For example, is an organic egg better than a conventional one, or one with extra Omega-3 fatty acids? And if so, in what way? Which is safer, healthier, or better for the environment? Which ensures more humane treatment of animals? And what do all those egg labels really mean anyway?
Below I have summarized each category, and a basic guide to what to look for when shopping, but I encourage you to read the full article when you have a chance.
1. Dairy: Conventional dairy farms can be pretty nasty places. Not only do dairy cows frequently suffer from mistreatment, but the conditions they are forced to live in often shorten their natural lives from around 20 to only 3-4 years. Methane from dairy operations has been found to have a significant impact on global warming, and antibiotics and growth hormones are commonly fed to dairy cattle to make them produce unnatural amounts of milk - which then make their way into our food.
What to Buy: First, in all of these categories, your best option, if you can find (and afford) it is to shop local. Find a local farmer, visit their farm, get to know them and their animals, and source your milk and milk products from someone you know and trust.
Obviously this option isn't available to everyone, so if you are not able to do this, look for the following labels on your dairy products: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Grass-Fed, or Organic. The first two are self-explanatory; grass-fed animals are generally healthier, happier, and better treated, plus sometimes less destructive for the environment. Organic doesn't mean any of these things, but it does mean the cows were not fed hormones or antibiotics.
And buy milk in glass containers if possible - both for environmental sustainability and for food safety.
2.) Meat: The ethics of eating meat are similar to dairy - only worse. Horrifying living conditions, animal cruelty, and massive environmental impact are just a few of the issues with factory farmed meat. If you can't stand the thought of supporting this industry, not eating meat at all is always an option. However, if you do choose to eat meat, there are some things you can do to support a more responsible system. For one thing, reduce your intake - especially of red meats, which typically have a higher cost when it comes to environmental issues, since they live so much longer before slaughter, and consume so much more food than poultry, for example.
What to Buy: Look for the labels Certified Humane, and Animal Welfare Approved. Best of all, know your farmer. As with dairy, learning where your meat came from and seeing how it was raised with your own eyes is the best way to make sure your meat is coming from an ethical source. Eatwild.com is also a helpful resource for finding sustainably raised meats.
While buying local and choosing grass-fed or pasture-raised are two of your best options for eating healthy and ethically-treated animals, the fact remains that even these animals can cause environmental impacts. Lowering your meat consumption can make more of a difference than just about any other "green living" habit you can adopt.
3.) Seafood: If you've read recent articles about imported seafood, you may have been disgusted enough to give it up entirely, but if not, you should be aware of a few of the issues that come with eating fish. Overfishing is leading to extinction and ecosystem imbalances in many areas of the world. On top of that, contamination with toxic chemicals is more common than you would think, and fish farms often pose major pollution problems along coastlines, where the captive fish are pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive long enough to grow to harvesting weight.
What to Buy: If you have access to a local, community-supported fishery, well, you're lucky! However, most people don't, so if you can't get locally-sourced fish, you will want to do a bit of research before buying. Some species are more sustainably fished (and raised) than others, so your choice of fish can make a difference. For example: "Rainbow trout, arctic char, and oysters are often farmed in a sustainable way and are healthy to boot. Some healthy wild-caught varieties are Pacific sardines and Alaskan salmon and mackerel." Cod, pollock, and catfish are also all reasonably good choices.
There are several helpful websites and seafood rating systems that can help you find healthy and sustainably raised fish, as well as let you know that to avoid. The Safina Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium website are two good examples to check out.
For wild-caught options, look for fish certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or the Marine Stewardship Council to be sure it’s caught or fished responsibly. At the very least, buy fish that is sourced from the U.S. - not imported. This will lower the environmental impacts of transportation, and potentially lower the risk of contamination and other issues found in overseas fish farming operations.
4.) Produce: In terms of fruits and vegetables, the biggest concerns are typically transportation, labor, water usage, and pesticides. Contamination issues are also all-too common, with numerous recalls of supermarket produce in recent years due to salmonella and E.coli contamination. Canned vegetables can also contain BPA, a chemical linked to reproductive issues and endocrine disruption.
What to Buy: Local and organic - plain and simple. Most, if not all of the ethical, environmental, and health and safety issues involved in fruit and vegetable production can be avoided by buying your food from local producers who use organic (or Certified Naturally Grown) practices.
If you must purchase canned goods, go for those in glass jars, or choose frozen instead, which typically contain more nutrients anyway. If you have access to a farmer's market, stock up during the bountiful months, and can or freeze your own!
For more on these concerns, as well as issues to watch out for (and shopping recommendations) with assorted consumable sundries (coffee, olive oil, bread and cereal, honey, etc.), check out the original article at GrubStreet.com.
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