In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

Big bag of mail


Dear Checkout Line readers,

You know how those languishing items on your to-do list start to gnaw at you like — I don’t know, like something that gnaws? Well, my backlog of Checkout Line reader questions is really bugging me, especially as it becomes clearer that I won’t be able to respond to each and every one of you (especially you) who was kind enough to write to me. I lay part of the blame on my assistant, who can’t make coffee or type but instead eats rawhides and snores with his eyes open. Given my time constraints and limited staff, I’m going to take an unorthodox approach for this post and reply to 10 of you, as succinctly as possible (ahem).

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Dearest Keely: I can empathize that with your frustration that vendors at your farmers market are selling stuff that isn’t locally grown. Worse yet, the market owner turns a blind eye to this chicanery! What should you do, short of not buying the fresh-food fakery? I contacted Nina Planck, a leading expert on farmers markets and local food. She had this advice for you: “Don’t give up! It’s a fraud — against the honest farmers and against eaters. Write a letter to the manager, tell other customers, and write a letter to the local paper.”

Along those lines, Amy from Toronto (welcome international readers!) wondered if she should buy the non-organic local produce at her farmers market or the imported organic stuff from the store. Amy, ask questions to see if the local produce is grown without nasty chemicals. If it’s not, bark the tires of your Vespa outta there and head to the store. Be merciless when it comes to your health.

Speaking of health, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. For that reason, I must eschew questions that strictly pertain to nutrition and health (hint: have an eco-angle for me). Beyond such liability parameters, I cast a wide net when it comes to food questions. Such as: an etiquette question from a “Deeply Spiritual” reader who wants to know how to politely inform his vegetarian friends “that plants are sentient beings.” Two tactics: You could buy them a copy of this controversial book and plan to discuss our species’ existential dining angst over a sacrificial salad and several glasses of fermented grape blood. However, if this is really a case of wanting your veggie friends to back off a little, then manners maven Anna Post suggests you say this: “I definitely appreciate your concern, but I’m all set.”

Note to my vegetarians readers: I do realize that to be a vegetarian is to live in a world of wounds (I am a former macrobiotic vegetarian). Having said that, I must broach meaty topics, but promise to do so with as much consciousness as possible. I will also cover plenty of plant-protein issues, such as this one from vegetarian reader Sheri, who is wondering if her TVP (textured vegetable protein) is made from GM (genetically modified) RR (Roundup Ready) soybeans and if so, should she be consuming it?

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Answer: Probably yes on the first part, because most of our country’s soy crop is now GM RR, which has its problems. With TVP, look for IP (Identity Preserved) non-GMO soy ingredients (oops, there goes my acronym quota). Industrial-food giant Archer Daniels Midland, which indeed holds the TVP trademark, produces it from both kinds of soybeans.

Also try organic TSP, or Textured Soy Protein. “It’s functionally the same thing” as TVP, says Matthew Cox, marketing manager of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, which sells this product.

Next: Meryl wants to know if there are cans for canned foods that do not contain plastic or other objectionable linings. The most objectionable element in can-liners is the toxic chemical Bisphenol A. A few companies use non-BPA cans, but it’s not easy to tell who does and who doesn’t. Here’s a list. To be certain, call or email the food company and ask. As for plastics that are safe for food storage, look at the recycling numbers and remember this little rhyme, courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: “With your food use 5, 4, 1, and 2. Three and 6 aren’t good for you.” My own awkward addition: “And 7 sucks big-time.” Read more here.

Now I’m going to shout out (insert Palin voice) to my other international reader, Mark in Hong Kong, whose drinking water makes him feel like he’s in a swimming pool, so he buys bottled distilled water. All those bottles are hard on the environment. Get your water tested (look for kits online) and, based on your results, go for a home-filtration system. You can buy a countertop distiller, but this will draw lots of energy. Anyway, your government says the water is safe. Here’s the FAQ about that pool smell. Phew! We all know we can trust the government.

Hence, my answer to Gene, who asks: How fast does produce lose vitamins? A: It starts as soon as it is picked. According to the ever-reliable FDA, fresh stuff in the fridge will lose half or more of its vitamins within one to two weeks. So, eat it quickly or preserve it.

My dearest Tonya: It is in fact true that many organic food companies are owned by industrial-food giants. To get a visual schematic of these strange bedfellows, go here. Because you asked: The products of Big Organic that carry a certified organic label are indeed organic. Does buying from them “take away from the little guy?” ECON 101 answer: Yes. If you want to buy from independent companies that have no history of producing cheap, industrial food go here and scroll down to the “major independents” chart. Best option: buy local and sustainable or organic food and limit the packaged stuff.

Now then, Lisa, who was raised-in-the-Midwest-on-soda and hates water and therefore drinks lots of a highly processed artificially sweetened beverage, I’m not going to name in an earthy-friendly reusable bottle — um, you wanted me to let you have it, so here’s the news: You’re gonna be the skinniest eco-lady in the graveyard! Just kidding. But if you want something that’s more sustainable for your personal ecosystem, try the homemade “sports drink” I pour into my own Klean Kanteen: a jigger or two of organic grape juice topped off with filtered tap water to which I add a pinch of salt. (To replace the electrolytes I lose whilst typing.)

Lastly, Alex in Beantown: The most sustainable thing to do with your post-stock meat bones is to grind them up (they won’t compost well) and use them to enrich your garden soil. “He could go totally Fargo and use a shredder-chipper!” enthused one of my gardening buddies. But if you live in the city, throw your bones in the trash. Your mom’s method of throwing them in the woods for “animals to eat” is well-meaning but not a good idea.

Having recently been through the entire rabies shot series, I will attest to the fact that wild animals and humans should not socialize. (Preemptive response: No, you don’t get the shots in the stomach.)

As for the rest of you who haven’t heard a peep from me, don’t despair. It’s possible that your question is in the pipeline, or that I lost it when my email program crashed due to a terrible case of PEBKAC. It is also possible that the question you asked was recently and thoroughly covered by my Grist colleagues, such as the esteemed Umbra Fisk. Having said that, I do welcome repeat questions. In other words, hit that send button.

Looking forward to hearing from you,