from the fact that they will be fresher (having not necessarily traveled as far) and tastier (having been grown under the sun, not in a greenhouse), the in-season foods that you eat will impart their energy to you and help you thrive in the same conditions in which they grew and prospered. Generally if you eat something out of season it’s been flown halfway around the world – from California or South America – a process that uses up a lot of energy and resources. Now, if these were the best foods for you that would be one thing. But the fact that your body will appreciate the local, seasonal foods more than, say, the tropical foods, is another reason to cut down on consumption of food that has traveled through a change in climate to get to you, regardless of how appealingly exotic it may sound. Most people will agree that whether it’s happening or not, climate change is not such a good thing.

But this is not a hard and fast rule. For example, even though they come from far away, I love avocados. If you’re a vegetarian, they’re an excellent source of fat in your diet. There’s even a recipe for guacamole in this newsletter. But if I eat avocados more often than other fruits, I don’t feel so great. This just shows that there is still a lot of space for personal decisions within these general principles.

We are currently in the month of June (that is, if I get this newsletter finished in time. Originally it was a May newsletter). So what are some options if you live, say, in New York City, like me? I checked the farmers’ market website and here’s what they are harvesting now: asparagus, beets (and beet greens), broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mesclun, peas, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, turnip greens, and strawberries. There’s plenty of variety there; if you choose to eat more seasonally, it’s a great way to discover new fruits or vegetables that you wouldn’t have an excuse to cook otherwise.

For more information on this kind of topic there’s Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons, and John Douillard’s Ayurvedic diet book The 3-Season Diet.