Misleading Food Reports: What’s the Truth?

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Category : Whatcom Locavore Basics

Cow on GrassI’ve been concerned lately about information comparing the food results of different farming methods. What is actually said may be accurate, but the stories can be seriously misleading because of what’s omitted, or the way terms are used. For example, I went to a food blogging conference recently in Seattle. One of the vendors was United Egg Producers. They were touting a recent agreement they had made with animal rights activists to upgrade their caged-hen methods to “enhanced” caging methods within the next 15 years. They kept emphasizing that the nutrition in an egg from a caged hen was exactly the same as from an uncaged hen. However, when I asked them for more details, it turned out the growing conditions they were talking about were practically the same. In their lingo, “uncaged” meant hens raised in a building with no cages (sounds good, right?), but photos on their website show hens crammed in wing to wing on racks of metal shelves and perches, with barely enough space to hop to the floor where more hens are also crowded wing to wing.

While the “uncaged” chickens can at least move around a little, who would reasonably expect the nutrition from commercially caged chicken eggs to be significantly different from their equally stressed and crowded “uncaged” cousins? The claim of the egg producers that the nutrition was equal only seemed impressive because the definition of “uncaged” was misleading.

The next level of freedom for chickens is “free range.” Under current regulations, barn raised chickens can be called “free range” if they are given access to an open door leading to a concrete deck outside. The chickens may never actually go outside, and there is no area for them to forage for their natural food. The typical diet of these “free range” hens is often the same as for caged hens: corn, soy, cottonseed meals and synthetic additives. Both the corn and soy are generally genetically modified (GMO) products. Will the egg nutrition be significantly different? Seems unlikely to me.

To be truly different, hens need to be “free range pastured,” meaning the hens are outside, free to roam around, in a pasture area where they are able to forage for the insects, seeds, worms, and green plants which are their natural foods. Sometimes farmers supplement their foraging with commercial feed, but ideally the chickens will have a choice. Also, organic feed is not supposed to contain GMOs.

Now here’s the critical point: when the terms are clearly defined and not misleading, how does the egg nutrition compare? Mother Earth News magazine in 2007 hired a professional laboratory in Portland, OR, to do a nutritional analysis comparing caged-raised chicken eggs to free range pastured chicken eggs. Here’s what they found. The free range pastured chicken eggs had:
– 1/3 less cholesterol
– 1/4 less saturated fat
– 2/3 more vitamin A
– twice as much omega-3 fats
– three times more vitamin E
– seven times more beta carotene

Other studies have supported these results.

I could list similar problems with reports about grassfed pastured beef vs. CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) beef. When it comes to nutrition, few dispute that grassfed beef contains higher levels of omega-3s. Instead, CAFO proponents focus on the tough texture and higher cost of grassfed meat. Here are the facts. Grassfed beef stroll while they are grazing. As a result, they tend to be leaner than their feedlot-confined cousins who have little room to move, and eat primarily GMO corn feed from a fixed trough. When the meat is prepared in exactly the same way using traditional methods, the grassfed beef will typically come out tougher because there is less fat. This texture can bias taste test results. If the meat is cooked appropriately, though, grassfed beef can be equally tender.

In short, be careful when you interpret articles comparing the food results of different farming methods. It’s a “buyer beware” food world out there. Labeling helps, but it’s not enough to guarantee the quality of what’s inside the package.

Here’s a simple solution–know your farmers! Go to the Farmers Market nearest to you and ask the vendors questions about their farming methods. Visit nearby farm stores, where you can buy products on the farm itself. Find out which farms will be participating the annual farm tour this fall and take the opportunity to visit Whatcom County farms.

Then take the next most important step–share what you learn with others. Tell your friends, family, and co-workers. Help them learn how to tell if their food is healthy. Introduce them to your farmers!

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