Gigi Berardi: Eating Well, Eating Wisely (re-broadcast)

For many, along with all that good cheer, the holidays bring a bunch of food-related conundrums: what to bring to the pot luck, what to eat and not eat at the company party, what gifts to buy for our culinary-focused friends and family, and how to be ecologically responsible without compromising taste. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with a food expert who can help solve these holiday food puzzlers. Gigi Berardi is a professor of food studies and geography at Western Washington University. Her new book, FoodWISE lays out ways to make better decisions about what we eat. We discuss the differences between frozen and canned foods, take a look at “Big Organic,” and examine how the food industry’s misuse of the word “healthy” has warped its meaning.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Gigi Berardi (GB) | 00:14 – Choose whole, be informed, choose sustainable, and go for the experience.

Narrator | 00:24 – For many, along with all that good cheer, the holidays bring a bunch of food-related conundrums: what to bring to the pot luck, what to eat and not eat at the company party, what gifts to buy for our culinary-focused friends and family, and how to be ecologically responsible without compromising taste. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with a food expert who can help solve these holiday food puzzlers. Gigi Berardi is a professor of food studies and geography at Western Washington University. Her new book, FoodWISE lays out ways to make better decisions about what we eat. We discuss the differences between frozen and canned foods, take a look at “Big Organic,” and examine how the food industry’s misuse of the word “healthy” has warped its meaning.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:40 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Gigi Berardi. She’s a professor of food studies and geography at Western Washington University, and her new book is Food Wise Gigi. Welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Gigi Berardi (GB) | 01:52 – Thank you, Alex.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:54 – So you have a new book coming out early 2020 entitled Food Wise. What is the Wise approach? It’s an acronym. Why don’t you explain to our listeners what the Wise approach to sourcing and preparing meals is all about?

GB | 02:09 – Right. Uh, Wise is an acronym, and the acronym is Whole for W. Informed is the I, S is sustainable and E is experience. So experience-based thinking. And I had thought about using Wisest and that would’ve allowed me to add a T for Tasty, but I did not. And so in its simplest form it represents an approach to dealing with food choices. So this book is a little different in that it’s not about food so much as about food choices, which are really difficult for many of us to make.

AW | 02:54 – So is it for consumers who are going to the store shopping and the choices that they have to make when they get home?

GB | 03:02 – Precisely.

AW | 03:03 – What are some of the biggest challenges that you think that consumers are facing in today’s marketplace?

GB | 03:10 – Time and money. Uh, so, uh, in particular, I mean, I think people can choose wisely and find, uh, inexpensive foods and, uh, inexpensive ways to cook, but then it comes down to time, and that is, you know, valuing time, the time it takes to cook, to prepare a meal, to invite friends, uh, over and, um, to be hospitable. Uh, so I think that that time is a, a real limiting factor. And, um, I should say that when I wrote this book, I was really trying to address my students, uh, as well as friends, family, colleagues, uh, and other people I work with. And students are very busy with school and also are on tight budgets. And so they find it very difficult to, uh, to find the time and money, but, um, to cook. But in one of my classes we’ve got, uh, 150 students, and part of the class is cooking for a potluck. So we have potlucks with 150 students and 50 students cook at a time. So it’s experience in trying to cook well, tasty foods on a budget.

AW | 04:36 – So what would you want chefs and diners alike to take away from the Wise acronym?

GB | 04:42 – Well, that’s a good question because I designed the acronym to be kind of all encompassing, kind of, you don’t need anything else except to remember this acronym when you are shopping. And, uh, so the W stands for whole, and that’s whole farm systems and Whole Foods. Uh, and so that gets us away from, uh, a lot of, so-called processed, processed foods. And, uh, in terms of whole farm systems in the book, that really means, uh, systems that are able to produce their own fertility, the nutrients that they need to produce foods, either from animal sources or from plants in terms of cover crops. It also means, uh, in terms of whole farm systems, farms on a scale that matter and contribute to community. So that can include quite large farms as it often does for organic, for organic products. We talk about big organic, uh, as long as those farms are contributing to community. So that’s the whole farm piece. And then the whole foods are, well, Michael Pollan, another food writer talks about foods your grandmother or grandfather would recognize, but we’re trying to stay away from, um, foods that are so processed, they’re high in nutrients that we, we don’t really need. And usually that means polyunsaturated fats, so processed fats. So trying to stay away from that. So that’s the whole piece. I is being informed as much as possible about what I just talked about. And s is sustainable. And what you want to do is choose foods that are coming from sustainable assistance, which invariably means whole food and whole, whole farm systems, but also sustainable economically for the individual shopper. And then e is experience. So you want to go with foods that you know something about or you’re willing to get some experience on. And the reason why that’s so important is the more experience we have, then the wiser we get, literally, so the, I made up the acronym, but one of the main things of the book comes from, um, a sociologist and a political scientist at Swarthmore who wrote a book called Practical Wisdom. And the main thesis of that book is that we get Wise and happy as a result by having experience in doing the right thing. And so that applies to judges, to the judicial system, to doctors, the medical system to professors and the educational system. But it also applies to cooks and eaters.

AW | 08:01 – Let’s take a scenario of a busy father of two whose supposed to be cooking dinner that night, and he’s got very limited time and a limited budget, and he’s in lives, kind of in a food desert. There’s no whole foods within a few miles of him. He’s, he is not going to the, the farmer’s market to pick out the best tomatoes in the county. He’s in a pretty limited grocery store, and it’s six o’clock at night and he’s got two hungry kids waiting for him. Walk us through some choices that he might make in reality and in the future. What kind of choices you’re hoping if he has read FoodWISE, what kind of choices he might make instead?

GB | 08:42 – Well, I think in terms of the timescale, there’s past, present, and future. So, if we could just look at past, for a minute. You know, part of FoodWISE is planning too. And so one of the things I talk about in the book is, you know, making up a big pot of rice, you know, of, of brown rice, uh, in advance. And I mean, this is what I do, and I, uh, go to the supermarket, to the deli, and I might get some roasted vegetables or other vegetables, uh, and uh, and add that to, to my rice. Um, in the future. There’s no substitute for planning like that. And you can, you know, canned foods are very inexpensive. And so there’s quite a number of canned foods which don’t have, preservatives in them, in part because they’re fairly high in salt. But you can always rinse the salt off if you want to do that for some canned goods. You know, in the heat of the moment, I talk about the FoodWISE override, which is, you know, the s now becomes sane. So we, you know, we have to make sane choices. And so what that father of two is trying to balance is, you know, again, time and money. And so, um, and so you might, uh, uh, you might, you know, he might be bringing home, you know, something from some fast food, uh, place hoping that, you know, the kids are going to eat it that night. And, uh, and in the book I talk about how, you know, if I’ve got like a hot dog stand, I might, you know, I’ll go for the hot hotdog and, uh, with a lot of sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, even though it’s kind of industrial. So, because I’m looking at the, the Wise acronym. But most likely, there’s going to be some combination of, you know, vegetables, the, the carbohydrate, the simple carbohydrate of choice is going to be some version of pasta. And of course, that’s going to be inexpensive. Also, it’s not possible, most likely for many of us to have three food Wise meals a day. But if we’re all doing a little bit as best as we can, we’re going to get there.

(Music Break) | 11:12

AW | 12:01 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking with Gigi Berardi. She’s a professor of food studies and geography at Western Washington University, and her new book is called Food Wise. So compare, if you can, the frozen food aisle to the canned food aisle. You’re talking about how there’s a lot of cheap, reasonably healthy alternatives in the canned food aisle. It seems like there’s more and more organic items for sale in the frozen food section. How do you compare, like the organic versus the non-organic items in the frozen section? Are they what they’re made out to be? Or is there some false advertising there in, in terms of big organic?

GB | 12:43 – Well, yeah, that actually is literally the million dollar, the billion dollar question. And I talk about this in the book. In a sense, a lot of what I say in the book could be thought of as organic bashing. So big organic bashing. Because it’s not living up to our expectations, and I’ll explain why, but with the exception of a couple of things. So when the organic rule was hotly debated, in the USDA, in the 1990s, so exactly how this idea of organically certified vegetables and produce was going to play out. Like what did it mean there, there were some important, there was an important rubric that was established. So organic, uh, cannot contain, usually cannot contain genetically modified organisms. That’s, one nor number two is nor does organic contain irradiation or doesn’t have irradiation as part of its processing. That’s very important for something like organic spices. because our spices, many of our spices are irradiated as a preservative. The third piece was that municipal sewage sludge could not be used, uh, for organic operations. And the reason why that was important, well, there’s a number of reasons, but from my perspective, the reason why that was important was it limited the scale of organic. Because municipal sewage sludge is a, is a, uh, ready source of nutrients, uh, if you’re not going to use chemical fertilizers. So now the fact that organic had to generate its own fertility via cover crops or have animals would already change the image of organic in a very good way. But this all gets at kind of a fourth thing, which is organic realized that the market was very strong, and now what we have is big organic. And, and, and so the consumer really needs to fall on the eye for informed to be able to trace and to understand the scale of production that’s, that’s represented in organic. And, uh, and I think what you’re getting at is, well, is, is that idea of scale, which I hit very hard on in the book. So for example, there was a five acre farm, uh, uh, close to where I am in Bellingham called Cascadian Farms. It was a small operation.

AW | 15:50 – Yes, I’ve seen their products.

GB | 15:52 – Yeah. So very soon, Cascadian Farms, sold to a large conglomerate that’s responsible for its production. And this is the story of much of organic and two things. One is the New Yorker has hit very hard on this and has some great pieces on what is meant by big organic, but then so does, uh, a non-profit called the Cornucopia Institute. And I can’t recommend highly enough for consumers to just look up the Cornucopia Institute’s graphic on who owns much of organic Muir Valley and Cascadian Farms and Valla. And, uh, you’d be surprised. And so is that what you want to buy? I don’t know. You know, ideally for me, no, but sometimes I do. And I know that that organic, even though I’m contributing to, you know, a scale of production, which is far away from the scale of agricultural production that I think is important for communities, for rural communities, at least I know it doesn’t have irradiated items, it probably doesn’t have GMO and it wasn’t produced using municipal sewage sludge.

AW | 17:15 – I know that you hit upon understanding soil and how our crops are grown a lot in the book Gigi, but how should consumers consider that when they’re buying their food? How can they,

GB | 17:30 – So, that’s a good question. So soil, how we think of it, how we think of producing it and how we think of managing it is all a question of time once again. And so time, which is this important limiting factor that affects so many of our decisions. And so, uh, with the industrialization of agriculture came, the industrialization of soils and soil management and management managing soils became very much a question of adding chemicals. So this dates back from the early part of, uh, the 20th century. And so managing chemicals and uh, and chemical nutrients, and which of course created industries upon industries in terms of the, what’s called the agronomic delivery of nutrients. So, uh, delivering the amount of nutrients necessarily necessary to achieve a, a fairly high yields. Um, but what we’ve realized, uh, over the years is that it’s not so much the chemistry of soils, but the biology of soils that’s important. And in particular, micro and macroorganisms. So everything from, um, from earthworms to protozoa that are important to nourish so that we maintain a healthy soil. And by healthy, I mean, um, high in moisture, but not too high in moisture and high and, and fairly well drained soils. And those conditions together with organic matter produce, uh, produce a soil that is sustainable because s is another important part of the, of the acronym. And I, I did use the word healthy, and I want to say that I tried to avoid the word healthy in the book, which was really difficult to do because it’s so much in our lexicon. And also was very difficult working with my publisher who I adore, but they desperately wanted to use the word healthy because healthy translate into our various cultures in the United States translates into low fat or no fat, it translates in, uh, healthy has gotten us to no fat or low fat products labeled light, LITE, that are high in sugar.

AW | 20:16 – Yes. And that’s really what we’re, we’ve found in the last decade is that sugar is much more of the culprit than the fat, isn’t it?

GB | 20:24 – Right. And what’s interesting is, um, I have an, I had another book before this one called Finding Balance, and that target population was dancers talking about conditioning and nutrition. But really it was for everybody and colleagues in the 1990s were telling me that I was being too hard on fat and that sugar was the culprit. And in fact, they were right; sugar is the culprit in terms of overeating and eating foods that get us to a place where we are deficient in fat. So as it turns out, when we belly fat, for example, is epidemic. I don’t want to medicalize or pathologize by the way, obesity or fatness or weight or body image. However, it is true that there is a preponderance of belly fat, if you will, in the United States. It could be in Europe, generally speaking, uh, that, uh, people are big, but you don’t see the belly fat, which is so symptomatic of a diet high in processed fats and in sugar. And I, I must say, I also wanted to avoid the word healthy for fats too, because then we put health halos on certain kind of fats, and most likely that’s going to be polyunsaturated fats to the exclusion of saturated fat in our diet. And one of the things I talk about in the book is provocative research, looking at how important it is to have some, maybe not a lot, I don’t know, nobody knows. We don’t have a daily requirement for saturated fat. We do for some other essential fatty acids. But I talk in the book about what happens when we demonize saturated fat. So one of the things that happens is according to some theories is that the body desperate for fat starts to pull fat from body parts and in the brain, uh, Alzheimer’s results in, uh, muscular tissue, uh, muscular, um, sclerosis might, which involves a central nervous system, but anyway, might result in joints, arthritis might result. So really this book is looking at provocative science urging consumers to look at many different kinds of science in terms of the approach from epidemiological studies to just theoretical work to realize that healthy is something which is being sold to us as a term by the diet industry and by the medical industry that’s working hand in glove with the diet industry. And there’s a lot of referee literature looking at some of that collusion.

AW | 23:27 – So what’s a better word than healthy? What do you use in the book instead? Whole?

GB | 23:32 – So try and look for whole fats, and that’s going to lead us to food, which is not high in processing. So whole fats is going to lead us to animal fats, it’s going to lead us to coconut oil. If you, uh, don’t wanna look at animal fats, it’s going to lead us to responsibly produced, uh, palm oils. Those are the saturated fats,

AW | 24:02 – And those shouldn’t be things that people avoid, right?

GB | 24:10 Correct.

(Music Break) | 24:11

AW | 24:54 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking with Gigi Berardi. Her new book is called “FoodWISE.” So if you have impressionable young minds in the, in the household who also care about animals and are trying to have a, a, a different diet than the mainstream, whether it be vegan or vegetarian, what are some of the guidelines that you would push in order to kind of get that really valuable protein? Because we’ve had some guests on here on Sea, Change Radio, who’ve talked about the real dangers of a monoculture where we’re just pumping soy into our meat alternatives in order to just boost the protein levels. But that’s not necessarily good for people, and it’s not necessarily good for the soil to be growing so much corn and soy.

GB | 25:44 – Well, on the question of soy, I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s two parts to that. One is how do you know what you know? I mean, how, how do you know what to do? And then the other question is, what do you do? And the book really addresses the how piece. And so what I would urge young people, uh, this is what I, this is why I wrote the book for students because of their fierce food beliefs. So in the book I talk about fierce food beliefs, and originally the book was going to be only on that fierce food beliefs and how to address them. But my, my, um, response is, my advice is follow, follow the money, follow the story. Where, who are the winners? Who are the losers? If you’ve got questions about fat in your diet, look at how saturated fat first became demonized. Who was behind that? What was the industry behind it? What did they have to gain? And, uh, and I traced some of that in the book. So I guess I would just advise people to be as critical as possible. What does processed fat get us? And who’s behind that? And so that’s, that’s kind of the, the how. But in terms of guidelines, the guidelines in the book are choose whole, be informed, choose sustainable, and go for the experience experiment for your self. And I guess in terms of the example that you gave of the saturated fat and the animals, I think as we look at animal sources of protein and animal sources of fat, it’s important to look at sustainable and whole systems of production. And they exist, even systems of production that are, that are able to, uh, cycle carbon better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

AW | 27:50 – Well, the book is “FoodWISE” and it’s coming out soon. The author is Gigi Berardi. Gigi, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

GB | 27:59 – My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the New Master Sounds, Louis Prima, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.