How to Know What to Eat

I have a recurring moment of crisis in the milk aisle. I waver between the ultra-pasteurized organic skim milk, 1.5 gallons for $10-- or rBST-free conventional whole milk, regular-pasteurized, 1 gallon for $5. Skim milk, organic or otherwise, is usually reconstituted from easily-oxidized milk powder. Ultra-pasteurization makes the calcium and vitamin D inaccessible for our bodies. And ultra-pasteurization wrecks the protein structure of milk, so cheeses and yogurts don't set. Skim milk lacks the fats essential to metabolize vitamin D. But whole milk is high calorie, full of dangerous but delicious saturated fats.  Organic milk is produced without pesticides but still generally raised on grain. but without growth hormones and excessive antibiotics. Conventional milk is generally raised on grain and sometimes the animals are overdosed with antibiotics and hormones. And then there's the cost! And the taste! There are too many variables-- the pro and cons list is too long and too confusing. What's worse, trace antibiotics or oxidization? What's better, absorbable vitamins or supporting an environmentally friendly company?

Ever since last year, when Matt did a presentation on food for a mom's group, I've been thinking about how to choose what to eat. Us moms had just watched Food Inc and we were in a high state of food-related flutter. Matt, as the county livestock extension agent, was asked to explain the difference between organic livestock and conventional livestock. We sat down together and mulled. It's a obviously more complicated than organic=good and conventional=evil.

What we came up with was not about the relative dangers or merits of trace antibiotics or pastured eggs. It is values. When you are choosing what food to eat and buy, identify your food values.  We all have them, we rarely articulate them. If you can rank these values in order of personal importance, food choices become much more clear. Here are some examples.
  • Nutritional value. You want to eat your 5 fruits and veg a day, you want all your vitamins and plenty of protein and whole grain carbohydrates.
  • environmental soundness. You want food produced sustainably on the land, with no pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
  • Carbon footprint. You want food produced with low-carbon-emitting methods, like no-till farming and polyculture, with limited big-footprint nitrogen fertilizer. You are concerned about food miles.
  • tradition and culture. You want your grandma's enchiladas and your grandpa's miso soup. You want ham for Christmas and porridge for breakfast, just like mom made. You believe that food connects you to your family and your heritage.
  • seasonality. You want the freshest, most bountiful food, in the natural rhythm of the year. Tomatoes and watermelon in summer, acorn squash and applesauce in winter, sweet peas in spring.
  • support of local economies. You want to keep local farmers farming and enjoy the "terroir" of wherever you are.
  • equitable working conditions. You want to make sure that all of the people involved in getting your food to you are treated fairly-- well compensated and safe.
  • cost. You need to budget and get plenty of food for your buck.
  • cuisine and taste. It needs to be delicious, whatever it is. The very best flavors, sweetest fruits, strongest spices.
  • Human history. You want to eat the foods that shaped the human animal-- paleolithic foods that formed our teeth and brains and unlikely upright stature.
  • Moral choices. You believe that some foods are morally better than others--that animals should be treated humanely or not used for food at all, for example, or that alcohol or caffeine is morally out of the question.
Resist the temptation to check YES to all of the above. They are very interrelated-- your moral food choices can also be tasty, and your historical food can also be affordable. But choose the one or two food values that you feel the strongest about. And if you hold that value in your mind, like the north star, as you are shopping, you can slough off all of the stress about the confounding factors.

If you force me to choose, I will clench my teeth and say that local food is the most important to me. It keeps pastures green and undeveloped, it is unique to this place, and as a bonus you can know the producers and exactly how they treat their animals and farms. And as a second runner up.... I have a tie. Shoot! But human history and cuisine are neck and neck. I want to eat the whole simple traditional foods that allowed us to become human: fish and fruit and veg and meat and reeky cheeses and pickled vegetables. And whatever I put in my mouth better be delicious.

So back to the milk aisle. I am thinking Local, Historical, Delicious. Hm, no local options for milk on this island. Historical--Yes! There was no such thing as skim milk 10,000 years ago! So that's a point for the the conventional whole milk. And cuisine-- I'm going to turn half the milk into yogurt or kefir, which ultrapasteurization won't allow. So we're in: a decision is made.

Hope it's helpful!


  1. I was buying organic milk for a little while, and then I decided that for the same price I can support a local-ish dairy that delivers the milk to my door. It's not organic, but it's fresh, and I can go visit and see how the animals are treated.


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