How do you choose what to eat?

imageWhether it’s a kid opting for the plain pasta with butter or a foodie reaching for a paint-peeling blue cheese, people’s food choices often come with a story. I recently explored this idea in Sustainability of Food Systems, the massive open online course (MOOC) I’m taking offered by the University of Minnesota.

For the unit on food choices, we first read about how Afghan families changed their purchasing habits when wheat prices went up.* The researchers found that wheat is a paradoxical Giffen good, meaning that when the cost to purchase the product goes up, demand for the product also goes up. In this case, it seems Afghans reduced the more varied, expensive foods in their diets and opted for more bread.

Next, we read a shocking piece on greenwashing,** the term for misleading sustainability claims. According to one study, 98 percent of products making such claims were guilty of greenwashing. Many people choose foods based on price and flavor, or cultural, environmental or health considerations. Buying by geographical factors (including buying loosely-defined local foods)  is another consideration — though for many it’s included in environmental concerns.

One homework assignment was to investigate labels on products myself. Here is what I posted on the course forum. Read on below, while I embark on my next project of interviewing people I know about how they decide what to put on the table.

Non-GMO and “no sulfites detected”

For this activity, I chose a non-GMO label on a package of sugar and a claim of “no sulfites detected” on a bottle of wine. Both claims seem to have merit, though I was suspicious of the former at first.

The non-GMO label  on my Wholesome Sweeteners organic sugar reads:

NONGMO Project

This appears right below a “USDA ORGANIC” label. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards require that certified foods be GMO-free, I at first thought that this label committed the sin of irrelevance. Yet when I read the FAQs on, the additional certification made more sense. In particular:

“Why should I enroll if my products are already USDA certified   organic?

“While the National Organic Program (NOP) identifies genetic  modification as an excluded method, GMOs are not a prohibited substance. This means that although GMO seeds are not supposed to be planted, and GMO ingredients are not supposed to be used, no testing is required. These rules were established at a time when GMOs were in limited production, and accidental contamination was not a significant risk. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. With the majority of key crops like soy and corn being planted with GM varieties in North America, contamination of seeds, ingredients, and products is a real risk, even for certified organic products.”

As for the label on my Well Read wine, I figured the lack of sulfites was a valid and provable claim. A friend of mine is sensitive to sulfites (a “sulfur-based compound“(WebMD) added to inhibit mildew growth in vineyards and to preserve wine) and says that with the Well Read product, he avoided the adverse affects associated with sulfite sensitivity (headache, etc.)


I learned that this claim, too, has a solid factual basis. The makers of the wine, Orleans Hill, says that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms requires an analysis from a “certified laboratory.” Check out their FAQs.

The very first one:

“What does ‘Sulfite Free’ mean?

“To put this on a wine label the BATF must approve the art and wording and requires a copy of an analysis from a certified laboratory showing ‘none detectable’ at the parts per million level”

Also, it looks like the ATF cracks down on those who don’t label wine that contains sulfites.

So, amazingly, these two products seem to fall among the few that make valid sustainability claims.

*D’Souza, A. (2011) Rising food prices and declining food security: Evidence from Afghanistan. Amber Waves 9: 26–33

**Dahl, R. (2010) Greenwashing: Do you know what you’re buying? Environmental Health Perspectives 6: A247–A252

Leave a comment

Filed under Sustainability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s