Beauty and the Best

Don't be fooled by superficial good looks: If you truly love food, you’ll accept it as-is, blemishes and all.

April 17, 2015

Photo: James Wojcik

Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner. If the meat or produce you’re thinking about buying looks perfect in the store, you might want to approach it with a healthy skepticism. Spots on apples, gnarls on carrots, and sand in spinach aren’t blemishes; in most cases, they can and should be seen as markers of earthy authenticity. And while the outward appearance of flawlessness doesn’t necessarily prove that a particular food item has been chemically treated, genetically altered, or overprocessed, it’s still probably worth asking yourself the same question you’d be inclined to ask about a physically “flawless” celebrity: “Have they had work done? Come on, you just know they’ve had work done…”

APPLES

Talk about your poison apple. To make them shine, supermarket varieties are coated with a layer of wax—along with the chemical diphenylamine (banned in Europe) to keep them bright red (or green) despite long periods of refrigerated storage.

The organic variety, which you might find at a farmers’ market, on the other hand, boasts super-mottled good looks to go with its tasteful matte finish. Freckles, color gradations, dimples, and even the occasional hole are perfectly safe.

CARROTS

Buy a bag of baby carrots and you’re probably getting just regular carrots that have been peeled, segmented, and processed into watery capsules of bright-orange Orwellian sameness. They’re crunchy and convenient, but also largely flavorless.

Unlike baby carrots, which can seem slimy even fresh out of the bag, carrots that haven’t been stripped of their natural protective peel have a guard against rot. Washing, peeling, and slicing them yourself will cut down on slime as well as cost.

SPINACH

“Fresh and ready to eat!” Not likely, with the up to two weeks’ worth of rinsing, trimming, plastic-bag packaging, and long-haul transporting required to get bagged greens—including spinach—to your supermarket shelf.

Recently picked bunch spinach—even at its grittiest—is likely to be far richer in vitamins, if only because it hasn’t been out of the ground for nearly as long. It’s also bulkier, firmer, and better tasting.

SALMON

The stripes of rich, flavorful fat found in the typical farmed salmon are the result of keeping fish confined in their pens—too busy gobbling up food pellets and antibiotics to exercise. Oh, and that rosy shade of pink? It’s added into the salmon feed.

Wild salmon come by their intense pink hue naturally, thanks to a steady diet of krill and other tiny crustaceans. A lean cut of wild sockeye or coho will more than make up for its lack of fattiness with extra flavor, and you’ll be ingesting one-sixteenth of the pollutants.

EGGS

Cage-free! Free-range! Free-roaming! What do all those brain-scrambling words on an egg carton actually mean? Not much at all, it turns out.

Want an egg from a chicken that has lived a good life? Far better to develop a relationship with one of the many conscientious small farmers who sell eggs from humanely raised chickens directly to customers—often at local farmers’ markets.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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