What does it mean to make food choices that are good for you and the planet?
TL;DR: Using three criteria—Is it good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet? Sophie Egan, author of How to be a Conscious Eater, helps us navigate the bewildering world of food so that we can all become more conscious eaters.
A NYT Health Contributor Weighs in on How to be a Conscious Eater
In September 2020, Joro’s Founder and CEO, Sanchali Pal, sat down with Sophie Egan, NYT Health Contributor and author of How to be a Conscious Eater, to find out what it really takes to eat in a way that is good for you and good for the planet. In their conversation, they covered everything from a framework for conscious eating to how to buy eggs. Read on for the biggest nuggets of knowledge (pun intended…), or catch the full recording on YouTube.
How did you become interested in sustainability and food?
I think the seeds were planted when I visited Italy as a kid and when I studied abroad for my junior year in Bologna. I chose Bologna because it is the belly of Italy as it's knowns as Italy’s gastronomic capital. I had the chance to take a class on the cultural history of food from an incredible professor named Massimo Antenori. It was the first time that I ever heard the concept of food culture. It was sort of the beginning of an intellectual passion around understanding food and the ways that it's so interconnected to identity and heritage.
In terms of sustainability, it had to do with my first job out of school as a food and travel writer for Sunset magazine. I found myself always looking for an environmental angle. That ultimately brought me to complete a public health master at UC Berkeley. Food is connected to everything: politics, economy, religion. I mean, it's the central hub of this giant wheel with so many spokes. And that ignited this fire to go down every single field. From writing for Michael Pollan at Berkeley to applying design thinking methodology to the food industry, those were pretty formative experiences.
Fascinating, tell us about the conscious eater framework and the process of writing your book.
During my time as a contributor to The New York Times health section, I answered a lot of reader questions. I found myself often wanting to reframe them to be more holistic in nature. It's not about grass-fed versus conventional beef so much as our need to lower the total amount of beef consumption for environmental reasons.
The other major piece that led me to write this book is the level of anxiety and confusion about food choices. There's an annual survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) that found that 8 in 10 Americans are confused about what to eat. It’s a bummer because food should be a source of joy, comfort, and nourishment. Unfortunately, there is a lack of food literacy and confidence in the kitchen.
That's what led me to write: How to be a conscious eater, which is also the framework. It’s essentially a mental checklist to help you decide between food choices. It's asking yourself: is this food good for me? Is it good for others? And is it good for the planet?
Can you talk a little bit about what labels to pay attention to?
The short answer is that some of the labels matter and some don't because of a variety in regulation. Let’s start with Organic. It’s highly regulated and one of the most rigorous frameworks out there. I suggest paying attention to it.
The question then becomes: is it worth the extra money? I’d say yes because it reflects the true cost of the externalities coming from food production. Take a burger on a fast-food menu. You should really wonder whose lives (the animals, the workers at the poultry processor, or the slaughterhouse) are negatively affected in order to bring you that item at an incredibly low price tag. This is called true cost accounting. Some of these third-party certifiers like USDA Organic are reflecting the actual cost of all those externalities.
Another one to pay attention to is Fair Trade, which is focused on worker wages. In sustainable seafood, there's Seafood Watch, MSP, and AC. I do put some faith in these third parties because, again, they're going to the trouble of implementing accountability mechanisms beyond just greenwashing or empty marketing buzzwords.
I was wondering if you'd be willing to talk about the choice of eggs in particular. I feel like people are overwhelmed by the different choices available. Tell us which eggs do you buy and how do you decide?
I'll just give a caveat that eggs and seafood are the most complicated, I think, of all the food choices. In ascending order based on how much space the chickens have: cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised. The problem is they aren't regulated. The way I make a decision is to select eggs where the chicken has the most space to exhibit its natural behaviors. I then combine it with one of the 3 gold standards: Animal Welfare Certified, Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane, and Certified Humane Raised and Handled. The reason I say those top three is that they're the consensus among the majority of the animal welfare NGOs Interviewed for the book.
In a nutshell, the rule of thumb is to pair together labels to give you the answer to what’s good for you, others, and the planet. Therefore, choosing organic and animal welfare certified products is a good place to start.