How to eat more sustainably while farmer’s markets are still closed for the season

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Sustainable Chef Gerard Viverito reveals three shortcuts
that will help you make smarter food decisions

In the warmer months, farmer’s markets make it easier to eat locally grown produce. But until spring growing season begins, you may find neighborhood farmers selling cabbage and squash and not much else. The Sustainable Chef Gerard Viverito is sharing his three favorite shortcuts for finding clean, eco-friendly foods throughout the winter in your local supermarket.

What’s most important to grocery shoppers

In addition to price, research shows that most supermarket shoppers choose foods based on their ingredients, nutritional value and more recently whether those foods are eco-friendly. This may explain why you may be seeing more people than ever checking out the labels before putting products in their carts.  

“I was fascinated by the results of four years of research, by a company called EcoFocus Worldwide, about how we make our food-buying decisions,” comments Viverito. “They found that 94 percent of us think about our health when we food shop, and 87 percent of us are also thinking about the environment. And a growing number of grocery shoppers – 58 percent in 2017 compared with 54 percent in 2014 – care about where companies source their ingredients.”

The ‘secret’ code some grocers use for fruits and vegetables

“Most people are unaware that the numbered stickers on produce may also indicate if fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables are organic or if they were conventionally grown,” says Viverito. “These are called Price Look Up (PLU) codes. Not all stores use these codes to differentiate between organic and conventional, so ask your produce department manager. If your supermarket does use PLU codes, a five-digit code beginning in 9 identifies organic, and a four-digit code means conventionally grown.”

But keep in mind that even if produce is labeled Certified Organic, that doesn’t necessarily make it better. “There are farmers who are doing a good job with their farm practices, but who can’t afford the certification,” Viverito explains. Based on the EcoFocus research, Non-GMO Project Verified has overtaken Certified Organic on shopping lists, as consumers are becoming more aware that soy, corn and other common ingredients are genetically modified.

Here’s a hack for recognizing a widely used, sustainable ingredient

“One way to avoid GMO is to look for palm oil instead of corn, soy or canola oils. Palm oil is naturally trans-fat free and non-GMO. It’s in popular products such as Smart Balance. While you may not see country of origin on the food labels, most of the palm oil in our food supply comes from Malaysia, where it’s certified sustainable. I’ve walked through the Malaysian oil palm plantations. Malaysians are advancing new standards in environmental protection, especially of rainforests, for the palm oil industry.”  

The number one question to ask in the seafood department   

“Ninety one percent of our seafood is imported. We don’t know how it was caught or what regulations were followed to protect our oceans,” cautions Viverito, who serves as Director of Culinary Education for Passionfish, a NGO non-profit organization dedicated to educating people around the globe on the issue of sustainability in the seas. “One of the most important questions you can ask at the supermarket or fish market is the country of origin. The American seafood industry generally has better sustainability practices than those of other countries.”

For additional information and to see some of Chef Viverito’s favorite winter recipes using sustainable ingredients, visit www.palmoilhealth.org.