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David Holub

A trip to the grocery store can induce utter confusion

If you’re the type of person who goes to the grocery store and there are no problems, issues or dilemmas and you just glide from aisle to aisle tossing this and that in your cart carefree willy-nilly, and the decisions you make about which foods you buy come easy, well clearly, you’re doing something wrong.

I like to think of myself as a feller who tries to be a somewhat socially, ethically, environmentally and health-conscious food consumer – but I often have little idea about what I should eat, what I should avoid and which words on labels are meaningless.

I see the USDA Organic label and think it’s an easy decision for such things like sustainable growing practices and pesticide use. But then such concepts as big organic pop up, companies that just slip in under the organic label and resemble factory farming in more ways than one. Or I wonder if a seemingly mom-and-pop farmer brand is really a green-washed arm of some large environmentally unfriendly mega-corporation.

Or take eggs. While some people are so adamant that their eggs be white that they buy brown eggs that have been painted white, there are others who shun white eggs because any egg that ticks all the boxes in terms of ethical responsibility and humaneness certainly would have to be brown (right?), when in fact the color of an egg has nothing to do with anything other than the type of hen it comes from, notably the color of its feathers. Beyond the color of the shell, one must consider the entire nest-to-chopping-block existence of the hen. (Cage? Free range? Organic vegetarian-fed diet?)

Or with coffee. Not only is coffee now bad for you based on a petition signed by 97 percent of coffee scientists, and anything more than 1.5 cups a day will end your life early ... oh wait, no, it’s now good for you and anything fewer than two cups a day is dancing with the devil. Health aside, if the coffee doesn’t come with a plethora of logos and emblems on its packaging – fair-trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly – does that mean it was mono-culturally grown, in the sun, planted and harvested by destitute African slave children?

I’ve brought my own plastic bags and pat myself on the back for my conservation efforts, but did I tend toward products with recycled, paper-based packaging and did I buy as many items as possible in bulk using reusable containers as well?

My fruits and vegetables are organic, but were they flown in from Chile, making that out-of-season peach’s environmental impact dwarf that of a conventionally yet locally grown one?

And then there are labels with words and phrases that go from virtually meaningless (“made with natural ingredients”) to confusing (low sodium vs. reduced sodium – and wait, something just came out saying sodium isn’t so bad after all, right?) to misleading (oatmeal that touts itself as GMO-free when all oatmeal is GMO-free because genetically modified oats don’t exist).

In his landmark book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan says Americans are particularly prone to food and diet fads and all-around food confusion because, unlike most countries, instead of a long-standing social and cultural traditions around food that govern what, how much and when we eat, Americans do it piecemeal,“anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it is wise to eat,” Pollan writes. “Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success.”

The only solution I can think of at the moment is to convince Durango supermarkets to better tolerate my maniacal screaming and to leave me be when they find me whimpering in the fetal position on aisle 6.