Is There Anything to Eat That Isn’t Bad for You (or the World)?

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
The Omnivore’s Guilt Trip
Is there anything to buy in the market that isn’t bad for you, or bad for the world?
Photograph by Bobby Doherty

There are still a few people around, I suppose, who remember when culinary fashions had an innocent, slightly carnivalesque feel. Menus were the size of mortar­boards. Many were inscribed with baroque French lettering instead of the urgent buzzwords of our relentlessly artisanal age (“line-caught,” “locally grown”). Members of the insular, eccentric food community spent their evenings discovering exotic new “delicacies” from as far abroad as possible ­(Hunan! Lyon!), and marveling at quaint inventions like engorged duck livers and translucent foams tipped with gold leaf. Gold leaf hasn’t appeared on stylish menus for years now, of course, and the stuff is probably toxic anyway. It’s been replaced by a whole universe of simpler but equally snobbish gourmet signifiers — the perfect asparagus, the perfect tomato. In this Slow Food era, the grandest, most self-important home chefs talk in grand, self-important tones about composting techniques, and food snobs are more likely to quote Michael Pollan on the perils of mass corn production than, say, Escoffier on the proper proportion of flour to milk in a béchamel. Even microwave-savvy junk-food cooks have begun looking for organic mac ’n’ cheese.  

We’re in the midst of more food-related revolutions and enthusiasms (pickling, Greenmarket vegetables, natural wines) than ever before. But with this obsessive knowledge comes a heavy dose of obsessive worry, and thanks to many of these same revolutions — actually, because of them — we seem to be in the midst of more food-related neuroses, worries, scares, and assorted phobias than are possible to count. There are times when this doesn’t feel like a golden age of food at all, especially when you find yourself wandering the aisles of your local quasi-organic, possibly locally sourced, semi-seasonal supermarket, rummaging through the bountiful avocado bin for this evening’s healthful salad, trying to remember whether it’s a good thing that none of the avocados seem to be very ripe, or how much water they consume while growing, and what exactly “blood avocado” really means.

Every week, it seems, there’s some new study or labeling scandal in the news to get righteously scandalized about, and unless you happen to be camped out in the hinterlands subsisting on a diet of wild berries (or blissfully mainlining double-roast-beef sandwiches in a state of innocence at your local red-state Arby’s), there is no escape. Those brightly colored bags of frozen shrimp over there in aisle five? They were quite possibly farmed by slave laborers in Thailand, in case you didn’t know. Which of the healthful options in the bountiful vegetable and nut sections aren’t relentlessly sucking up California’s precious water supply? And, with the possible exception of tofu (depending on how you feel about GMOs!) or a few varieties of chaste cheese, is there such a thing as a guilt-free protein in this entire cheery, subtly guilt-ridden operation? Did you know, for instance, that the octopus tentacle you’re thinking of grilling tonight (because who hasn’t seen those horrifying videos from America’s hog abbatoirs and what moron doesn’t know that beef contributes as much to global warming as cars?) was chopped off a highly sensitive creature capable of problem solving? 

The writer Larry Olmsted, whose new book Real Food/Fake Food documents a whole litany of deliciously horrifying food scams, calls this new age of food hysteria “the Great Terroir Terror,” and he sees all sorts of reasons for its arrival. The food industry has always been murky and haphazardly controlled, but these days it’s bumping up against more concerned and informed consumers than ever before. Fast Food Nation was just the tip of the iceberg lettuce; journalists and watchdog groups of all kinds have begun to concentrate more on the food supply — and the results go viral online. And for hordes of righteous citizens, worrying about what you grow, cook, and put in your mouth also seems to be a much more immediate and meaningful way to connect with (and attempt to control) an increasingly uncontrollable world than worrying, say, about the rise of Donald Trump. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that when it comes to purity, freethinking liberals are really just as prudish as the conservatives they enjoy mocking for their publicly puritanical approach to sex — only liberals tend to focus obsessively on what they put into their bodies, instead of on what they do with them.

What can a rational, thinking person do to survive the Great Terroir Terror with his or her conscience intact? It helps to remember that amid all the fashionable doomsaying and distress, there are a few glimmers of progress. On the broadest, macro level, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford Greenmarket prices (and even if you’re not), there are more places to purchase a morally acceptable dinner these days than ever before. A new generation of innovative ecofarmers, not just here but around the world, are turning out all sorts of promising innovations. And even in the grim, gut-busting world of fast food, the appetite for veggie burgers is on the rise, McDonald’s has promised to go cage-free, and those dark lords of the chicken gulag, Chick-fil-A, are pledging not to pump their birds full of antibiotics.

Meanwhile, on a more personal level, is it possible for ethically sensitive souls to sleep at night on a reasonably full stomach? The first step is fully understanding and then weighing the consequences, as the guide below will help you do. (We’ve tried to be representative if not quite encyclopedic but have skipped the whole genre of weight-related anxiety, which is really its own category of yuppie stress.) Does human exploitation bug you more than animal abuse? How do you feel about carcinogens versus carbon emissions? Olmsted suggests, for a start, eliminating farmed shrimp and salmon almost completely. And if you want properly labeled, ethically harvested fish, the seafood section at your local Whole Foods is a decent place to look. But he’s also got a hot tip on the next food panic: “Honey will be the big sexy story,” he says, the faintest whisper of glee in his voice. After all, worrying is half the fun.          

Click below to find out what’s morally squishy about so much of our food supply.

Cheese is a cow-fart global-warming A-bomb Egg farms are true hell There’s listeria in your ice cream Milk cows are fed blood and stand in their own feces Parmesan is filled with wood chips
Caviar comes out via forced gynecological surgery Crab cake is mystery meat Lobsters feel pain in the pot Salmon are drug addicts Scallops try to escape Clams cower in fear Oysters don’t want to die Octopuses are geniuses They’ll call anything snapper Slaves harvested your shrimp Prison inmates harvest tilapia Bass are actually okay — for the moment Chilean sea bass” got a makeover, and it worked too well Cod travel too far Mahimahi are the James Dean of the sea Catfish grow up on a diet of pollution Halibut is super-scarce Pollock is … possibly the best thing the fast-food industry serves Trout is full of medieval-sounding diseases A dolphin died for your tuna-fish sandwich We ate orange roughy basically out of existence
Bacon can give you bowel cancer However bad you imagine beef is — it’s worse Chickens are pumped up with more drugs than an ’80s Soviet Olympian Foie gras is what happens when you waterboard a bird with grain 2 percent of hot dogs contain human DNA Lamb has the largest carbon footprint of any food Contrary to myth, pigs don’t love standing in all that shit 83 percent of turkey contains antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”
Alfalfa kills farmers Apples are going extinct Asparagus drains tap water from the poor Your guacamole is made with blood avocados Bagged salad can be toxic Your banana habit might be supporting terrorism Cabbage can hear you eating it Canned vegetables might give you cancer Cranberries are destroying the wetlands Berries are misogynist Corn is dying Lettuce is worse than bacon Beans can give you something much worse than gas Olives are in disguise Potatoes are Republican Pineapples destroy your attention span But really, pesticides bathe just about everything Tomatoes are ruining the water supply
Bottled water drains the planet Gluten isn’t the worst thing in bread Canned soup doesn’t help you get well soon Cereal is a fossil fuel Processed cheese will make you ill Chocolate is made by child slaves Coconut water is also made by slaves Global warming will kill coffee Energy bars make you dumber French fries might cause cancer Honey is made by insect slaves Hummus is politicized Maple syrup: another victim of climate change Mayonnaise = GMO city Olive oil plantations are environmentally ruinous Orange juice rots your teeth The quinoa fad destroyed the South American food chain Palm oil got too cool Pop-Tarts are making your kid misbehave, and it’s not just the sugar Salt isn’t just bad for your heart Seltzer water will send you to the dentist Soy isn’t even vaguely natural Spaghetti hates homosexuals Sugar is as bad for the environment as it is for you Sugar alternatives: also bad Wheat is the most fertilizer-intensive food in the world

*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.