Archive for January, 2012

January 24, 2012

Food Labeling and TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat

This past weekend, TEDx Manhattan hosted a day-long symposium on our food system.  If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ll know that I attended a viewing party hosted by Boston University’s Gastronomy program.  The event has given me many things to think about, and much to share with you here on the blog.  Today I want to start with something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: food labeling.



Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and director of Consumer Reports’  Her talk focused on why labels mean close to nothing in the United States, and here are some of the main points that I took away:

To preface, I consider myself an excessive label reader.  I probably spend twice as long in the grocery store as the average person because I’m not only trying to figure out what to buy but also analyzing labels and trying to figure out the marketing tactics behind them.  I am fascinated by labels. And I am constantly confounded by them.

Rangan stated that research shows consumers will pay more for better (i.e. clearer) labeling, but that they are also easily and constantly mislead by the labeling that exists.  Case in point: a consumer’s goal may be to purchase the best quality food that won’t make them sick.  Due to the way labels are promoted, people confuse “natural” and “organic” all the time, and many will even value the term “natural” over “organic.”

Here’s the clincher: the label “natural” has no industry guidelines.  Any company can use the term with whatever intended definition they want.  However, the label “organic” has been defined by the USDA in 600 pages.  So why are we still even paying attention to “natural?”  Because marketing companies have created a value in the term, and we’ve fallen for it because we (understandably) don’t have the resources available to us to know not to.

Rangan also told an example of Creekstone Beef requesting the use of clarifying labeling that was denied by the USDA.  A few years ago, Japan refused to import US beef because it was not being tested for Mad Cow disease.  Creekstone wanted to test its beef and label it tested in order to continue export to Japan.  The USDA refused, saying the test Creekstone wanted to use was not sufficient to determine the presence of the disease.  Guess what?  It is the exact same test the USDA uses to determine the presence of Mad Cow Disease in the US market.

The takeaway here is that we need more clarification, and laws, on labeling our foods.  It should be clear to me what the difference is between a carton of eggs that says “free range” and one that says “cage-free.”  Furthermore, if a carton shows a picture of a hen in a pasture, this should be an accurate visual description of the conditions in which these eggs were laid.

The question I pose today is: aside from paying  a premium for foods labeled “organic” (a term which Rangan says is the most reliable label we have, but which still has its own problems and limitations), what can we consumers do to ensure that we are not being ripped off by labels?

January 18, 2012

Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen

I’ve finally recovered from jet lag and travel fatigue and caught up with my chores.  Which means that I finally had time to sort through my hundreds of photos from vacation.  And what I found on my memory card only captures one small portion of the time I had in Germany.  What I’m finding is that no travel story or photograph collection can ever tell the full story of a journey.  And I’ve learned that many people don’t want to know about my journey (or at least don’t know what questions to ask to get me talking).  So I’m telling it here, because I have to process it in some way, to understand it and come to terms with it.  It’s not a typical vacation story.  It has all the usual symptoms on the surface, but it was something else.  Something else entirely.

The first thing I did upon landing (after an unnecessarily long trip) was grab a (local German!) beer with my sister and bake a few Christmas cookies.  Afterward, I hopped on a train and headed to Saxony (Sachsen), where I lived for a year teaching English at a Gymnasium (Germany’s version of high school).  A good friend of mine still lives there with her husband, and over the next three days, the three of us went to as many Weihnachtsmärkte.  I am not normally a person who enjoys crowds and festivals, but we always managed to go when there were fewer crowds (i.e. before everyone else got off work), and had drunk enough Glühwein by the time the crowds arrived, that it didn’t matter anymore.  We just soaked in the beauty and spirit along with the cold and crowds.

Walking through my old stomping grounds and catching up with my friend was a wonderful way to start the trip.  Seeing it decorated and lit up for Christmas only made me more nostalgic:  the wooden figurines and glowing stars made in the mountains outside of Dresden; the little huts decorated with pine sprigs and filled to the brim with gifts, foods, and toys; the Sächsisch dialect spoken over steaming cups of Glühwein; the Frauenkirche peeking out from behind the Kulturpalast, a socialist remnant that houses the Dresdener Philharmonie today; and the beautiful museums and School of Visual Art that line the Elbe River, loaded with pleasure boats waiting to take the next group of merry-makers for a ride.

Traveling is a funny thing, and many people have written about it much more eloquently than I can here.  Nevertheless, my thoughts as I wandered the streets of Germany, were that it is at the same time an experience of extreme solitude and extreme connectivity.  My travel was solitary because it seems inconceivable to explain the effects these experiences had upon me, much less have the same experiences as others on the same trip.  Yet it had a sense of connection because it was impossible not to engage with the people, culture, and history of the places visited.  There is so much history that came back to me walking the streets of Dresden, Leipzig, and Hamburg.  History I had learned in what feels like another life, when I poured over German Studies books day in and day out; history I forged with my friends; and the palpable sense of history being made in the moment.

I mentioned to David that I was writing this post (I admit I’ve been writing it for over a week now), and I found it hard to connect my specific thoughts on travel with food, and he looked at me dumbfounded and said, “But you experience travel and memories through food.”

It is true: I rediscovered these histories not by sightseeing, though I did do a bit of that by visiting an amazing museum in Hamburg and attending concerts and even the Stuttgart Opera.  Instead of sightseeing, I engaged with these memories and experiences through Germany’s bakeries, restaurants, food stands, and the dishes I cooked and consumed with friends and family in their homes.  And I came home with my suitcases full of bread, candies, and chocolate (so much so that my family had to bring back things for me in their bags).

I spent my weeks in Germany eating Brezeln every morning, and especially caring for those from my grandparent’s neighborhood bakery (the master baker of which my parents are now good friends with); sharing pho with my mom in the restaurant she enjoyed eating in when she visited her mother in her last years; purchasing a Stollen from the best Stollen bakery in Dresden; cooking the same meal with my friend that we cooked years ago, a traditional Saxon meal of goulash, red cabbage, and Kartoffelknödel; wandering the Isemarkt stalls and having lunch at my favorite vegetarian stand; tasting the samples at the Fruchtgummiladen in Hamburg; taking a family outing to the Swiss grocery chain Migros and stocking up on cheese, pasta and chocolate (all of which the Swiss make the best); sharing homemade meals such as my sister’s Japanese lunch feast, Dad’s Linsen und Spätzle, Mom’s Krautkrapfen, and finally ending the trip by making a five-course New Year’s Eve meal for my family.  Each time I put something in my mouth a flood of memories came back.   In my time in Germany, I was traveling not only to another country, but to other times, places, people, and experiences.  And I had the time of my life.

In between though, I had a constantly nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I still can’t put it into words, and interestingly I think that was the nagging feeling.  The feeling that this trip was beyond words, at once so simple: a vacation in Germany; and at the same time so complex: a returning home, to the past, and to a future that has yet to write itself.