It's one thing to be able to read a nutrition label and know that you're getting mechanically separated chicken, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, disodium guanylate and yellow food coloring #5 (in that order). It's quite another to hold an apple in the palm of your hand at the grocery store and wonder just how many pesticides are harbored in the fruit's innocent pale green flesh. Or say you're eating out. You want prime rib and you want it bad. How are you to know that your juicy, oh-so-delicious plate of tender beef is in fact a dietary sledgehammer, containing 94 grams of fat (more than half of which is saturated fat), the bleu cheese dressing on your salad is full of bovine growth hormones and your bread comes from wheat treated with no less than 25 pesticides?
Although most of us assume we're eating healthy if we're getting our five or more fruits and vegetables a day, and we tend to adopt an "I-don't-want-to-know" philosophy when we eat out. Should you decide you do want to know what's in your food, be prepared to do your homework, tracking down the chemical legacy of your grocery produce or finding out precisely what's in your restaurant meal is notoriously difficult.
what to watch for
When it comes to grocery store produce, we asked produce department personnel, and even called several big produce wholesalers, only to find that most of the time, specific information on which pesticides and herbicides have been used to treat a head of lettuce, for instance, was downright scarce. So why is it so hard to track down the information?
"A lot of the time, it's because they really don't know," admits BrightSpirit, president of People for Environmental Action and Children's Health (PEACH). "And in the case of the warehouses and growers, if they do have the information, they're going to be evasive about it. They usually don't want the public to know."
PEACH publishes PEACHpulp, a newsletter that offers research into common (but potentially toxic) chemicals in our food, lotions, clothing and air. The current issue includes a section on how to make better grocery store choices, 10 Ways to Minimize Pthalates (a particularly insidious chemical) and a hair-raising look at what's really in, and on, your strawberries.
"We started with the worst ones first," says BrightSpirit. "This time it's strawberries, which are full of methyl bromide. In our next issue, we're going to take a look at peanuts, in part because they're in the news a lot right now locally, but also because they're full of toxins."
One of the benefits of subscribing to PEACHpulp ($25 a year) is that the focus is decidedly local. "Our primary focus is on trying to map out the many aspects of health in the area. Food is only one small thing; we're also interested in the health of the river, the air we breathe, the houses we live in, the things we slather on our bodies. But in terms of food, we want to help people make the best choices," says BrightSpirit.
For those who are concerned about what's in their produce -- but rely heavily on the 6 pm rush to the grocery store after work for dinner fixings -- your best bet is the local produce-carrying health food store, for instance the Total Health Center on Freya, Huckleberry's on the South Hill or Pilgrim's in Coeur d'Alene. Not only will stores like these have the best selection of organic produce in town, they'll also be more likely to answer any questions you might have about your food's history.
"I try to be as knowledgeable as I can," says Shawn Schmidt, produce manager at Huckleberry's. "I don't know as much about the specific pesticides you'd find in conventional produce, and we occasionally carry conventional produce, but it's always clearly labeled as such."
Huckleberry's carries mostly organic produce, as well as produce that is considered "transitional."
"Transitional means that the grower is going through the organic certification process, and their methods are the same as those of the organic growers," says Schmidt. "They're inspected quarterly by the Washington Tilth Commission and the process usually takes three to five years, but during that time they're using completely organic methods."
So would the consumer take that to mean that transitional fruits and vegetables would carry more pesticide residue than their organic counterparts? Not necessarily.
"Actually there's probably not much in the way of traces at all," says Schmidt. "The biggest difference is that they haven't yet been certified, but their methods are the same."
One of the biggest concerns consumers have is that fruits and vegetables often come coated in a food grade wax that has been found to trap germs, dirt, fungicides and pesticides. If you don't wash your produce, chances are you're ingesting a lot more than a mouthful of steamed broccoli or a morsel of corn. But do you really need to buy a special produce wash, such as FiT? The Safe Food Rapid Response Network of Colorado State University recommends simply soaking, scrubbing and then thoroughly rinsing all produce you buy in warm water to get basically the same effect as expensive produce washes.
If consumers want to learn more about their produce, the Web can be an amazing resource.
"We get a lot of our information from the USDA, the EPA, the FDA, NCAMP (Beyond Pesticides). The information is out there if people just know where to look," says BrightSpirit.
We also discovered two enormously helpful resources in the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG recently released the results of an independent laboratory investigation that found that "two in 25 apples have pesticide levels so hazardous that a two-year-old eating half an apple or less would exceed the government's daily safe exposure level."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has an extensive Web site and also offers two publications that can help consumers make better food choices in restaurants. Their monthly Nutrition Action Newsletter ($24 one year's subscription) is full of eye-opening information that cuts through both common nutrition mythology and media hype to offer sound, sage advice.
They also just came out with the "Eating Smart Restaurant Guide" which is like a little slide rule calculator. You line a bar up with whatever you're contemplating on the menu, whether it's Denny's Grand Slam breakfast, a broccoli and cheese baked potato from Wendy's or merely the moussaka at your favorite Greek restaurant. The restaurant guide will tell you how many calories your serving size packs, the total grams of fat, and more importantly how many grams of "artery clogging" fat the food contains. The word choice is significant... you can't pretend you don't know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats when they're translated into such sobering terms.
Most national fast food and restaurant chains already supply the nutritional information for their menu items, and it's simply a matter of checking the chain's Web site before you go, asking at the restaurant or seeing if the information is posted somewhere you can see it. But what do you do when you're dining at your favorite local restaurant. Your best bet is to ask questions, even if you're worried you'll annoy your server or irk the cook.
"Our menu already has 'lite and healthy' choices, which are marked with a little heart," says Sue McCoy, kitchen director for the Onion's downtown location. "But we're always re-examining those offerings based on what customers want, and what they're concerned about." McCoy says the turkey burger has come and gone, but canola oil, which the restaurant uses for all frying, is here to stay.
"You don't hear quite as much about canola oil now, but about seven years ago it was a huge deal. The public is really influenced by the nutrition information they get from the media, and it influences their choices," she says.
McCoy adds that the Onion is willing to go above and beyond the designated "heart healthy" items on the menu if diners have specific dietary needs or are wanting to avoid particular food additives.
"When it comes to labeling, I have several kitchen assistants who will go read the labels on things like our salad dressings or canned supplies, if need be," says McCoy. "And we've even, because our salads are made at a station that contains peanuts, gone down to the basement to make a salad for someone with a peanut allergy. That means we cut the lettuce down there, the vegetables, all of it."
Local restaurants are often willing to improvise, should a diner request it.
"Part of the fun of dining out is getting what you want," says McCoy. "We have some customers that come in and tell our cooks, 'I can have this and this and this, but not this, just make something up for me.' And we will."
To subscribe to the PEACHpulp newsletter,
call (509) 455-2552. To get the CSPI's Eating Smart Restaurant Guide, send $4 per copy
(plus $1 per order for shipping and handling) to: CSPI--Restaurant Guide, Suite 300, 1875 Connecticut Ave, N.W., Washington, D.C.,