We live in a society with a wealth of food choices that is probably unparalleled in history. While our great grandparents were mostly limited to the food that could be grown close to where they lived and considered imported foods like chocolate and tropical fruits to be luxuries, we can buy a banana from Central America, a cup of coffee from Ethiopia, and a host of foods our ancestors never even dreamed of for sums so trifling we don’t think twice.
The downside to this abundance is that it’s hard to know where our food comes from and what’s gone into it. But the truth is that one reason so many foods are so cheap is that they’re produced with methods that most of us would object to if we were aware of them from slavery to clear-cutting forests. Luckily we also have a lot of alternatives that allow us to eat a diet that takes full advantage of the world’s bounty without taking ethical shortcuts. Here are ten common foods with unsavory origins and ten alternatives you can feel good about.
Tomatoes 1 of 20Ninety percent of winter tomatoes sold in the US come from southern Florida and many of these are grown in horrible conditions approaching slavery. Barry Estabrook documented a case of a worker from Mexico housed in the back of a panel truck with two other workers where he was forced to shower with a hose and eat meager rations provided by his employer. He was never paid for his work and was beaten if he tried to take a day off. Sadly, these types of abuses are common in the tomato industry.
Slave-Free Alternatives 2 of 20If you want to avoid tomatoes grown in deplorable conditions, there are several courses of action available. First, since winter tomatoes are the bulk of the problem, avoid eating tomatoes out of season if you live in a temperate climate. You can also shop at a store that has vowed to sell only slave-free tomatoes. Right now, those include Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Finally, check out your local farmer's market, where you can meet the farmer who grew them.
Learn more about slave-free tomatoes, and ways you can get involved at The Giving Table
Image: Mason Masteka
High-Fructose Corn Syrup 3 of 20High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a common sweetener that appears in a wide variety of foods. Because of the way corn is produced in the US, it is a major contributor to environmental problems such as soil depletion, erosion, and pesticides in the water supply, the latter of which has caused the formation of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
HFCS-Free Options 4 of 20If you want to avoid high-fructose corn syrup, you're in luck, because it's not actually that necessary to most of the foods it's found in. For sweets, look for ones made with cane sugar or honey. For non-sweets that often have high-fructose corn syrup, try to find options that are sugar-free altogether. There's no reason that bread, for example, needs to be sweetened. Not only is cutting it out of your diet good for the environment, it's also better for your health.
Image: Scott Bauer
Chocolate 5 of 20Much of the chocolate sold in America comes from the Ivory Coast where child labor and slavery is rampant in the industry. According to the US State Department, over 100,000 children work in "the worst forms of child labors" on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.
Fair-Trade Chocolate 6 of 20If you want to buy chocolate that was raised by workers paid a fair price for their labor, look for certified fair-trade chocolate. You can find a list of fair trade chocolate sellers here. You might also consider donating to an organization that works to end child labor, which you can find here.
Learn more about child labor and chocolate here
Strawberries 7 of 20California, producer of 90 percent of the nation's strawberries, allowed farmers to use the fumigant methyl iodide this year, even though it was previously banned as a substance that causes cancer and neurological problems. Pesticides can make their way into your food in small amounts, but they are an even bigger problem for the farm workers who are exposed to them while they work.
Learn more about toxins and strawberries here
Image: Henning 48
Methyl Iodide-Free Strawberries 8 of 20If you're concerned about methyl iodide in strawberries, purchase organic strawberries, which don't use the substance.
Get involved try picking your own strawberries
Image: Brooklyn Supper
Coffee 9 of 20As newer varieties of coffee that don't require shade cover to thrive have become more popular with coffee plantations, coffee production has increasingly led to deforestation. Moreover, these varieties require more in the way of chemical fertilizers and pesticides than traditional varieties.
Greener Coffee 10 of 20For a more sustainable cup of coffee, look for brands that are "shade-grown." Shade-grown coffee supports biodiversity, requires less fertilizer and pesticide, and prevents erosion. Fair-trade certification can also point to coffee that's been grown to protect the environment and workers.
Thai Shrimp 11 of 20According to a recent NPR story, the Thai seafood industry which supplies a large percentage of the shrimp consumed in the US, relies on people trafficked from other southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. They often aren't allowed to leave the boat or contact their families for years. Fifty-nine percent of Burmese fishermen on Thai fishing vessels reported that they'd witnessed a captain murder one of their crew mates and other abuses are common, too.
Safer Shrimp 12 of 20Competing with slave labor has hurt the prices fetched by US shrimpers, so making sure to buy American shrimp not only ensures that you aren't indirectly supporting human traffickers, it also allows you to give a boost to an industry that's been placed at an unfair disadvantage.
Image: Tomas Castelazo
Factory Farmed Meats 13 of 20The abuses of the factory farming system are pretty well-known. Livestock are treated inhumanely without adequate space in conditions that promote disease and require constant doses of antibiotics. They don't have access to good food and water and can't engage in their natural behaviors. Frequently, their stressful conditions lead them to harm themselves and other animals and often they are abused by the workers who care for them.
More Ethical Meats 14 of 20The first thing to do is consider eating less meat or give it up altogether. When you do eat meat, try to buy meat that was raised in the best possible conditions. Pastured meat, for instance, comes from animals that lived outdoors engaging in more natural behaviors and were fed a better diet. No food labeling scheme is perfect, but by asking your butcher, you can often find out a great deal about where your meat came from. There are some other great tips here.
Tuna 15 of 20Five of the eight species of tuna are currently in danger of extinction due to overfishing and as the fish's popularity continues to remain high across the globe and with countries like Japan and Canada refusing to add bluefin tuna to the list of protected fish, the problem is unlikely to abate any time soon. In addition, mercury levels are concentrated in these large fish.
Sustainable Fish Alternatives 16 of 20Some species of tuna are doing better than others. Albacore tuna, for example, is the most sound option. There are also plenty of sustainable alternatives to tuna. You can replace canned tuna with canned salmon. You can get a complete list of sustainable seafood options from the Environmental Defense Fund here.
Make classic salmon salad
Image: Dan Cook (USFWS)
Genetically Modified Foods 17 of 20While Genetically Modified Organisms can be helpful in producing food more efficiently, there are also some major concerns surrounding GMO's. The long-range effect of these crops on the ecosystem at large, and microorganisms in the soil in particular, are largely untested. It is known that pollen from GMO crops is easily spread for miles, potentially compromising crops nearby and organic crops.
Learn more about the battle over GMO alfalfa
Avoiding GMO Foods 18 of 20While there are no GMO-labeling requirements at present, some manufacturers voluntarily label foods as being GMO-free. You can also look for foods that are labeled "100 percent organic" which are legally required to be GMO-free.
What Does Organic Really Mean? 7 Common Food Terms Defined
Palm Oil 19 of 20One of the least expensive oils, palm oil is a common ingredient in processed foods from margarine to potato chips to cookies. Much of the palm oil in the US is imported from Malaysia and Indonesia and comes at the expense of those countries' rain forests as palm oil production is one of the leading drivers behind deforestation in those countries.
Image: Achmad Rabin Taim
Other Oils 20 of 20One way to reduce your intake of palm oil, and help your health in the process, is to reduce your intake of processed foods, eating cooked whole foods for meals and snacks like nuts and fruit. For those occasions when you need a cooking oil or are going to purchase a processed food that contains an oil in it, nearly any other oil, especially an organic one, is a better option for the environment than palm oil.
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Read more from Elizabeth and Brian on Brooklyn Supper.
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