5 great ways to know what’s in your food

The old adage “you are what you eat” has been a healthy food mantra for as far back as you may remember. But with genetic engineering changing the very structure of food, and improved transportation opening up global markets, do you really know what you are eating?

Food moves through society via different supply systems. Crops are grown to feed the animals you eat and for direct human consumption. On the Greenpeace Organisation’s Australian website, they comment, “Commonly genetically modified crops, like soy, corn and cotton trash, are used to feed animals as well as people. The health effects GM feed has on the animals forced to eat it are unknown — and so are the possible health effects on humans who consume these animal products.”

An absence of clear, consistent food labelling, especially in relation to genetically modified (GM) crops, means you can no longer rely on food packaging as the gold standard in food information. Even though your standard supermarket-brand chicken may not come with a GM label, according to the True Food Network, “Most Australian chicken is fed GM soy, with Coles and Woolworths being the biggest buyers of chicken.” While your chicken may have its ancient biology intact, there are no studies that show the impact a chicken’s GM-based diet has on its contribution to the larger food supply system.

The drive to find out more about food and its worldwide supply channels is not new. In 1986, in protest at the emerging fast-food culture, an Italian, Carlo Petrini, started what’s now become a global back-to-basics food movement known as Slow Food. Slow Food now has organising bodies in many countries around the world, including Australia, to promote greater awareness of sustainability in farming, the importance of maintaining wide varieties of different species of the same crop (like heirloom tomatoes or apples) as well as their original mandate: to preserve food traditions.

Australia and New Zealand share the food standards body, FSANZ, which regulates all kinds of standards relating to food, especially regarding GM foods, food labelling, additives and food safety. Becoming an educated eater is critical in a world where food production and supply have changed radically over the course of your lifetime.


The GM factor

For a detailed treatment of this topic, check out the article Go GM Free in this issue. Just briefly, though, here is how genetic modification is impacting on the food chain.

Genetically modified food, sometimes referred to as genetically engineered food, involves the transference of genetic material from one species to another. The end result is known as a genetically modified organism, or GMO. This can involve things like genes from fish being transplanted into tomatoes to make the tomatoes better able to resist cold.

Greenpeace Australia’s website states, “Greenpeace is opposed to the release of genetically modified (GM) crops into the environment” and “Genetic modification is highly unpredictable.” However, voices sceptical of the benefits of genetically engineered crops are not being heard at government level in Australia. Since 1996, NSW has grown GM cotton.

The Biological Farmers of Australia website ( states, “In 2008, GM crops intended for the food chain (specifically canola) were grown commercially for the first time in New South Wales and Victoria.” In South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, commercial production of GM food crops is not permitted, while in Western Australia small-scale GM canola trials are in progress. Queensland and the Northern Territory have no restrictions against GM foods and they can be freely grown.

Regulations for genetically modified foods are managed by the national government’s Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) in line with the laws set out in the Gene Technology Act 2000. The OGTR website offers a map detailing which GM crops (different from GM foods) are being grown in trials or monitored in post-harvest studies and where around the country.

Currently, there are GM trials ongoing in various states in Australia, including some for Monsanto Australia, of the following foods and crops:

  • Banana
  • Canola
  • Cotton
  • Sugarcane
  • Wheat

Animals raised on grain are more likely to have ingested GM food at some point, indicating grass- rather than grain-fed meat is a better option, especially where beef is concerned. The True Food Organisation provides a handy list of foods safe from GM additions, as well as foods to avoid if you’d like to exclude GM foods from your diet.


Organic food

Buying food that is certified organic is one of the only ways to ensure your food is not genetically modified, as Australia’s variety of organic certification processes explicitly prohibits genetic modification. Organic food is also produced in an environment that is pesticide-free (in the case of crops) or growth-hormone- and antibiotic-free (in the case of livestock). In the cradle-to-grave cycle of food it is considered that, for meat to be certified organic, its feed must be organic and non-GM, too.

Interestingly, while it’s common practice to treat non-organic beef with growth hormones in Australia, the European Union disagrees with Australia’s take on “growth hormones being safe if used properly” and, since 1988, has banned growth hormones in their meat supply. Organic meat is growth-hormone-free.

Choice Australia recommends buying food that has been certified organic and recognises the following seven certifications:

  • Australia Certified Organic (BFA)
  • Demeter (BDRI)
  • National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA)
  • Organic Food Chain (OFC)
  • Organic Growers of Australia (OGA)
  • Safe Food Queensland
  • Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers Cooperative

With limited food-budget dollars, balancing the potential — and often unknown — impact of growth hormones and pesticides in conventional farming, both on your health and in terms of the environment, often means being selective about what foods to buy organic. Chicken, eggs and dairy products are most often suggested as the best organic buys.

In terms of fruit and veg, some produce is typically more heavily treated with pesticides than others. The following foods, listed in The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets From Around the World – Why They Work and How To Make Them Work For You by Daphne Miller, MD, are most worth your organic dollars:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet capsicums
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

Sydney-based naturopath Kira Sutherland adds, “Berries are some of the most heavily sprayed fruits”, so add them to your organic fruit and veg list where you can.


Free range

When it comes to eggs, free range is better, right? Not necessarily. The Animals Australia website warns, “There are currently no enforceable national standards that define the conditions for free-range hens.” While free range is often promoted as a better — supposedly for the chickens/eggs — alternative to regular cage or battery-farm egg production, the reality is the free-range label on eggs doesn’t always mean better living conditions for the chickens.

Choice Australia suggests looking for the RSPCA humane certification on free-range eggs, or spending the extra to purchase organic eggs, which are more strictly regulated and raised to what you might expect from “free range”. Chicken and eggs labelled “hormone free” is essentially a marketing ploy since hormones have been banned from chicken and egg production since the 1960s. “Antibiotic free” is a better label to focus on, as the antibiotics often added to the food of battery, cage and non-certified free-range chickens have a similar effect in the chickens to that of the hormones of the past.

At the time of writing, October 2011, there is a bill under review in the NSW state parliament to formally legalise free-range requirements regarding egg production and hen care. This would create greater consistency across the board regarding egg production and labelling. In the meantime, Choice’s guidelines recommends only eggs or chicken certified free-range by:

  • The RSPCA
  • Certified Australian Organic
  • Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA)

“Free range” is also a term used to describe other food sources, including chicken, pork and edible snails. If you’re concerned about the conditions in which your food is raised, organic is always the best option, however the RSPCA runs an Approved Farming Scheme, which recognises those farming practices they deem humane.

While the RSPCA’s interest is animal protection, that focus blends with human food supply as animal protection criteria establishes a level of quality control over both the food livestock is fed and its living conditions. The RSPCA website maintains a list of humane food suppliers of pork, chicken, turkey and eggs.


Food miles

The growing popularity of local farmers’ markets has emerged as a backlash against the near year-round availability of historically seasonal produce, in part due to importing and transporting of food over significant distances.

The basic premise of movements such as the “100 mile diet” or “locavore” concept is that, the greater distance your food has travelled, the greater negative impact it’s had on the environment. Longer distances are also thought to reduce quality and nutrient supply within produce. In their 2007 study on food miles in Melbourne, Victoria, for the CERES organisation, Sophie Gaballa and Asha Bee Abraham quote a report by Sustain and Elm Farm Research Centre that notes, “Specialisation and standardisation, coupled with long-distance transport, are diluting the nutritional potency of our food. Some nutrient losses, in particular vitamin C, vitamin A, riboflavin and vitamin E, will occur even with excellent storage conditions.”

The ABC, reporting on Canadian couple Alisa Smith and James McKinnon’s year-long 100-mile-diet experiment, noted the authors were inspired to start their year-long, 100-mile diet after discovering … “The average ingredient in a North American meal travels some 1500 miles (2414 kilometres) from paddock to plate.” Gaballa and Abraham’s CERES report found the distance travelled by an average Victorian food basket to be more then 21,000km — almost the length of Australia’s coastline.

Taking food miles into consideration is but one factor in the larger food supply cycle. In their CERES study, Gaballa and Abraham also discussed the need for a broad perspective when considering food miles. In the example they provide, of locally grown rice (in Victoria), the food miles were obviously lower than for imported rice but, since the region in which the rice was being grown in Victoria was not ideally suited for rice growing, in this instance local rice production led to high demands on other resources, such as water.

While it may be idealistic to expect one region could provide all your dietary needs, considering food miles is worthwhile where a choice between Australian-grown produce, such as citrus fruit, and the same fruit imported from California or Mexico exists.

This raises a key issue: weighing up the benefits of buying foods that are easily sourced nearby and therefore perhaps better quality because of lower food miles, against buying foods not available locally that may be a better option for your organic food spend.


More than homemade

Making healthy food choices means more than simply opting for homemade over takeaway. Considering how the food you eat has participated in the wider environment can help you see how your eating impacts on the world around you. Understanding the ways in which food is grown, treated, transported and labelled can help you become an educated eater so that, regardless of the choices you make, you’ll know what you are through understanding what you eat.




Kelly Surtees is an internationally published writer devoted to expanding her wellbeing through personal growth. Her geographic home is in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

Kelly Surtees

Kelly Surtees

With more than 14 years in private practice, Kelly Surtees is experienced, warm and insightful. She loves exploring astrology’s history as well as escaping into the ocean. Kelly’s passion for astrology is infectious, and her specialty areas include career and life direction, health and fertility, love, health and happiness. Kelly is an expat Aussie who lives in Canada most of the year.

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