The Nutritional Food Chain

A few people have asked me to explain my preferences for biodynamic, organic whole foods. In this post, I have tried to provide information and resources (see links for additional details) that explain my dietary hierarchy. I decided to include animal-based foods in the hierarchy because, although I don’t eat meat/fish/dairy/eggs for ethical reasons, my husband and most of my friends and family members do consume these foods (hopefully in moderation).  

Wild or Home Grown

In an ideal world, everyone would live in warm climates so they could gather seasonal, plant-based foods and hunt/catch their own wild land animals/fish. Alternatively, everyone could grow their own seasonal produce using high quality soil and humanely raise their own animals. Check out Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for more information regarding these lifestyles.

For a variety of reasons, the hunter/gatherer and farmer lifestyles are neither viable nor desirable options for most people living in developed countries in the post-industrial era. That’s why I’ve laid out the modern alternatives…

Animal Welfare Certifications

The Animal Welfare Approved label is the gold standard with regard to animal treatment. There are several other organizations that offer animal welfare certifications/ratings, including the Certified Humane Project and Wholefoods animal welfare ratings. Check out the Animal Welfare Institute and the USDA for additional details regarding these programs. 

Biodynamic  

Biodynamic food is ethically and sustainably farmed/raised with emphases on nutrient optimization and ecological sustainability. I have never seen a biodynamic food that was not also labeled USDA Organic. That’s because the biodynamic standards are even more stringent than the USDA’s organic standards. Look at it this way:

Organic

The USDA has implemented relatively strict and consistently enforced food standards with regard to organic labeling. Click the links below for topic-specific fact sheets:

  • GMOs – “The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.”
  • Lifestock – While there are some welfare components to the USDA’s organic standards, the requirements are not as stringent at those of the Certified Humane Project.
  • Production & Handling
  • Labeling
  • Allowed & Prohibited Substances – For processed foods, “100% Organic” is best. There are some nontrivial loopholes/exceptions regarding foods with “Organic” and “Made with Organic” labels.
  • Organic Practices

Loopholes:

  1. Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop. (There is no guidance regarding proximity to conventional crops.)
  2. Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
  3. Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
  4. Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.

Many skeptics point to these loopholes as an excuse to buy cheap conventional foods instead of their pricey organic counterparts. In my opinion, these skeptics are making a mistake. “Experts at Consumer Report believe that organic is always the best choice because it is better for your health, the environment, and the people who grow our food. The risk from pesticides on conventional produce varies from very low to very high, depending on the type of produce and on the country where it’s grown. The differences can be dramatic.” Better safe than sorry.

Minimally Processed Foods Containing High Quality Ingredients

There are many convenience foods that are fine in low to moderate quantities. This category includes 100% whole grain breads and pastas, organic nut milks and butters, dried fruits, frozen fruits and vegetables, organic salad dressings and sauces, BPA-free canned (or preferably jarred) tomatoes, low-sugar granolas and cereals, dried or BPA-free canned (no salt added) beans, organic expeller pressed oils, dried whole grains and seeds, shelled raw nuts (don’t forget to soak or sprout them), and cold-pressed juices. Most people don’t have the time or desire to make all of these foods from scratch. Thankfully, there are a plethora of ethical food companies that sustainably produce these items with high quality ingredients and very few additives.

Conventionally Grown/Raised Whole Foods

Conventionally grown Clean Fifteen fruits and vegetables are relatively safe. By contrast, conventionally grown Dirty Dozen PLUS fruits and vegetables should be avoided as much as possible. The general rule for fruit is: If you eat the skin, stick to organic. Certain crops, including corn, wheat, soy, and papaya, are often grown using genetically engineered seeds. In order to avoid GMOs, choose organic when consuming these particular crops.

For conventionally raised livestock, the regulatory requirements are sparse. Below are some examples:

  • Free Range/Roaming – Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. (Note: Outside access can be satisfied by a small hole in a factory farm wall.)
  • Natural – A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed"). (Note: The label “natural” is basically meaningless. Check the explanatory statements for substance.)
  • No Hormones:
    •  Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
    • The term "no hormones administered" may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.
  • No Antibiotics – The terms "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

Most restaurants serve food made with conventionally produced ingredients. While it won’t hurt you to eat out or order in occasionally, remember that if the restaurant is not advertising specific quality standards and/or food sources, the food will likely contain pesticides, antibiotics (not pork or poultry), hormones, additives, preservatives, chemically extracted or hydrogenated oils, and other low quality ingredients. Bon appetit.

From a health perspective, eating one or two 3oz servings of animal protein every (other) day will probably not have a significantly detrimental impact on your health as long as your diet consists primarily of vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and whole grains. That said, most animal-derived foods are hard to digest and are detrimental in large quantities. From a spiritual perspective, I believe in David Wolfe’s concept that food choices have karmic implications – the consumption of large quantities of meat, dairy, and eggs from conventionally raised animals will result in the accumulation of bad karma. Refer to the chart below for additional details:

Note that conventional milk, which is essentially stolen from baby calves (which are killed for veal) and then fed to humans, has NEGATIVE karma. Ponder that. I would also go a step farther than Wolfe and suggest that there is a karmic distinction between meat from wild/pastured animals and meat from conventional animals.

Highly Processed Foods Containing Low Quality Ingredients

Many of the processed foods stocked in modern grocery stores are unnecessary in small quantities (it’s easy to find better things to eat) and toxic in large quantities. Stay away from foods like chips, cookies, crackers, fruit snacks, microwavable “instant” foods, bread and pasta made with white flour, sweetened yogurts, milk chocolates, pastries, snack packs, string cheese, chemically extracted oils, sugary cereals and granola bars, hot dogs, deli meats, candies, sodas, pasteurized juice drinks, canned soups, and frozen microwavable meals. These items should literally be banished from your home. If a product contains a bunch of low quality foods and ingredients you cannot pronounce or visualize in whole form, don’t eat it! I used to be able to eat a dozen Oreos in one sitting with no problems. After switching to a predominantly whole foods diet, I ate six Oreos and my stomach was in knots. Your body may have adapted to these products, but they are unquestionably suboptimal and will harm you in the long term.

Sooo that’s my take on food production and quality standards. It takes effort and conviction to eat a mostly organic, whole foods, plant-based diet, but once you try it and feel truly healthy for the first time, you’ll never want to go back. 

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