Grocery Cart Compare: Whole Foods v. Giant Eagle, week 1

When it comes to grocery shopping, there’s an experiment I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I wanted to take the time to price match an entire week’s worth of groceries to determine if Whole Foods is really so outrageously priced as people like to say that it is. So this week, I wrote down the exact items I purchased at Whole Foods and took my list to Giant Eagle Market District, which is the most comparable store that is “conventional.” We have other health food stores in the area, but they are smaller and wouldn’t likely be able to get the price comparisons that Giant Eagle and Whole Foods would. (For those of you not from western PA, Giant Eagle is our region’s version of Kroger or Publix. Market District stores are special stores with expanded selections of food, and in my opinion are designed to be competition for the dollars of consumers that are looking for more than just the basics.)

I did this with a completely open mind, as a data gathering experiment. So I wasn’t out looking for ways to make my own preference of stores “win.” And ultimately there are many factors to consider when it comes to where you shop – price isn’t the only factor. I also didn’t evaluate the quality of the items on taste or on the freshness of the produce, etc.

In some instances, one store did not carry some items that I found at another store, so I did the closest comparison. (For example, Whole Foods had some organic products I purchased and Giant Eagle only had conventional and vice versa.) I noted these differences as best I could.

Also, I should note that I realize that a two-adult, two-income home with no kids to feed has a different grocery budget than many other family configurations. This isn’t meant to be a judgment on what you buy or to present what I buy as the “best” groceries. It’s merely a price check experiment for one household – not a moral judgment. On to the data.

Item Whole Foods Giant Eagle
Organic heavy cream – 8 oz 1.99 N/A* * Conventional heavy cream, $6.29 for 32 ounces
Pepper jack slices (deli) 7.99/lb* 8.99/lb *rBGH free cheese
Black forest ham (deli) 11.99/lb* 8.99/lb *hormone and antibiotic free
In-house roasted turkey (deli) 12.99/lb* 10.49/lb *hormone and antibiotic free
Noosa yogurt 2.49 2.49
Organic fresh sauerkraut 2.99 2/$4* *conventional and canned, not fresh
Organic green onions 0.99 1.79
Organic green bell pepper 2.99/lb 3.99/lb
Organic red leaf lettuce 2.69 3.49
Conventional cucumber 0.89 1.49
Organic Granny Smith apple 2.69/lb 1.83/lb* *3 lb bags, not loose
Conventional Macintosh apple 1.69/lb 1.99/lb
Cherry tomatoes (US greenhouse) 4.49 3.99* *Mexican, artificially ripened
Conventional blood oranges 5/$4 5/$4
Conventional bananas .69/lb* .54/lb *Whole Trade
Organic peanut butter 4.99 5.99
Organic brown sugar 3.49* 3.99 *24 oz pkg v. 16 oz pkg at GE
KIND bar 1.49 2/$3
Organic NuGo protein bar 1.59 4/$5
Organic honey 5.49 6.29
Organic almonds 6.49 N/A* *Conventional only – 6.99
Sourdough boule (bakery) 3.99 4.99* *small loaves 3.99, large loaf 5.99 – avg
Organic English muffins 2.69 N/A* *Convention only 3.99
Organic raisins (bulk) 3.99 3.99
Conventional cranberries (bulk) 7.99 3.99

For this week, Whole Foods was the better choice overall. You’ll note that for dairy products and deli meat, even though the prices were more expensive at Whole Foods, I chose them as the better option for me, since I don’t eat meat with antibiotics or growth hormones, and the same goes for dairy. So if you eat conventional deli meat, you’d want to go with Giant Eagle. Ironically, the better quality cheese was even cheaper at Whole Foods. 

I also made some choices on produce at Whole Foods because of other factors (whole trade, location and method of growth), but some of the exact comparisons were cheaper at Whole Foods and others at Giant Eagle. From week to week, it will likely vary, as different shipments come in and growing seasons across the world change.

I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the prices the same at both places, or very comparable. Also pleased to see that Giant Eagle’s bulk section is so large and also gives Whole Foods a run for their money ($4 cheaper per pound for cranberries? whoa!).

This also makes me note – if I had more time, many of the things on my list I could make at home (fresh raw sauerkraut, sourdough boule, English muffins, yogurt). It would be interesting to do a price breakdown of what it costs to buy a loaf of sourdough boule at the bakery v. making one at home, also including the time/labor factor.

I am intrigued enough by the results of my findings that I am hoping to continue this series regularly (as long as I am able to get to the two stores to do it!), since we buy different grocery items most weeks. Plus, this also gives me an idea if it would be better for me to shop around. Typically, I only shop once and at one store, because frankly running errands in crowds drives me insane. But to save significant money, I would probably make the effort. 

setting priorities for healthy living

The food world was buzzing last week with the announcement from General Mills that Original Cheerios are going GMO free. This is the only variety going GMO free, since original Cheerios are primarily made of oats, which are not genetically modified. The sugar and corn starches will be going GMO free.

The way that the media exploded with the announcement shows me that people are starting to demand GMO free foods, or at the very least, more transparency about what’s IN their foods. This is positive progress.

But I can’t help but feel that the hype can also distract from the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. GMOs in food or parabens and other chemicals in soaps or household cleaners are important to understand and good to avoid when possible. But limiting your exposure to these is a secondary priority. It doesn’t matter if you eat GMOs in your breakfast cereal, if you’re also addicted to soda and fast food and processed junk. 

Sometimes it can be easy to grab on to the media’s soundbites and think that those are the most important indicators of health, since it’s what people are talking about. But the most important information is the most boring – that a healthy diet of clean foods, stress management and an active lifestyle are the largest contributing factors to your overall health and wellness. It’s a lot easier to just start buying hand soap without parabens than it is to give up soda. (I know. I’ve been there.)

As you’re thinking about setting priorities for your new year, focus on specific tasks that can help you hit those main priorities. Maybe it’s avoiding fast food, cooking more often at home, drinking more water, or getting exercise 2 or 3 days a week. Choose small things to tackle, so they aren’t so overwhelming. Take one step toward one goal, not 12 steps toward 10 goals. For example, if you want to cook at home more often, check out this post on where I get a lot of my clean recipes

movie review: hungry for change

Hungry for Change is a film made by the same people that made Food Matters, which I previously reviewed. Like the first one, I think this is a compelling documentary with a lot of salient points. Plus, I think it touches on a lot of great points about the diet industry – which is something a lot of food studies/clean eating resources forget about.

Diet and weight loss is an industry that brings in $60 billion a year. At the same time, 2/3 of all dieters regain more than they lose. So why do we keep pumping money into diet foods and weight loss programs when they clearly don’t work, and we’re sicker and more malnourished as a nation than ever before? 

This film delves into the chemical processes in your body that make you crave and retain fat (and sugar and salt). Which goes to explain why when the “no-fat” crazy gripped the nation, tons of people didn’t lose weight – they just started eating carbs like crazy and then got addicted to sugar. We become habituated to the effects of things like sugar and caffeine over time – which isn’t surprising, because they are drugs. The film notes that more people die from food related chronic disease (like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) than illegal drugs each year.

Hungry for Change spends a lot of time on the harm that we do ourselves when we make ourselves miserable dieting and don’t give our body and minds what they need to be healthy. Dieting can trigger feelings of deprivation and desperation that aren’t a part of a generally healthy lifestyle change. This film makes the compelling case that you’re much better served by looking at your diet as a way to achieve health and balance and not as an enemy.

It did delve into JUICING IS AMAZING territory, as well as DETOXING IS AWESOME-ville, which induced my usual eye rolls. But if juicing gets people to stop eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi, I’m down.

All in all, this film was a good reminder of the most basic principles of healthy living – and that the benefits of eating clean are myriad, from whatever perspective you hold.

movie review: Forks Over Knives

Forks Over Knives surprised me, in that it’s the same message that many other documentaries have covered, but it somehow felt different. The film makes the argument that a whole foods, plant-based diet is vital for long term health and well being. At the same time, a diet that includes animal products, such as meat, dairy and eggs, and highly processed, refined foods, contributes to long-term health issues.

We’ve heard that message a lot – it’s one of the ideas that has made veganism so popular. And I think it’s true that a diet heavy in plants, low in animal products and without processed foods can have dramatic impacts on your health. It has on mine. 

But where this film differed from others, including Food Matters, is that it was focused on science and clinical studies. It seemed much more solid on clinical evidence and research. At the same time they interviewed many people who also had their own anecdotal evidence to contribute (including a champion MMA fighter who is a vegan athlete!). The narrator also decided to pursue a plant-based diet after getting some troubling blood work that showed that he was at high risk for heart disease. Just 13 weeks of a diet change completely reversed his risk factors.

This film was a good reminder that we have more power over our own health than we think. Perhaps my favorite line was when someone mentioned that if you think your health and wellness is based solely on your genes (and that you’re doomed to taking pills because of them), you are a victim. Yes, you might have to take some pills for some conditions. But we don’t have to be victims of the drug companies pushing blood pressure and blood sugar pills. 

This is a good film to watch if you aren’t really convinced that there’s scientific evidence that supports clean eating or are still on the fence about its benefits. It’s less hippie, more science. Which is right up my alley. You know, wanting to farm in space and all.

eating clean on a budget: aldi

My second stop on the discount grocery store tour was Aldi. Owned by a German family company, Albrecht Discounts, Aldi is one of the no-frills discount grocers who eschews fancy displays and wide product selection for low prices. Perhaps most interestingly, Aldi is owned by the same company as Trader Joe’s, its higher-end counterpart. While Trader Joe’s carries more organic selections and higher quality meats, when it comes down to the come down, they have similar products on the shelf. It’s heavy on the private label items, which means that the organic honey at Aldi might be the exact same thing as the organic honey at Trader Joes, only with less markup (because the cashiers at Aldi don’t ring bells or wear Hawaiian shirts?). I have issues with Trader Joes for other reasons, but if you’re going to buy private label stuff there, you’re going to pay extra for the fun stores and fancy graphic design.

But on to the bargains. I was really happy to see that Aldi had a significantly higher percentage of organic products than Bottom Dollar (more than milk!). The first one I happened across was honey, at $3.19. It was also sourced from U.S. producers, which is good. Definitely cheaper than I’ve seen it elsewhere. 

I also saw a few items like organic salad dressings, but they are still processed foods and wouldn’t be the greatest choice. Stick to salad dressings that have to be refrigerated, since they are usually made with real ingredients, or go with lemon juice or olive oil/vinegar. Remember that just because something says organic doesn’t mean it’s a whole food or healthy.

Just inside the door were bags of nuts at really reasonable prices. While they were all conventionally produced, nuts are among the products that are more protected from pesticides because of their shells. Organic nuts are another hard to find product, so these are a great alternative. And if you can bother to chop your own walnuts, you can really save on the price per pound by getting the bigger bag. 

Many stores carry generic K-cup single serve coffee pods now. While I think it’s better from a waste perspective (and a quality coffee perspective) to use a refillable cup, these K-cups were relatively cheap, but still fair trade. Wouldn’t be a bad thing to have on hand for guests, etc.

The produce section left a lot to be desired, since most of it was thrown all over the place. That could have been a product of the fact that we were there toward the end of a major shopping day and it might have been picked over by ravenous shoppers. It was mostly conventional, but the prices weren’t nearly as good as Bottom Dollar for the same items. 

I did find organic salad greens in the refrigerator case, but they were small containers and for $2.49, not any better than the prices at Whole Foods!

There were two decent options for milk, including Organic Valley 2%, which is a great buy at $3.48 for a half gallon. Organic Valley sources all of its milk from family farmers, and at Aldi it was a great choice. If that’s still too expensive, they also had an off-brand gallon of milk for $3.77 that at least was from cows that were not given rBGH, even if their diet wasn’t organic.

Aldi had good prices on staples, just like Bottom Dollar. Rice and oats were the primary ones I found, but Aldi has a more limited selection than Bottom Dollar in general.

The non-milk dairy and meat were not any different from Bottom Dollar and there wasn’t anything to recommend there. But Aldi had two options for sandwich bread – both 12 grain and whole wheat – that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup and were minimally processed.

Probably the best buy I found at Aldi was the organic canned tomatoes. A 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes was only $1.49, which is a terrific price. They also had organic marinara sauce for $1.99. I like to make my own sauces from regular tomatoes, but in a pinch, this would be a good, affordable choice.

It’s also important to choose organic tomatoes, not just because of the lack of pesticides, but because most organic tomatoes are grown in California, which is better than Florida, where the humid climate and poor, sandy soil make for poor growing conditions, which lead to the use of more chemicals. (If you want to know more about this, Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland is a great read.)

At the end of the store, Aldi also had a good selection of frozen fruit and vegetables at decent prices. It would be worth doing a real cost comparison on the frozen fruits and veggies at different stores to see where the best deals are, since they are essentially the same thing.

It’s also worth noting that Aldi starts their workers at well above minimum wage. We saw a sign for $11.75/hour starting out. I like to support stores that don’t hoard profits while condemning their workers to never make ends meet.

I’ll definitely be checking out Aldi for particular items on my grocery list. Plus, the more shoppers purchase their organic products, the more likely they are to start to carry more and expand their selection. It’s worth a trip!

eating clean on a budget: bottom dollar

While I truly believe you can shop at health food stores on a restricted budget (and that “Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck” is not really grounded in fact), it’s true that discount grocery stores offer some major bargains. So what if you’re trying to eat clean, but you want to reduce your grocery bills? I’ve been checking out some local stores to see what they offer, and this weekend I went to Bottom Dollar. These stores are popping up all over the Pittsburgh area and boast that they offer the lowest prices around. But what about quality?

My first surprise was the large selection of produce. While they didn’t carry any organic produce, they had a wide selection of fruits and vegetables. Even Whole Foods doesn’t carry organic produce for every item all of the time, so if you’re going to go conventional, it’s definitely worth going to a discount store. While I advocate for organic produce, some items are less likely to carry pesticide residue. For example, these onions were only $1.98 for three pounds, and you’re going to peel the skins off anyway before you use them. They also carried larger bulk bags of onions and some other items like potatoes, which lowers the price per pound.

After the produce was the meat and seafood area. I didn’t find anything in the meat section I’d recommend, since it was all completely conventionally raised. But I was surprised to find frozen fish filets and seafood with a sustainability label. Some of it was sold at a very affordable price per pound – even under $2. While sustainable labels are tricky when it comes to fish, as I learned in this book, this is a good step in the right direction and for a really good price. 

In the dairy section, they offered organic milk, which is a good step forward since organic milk cannot come from cows given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone). (They were stocking it at the time so I couldn’t snap a pic.) I also found unsweetened iced tea in the same refrigerated section. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find pre-made unsweetened tea in stores, since most options are full sugar or “diet” with nasty artificial sweeteners. For only $1.98 this Gold Peak tea was a bargain.

The majority of the products in this store were conventional and hyper-processed. The entire section of inner aisles had row after row of chips, cookies, pop, and junk masquerading as good food – canned soups with insane amounts of sodium, breakfast cereals jacked up on sugar. 

But I did find a few snack items that would qualify as ‘clean’ under my definition. They carried several options for unsweetened/no sugar or sweetener added applesauce – even one for kids on the go. 

One of the best finds was the low price of staple pantry ingredients. It’s not always easy to find organic oats, lentils and rice, even at health food stores. Bottom Dollar had brown rice with no additives for 78 cents/pound and you could also get lentils for less than $1/pound. Oats are typically not GMOs, so that’s another one that is passable not organic, especially for these prices when you’re trying to stretch a budget.

Spices were also relatively affordable there. I prefer to buy spices in bulk so I can buy small amounts at a time and not have them go stale, but their prices were great on small containers here. 

One more positive was the variety of fruits and vegetables available frozen. I prefer frozen vegetables to canned if the cans aren’t BPA free (BPA is an endocrine disruptor). While all conventional, the vegetables were incredibly affordable (less than $1 a bag for many types) and the fruits were as well. Frozen fruits like berries can be very expensive, if they are even available at all. 

In addition to the food, I also happened across an isle with a small seasonal section with grilling items and you’ll never believe it – canning jars. The display had a note saying it was set to go away this week, but I liked to see the store even carrying the products. Who knows if it would put the thought in someone’s head to take up canning!

I found Bottom Dollar to have some good choices for basic pantry staples. If you avoid the processed food in the main aisles and stick to produce, seafood and dry, whole foods, you can get some good, clean products for cheap. Enough that it’s definitely worth dividing your grocery list for different stores, even though it might mean more work.

I also checked out Aldi this weekend, and will be trying Save-a-lot and Good Cents over the next few weeks. Look for posts on those coming up!

We also decided to switch our warehouse membership to Costco from Sam’s Club. Costco carries a lot of organic staples, like extra virgin olive oil and tomato paste, at bulk/warehouse prices. We’ll save money getting some organic staples there. Plus, they carry the natural shampoo/body wash I use now. Win win!

October simplified update: Finished the dining room organization this weekend and now have only two remaining rooms and the dreaded basement. Trying not to let my momentum fade because I’d love this house to be cleaned out by the holidays. Listed my first pair of running shoes on eBay (they were the wrong shoe for my foot) and have continued to sell more books on Amazon.

want to eat clean? 4 tips to get started

People often tell me that they are interested in eating clean for lots of reasons, but that they are having trouble actually starting or taking the first step. Sometimes they don’t even know what that first step is. To think about making a complete 180 degree change in the way you eat is overwhelming and the process can be intimidating, especially when you feel like you have a lifetime of “bad” habits to overcome and a demanding schedule. Also, there are many definitions floating out there about what constitutes “clean eating.” In my own lifestyle, I define clean eating as choosing minimally processed, whole foods (heavy on the plants), organic when possible, and staying away from heavily processed restaurant food.

Here are some simple tips if you’re interested in transitioning to clean eating, but have found yourself blocked by the idea of getting started.

1. Start small.  
While it might feel cliché to say that the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, it’s 100% truth. Look at what you are eating now. Do you have a soda addiction? Are you constantly going through the drive-thru for dinner? Do you rely on microwaveable, TV-dinner type meals? Choose just one of those areas to focus on. Reducing your consumption even by a small amount is a great first step to eliminating it all together. For most people, going cold turkey is unrealistic for long-term success. In the case of being hooked on soda, try reducing your consumption during the first week by 20%. Or stop ordering soda when you’re at a restaurant and choose water or plain tea instead. When you are comfortable at that level, keep going.

2. Have an arsenal of recipes.
You won’t be able to sustain any kind of lifestyle change if you aren’t eating things you like. Think about the foods you really enjoy and look for recipes that fit in that category. Find some go-to websites or cookbooks where you can easily locate a recipe, especially when a craving strikes. When I have a craving for Chinese takeout, I know where to look for a homemade knock-off recipe that satisfies the craving without all of the extra chemicals and added salt, sugar and fat. I print out recipes that interest me and put them in a three-ring binder that serves as my own homemade cookbook – that way I don’t have to dig around online when I really need something. We’ve also invested in some physical cookbooks that I consider our workhorses. For some clean eating resources, check out this post.

3. Stock your pantry, including your freezer.
We’ve all had nights where your best laid plans for dinner fall through. Maybe you get home from work late or you sat in traffic for an hour and can’t deal with the idea of cooking. If you keep your pantry stocked with basic items, you can throw together an incredibly quick meal. When you make a great chili or soup in the crock pot, freeze half of it for those nights when your plans just don’t work out. It will take you less time to reheat frozen chili than it will to swing through a drive-thru or call for takeout. (Your stomach AND wallet will thank you.)

4. Don’t beat yourself up. 
You can’t go from a diet heavy in processed foods and junk to a clean, wholesome diet overnight. Your body almost has to detox from the things it comes to rely on and that it craves. Even when you’re committed, you’re going to have areas that aren’t perfect or that are harder to give up than you thought. Just accept that there will be bumps in the road from the get-go and let them just be bumps – not off-ramps.

If you’re eating clean, what got you motivated to start? How have you kept with it?

movie review: Food Matters

As a geek that loves documentaries, I recently added a bunch of food/environment/science related films to my Netflix/Amazon Prime queues (one of my favorite benefits of streaming vs. cable!). After reading a lot about it on Twitter, I started with Food Matters.

This film focuses around the basic idea that you are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out – that kind of thing. From the outset, I felt like the filmography was relatively rough – almost manic, with distracting backgrounds and too many vintage clips of instructional films from the 1950s and 1960s.

However, I agreed wholeheartedly with the premise – that this country suffers from an epidemic of chronic malnutrition (as opposed to acute malnutrition or starvation). Far too often in my own experience, I’ve gone to the doctor with an issue and was just given pills and pushed out the door. When I had constant headaches in grad school, the first doctor I saw just wanted to give me pills, even when he knew I was crazy-addicted to caffeine.

The film makes the claim that modern medicine too often treats symptoms and not the underlying disease or condition. Much of what currently ails us as a population can be attributed to our lifestyle – poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. Makes sense. It’s made sense in my own life. I agree with the film’s assertion that the human body has an astonishing capacity to heal itself from many ailments, if given the chance.

Food Matters does a good job of reminding consumers that just like Big Agriculture, Big Pharmaceutical is a half a trillion dollar industry. There is a lot of money involved in treating illness with medicine in this country. Every time you take a blood pressure pill or a blood sugar pill, you are putting money in the hands of drug companies that have a vested interest in you never actually getting off their medication. They make no money from wellness. For the vast majority of the population, it’s affordable and safe to change your diet and start exercising. So why would you want to just stay on the pills when they won’t prolong your life or more importantly, improve your quality of life?

As is the case in Big Agriculture, supporting research for drugs is often sponsored and paid for by the drug companies themselves. Drug companies don’t want to pay for research that suggests that a plant-based diet and an abundance of vitamins and minerals can lead to health. The film also talked about high dosage vitamin therapies that have been studied for years as treatment for various chronic illnesses, including serious illnesses like cancer.

While much of what the film discusses makes perfect sense – that nutrition should be our primary prevention strategy against disease, etc. – it also veers off into more alternative therapies that left me interested, but highly skeptical. For instance, there’s a lot of information on colonic therapies that “cleanse” the body of toxins. As I explained in my post about why I don’t do juice cleanses or lemon juice/maple syrup/vinegar cleanses, a healthy colon doesn’t need help cleansing your body. Don’t put toxins in your body and you won’t have to force them out uncomfortably by drinking 2 liters of water after you get out of bed and having nothing but high fiber juice for days.

The film highlights the Gerson Institute, which champions a holistic therapy for cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases. The therapy, according to their website, includes activating “the body’s extraordinary ability to heal itself through an organic, vegetarian diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements.” They claim a great success rate and honestly, I’m not doubting them. Anyone who has ever seen someone suffer from cancer knows that chemotherapy is awful in every possible sense. And anyone who wants to treat their cancer with vitamins and enemas should absolutely have the right to do so. (It’s ridiculous that all of the Gerson clinics have to be out of the country even though they are staffed by MDs that go to the same med schools that other doctors in the U.S. attend.)

But I’m still skeptical that raw juices and enemas are cure-alls. Sometimes disease happens, regardless of the health of your lifestyle. For instance, eating raw foods isn’t going to make my lungs stop being asthmatic. I have a decrease in asthma symptoms because of my increased lung health due to cardiovascular exercise, but I don’t stop having the disease. I also don’t want to go back to my life before being on thyroid replacement hormone – even though my lifestyle has also contributed to a reduction in symptoms.

Overall the film had interesting food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun. And it serves as a great reminder that the diseases plaguing the west – particularly heart disease and diabetes – can be not only prevented but REVERSED by true lifestyle modifications. I would not put it in the same class of documentaries as Food, Inc. or A Place at the Table, but it wasn’t a waste of an hour.

Mother Earth News Fair recap

For the third year in a row, we headed to Seven Springs for the Mother Earth News Fair (MENF). The best way I can describe it is a giant convention and vendor fair for sustainable living. Vendors showcase everything from farming equipment to handmade soaps and workshops are offered for just about all things under the sun – from classes about livestock to home fermentation.

We have found something new to learn and discover each year, and the fair gets bigger and bigger. This year, I went to workshops on chickens in gardens (and how they can peacefully co-exist), home fermentation, building a real foods pantry and foraging for wild foods. A wicked storm moved in on Saturday and when we were soaked and freezing, we skipped an afternoon of workshops to get dry and warm. But otherwise? Awesome.

In particular, the class on lactofermentation inspired me to finally get off my duff and get my kombucha (fermented tea) going at home. Mark had given me all the tools to get started for a gift one year – including a SCOBY – so I don’t know what’s been holding me back from starting. Someone at one of the workshops mentioned that you can’t be afraid to be a beginner. I think it’s given me enough push to get started!

Mark and I laugh that we both leave the MENF each year and want to quit our jobs and move off grid into a cabin in the woods and raise some goats. While that’s not in our immediate future, it’s nice to come away refreshed and with new ideas on how to live more sustainably.

One of my favorite parts of the fair is the presence of all manner of animals. If you follow me on Instagram (@nextgenhouse), you might have seen these guys.

Seven Springs doesn’t offer much in the way of good food options for this fair, which is the only down-side. Particularly at a conference about sustainability, I don’t want to eat commercially raised meat or rock-hard, out of season vegetables. Thankfully there were a few vendors that had some good snack options – and one local food truck in particular that had good meal options – Randita’s Grill.

It’s no secret that we aren’t vegans by any stretch of the imagination, so I was a bit hesitant to try out a vegan food truck. I guess in my head I was expecting creepy textured vegetable protein, but I ended up having a great chili and a fantastic salad that was fresh and delicious (with figs! so yum!), a sharp contrast to the processed commercial offerings at the main food area. (The main food area had a mashed potato martini bar. I mean, seriously. Ew.) I was impressed by the food from Randita’s – and also how the people in the truck kept their cool despite a ridiculously long line and pouring rain. I’m adding their restaurant in Saxonburg to my list of places to try!

Really, we actually end up learning a lot from the vendors we meet. Here are some of my favorites:

Snack Taxi – I bought two reusable snack bags for my lunch and thus far they’ve been working out fantastically. I am working on reducing consumption of plastic bags, so my two Snack Taxi bags have already saved me almost 20 bags! Plus it looks cute too.

St. Lynn’s Press – Pittsburgh publisher of some great gardening books, including some by local authors. We picked up Good Bug, Bad Bug to help us with pest ID. They’ll be publishing The Steel City Garden: creating a one-of-a-kind garden in black and gold by Doug Oster in the fall, which looks to be awesomely Burghy! Might be an idea for our front yard flower area. 

Gourmet Grassfed – I had my first ever beef jerky from Gourmet Grassfed and holy cow (no pun intended), was I surprised at how delicious it was. We bought some jerky and beef sticks – they’ll be perfect for Mark to take out in the woods when he’s hunting all day.

Farm Fromage – Fantastic raw milk cheese from PA farms. I had a mushroom and leek jack cheese which was amazingly bizarre but delicious.

CeCe Caldwell’s Paints – non-toxic, eco-friendly paints, including one called Pittsburgh Gray, which is highly appropriate

Singer Farm Naturals – producer of some delicious cherry juice concentrate. We picked some up to mix with soda water as a yummy drink, but I’m also interested in its use as a recovery drink for running after seeing a blurb about it in an issue of Runners World.

natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.