What’s In a Label? Not What You Might Expect….

Does it feel like grocery shopping takes a lot longer these days? It is not that the stores are bigger or the lines longer. It is because every product comes with so many labels that reading all of them doubles my usual shopping time! Even a quick run to the store to get some milk can become quite an experience as I discovered the day.

As I reached out to get my usual gallon of milk a new product placed close by caught my eye:

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The blue and white of the bottle was similar to the cartons of milk but then I saw the “non-dairy” and thought oh, not milk. But wait, it then says “milk protein”. By now, I was thoroughly confused, re-read the whole thing and discovered it was a liquid derived from peas. Protein from vegetable sources is great for the diet but they are not “milk” even if the product is a white liquid. In case you are interested, it does not taste like milk either and not something that makes a natural pair with your cereal of choice.

Much space on the label was devoted to what it was not:

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This is part of the upward trend in “absence labeling” where the information on the label is not about what it contains but what is not there. Companies say this is because consumers are “worried” about their food and need to know what is in their food. IN reality, these labels are all about what the food is not, playing into consumers’ fears and not based on fact. Why talk about what is not there other than to imply that had that ingredient been there, it would have been harmful to the consumer? This fear mongering to garner profits by driving consumers away from competing (but completely safe) products undermines trust in our food system and leads to higher food costs and lower agricultural productivity.

A good product should be able to draw consumers on the strength of the advantages it offers, not by vilifying other products. So what did this product say about its strengths?

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It is “vegan-made” so made from vegetables. Why not simply call it a vegetable protein source?  It contains 10 g of protein as compared to 1 g of almond milk. It would be interesting to know how that compares with soy milk which in the non-milk category comes out as best in a recent study. That study also found that most of the non-milk products do not provide the same level of nutrients (or inhibit the intake of nutrients). It also has 12 g of added sugar, not found in milk.

I am curious about the calcium content that the label asserts and will be looking more into it. Two sources I looked at, one from the National Institutes of Health and another from Harvard Medical School do not list peas as a notable source of calcium.

And, of course, it is “non-gmo”. No GMO peas are grown anywhere, nor is there any GMO milk so this essentially highlights something that is not relevant to the product. It links into the prevalent misperception that, had there been any “GMOs”, that would have been a cause of concern.

This might seem trivial but it does have two important consequences: it will impact your food budget because that product will cost you more than regular milk or conventional version of the product. For consumers working on a constrained budget, this product might not be an option. If they have heard all the fearful talk around GMOs, they would worry that buying a different product might impact their family’s health. This is not the case and the worry is needless.

Now consider a country where peas are the most important part of the daily diet. The pea crop is crucial to the country but is being devastated by a pest. A genetically modified variety of peas has been developed by scientists, farmers are eager to try it out and avoid huge income losses, but the government, under pressure from groups that have heard that GMOs are harmful, refuses to allow the crop to be grown. This information comes from countries where food is plentiful and people have choices. But in our imaginary country, crops fails, family incomes are devastated, food insecurity rises. For that country, pest resistance would have been a potential solution which is now foregone because of a label that was created simply to sell a product and not to give accurate information.

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Weekend Reading: “The Food Police”

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“Today, food policies are increasingly motivated by ideology rather than projected economic consequences. The merits of a policy are primarily judged not by whether they benefit all the people affected but by whether they advance the fashionable agenda of a new food elite”.

This is going to be an interesting read….

#Farming Friday 54: Building Climate Resilience in Fiji

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Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in 2016 and the days of rain that followed led to widespread erosion and crop loss. This was not an isolated event. In fact, warmer ocean temperatures are creating more intense flooding and storms than in the past. To the farmers here, climate change is a reality they have to deal with in the present, not something to be discussed about for the future.

The solutions that came up ranged from terrace farming and diversification of crops, to back up gardens and cooperative banking; options that might prove useful as farmers the world over face climate uncertainty.

#Farming Friday 53: India’s Cotton Revolution

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(Image : By Kimberly Vardeman – Flickr: Cotton Harvest, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17157722)

 

Worsening conditions on the farm led an Indian farmer to participating in Bt cotton trials. Increased pest pressure was resulting in low and poor quality yields.

“We were losing money and slowly getting into debt. We saw no way out and every time I would get together with other farmers, the only topic of discussion was how to survive. I thought I’d have to give up farming.”

Instead, by adopting Bt Cotton, Balwinder Kang was at the forefront of a cotton revolution, thanks to the seeds that could withstand pests. Read his story here.

As of December 2017, India leads the world in cotton production.

 

 

 

 

Food Books….and other matters

It has been a while since I posted here. WordPress reminded me that this November was Thought+Food’s eight year anniversary. When I started out, blogs were the thing, and everyone was starting and growing their blog. Somewhere along the years, the conversation shifted to social media: some Facebook groups but mostly on Twitter. Absorbing all the information that social media brings up, involvement in the discussion, all of this takes up time and energy and the blog gets pushed to the to do list.

I intend to make space for the longer pieces once more. To get back into the reading-writing mode, I was browsing reviews of food books for the year. The Smithsonian has an interesting list here. I have not read any of these, so topping my list is “Where the Wild Coffee Grows” by Jeff Koehler; nice review here.

Looking forward to interesting discussions!

#Farming Friday 52: How the Rice Straw Went from Waste to Value

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A great story I had to share! Research in Vietnam found alternative to burning rice straw: it can be used as a growing medium for mushrooms. Consequently, rice straw prices are high, and mushrooms farmers are benefitting by increased production as well. The huge added benefit is the lowering of pollution which used to result from burning the rice straw.

 

 

(Image Courtesy: annankkml, freedigitalphotos.net)

The Role of Food Markets in Society

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The way we buy our groceries and prepare our food has evolved over time. As people started settling down and bringing produce to sell and exchange with others, markets became the central civic space for social interaction.  When cities developed, the  process became indirect involving traders as middlemen, that link grew weaker and in the era of the modern supermarket, there is virtually no human interaction at all. Even cooking is an optional activity with stores doing huge business in ready to eat meals. This piece suggests that farmers’ markets, community gardens, urban and backyard gardens would bring back that social engagement.

The idea is interesting despite some assumptions such as the identification of fresh and organic food with farmers’ markets, and conventional produce coming from industrial farms. According to the USDA,  97% of the farms in the US are family owned and organic produce is readily available in most supermarkets. While the popularity of farmers’ markets has certainly risen in recent years, recent research found that, of the different options for food sourcing, farmers’ markets were the least preferred. So while they do not fulfill all the requirements for grocery shopping, the reason for their proliferation might just be the social setting they provide.

(Image Courtesy: “Fruit on A Wooden” by start08, freedigitalphotos.net)