Protein Quality: Animal vs. Plant-based

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With a feeling of uncertainty infiltrating our lives lately, many of us are looking for concrete information to help us make it through this “new normal”. And what is more concrete than science? Because of this, we’re turning to research-backed studies and data to explain the differences between plant and animal proteins.

What we’ve found is that multiple sources of healthy proteins should be a part of our regular and varied diets. Any documentaries or overtly “over-the-top” productions that tell you otherwise, no matter how compelling, likely have an ulterior motive.

Let’s talk basic needs

To understand why protein conversations are so plentiful and ongoing, we must understand how essential protein is in our diets. Proteins are the building blocks of life. Every single cell in our body contains proteins.

The essential function of protein is to provide the body with energy to repair cells and make new ones. Without protein, and the capability to regenerate cells, our immune system weakens, inhibiting us from maintaining our health.

For a relatively active adult, protein should make up about 10% of our total calories, or a ¼ of your daily plate as shown here.

Now, our dietary needs are unique, so the USDA has created an online resource to help calculate their own daily nutrient recommendations.

There are two primary identifiers for what makes proteins higher quality:

  • the amino acid profile
  • its digestibility, or bioavailability

With this in mind, let’s explore both plant and animal protein sources.

Complete vs. incomplete proteins

Part of what makes plant and animal proteins different is whether or not they are considered “complete” proteins. What makes a protein complete? Its amino acid profile. Harvard School of Public Health explains it best:

“Some proteins found in food are ‘complete’, meaning they contain all twenty-plus types of amino acids needed to make new protein in the body.”

They go on to explain that “incomplete proteins” are lacking one or more of the nine essential amino acids, which our bodies can’t make from scratch. Typically, animal-based foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are great sources of complete protein, providing amino acids that your body simply cannot produce.

Plant-based foods, however, like nuts, seeds, grains, fruits and vegetables, while critical parts of any balanced diet, are not a sufficient choice as a sole protein source, as they lack one or more of the essential amino acids.

Does this mean vegans and vegetarians are not getting the amino acids they need? Not necessarily. They just have to be more strategic in their dietary choices. You can create a complete protein by combining one plant-based food with another that makes up for where the other lacks. For example, you need to combine the amino acids together to make a protein complete.

Take rice and beans for example: separately, they are not considered complete. Beans are missing an amino acid known as methionine; while rice – a grain – is lacking in lysine, another essential amino acid. But, according to the American Society for Nutrition, when consumed together, this would form a “Protein Complementation,” or a complete protein.

Not a fan of good ol’ rice and beans? Try one of my personal favorites: peanut butter and whole wheat bread, which can achieve the same complementation. Here is a chart that shows which amino acids different protein sources contain and, more importantly, what they are deficient in.

What else does meat have that plants don’t?

Nutrients in plant and animal proteins differ outside of just their amino acid composition. While eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains is part of any balanced diet, there are nutrients in animal protein that an all-plant diet just cannot provide in adequate amounts. Take Vitamin B12, for example – this is an essential nutrient that is almost exclusively found in animal foods – fish, meat, and eggs are some of the best options.

Think B12 isn’t that important? Think again. B12 aids in the development of red blood cells and helps to support and maintain nerve and brain function. Some studies have concluded that, without supplementation, vegetarians are at a high risk of B12 deficiency. This can cause weakness, fatigue, psychiatric and neurological disorders, and well as possible links to heart disease.

Vitamin D is another essential nutrient that serves many necessary functions. Also called the sunshine vitamin, it comes in two types – D2 found in plants and D3 count in animal-based foods. The best sources of D3 are fatty fish and egg yolks. Deficiencies in D3 have been linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and most recently, COVID-19.

DHA or Docosahexaenoic (say that ten times fast!) acid, is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is important for brain function. This is mainly found in fatty fish and certain types of microalgae. However – fear not, vegans! – you can take a supplement of algal oil, derived from microalgae, to ensure you are getting enough! There is always a way to find a balanced diet, if you are open to multiple forms of nutrient and protein consumption.

Other deficiencies include creatine, a molecule found primarily in muscle cells, which allows the body to easily access energy reserves for strength and endurance.

Digestibility and bioavailability

Plant protein and animal protein – though both “proteins” – are registered in the body differently. What do I mean by this? Well, when our body intakes any food, it can last for 36 to 72 hours in our twenty-five foot gastrointestinal tract. During this time, the body is breaking down the protein into building blocks, or as previously discussed, its amino acids. Depending on whether the protein is from animal or plant, that determines the rate at which they can be absorbed and the percentage that is available to be used within the body.

Because plant proteins must link up with another food or supplement that contains its missing amino acids to become complete, they absorb more slowly in the digestive tract. On the other hand, animal proteins are readily available for use at a much faster rate, with a much larger profile.

Why should we care how fast a protein is absorbed? Well, because it directly affects our metabolism. The amino acids that plants are deficient in are commonly known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAA. Studies have shown that their lack of essential amino acids provides a lower anabolic effect, which means lower digestibility. For these reasons, it’s possible that 20 grams of protein from one source can be superior to the same amount from another source.

Protein bioavailability, or the ability of proteins to be absorbed and used, is formally based on a quality scoring system called PDCAAS and DIAAS.  Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) is a system that measures the quality of different sources of protein by analyzing how the human body can digest the total amount of protein. This system was developed in the early ’90s as a way to determine its quality. The digestate indispensable amino acid scoring system (DIAAS) is the newer method proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization to replace the PDCAAS. The difference between the two is taking into account the anti-nutrients, or nutrients that can limit absorption of amino acids.

According the new DIAAS system, a score of >100 is a high-quality protein, 75-100 is a good-quality protein, and a score of <75 is a low-quality protein. Below is a chart of various animal and plant protein scores based on the new system.

As we can see, the highest quality proteins, providing the best bioavailability are animal proteins, while soy-based proteins are just slightly under the ‘high quality’ threshold. Foods like dairy, eggs, poultry, and meat are the most effective and efficient way to intake protein.

What about vegans and vegetarians?

Fear not: while animal proteins are the highest quality, there are ways for vegetarians and vegans to meet their essential amino acids needs. Eat higher amounts of plant foods, meaning greater portions, and strategically plan meals to ensure full amino acids profiles are met. According to the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute, soy-based foods seem to have the highest ratings among plant proteins, so seek legumes like edamame, tofu, chenggukjang, and miso to combat potential deficiencies. A recent study from the U.S. Department of Food Science and Nutrition showed links between plant proteins in your diet and healthier markers for heart health and blood sugar management. Remember, a healthy diet is comprised of a balanced diet, including a variety of different foods, all in moderation.

Don’t fall for pretty productions

As a rule of thumb, for all things food-related or otherwise, we should always be wary of over-the-top claims and overtly “scary” statements. By nature, media is polarizing, be that the news, flashy articles, or well-made productions. Without a controversial stance, things simply wouldn’t sell. But we don’t want to be sold! We want the truth, the science! Well, the truth is, things are never as black and white as they are made out to be.

Our optimal diet lies somewhere between an all plant-based protein diet and an animal protein-only diet. There is no yes or no, right or wrong – it is all moderation and variation. While gram-for-gram, animal proteins are the most effective way to meet our nutritional requirements, both sources of protein can be nutritious and should be considered as a tool in your toolbox of healthy eating.

5 Foods to Fight Off COVID-19

Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. We’ve all heard these things as a response to protect ourselves from becoming infected with COVID-19. What we don’t hear is how a healthy and balanced diet is just as…or if not more effective at protecting ourselves against COVID and other illnesses! Here are 5 foods you can add to your diet right now to keep you healthy!

5. Berries

Experts say those who suffer from diet-related illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity are at higher risk of developing serious implications from COVID-19. Experts say that one thing all of these diseases have in common is systemic inflammation, meaning inflammation may be negatively affecting those infected with Covid.

Berries are a great food to incorporate into your diet to protect your body because they are anti-inflammatory. Berries contain an antioxidant called anthocyanins, which help to reduce inflammation in the body, as well as boost the immune system. They have also been shown to reduce one’s risk of heart disease.

Keeping your body protected against inflammation may be key not only during COVID-19, but to protect yourself against heart disease and other diet-related illnesses. Added bonus? They even help with brainpower!

4. Leafy Greens

Fresh vegetables from Hindinger FarmAll vegetables are very important to ensure a balanced diet, but leafy greens especially have the vitamins and minerals needed to help protect us against Covid.

Leafy greens, including broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, and turnip greens, all are very high in vitamin C. We know that vitamin C supplements are incredibly important when it comes to helping our immune system, but a better way to ensure you’re getting your vitamin C intake is through food!

For adults, 65 to 95 mg of vitamin C is recommended every day. In one cup of cooked broccoli, there is around 102 mg of vitamin C. What an easy way to get your veggies and vitamin C!

Broccoli especially is also a great vegetable to eat to protect against COVID-19 because it’s a great source of vitamin A. Vitamin A is an anti-inflammatory and is critical in maintaining proper immune functioning in our bodies. It has been used to help fight against many infectious diseases, including measles. And, since broccoli contains 13% of our daily value of vitamin A, it is a no-brainer that we should be incorporating broccoli into our diets regularly!

3. Fish

Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, are full of nutrients and have many benefits for our bodies, protecting from COVID-19 being just one of them.

They are full of Omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower our LDL “bad” cholesterol, raise our HDL “good” cholesterol, and help lower inflammation in our bodies, which is critical during COVID-19. Fatty fish are also full of vitamin D, another key vitamin we need to help our immunity.

Vitamin D is known for regulating the immune system. Studies have shown that vitamin D can reduce one’s risk of contracting Covid. In one study, findings showed that participants with a vitamin D deficiency were almost 2 times greater to test positive for COVID-19 than those with sufficient levels of vitamin D.

One serving of farmed salmon contains about 66% of one’s daily value of vitamin D, so make sure to incorporate it into your diet!

2. Fermented Foods

yogurt with berriesFermented foods are foods that have good bacteria, or probiotics. They are essential for good gut health and our immune system!

Fermented foods contain microbes that help regulate the microbiome in our guts. They are essential for a healthy gut, and to help with gas, bloating, and diarrhea. They are also essential in immune response! Studies have shown that those who lacked fermented foods in their diets showed a decreased immune response. This decrease could ultimately affect one’s ability to fight off infections, including Covid.

A few great choices for fermented foods include sauerkraut, Greek yogurt, and kombucha. All of which contain lots of good bacteria!


We can’t believe that we even have to say this, but just drinking water can help your body get rid of toxins and keep your immune system running!

Our bodies are over 50% water. Water is essential for us to live, yet we sometimes take it for granted or just plain forget to drink it! On average, we should be drinking at least half of our body weight in ounces every single day. Now, this does not include tea, coffee, or any other mixed drink beverages. This is just straight water.

To give an idea of what this looks like, someone who weighs around 140 pounds should drink at least 70, but ideally 140 ounces of water a day to promote healthy body functioning and to maintain a healthy weight.

Water helps with body functioning by carrying oxygen to all the cells in our bodies, ensuring they have enough to run properly. Water also removes toxins to stop them from building up in the body which can cause us to get sick.

How COVID Affects Global GM Crops

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to introduce accomplished Ghanian agriculture journalist, Joseph Opoku Gakpo, to Dirt to Dinner. A 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, Joseph contributes to the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana, working with Joy FM, Joy News TV, and MyJoyOnline. He has a master’s degree in communications studies from the University of Ghana and is a member of the Ghana Journalists Association, where he was awarded the 2015 prize for Best Journalist in Poverty Alleviation Reporting for “Poor Millionaires,” his story about cocoa farmers. His main interest is telling the story of how farmers and rural residents struggle to survive, with the objective of bringing development to their communities.

The Dirt

The demand rising from COVID-19 has ramped up vaccines using various genetic modification technologies, but when it comes to agriculture, the inverse has been true. Covid significantly slowed down the global process to commercialize genetically modified (GM) crops, and no one feels it more than farmers in developing countries, like Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh, where significant progress quickly came to a screeching halt.

Although many countries have approved the fast track use of genetic modification in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, the contrary is the case when it comes to approvals for GM crops. Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh are some of the countries where efforts to get GM crops into the hands of farmers have either stalled, or timelines for approval been rescheduled because of COVID-19. Genetically engineered crops bring more food to a continent that struggles with food security. And these crops can grow with fewer pesticides, thus keeping us healthier while working in the fields.

“In Kenya, we have had regulatory delays in the continuation of the national performance trials on [insect-resistant] Bt maize,” Kenyan plant breeder Dr. Murenga Mwimali told Dirt to Dinner in an interview. “There were planned national performance trials in six sites in Kenya. However, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, the activities by all stakeholders were all stopped.”

Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce a protein -safe for humans and other animals-but can kill the destructive stemborer insects that destroy maize crops. Bt crops have been shown to reduce pesticide use. Bt maize also often contains traits for drought tolerance, which can help increase productivity on farms by at least 10%.

It is Essential to Continue Moving Forward

Dr. Mwimali is worried the situation with COVID-19 will push back the expected time frame for commercializing GM maize for use by Kenya’s farmers. It is already being grown in South Africa, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other countries.

“It takes about 100-150 days to gain [government] approval but now it is taking longer and longer given the many requirements for a team of regulatory institutions to sit and approve the processes,” Dr. Mwimali explained. “This [approval] period may now double and the food and nutrition security of more than 80 percent of smallscale farmers will continue to suffer.”

Stakeholders, however, remain confident things will change in the months ahead as COVID-19-related lockdowns ease. Recently, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and Fisheries, National Biosafety Authority, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, and other regulatory stakeholders have been meeting to brainstorm ways to proceed with the national performance trials on Bt maize.

“Despite the current COVID-19 situation, there is hope that the national performance trial activities on Bt maize will proceed with the teams observing the safety requirements by the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Mwimali said.

Dr. Rose Gidado, assistant director of the National Biotechnology Development Authority in Nigeria, said the situation there is no different. For some years now, the government has fast-tracked the adoption of GM crops and has approved Bt cotton and cowpea for commercialization.

Since last year, the multiplication of seeds has been ongoing to allow for the mass sale of GM seeds to farmers. But COVID-19 has slowed down activities so the farmer does not have access to the seeds. “The process is only affected by COVID-19 in terms of restricted movements, limited travels, and social distancing,” she told Dirt to Dinner. “You cannot do so much at this time. Things are moving at a slow pace.”

Dr. Gidado argues, however, that Nigeria needs GM crops now more than ever in the COVID-19 era.

“There is the need to step up production in order to measure up as well as prepare for the high demand for food in the country in the post-COVID-19 era,” Dr. Gidado said.The potential for economic growth arising from the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in Nigeria is high with increased access to food, good health, and productivity. It will also attract foreign investments and earnings, leading to wealth creation.”

As the Nigerian government eases COVID-19 restrictions, work has begun to revive the GM crop commercialization processes. “We are still on track to produce GE cowpea,” she said. Insect-resistant cowpea is the country’s first GM food crop.

Complicated GMO regulations

The regulation of GM crops in much of the world is guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement currently ratified by about 170 countries to ensure the safe use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The protocol requires that products arising out of technologies like genetic modification be regulated based on the precautionary principle, which requires that countries pause and review new technologies extensively before they are adopted.

A lot of countries have thus passed new legislation that lays out extensive, in-depth and complicated processes that need to be exhausted before GM crops are approved for use. When plant researchers finish breeding a new GM seed, it has to be taken through trials in confined areas, then contained trials on a fairly large scale. If it passes both of those reviews, then governments authorize an environmental release, which allows it to be grown by farmers in several areas of a country.

The next step is applying for commercialization so farmers can legally access and cultivate the seeds. It can take more than a decade, and tens of millions of dollars, to bring a GM crop to market.

In Ghana, efforts to allow for the commercialization of GM crops started more than 10 years ago but crystalized in 2011 with the passage of the National Biosafety Act to guide the process. In 2018, Ghanaian scientists completed field trials on the insect-resistant Bt cowpea, the country’s first GM crop variety. This GM crop is expected to help farmers dramatically reduce their use of pesticides, while also enjoying better yields of this important staple food. “When you look at the conventional seeds, you can spray as much as eight times (a season). But with the Bt, you spray only two times.

“Just the two sprays can confer resistance in Bt crops like the eight sprays in the conventional,” Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project, explained.

After years of additional background work following completion of tests on the varieties, scientists were hoping to zoom into the final approval processes by applying to the National Biosafety Authority for environmental release of the variety in the first half of 2020. But the process stalled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The document is ready for submission. Everything is ready…if not because of COVID-19, we would have done it by now.”

Burkina Faso is the third West African country, apart from Ghana and Nigeria, that is working to get the Bt cowpea variety into the hands of farmers. Burkina Faso is hoping to use the GM cowpea project to re-establish itself as a nation that puts science first after its government halted the cultivation of Bt cotton in 2015. But the Bt cowpea approval process has slowed down there, just as in Ghana and Nigeria.

Farmers in Burkina Faso are calling on the government to fast-track the approvals for Bt cowpea in response to COVID-19. Burkina Faso farmer Wiledio Naboho said COVID-19 has negatively impacted production this year and farmers are counting on GM crops to help them increase productivity.

“Really, COVID-19 has impacted us as farmers negatively,” Naboho said. “First, it’s limited our access to quality seeds. And also, the few [seeds] we have are sold at a high price. Secondly, access to food is limited because of lockdown… So, COVID-19 came to add more sorrow to my people. I can tell a lot of families don’t have food to feed themselves.”

Of the 53 countries in Africa, only South Africa, Eswatini, and South Sudan farmers are currently growing GM crops commercially. More than 20 nations are currently undertaking trials on about eight GM crops, including banana, cassava, and maize, in preparation for their introduction into the food supply. The research and approval processes have slowed down in virtually all these countries as a result of COVID-19.

Situations elsewhere

The challenge in Africa is being experienced in Asia, as well. In the Philippines, the COVID-19 pandemic has added energy and vigor to the activities of anti-science groups campaigning against Golden Rice, a GM rice variety rich in vitamin A, a nutrient to prevent blindness and other serious health challenges in millions of children. In December 2019, the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry issued an official notice of permit approving Golden Rice for direct use in food, feed or processing.

In early August, the Stop Golden Rice Network launched its annual week-long line up of activities to protest plans to commercialize Golden Rice. “There are enough reasons to safely conclude that non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are exploiting the dire situation of our food system during COVID-19”, Mr. Cris Panerio, one of the coordinators of the campaign claimed, even though Golden Rice is a philanthropic endeavor.  Such re-invigorated campaigns linking COVID-19 and GM crops will make it more difficult for the authorities to introduce the lifesaving varieties.

In Bangladesh, following the success of genetically modified Bt brinjal (eggplant), the country is also researching Golden Rice, potatoes resistant to the devasting late blight disease and pest-resistant Bt cotton. Bt brinjal, which is the first GM crop developed by public sector scientists for farmers in South Asia, increased farmer income by $658 per hectare over the four years between 2014 and 2018. GM rice, potato, and cotton are expected to make an even higher and better impact on the population, but COVID-19 is now serving as a distraction against its approval.

“COVID-19 is having a grave impact in Bangladesh and soon we might have more positive cases than Italy. It has slowed down the whole system and our economy. So, the government has many burning priorities other than speeding up the process of research and development of Golden Rice and other biotech crops,” Arif Hossain, executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh, told Dirt to Dinner. “We hope that our research system will resume all its activities in full swing after this pandemic. But right at this moment, the government is giving priorities to production, mechanization, and market value chain, along with large scale subsidy programs for farmers and others engaged in agriculture.”

The opposite appears to be the case in some South American countries. Over the last few months, reports indicate that the transitional government in Bolivia has approved 5 GM crops, including sugar cane and cotton, as part of its efforts to boost agriculture during the pandemic. A pilot project for GM wheat is also being planned.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Mexico, a group of researchers at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León have begun work on using bioinformatics and computational genetic engineering to possibly produce a tomato that can deliver an edible COVID-19 vaccine. In the US, very little movement has been seen on the GM crop front since the pandemic broke. Europe continues to resist the technology, though the United Kingdom is considering its adoption as part of its break from the European Union.

5 Foods to Promote A Healthy Brain


Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

Did you know that certain foods can help slow the cognitive decline of the brain, combating the onset of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s? We’re here to tell you 5 things that you should consider adding into your diet to feed your brain! It’s called the MIND Diet!

5. Chicken and Turkey

Chicken and turkey are both lean meats with a lot of great benefits. They are excellent sources of protein, healthy fats, and essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B.

We’ve heard of the B vitamin providing our bodies with energy, but did you know it can also help the brain? Specifically, choline, which is found in both chicken and turkey, is a B vitamin that accelerates the body’s creation of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a protein and it carries signals to different brain cells. It’s extremely important for memory, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions.

Eating chicken and/or turkey just two times a week can help your body get the proper amounts of choline, between 425-550 mg/day, and help get your brain in top condition!

4. Wine

Who doesn’t love a glass of red wine at the end of the day? Well, now you can feel better about your relaxing drink because it actually has great benefits for your body!

Drinking just one glass of wine a day, specifically red wine, can help in many different ways. First, a glass of red wine can help improve insulin sensitivity. This can decrease your risk of both diabetes and high blood pressure. A glass of red wine can also help decrease inflammation in the body and clear away toxins from the brain, especially toxins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

So go ahead and have that glass of wine after a long day! Just remember, wine contains a lot of sugar, so be mindful of how much you’re putting into your body.

3. Berries

Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries – they all have great health benefits, but what are their effects when it comes to our mind? Don’t worry, it’s all good news!

Berries have many antioxidant properties. They also contain anthoyanis, which are plant compounds that help decrease inflammation, and flavonoids, which help strengthen the brain’s neuron connections. Both of these, plus other properties in berries, can help prevent age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, and also strengthen motor and cognitive functions, including communication and memory.

In regards to a healthy mind, berries should be consumed around 2 times a week, and don’t be afraid to switch it up! Try different berries or eat them in different ways!

2. Leafy Greens and Other Veggies

When it comes to vegetables and leafy greens, the nutritional values are endless! These nutrient-packed plants deliver so much goodness to our bodies AND to our minds!

Veggies are full of vitamins and phytonutrients, including carotenoids, flavonoids, and ellagic acid. Many of these are needed to create sphingolipids, which is a type of fat that contains an amino acid called sphingosine. Sphingolipids can be found packed in our brain cells, especially in nerve cells. Here, they help with structural functions and protect the cells from outside factors.

Veggies are also rich in antioxidants, including carotene and folate, and contain many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K. Aside from also contributing to sphingolipid function, vitamin K is also anti-inflammatory and promotes cell growth.

However, some say that too much vitamin K can have an adverse effect on cognitive performance, but more research is needed to make any conclusions, so keep eating your veggies at least once a day and exercising your brain!

1. Whole Grains

Whole grains, we know we need them, but we didn’t know we needed them for our brain power too! Whole grains, which include barley, oats, quinoa, and brown rice, have three parts. These three parts are the bran, which is the nutritious outer layer, the germ, or the nutrient-rich center, and the endosperm, which contains a lot of starchy carbs. In a whole grain, all three of these compounds are included.

Like many other of the foods we’ve discussed, whole grains are rich in B vitamins and are anti-inflammatory. They help with blood flow in the body, including blood flow to the brain, increasing cognitive functioning and help with memory. Whole grains also contain high amounts of magnesium, which aids in the ability of brain cells use of energy.

Try to stay away from foods like white rice and white bread, and substitute them with whole grains. Whole grains are tasty and consuming them 3 times a day can help protect your brain and other parts of the body!


Around the World at My Local Restaurant

Finally getting out for a meal makes me appreciate our amazing food system even more than usual – and marvel at how important trade is to it, and to the consumers who depend upon it.

But once again, I realize that I am a junkie. I take great pride in being a true “global food junkie.”  I LIKE it. I’ve eaten in fine Parisian restaurants, a mud hut in Ethiopia, a vendor’s stall in Nigeria, a city square in Bangalore, a BBQ shack in Lexington, North Carolina, the famous Carnivore in Nairobi, a Soviet hotel ‘restaurant’ before the fall of the wall,  a village festival outside Sevilla, a field workers’ shack in Zimbabwe, a university food hall, a Singapore food market, a Boundary Waters’ campfire…and somehow, I’m still alive.

And here I am in my local restaurant. I’m not so much enjoying the excellent food, marveling at the choices available to me on this menu, slavering in anticipation of the sheer epicurean joy in what I will be served, or savoring the sweet satisfaction of seeing other people again. I find myself thinking that here in a small town in the rural south, in a modest typical country restaurant, I’m really dining out in a much bigger, more diverse world than I’ve ever fully appreciated. I’m truly dining out – dining out not on the town, but on the great big world.

You see, in this modest meal at a small eating place on North Green Street in zip code 28655, I’m consuming food that connects to an entire world of food. What I’m eating and drinking here tonight has links around the globe.

I don’t mean that I’m fascinated by the thought of eating Italian food, or maybe something from a Latin culture or maybe even Icelandic. What amazes me as I sit here and think about it are all the farmers, ranchers, processors, manufacturers, merchants, distributors, and countless other people that make up all the links and combinations possible in a food system that has become amazingly international.

Let your mind wander with me as we select our dinner….

To start…

Okay, I’ll pass on the pre-dinner cocktail. But on a warm summer evening in the south, a Mimosa sure would have been nice. If I had one, I’d be drinking orange juice from Florida. Or maybe Brazil. Brazil exports more than $1 billion in OJ each year – about 10 times what the United States sells abroad. Even some European countries export more orange juice than we do, so who knows where the juice in that particular drink might come from.

But I will have a nice salad. I know this restaurant likes to feature locally produced foods, especially the fresh vegetables that grow so abundantly around here. But when they aren’t available, where does it come from?  Maybe California, or Arizona, or Florida. But it also could be from lush fields in Mexico, or maybe Canada. We import cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, onions, squash, and a lot of other vegetables every year, from all across Latin and South America, and even China. If I add fresh and frozen fruit, the list of international suppliers is even longer. It’s a huge part of our food supply picture – about $9 billion each year in vegetables and produce, another $15 billion in fresh and frozen fruits.

I could have a small cup of gumbo to start instead, or maybe some of the fish stew this place is known for. That could include shrimp or bits of fish from across Asia or any number of other suppliers in the northern Atlantic and southern Pacific waters. The chunks of salmon in it might come not from Alaska but farms in the Nordic area. The sea bass could be from Chile. China, Norway, Sweden, Chile, Indonesia, India – all are major fish exporters to the world. We import about 90% of our seafood each year.

The dinner rolls in the basket on the table are made from wheat. I’d like to think the flour originated in the vast fields I’ve seen in the American Midwest. But the world trades just over 180 million tons of wheat each year. (Just for fun I did a quick mental calculation – that would give everyone in the world about 40 loaves of bread) so it must mean that wheat from the United States and a lot of other countries finds its way into bread everywhere. Consumers sitting at restaurants like I am tonight – or at home most other nights — could be eating wheat from Australia, Argentina, Canada, France, or Russia, or any of the 15 countries that account for over 90 percent of global wheat trade. Now the really mind-blowing part…

What should I have as my entrée?

I could go for the grilled salmon. That takes me back to the same international connections I made when contemplating the gumbo and fish stew. Salmon is the most-traded seafood in the world, after all. Almost $4 billion worth of salmon moves in international trade each year, as hungry consumers look for fresh and farmed supplies from Norway, Scotland, Chile, Russia, Canada, Japan, and other sources.

If I go for the nice sirloin on special tonight, I most likely will be eating a U.S.-produced cut of meat. But the Department of Agriculture acknowledges that perhaps 8 percent of our beef supply – and maybe a touch more, according to some — comes from outside our borders, probably Canada or Mexico, or Australia or lean meat from New Zealand.

If I go for the pork medallions, the international picture is even stronger. The United States imported $1.1 billion worth of pork in 2019. (Japan and China together imported over $9 billion worth, out of a global total of pork imports of $32 billion.)  Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of pig meat, so I can’t be surprised if some of it winds up on my plate.

If I go for the roasted chicken, the picture is more than a little convoluted. The United States is very good at producing poultry, and we export a lot of what we produce. Poultry is comparatively easy to produce in most parts of the world, albeit sometimes very inefficiently compared to our modern methods. But as much as 12 percent of global poultry meat consumption still depends on trade, according to USDA statistics.

Feeding what kind of mouths?

Which reminds me… the global food system really provides for a lot more than my needs or just human needs.

Our food system has to feed a lot more than human mouths, you realize. Corn and soybeans flow in an almost endless stream around the world to feed the cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals people demand for their tables. More than 70 billion – yes, billion – animals go to market each year around the world, not counting fish and other aquaculture. Corn, soybeans, and other feed grains and oils from the United States, Europe, South America, and other regions around the world keep their food flowing, too. And without that flow, providing the animal protein everyone wants simply wouldn’t be possible. I very likely wouldn’t have the choices available to me on this menu.

But let’s get back to my dinner…

Even the salt and pepper on the table have their global links. The world trades pepper worth over $4 billion each year. The United States is the largest pepper importer in the world, most coming from Vietnam, the largest exporter. If I want more exotic spices – say, those hot peppers I like so much, or even vanilla or oregano or sesame seeds or cinnamon, I have to look to suppliers outside the United States, too. My mind paused as I am now going way back to 130 BCE, thinking of the Silk Road which opened up trade between the East and West.

The global salt trade is even larger, although much of that is used in de-icing and industrial uses, not just for food purposes. The world’s leading exporter of salt is the Netherlands, selling about $278 million worth of salt into export markets in 2018. Germany sold another $206 million, Chile $189 million. This simple staple of life, which I so easily can take for granted, could have originated from 20 different countries, including my own.

The sugar and sweeteners in front of me tell a similar story. Sugar can come from beets or cane and is produced around the world. India and Brazil duke it out most years for the top-producer spot, but the European Union and various sub-tropical countries also contribute to a global sugar trade that normally runs about 55 million tons each year.  I am going back to my mental math and figured all that sugar would give everyone in the world 164 cans of Coca-Cola. Demand for sugar is so strong that China still imports large quantities every year, despite being the fifth largest sugar producer in the world (an estimated 10.6 million tons in 2019.)

Even if I grab the Stevia on the table as an alternative, I’m using a product that originates from the leaves of a shrub that grows in Argentina – or even China.

It all makes my head spin. So maybe I’ll skip the dessert, as enticing as the marble cake and its legendary chocolate icing (from cocoa beans that could be grown in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, or even Mexico) may be.

Instead, I’ll go for a nice, soothing cup of tea to cap the meal. But do I select a tea grown in India or China? Maybe Japan or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia?

Maybe the main point I should focus on is actually fairly simple.  As much as we depend on our local food supplies, for a variety of practical and personal reasons, we live in an inter-connected global food system. The vast majority of the foods we consume every day have some direct or indirect connection to the world of global food trade. I’m really dining OUT!!!

What Trade Makes Possible

How did this happen?  Why did we create such a complex and amazingly efficient way of feeding ourselves?

It comes down to economics. International markets assure a steady supply of whatever food we want, whenever we want it, at the best price. It exists so everyone can have exactly what they want, when they want it, without regard for the local growing season or capacity to produce everything such a robust food offering demands. It makes it possible for me to have such an incredible selection of great food, year-round, at affordable prices, right here on North Green Street, or in my home.

We created a marvelous interlocking system of continuous gratification made possible by trade. Trade is the backbone of our modern food system, whether we think about it or not.

No wonder I’m a food junkie. No wonder my head spins. The global food system puts such a variety and quality in front of me every single day. Who could resist?

Shrimp Scampi

Looking for something YUM for dinner, a side dish to elevate your entrée, or healthfully satisfy your sweet tooth? Check out our list of tried and true recipes  – you won’t be disappointed 😉

Want some free D2D stuff? Post a photo of your creation on instagram or twitter!

Learning to live with – or without – Ethanol *Click for poll results!*

For several decades, we have watched a sometimes animated debate about ethanol – the alcohol made from plants such as corn and sugarcane that the government has mandated we add to gasoline used by the cars and other vehicles we drive every day. We built a big processing industry to produce ethanol, mostly from the corn that the United States produces so well and so abundantly.

On the surface, it seemed to make a lot of sense. It used a renewable resource. It helped us reduce dependence on foreign oil imports. It was supposed to be good for the air and our environment. It helped prop up corn prices and injected a lot of money into the rural economy.

But over the years, I couldn’t help but have this not-so-vague sense that something might not be quite right. More and more scientists popped up to debate the so-called environmental benefits. Engineers warned of the effects of ethanol on machinery. Lower-cost petroleum costs made ethanol increasingly non-economic. Experts argued the whole system might have net energy costs more than net energy gains. In addition, producing ethanol costs more to the environment than saving it.

To add to my unease, it simply bothered me enormously that we were devoting four of every 10 acres of the corn we produce to feeding machines, not people or animals. I kept asking myself a lot of questions. Is ethanol still the right thing to do? Have changes in the world around us made ethanol less appealing and less practical? Am I being told the complete story, or only a story cranked out by a well-funded, aggressive PR machine?

What’s the real story behind ethanol today?

What is ethanol, anyway?

In simple terms, ethanol is a form of alcohol – a volatile liquid produced from the natural fermentation of sugars. It’s been around for literally thousands of years, often used as a recreational beverage – also known as moonshine. It’s made from a very wide variety of plants – anything containing the starch and cellulose that provide sugars for fermentation.

Sugarcane is a common source material in production of ethanol in South America and other locations.

But in America, by far the most common source is good old corn.

Several decades ago, with growing concern everywhere about both our dependence on foreign energy sources and the protection of our environment, lawmakers found a way to make corn a part of the public-policy response. Lawmakers rushed to bring a vibrant ethanol industry to life. Tax breaks, subsidies, grants, loan guarantees – all these and more emerged to stimulate ethanol production. Farmers responded by making investments in a productive capacity. Investors poured massive amounts of money into new processing plants, handling equipment, and other necessary production tools.

Today, the ethanol industry appears to be on shaky ground. Competing commodity prices made the raw material for ethanol processes that much less competitive, tightening their operating margins. Lower gas prices have cut demand for ethanol substantially. Production plants, key economic cornerstones of rural communities, are seeking new markets or new products to produce. Some are closing down, and many are up for sale.

At the same time, the United States has stepped up its energy independence with fracking and other energy-development initiatives. Pandemic stay-at-home orders added to the problem by drastically reducing gasoline demand. By April 2020, production had dropped by almost half from its peak earlier in the year. Almost a third of ethanol plants had shut down, and another third were operating on reduced schedules.

What’s the right future for ethanol?

Ethanol critics argue for radical change – or an end to the program. To critics, ethanol’s day has passed and we should be glad.

  • Ethanol is non-economic and a drain on taxpayers. Even in the heyday of our fight to reduce dependence on foreign oil imports, we still had to pay ethanol producers (not the farmers) tens of billions in all sorts of subsidies and incentives to keep them afloat.
  • With oil prices below the cost of ethanol, ethanol no longer lowers gas prices. Our domestic energy production picture and global markets tell us we don’t need to mandate the addition of a more expensive component to gasoline.
  • A 10-percent ethanol blend in our gasoline may actually hinder rather than help fuel economy. The biofuels industry has long claimed that the ethanol blend can boost mileage by 1-3 percent. But some reports – including figures from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – contend the 10-percent ethanol blend can reduce fuel economy by 3-4 percent, and a 15 percent blend by as much as 4-5 percent. We could be adding as much as $10 billion to the fuel bill for American consumers, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
  • The energy gains from ethanol are illusory. Some studies contend that it takes as much as 29 percent more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than to produce a gallon of gasoline. The energy needed to refine ethanol may be greater than the energy it delivers.
  • Ethanol artificially raises commodity prices, and the prices consumers pay for food. Analysts at the Congressional Budget Office estimate that consumers may pay an additional $3.5 billion for food as a result of the program and its effect on commodity prices.
  • It’s more about politics than anything else. The ethanol program had at its core a desire to provide an appealing economic opportunity for a group very important to politicians seeking rural votes, especially in key primary election states.

But there’s another side to the debate. Ethanol supporters challenge many of the criticisms and point to other critical considerations. Supporters of ethanol say the rural economy needs ethanol more than ever – and so do food consumers, even if they don’t realize it.

  • We’re in too deep to quit now. Our country has made massive commitments to the ethanol industry, in good faith. We have invested literally billions of dollars in plants and equipment, and in the production tools and systems we need to serve a huge market for a crop critical to farmers and our economy. Farmers have built ethanol into their production and marketing plans and their budgeting. We just can’t let that investment go down the tubes.
  • Farmers need a vibrant ethanol industry for their economic security. Rural communities need the money generated by the industry up and down Main Street America. Investors need to know they can continue to place their money – and faith – in building a multifaceted agricultural system.
  • The ethanol industry is about a lot more than energy. By-products from its production have multiple other uses – such as livestock feed additives, other forms of alcohol, and other potential fuels, not to mention things like hand sanitizer and disinfectants. There is more at stake here for consumers than just fuel for our cars and other vehicles.
  • Economic risks to farmers and rural America from Covid make ethanol more important than ever. We need to make the investment – government and taxpayer dollars – necessary to preserving this critical element of our farm economy. We need to do that just as much as we need to keep Main Street restaurants and other businesses alive during a pandemic, using the same government tools and resources. In comparison to what we are spending to deal with Covid-19, the ethanol program is small change.
  • The energy picture can change quickly. The global and national energy picture isn’t carved in stone. The fracking industry is on edge because of low prices. Oil markets are in turmoil. The global economy eventually will open up and begin growing again – and energy demand will grow with it.
  • We must protect our environment in every way we can. Cutting greenhouse emissions should be a priority, and ethanol can help us do exactly that. Ethanol has real, important advantages over petroleum, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent compared to those of traditional gasoline. That alone makes the industry worth special effort to preserve it.
  • We should exploit our natural advantages. Producing ethanol from corn is another way to exploit the natural advantage the United States has in producing corn. U.S. farmers are the most productive corn farmers in the world. Maintaining an ethanol industry just helps us use that capability to our advantage.
  • Consumers need the healthy farm sector ethanol helps provide. Ethanol provides the economic support needed to keep many of the 400,000 farmers who grow corn in business. It helps them make the necessary investments in producing crops critical to our food system, and in the technology and equipment needed to drive continuing improvements in operational efficiency – and the lower food costs that come with them.

So which way forward?

We asked what you thought is the best solution: maintain the current ethanol program…or disassemble it? Below are your responses, and some of you even offered some alternative solutions worthy of serious consideration. Stay tuned to see your ideas implemented into our next ethanol post…it’s already in the works.

Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

While fish is still a secondary choice in protein in the U.S., coming in behind poultry, beef, and pork, it is projected to be a growing industry. How can we ensure our seafood comes from sustainable fish farms, like those in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia? And how will domestic production react to this need for more local, sustainable, and traceable ways to farm fish?

When it comes to seafood, the average American diet is about as limited as it gets.

We eat salmon, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and scallops and that’s about it for most people, with some pollack and cod thrown in for good measure. You’re likely to get far more variety in a bowl of seafood stew at a restaurant than you do in the typical American’s seafood diet.

Not only do we lack variety, but volume as well. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average American consumed a little over 16 pounds of seafood in 2018. Although that figure has been steadily rising for several years, it still pales in comparison to the 94 pounds of chicken, 58 pounds of beef, and 52 pounds of pork we consume every year.

The Food Marketing Institute’s 2019 Power of Seafood Survey found that 56% of Americans eat seafood twice a month. Freshness, flavor, and information about the product all play a major role in the decision to buy a piece a fish at the grocery store, along with the understanding of how to cook and enjoy it once they get home.

Some recent studies have suggested that a large and growing segment of the U.S. is interested in eating more shellfish and finfish (the industry term for fish like salmon and cod), provided they can find it at a price and quality they expect. This aligns with the EAT-Lancet Commission, as they fully support increasing seafood consumption for a healthy diet – as long as it’s sustainable.

Farmed fish – a “cleaner” option?

“The global demand for fish protein in people’s diets is growing and will continue to grow,” says Jacob Bartlett, CEO of Whole Oceans, a company raising sustainable Atlantic salmon in land-based facilities in Maine.

Companies like Whole Oceans hope to benefit from the rise of responsible fish farming by offering cleaner, more sustainable seafood than is commonly available from today’s aquaculture producers.

There has long been a difference between farmed and wild-caught when it comes to seafood. Many consumers perceive that wild-caught products are “cleaner” and more sustainable. Farmed fish, however, has a reputation more associated with dirty pens, sick fish, and an overuse of antibiotics to compensate for all this. In reality though, wild-caught fish is fraught with sustainability issues and farmed fish can be a clean alternative – depending on its country of origin.

To be fair, there are environmental pros and cons to wild and farmed seafood. Though wild-caught fish require fewer resources, it’s not a long-term alternative – 90% of wild-caught fish are either fully or overfished. Aquaculture – done safely and sustainably – is a great way to support a healthy diet and a healthy environment.

An unsustainable system

As of 2018, wild-caught and aquaculture (farmed) seafood each made up roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. But that balance is expected to tilt increasingly toward farmed fish, which is easier to scale and overall more sustainable. Major grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have been actively promoting its benefits to their customers.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, was a $169 billion global industry as of 2015, and that’s on track to exceed $242 billion by 2022. It produces more than 80 million metric tons of fish annually from some 580 aquatic species and employs roughly 26 million workers around the world.

From 1990 to 2018, we’ve experienced:

+14% Rise in global capture fisheries production

+527% Rise in global aquaculture production

+122% Rise in total food fish consumption

Despite its size, however, the industry is largely concentrated in central and southeast Asia, with China dominating overall production, followed by Vietnam, India, Thailand, and others. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 85% of all aquaculture production, followed by Africa at 10% and Latin America and the Caribbean at 4%.

The U.S. ranks surprisingly low in aquaculture production at 17th in the world as of 2017, which equates to just 0.2% of total production. This is no surprise because the U.S. imports more than 80% of the seafood we eat. Most of the imports – in the order of volume – are shrimp, Atlantic salmon, tilapia, and shellfish.

90% of the shrimp that Americans eat is imported from facilities in southeast Asia, while the vast majority of the farmed tilapia sold in this country comes from Latin America and Asia. Canada, Norway, Scotland, and Chile supply most of the salmon. Typically, smaller, more resilient species – tilapia, carp, trout, and salmon – are farmed, as their feed-to-growth ratio has been optimized through research and development.

No matter the farmed species, practices vary by country…and that’s part of the problem. Lax government oversight of the industry in countries like China, which make up the majority of all aquaculture producers, has created a two-tiered system: places like the U.S., Europe, Canada and elsewhere with industry practices with strict quality and environmental regulations, and those where the industry regulations are under-enforced.

Murky farming practices

This part of the aquaculture industry has a well-earned reputation for environmental contamination, poor working conditions, and poor health conditions for its fish. Raised in large, open-water pools, many of these unregulated farms are a hotbed for disease and pollution, and the chemicals and antibiotics often used to control these problems leach out into surrounding waters, affecting the local ecosystem, and just generally making matters worse.

That’s to say nothing about the working conditions at these facilities. For one thing, the parts of Southeast Asia – and now Africa – where much fish farming is conducted are a known hotbed for human trafficking, and a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread abuse in Thailand’s fishing industry, where migrants from all over the region are effectively sold into modern-day slavery.

Though the wild-caught seafood industry doesn’t have the safest labor practices, either. Because most fishing takes place in international waters, few regulations exist to keep the industry and its workers safe. It’s easy to exploit a vulnerable crew when out on the open seas for weeks at a time.

It’s a grim picture…no one wants to eat fish that was packed into filthy open-water pens, fed a diet of farm waste, and hopped up on antibiotics before being harvested, processed, frozen, and flown halfway around the world to market.

These practices raised questions as recently as 2012, when it was reported that fish being fed a diet of pig waste was being sold to the U.S. market. Contaminants ranging from fish waste to antibiotic-enhanced feed, to parasites, chemicals, and more have been known to leak out of open-water facilities, impacting wild populations in the area.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, farmed species can even escape from their pens and interbreed with local wild stocks, throwing off the gene pool and further spreading disease.

Higher quality comes at a price

Proper regulation and safe working conditions are costly, positioning quality fish against the prices that many of these international producers can offer for their seafood. Higher quality operators in the U.S. and elsewhere are finding it difficult to compete.

It’s no wonder that the idea of fresh, healthy seafood is so foreign to most Americans.

“Our seafood supply chain is worse than broken”, says Eric Pedersen, founder of Ideal Fish, which is raising branzino fish in Connecticut in a sealed, land-based facility that hopes to bridge this gap by shortening the supply chain to reduce costs.

“We almost have no domestic seafood supplies. Almost everything we eat in the U.S. has been imported from abroad, flown thousands of miles, which means a tremendous diminution in the quality, freshness, and shelf life of the seafood.”

At the same time, Pedersen says, often we don’t even know where it’s coming from. Neither do the retailers we’re buying it from and the restaurants that are preparing it.

“You walk into most grocery stores and go to the seafood counter and it’s a sad experience,” he says.

Traceability is another concern that domestic aquaculture providers are working to overcome. As it stands today, most people know very little about the seafood they eat. Wild-caught fish often goes straight from the boat to a wholesale fish market, either locally or in cities such as New York and Seattle, where most seafood enters the U.S.

From there, it can go anywhere, from restaurants to grocery suppliers, to meatpacking and more. Fish buyers are a knowledgeable bunch, often tasked by their employers to identify and purchase products that are fresh and healthy, but that information is lost once that fish is loaded onto trucks for their next step in the process.

Farming – a solution

By leveraging fish farming to source some of this fish, proponents hope to introduce new layers of traceability to this traditional system. Fish sourced from a particular facility and bound for a particular customer can be tagged and traced, from pool to plate, using everything from blockchain technology to direct sales, in ways that the fragmented fish supply chain never has before.

That’s why there has been a push in recent years for more aquaculture production in countries where it can be produced with more regulatory oversight such as Norway, Canada, and the U.S. (the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees aquaculture operations in this country).

In May 2020, President Trump issued an executive order promoting American seafood competitiveness and economic growth to create jobs while eliminating illegal, unreported, and unsustainable wild-caught or farmed fish. This order also prompted offshore aquaculture as another solution for sustainable fish, resulting in the NOAA developing two out of the ten designated Aquaculture Opportunity Areas to develop fisheries.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean. They even have a smartphone app consumers can access while food shopping.

Ryan Bigelow, Senior Program Manager with Monterey Bay says, “There’s increasing interest in knowing more about our food, having local sources, and aquaculture could certainly fill that niche.”

He’s quick to admit that U.S.-based producers won’t be able to compete on price due to the costs associated with running sustainable, regulated facilities, but the truth is we as consumers should also be questioning our consumption habits.

“That $15 all-you-can-eat shrimp plate, how is that possible?” Bigelow asks. “What’s happening in those pens, on that production line, that makes it possible to raise an animal on the other side of the world and ship it over for less than it costs to grow here?”

As with many things, the COVID-19 outbreak brought this reality into stark relief. Why is the U.S. relying so much on a hazy, underground seafood supply chain involving thousands of international suppliers when the technology exists to farm fish safely and sustainably here at home, or in countries that take pride in their aquaculture production?

Due to the gross lack of safety standards in some of the countries we import from, the FDA in recent years has discovered chemicals, carcinogens, antibiotics (often expired), and pesticides. Even more alarmingly, of the imported seafood, the FDA inspects less than 1% of it. And of that 1% the U.S. regularly rejects 50 to 60% of imports.

What can you do? 

While regulations are being updated to increase imported food inspections to ensure quality, and efficacy, there are things we can do at the consumer level:

  • Check out Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide – use their app at the seafood counter and see what you learn while you shop!
  • Look for packaging with Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Global Aquaculture Alliance labels that certify sustainable farms and seek out operations with best aquaculture practices worldwide
  • Beware of misleading statements on packaging, like “Prepared for” or “Packed by”, as this may not be the country of origin. Instead look for labels showing the fish are from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Australia, or New Zealand as these countries have some of the safest seafood regulations.
  • Know your fish market! Buying from a local, trustworthy fishmonger can help to ensure the highest quality, as they will do the label and country sourcing for you.
  • Consider buying shrimp sourced from the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico – it’ll be more expensive, but you can feel good about its quality and production.
  • Vary your seafood choices. Lower food-chain fish, like anchovies and sardines, are smaller and have had less time to accumulate contaminants than larger fish. Add farmed bivalve shellfish – oysters, clams, and mussels, to this list – eating lower trophic farmed fish is good for the environment and healthy for you.