The local food movement is big-time these days. The number of farmers markets has more than doubled in the past 10 years and there are even grocery stores that specialize in locally grown and sourced goods. But if you go to a “normal” food store looking for ordinary items, you will probably buy food grown and manufactured all over the world. Even if you’re fine with food from halfway around the globe, wouldn’t you like to know where it comes from?
Lately I’ve been reading food labels to find out how much salt and hidden sugar items contain. And now I’ve learned another reason to read them carefully – and to examine other parts of packaging besides the label. Finding out where packaged food ingredients are grown or manufactured can be a treasure hunt, complete with hidden clues that may puzzle and surprise even the most determined food shopper.
Our story begins with my good deed for the day. Being the good daughter that I try to be, I agreed to do my mom’s grocery shopping. The store near her apartment is huge and honestly, I treat going there as a cross between a field trip and a shopping triathlon. The selection of items is so phenomenal that sometimes I have to just stop and stare at the shelves and display cases. And getting from the produce section to the dairy case provides at least ¼ of the steps that get me to my next Fitbit goal. Can you tell that I’m a city girl and that she lives in the suburbs?
The last item on her list was apple juice. Once again stunned at the number of brand and type choices, I grabbed a bottle of unsweetened apple juice, thinking that I was on the home stretch. Just before putting it in my cart, I read the label; while the apples were grown in the US, the apple juice concentrate was from Argentina and China as well as the US. I don’t know about food safety in Argentina, but remembered flaps about Chinese garlic and milk. I decided not to buy that bottle. It may not be totally rational, but I wanted to avoid buying juice with Chinese concentrate until I could research whether there are safety concerns about that ingredient. The other type of juice from the same company may have listed the source of the ingredients, but I couldn’t find it.
Then I moved onto other brands. On some, the source of the apples was on the label but the source for the concentrate was lightly printed on the plastic bottle itself. In other cases, the source of both the apples and the concentrate used to make the juice were on the bottle and difficult to read under harsh fluorescent light.
Finally, I found that the two store brands had different sourcing – the “regular” juice had Chinese concentrate, while the organic version had concentrate from Turkey and Argentina. I bought the latter.
So 15 minutes after beginning my search, I had eye-strain and a bottle of apple juice that did not contain concentrate from China. But how many of us have the time and patience to check each can, jar, and bottle we buy to find out the source of the ingredients? And why do manufacturers make it so difficult to find that information?
PS – My research online afterwards turned up controversy over the use of rotten apples in China and questions about whether arsenic levels found in juice from that country are adequately monitored. It was possible (though not easy) to avoid Chinese juice concentrate in bottled apple juice, and even if I had bought a bottle containing that ingredient, it’s unlikely that it would have harmed my mom, given how little juice she drinks. Still, the reports of lax food safety practices in China are disquieting and for the time being, I’ll avoid ingredients from China when there is a reasonable alternative. Still, how much time am I willing to devote to carrying out that resolution?