In Beyond Labels, Joel Salatin, a farmer who is blazing the trail for regenerative farm practices, and Sina McCullough, a PhD. in Nutrition who actually understands unpronounceable carbon chains, bring you on a journey from generally unhealthy food and farming to an ultimately healing place.
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Why should the public look ‘Beyond Labels’ – are labels and certification seals simply not the best way to find out what is in their food?
Joel: The level of clever speak and obfuscation in labels is literally mind boggling. Free range doesn’t mean pasture. Organic include factory farms and vegetables grown without soil. And then you have Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Sina, what’s that all about?
Sina: Most of us assume the food in the grocery store is safe to eat because we assume somebody has tested it for safety. But that’s not always the case. GRAS is a great example of how food labels tell just one side of the story; the story the food manufacturer wants you to know.
For example, there are roughly 10,000 chemical additives in our food supply and unless you are actively trying to avoid them, you’re likely consuming multiple chemicals in every meal. Most of them have not been safety tested by the FDA and most are not regulated by the FDA. We don’t know how those chemicals affect our long-term health. We also have no idea what happens when those chemicals are combined. For instance, what happens when the brominated vegetable oil in Mountain Dew® is combined with the disodium inosinate in Doritos®? Nobody knows because nobody is testing for combinations.
This regulatory loophole started in 1958 when Congress passed the Food Additive Amendment. The purpose was to test chemicals for safety before adding them to our food. But that amendment contains the GRAS exemption. When a chemical is declared to be GRAS, it means the FDA does not test that chemical for safety, nor does it regulate the use of that chemical. The company who makes the chemical determines if that chemical is safe for you to eat. All they need is an “expert” to declare the chemical to be GRAS and usually those “experts” have financial ties to the company.
Even worse, once a chemical is declared GRAS, the company can immediately begin adding it to your food and they don’t have to notify the FDA! The notification process is voluntary. In addition, these chemicals are not listed as GRAS on the food label. Consequently, unless you research each chemical, you probably won’t know if what you are eating has been safety tested.
The GRAS loophole carries severe consequences for the health of humanity. Not only have chemicals been declared GRAS that were later discovered to be carcinogenic, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) made it to your dinner plate largely because they were “presumed” by the FDA to be GRAS.
GRAS is just one example of why you have to look beyond the label to understand what’s really in your favorite box of cereal or package of cookies. Once you take a deep dive into labels, including the food regulations that shape those labels, you realize that most do not protect the consumer; they are not keeping you safe.
Joel: I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re selecting based on label claims, you’re already disconnected and perhaps ignorant about the food provenance. That sounds harsh, but if you’re depending on a label to vet your food, you’re probably going to be misled. For example, USDA inspection on eggs has nothing to do with salmonella; it only measures shape, shell quality, meat and blood spots (which don’t hurt you), size, air cell and albumen viscosity. It has nothing to do with things that could hurt you.
How is Beyond Labels empowering – does it not just put off people from eating a healthy diet as it points out so many things that have to be looked out for and even suggests moving home!?
Sina: Many food and health books point out a plethora of problems while filling the reader with fear. Then, they either offer no solutions or unrealistic, cookie-cutter solutions. It’s a recipe for failure. In BEYOND LABELS, we use a completely different approach.
The main purpose of BEYOND LABELS is to empower the individual to take charge of their health and wellness. We strive to accomplish that goal through compassion, love, and grace. For example, Joel and I recognize that we each walk our own path, therefore, it’s important to accept others where they are and gently encourage them to take the next step when they are ready. That’s why the backbone of BEYOND LABELS is a continuum, or road map, with maximal health, happiness, freedom, trust and personal responsibility on one side and the opposites – sickness, sadness, dependence, lack of trust, and victim-hood – on the other side.
The beauty of this road map is that you get to choose where you want to be. You also choose your own goal, whether that be upgrading from conventional to organic processed foods, cooking one meal from scratch, buying some local produce, growing one herb in your kitchen or moving to a homestead. We provide practical, budget-friendly tips to help you move along the entire continuum. You may not reach the end of the continuum and that’s okay. I’m not there either. You choose your own path and move forward at your own pace while we offer encouragement and motivation. It’s similar to a “choose your own adventure” book. In that regard, we meet you where you are, which sets you up for success.
Joel: One of the most gratifying responses we consistently get from readers is how nonjudgmental and non-prejudicial BEYOND LABELS actually is. We went to great lengths to let people know that we all start somewhere.
We also don’t hold back at challenging folks to make progress. Isn’t that what life is all about? Who wants to be stuck in a not good place? As we move toward the last quarter of the book, we encourage home gardening (including herbs), and even back yard chickens. While this is not a gardening book or a livestock book, we believe that discussing this as part of a food security and healthy eating journey brings an additional desire for participation. That is one of the strong threads throughout the book: nobody will do this for you; you must decide to get on the field and play in the game.
What things do you both actually do when you go out to buy food – do you spend hours worrying about what to eat every day?
Sina: In the beginning, yes. I put in the necessary time and did the research to figure out how to read food labels and how to tease out the many nuances of our food supply so that I could find foods that truly heal. It took months. And, I did feel overwhelmed and stressed at times mainly because I was learning about the many loopholes, exceptions, and confusing statements of food labels. However, now, if I come across a new food item online or in the grocery store, I still do the necessary research to determine if I will add it to my diet but it takes very little time because now I know what I’m looking for.
Joel and I did much of that research for you in BEYOND LABELS. We tried to simplify the process while saving you time, effort, and money. The real beauty of this book is that, for the first time in history, a doctor and a farmer have joined forces to share how we think about food and how we make food choices based on our knowledge, principles, and intuition. After all, knowing how to think and how to decide is more important than the ultimate decision.
Joel: That’s exactly right. My greatest hope is that Sina and I can free you from the prison of inadequacy. So that you realize you are completely capable of nurturing yourself and the ones you love.
Sina: When you have trust and confidence in yourself, you don’t worry any more. Shopping for food or discerning between the latest dietary crazes is no longer stressful. Joel and I believe that you already have the instincts and the tools you need to thrive. You just have to tap into your innate abilities and then you will find that you can discern any new food label or any new diet advice you may encounter.
Joel: Another area that requires discernment is eating at restaurants and participating in social gatherings. We address both in BEYOND LABELS. My background is so different than yours, Sina, that I confess to not having as much of a pit bull mentality in these arenas. You can obsess to the point that neither you nor your companions can have an enjoyable time. Yes, I do occasionally embarrass dining-out companions by asking if the chicken is pastured (“Pasteurized?” is usually the server’s response). But in general, I have a cast iron stomach and handle about anything, as long is it’s not McDonald’s (you have to draw the line somewhere).
Due to your previous health issues, Sina, you’ve had to be diligent in these situations. Consequently, you’ve got several good tips in the book for socializing without being unsociable.
Sina: I know how difficult it can be to eat out or socialize while adhering to a diet designed around food sensitivities, allergies, and an overall desire to decrease the toxic load on my body. It can be isolating and stressful. Fortunately, I’ve found solutions for every situation I encounter, whether it be running late while running errands, traveling by plane or car, attending parties or holiday gatherings, or hosting my own celebrations.
However, there’s no doubt that going against the grain can be difficult. Just like Joel and I encourage you to take small steps in BEYOND LABELS, I encourage you to allow people the time and space to catch up with you. In my experience, I’ve found that the people who truly care about me will understand and support my decision. In fact, now when I bring food to gatherings, most people want to know what I’m eating and they usually ask for the recipe!
Joel: I think as much as you’ve tried to be unobtrusive in social situations, though, some people get offended at even a hint of differentiation. It can’t be helped. But if we’re moving somewhere, we’re going to make some waves. That’s just the way it is.
If you were to summarize the most important steps for someone to make when changing from an unhealthy to a healthy diet and lifestyle what would they be?
Joel: Stop eating processed food; use your kitchen and all of its sophisticated techno-gadgetry to prepare, process, package, and preserve whole foods. Hydrate-drink lots of water and no sugary soft drinks. Sleep 8 or 8.5 hours a night. Forgive everyone who has wronged you.
Sina: I agree with Joel. In addition, switch to organically/regeneratively-grown or raised food. That single change can dramatically reduce your toxic burden on your body because the organic label does not allow produce to contain GMOs, be sprayed with most pesticides or herbicides, grown using sewage sludge (which can contain high levels of heavy metals) or most synthetic fertilizers, or irradiated. And, in terms of meat and poultry, the animal cannot be given hormones or most antibiotics and must be fed an organic diet. In terms of a healthy lifestyle, the best detoxification protocol you can follow is an emotional detox. Our culture tends to focus on the physical body and biological markers when restoring health. However, releasing negative, stuck emotions that you have carried with you, sometimes since childhood, is one of the best ways to heal the body, mind and spirit. In fact, spontaneous remissions from chronic diseases, such as cancer, have occurred through emotional detoxification. It’s such a critical component to health and wellness that I include it in my daily routine.
Joel: Probably I should add turning off the TV and using your entertainment time and money to find your integrity provenance. It may be a local farmer and it may be a great farm that ships to your doorstep, but the most important aspect is to take charge, to take an active role in your journey and not just wait for the FDA or USDA or labels to make that journey for you.
The title of the book is ‘Beyond Labels’ but in fact you do point out some important certification seals to look out for – what is your gold standard seal combination to look out for when shopping for food?
Sina: It would be fantastic if we all grew our own food and/or shopped solely from our local regenerative farmers. However, that’s not realistic for most people. Nearly everyone shops in the grocery store to some extent, including Joel and I. And, in that setting, labels are the primary tool at our disposal for helping us make informed decisions. Again, in BEYOND LABELS, the goal is not to be “perfect.” The goal is to meet yourself where you are and lovingly encourage yourself to move forward one step at a time.
When I’m in the grocery store, I look for the quartet: USDA Organic seal plus the Non-GMO Project seal plus the Glyphosate Residue Free seal plus the Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verified seal. If you don’t know the ins and outs of each of those seals, pairing them may seem redundant. However, each seal contains gaps – some of which are substantial. So, I pair these seals together to fill in those gaps in order to reduce my toxic burden when shopping for processed foods in the grocery store.
Joel: Sina, you’re much more charitable than I am on this topic. As you know, we went around and around and around on this because here at Polyface Farm (our farm) we don’t use any seals or certifications whatsoever and have yet to find one that we can live with. All that said, we do buy government certified organic bananas. So obviously I have a soft spot for a seal somewhere. My rules for certifications are straightforward: they must be financed by the buyer not the seller; the leadership must come from the buying end and not the selling end; they should recognize all steps toward improvement and not be just a pass-fail system.
What are the nutrition levels like of people in the U.S. – what specific improvements need to be made as a whole to improve the nutritional situation?
Joel: The U.S. leads the world in noninfectious disease morbidity. This is not a place to be number one. It’s indicative of the Standard American Diet. Sina, you’re the expert; take it from here.
Sina: In America, we are seeing a rise in micro-nutrient deficiencies. It’s estimated that every American is deficient or inadequate in at least one nutrient. And, sometimes, it only takes one nutrient deficiency to develop a disease. For instance, some autoimmune disease can develop if you are deficient in vitamin D. Insulin resistance can result from chromium deficiency. And, lack of magnesium can result in high blood pressure. But here’s the kicker: an individual can take a multivitamin and mineral every day and still develop a disease from nutrient deficiencies. That’s exactly what happened to me. I took a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement every day yet I developed deficiencies in 15 nutrients. Two of the deficiencies were so severe that I was diagnosed as borderline for both beriberi and pellagra. Both of those disease can lead to death and both were eradicated in America in the early to mid-1900s. Yet, we are seeing a resurgence of these types of nutrient deficiency diseases largely from our diet and lifestyle choices.
Joel: Interestingly, we see this nutritional deficit on American farms, both in plants and animals. Many folks don’t realize that we use a lot more drugs in our livestock than in our humans. And some herbicides, like glyphosate, are technically categorized as antibiotics. As plants and animals become immunologically weaker, the “toxic rescue chemistry” (a phrase popularized by the late great Charles Walters) needed to prop up survival continues to increase. What we see in the human population reflects perfectly what we see on our farms.
Sina: To correct the problem, we need to focus on building a robust microbiome, which is exactly what Joel and I have done in BEYOND LABELS. Depression, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies and other inflammatory conditions are all associated with the types and quantities of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Yet, numerous studies have concluded that Americans are losing their microbial diversity – perhaps by as much as 30%. The good news is that diet and lifestyle are critical factors in determining the diversity and number of bacteria that make up your unique microbiome. Therefore, you can re-balance your microbiome and thereby create resilience by making simple changes, such as: switching to organic, eating fermented foods and prebiotics, not eating preservatives, adding herbs and spices into your diet, drinking clean water, getting out in nature and breathing in the microbial diversity, cycling your foods, and practicing gratitude.
How do you define regenerative agriculture and are there any labels or signs out there that can show consumers that the produce they are buying has been produced in a regenerative way?
Joel: I define it as healing. If it’s not part of the healing, it’s part of the sickness. That means it should create more soil, more potable water, more breathable air, and more social connectedness to our ecological umbilical.
Sina: Well said, Joel. When shopping in the grocery store, you can look for the Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verified (EOV) seal. The EOV seal was created by The Savory Institute. It’s a quick and easy way to identify products that contain raw materials that were grown using regenerative farm practices.
Joel: I encourage you to visit your local farms and verify the farming practices for yourself. Identifying good farms is a skill anyone can develop if you put some time on it. Once you’ve visited a few farms, you get pretty good at spotting things. Our seal of approval is the fact that we have a 24/7/365 open door policy for anyone in the world to come anytime and see anything anywhere unannounced. We call that customer validated full transparency. Good farms should be aesthetically and aromatically sensually romantic.
Beyond Labels suggests starting to grow your own food and even relocating – is this really possible for everyone?
Joel: Perhaps it’s not possible for everyone, but at least cogitating about it is always a healthy exercise. Who would have thought that 5 months ago that 40 percent of corporate office space would never be used again? Sometimes big steps of progress require big steps of change.
Sina: Growing your own food and relocating are just two steps along the road map. You don’t have to choose that path. There are 72 steps to choose from so don’t limit yourself. However, if you are interested in growing your own food, we offer solutions that almost anyone can implement regardless of space and time limitations, such as: growing a single herb in your kitchen window, growing sprouts in a Mason jar, and planting seeds for lettuce in a pot on your front porch.
Joel: In the book, we address urban production at miniature scale. Goodness, anyone can have an earthworm kit under the kitchen sink to eat food scraps and make fertilizer for your house plants. Don’t ever let perfect be the enemy of better.
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