Most of us agree that when a processed food label has a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, it’s probably best to avoid what’s in the package. However, I seem to get confused by labels on even the simplest of foods. For example, here’s what I have concluded after perusing several brands of egg labels:
Labels can be meaningless. What does it mean to say an egg is “healthy” or “nutritious”? The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t defined these terms, so no matter how a chicken is being raised, a corporation can entice us with these terms.
Labels can be confusing. You have probably seen egg cartoons proclaim that their chickens are “free-range,” and “vegetarian.” This combination makes me chuckle, because our backyard flock (who refuse to stay in the backyard and are instead all over the farmyard and gardens) are certainly not vegetarians. They are scavenging for bugs and worms and there is a joyful cackling when they succeed. Excuse me, corporate people, but if your chickens are truly outside where there are plants and insects, they are not vegetarian.
Labels can be deceitful. Most people have become aware that our grocery-store eggs came from chickens that have been confined in crowded cages for their life-times. As the demand increases for eggs from kinder and healthier sources, the corporate world has begun to label their eggs “cage-free.” This is not a lie, but it is deceitful. To produce eggs in large numbers, the hens are crowded by the thousands into large hoop-houses. They stand, wing-to-wing in feces, without direct sunlight or grass, their beaks cruelly clipped, all so we can have “cheap” eggs. The “free-range” chickens that have access to only a dirt yard don’t fare much better.
If we can’t decipher or trust labels, how are we to find healthful food? As redundant as I am in saying this, we need to find and grow our food locally. When we eat eggs from chickens that are raised in smaller numbers and foraging outdoors, the eggs will cost more than commercially grown eggs. At the same time, our health as well as the health of our environment and communities will improve.
Why are eggs from backyard flocks better for us? When a chicken has daily access to sunlight, grass and insects, her eggs are much higher in nutrition. In fact, cholesterol in eggs is only the “bad” kind when it comes from birds raised indoors on grain. Look at these differences: True free-range eggs have one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat. They also have more of the good things: two-thirds more vitamin A, twice-as-much omega-3 fatty acid, three-times more vitamin E, three to six times more vitamin D and seven times more beta carotene. Needless to say, they probably don’t contain the salmonella bacteria that result in repeated egg-recalls from confinement birds. Nature knew what she was doing when she created animals to be outdoors in the sunshine! (See full details of the test results at www.MotherEarthNews.com/eggs.)
Chickens aren’t the only animals that give us healthier food when they have access to the outdoors, pasture and sunshine. The meat of cattle and hogs are also superior in taste and nutrition when they have been raised naturally, outdoors. Even the milk from cows that graze on pasture is more nutritious than the standard grain-fed cow.
Food grown locally in smaller numbers is healthier for us in other ways. Raising animals in smaller numbers outdoors prevents contamination of streams and water used to irrigate crops. We therefore avoid the other health risks of lettuce and spinach contaminated with the E. Coli bacteria that has mutated to a lethal form in corn-fed feedlots. My great-nephew spent last summer on kidney dialysis from this bacteria. The cost was huge in heartache, health, time and money.
An added benefit to growing our food locally is that it makes our communities healthier economically. If we want food from local animals that are treated humanely, we also want our farmers treated fairly. We want them to get a fair wage for giving us healthful food, and for not polluting our streams and drinking water.
This all sounds good, but it actually presents a dilemma. We have learned that it is “smart” to buy food at the cheapest possible price. I suspect corporate agri-businesses taught us this because they benefit most when we “buy cheap.” Now we’re learning that a low price tag comes with many hidden costs.
How can any of us individually affect changes in our unhealthy food system? You know what I’m going to say; Buy and grow local food. As budgets get tighter, choose away from money and time spent for doctor visits and medication. Choose to pay local farmers and not the doctor.
It’s time to get out those seeds and plan your garden. If you have room for some chickens, why not raise eggs for your family and perhaps for some others in your neighborhood? Think about swapping produce with others growing food.
Get to know and support people in the community who grow food for others. Buying local means you can see how your food is grown. Support farmers who avoid chemicals and who treat their animals and the land with respect.
We don’t have to accept corporate food which is designed for their profits and not for our health. Take steps every year to eat healthier from local sources.
Photo by Mary Lou Shaw