Raising the Bar Part II: The Virgin Edition

I wrote last month about sustainable wine, beer and spirits; now it’s time to drop some knowledge about the issues surrounding non- alcoholic drinks. Unfortunately, there are many. From misleading health claims about POM juice to the ongoing fight over milk labeling, taking a product at face value can be the equivalent of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. So take a seat, and drink it in as we unravel the truth about what’s really in your glass.

Water, Water, All Around…

Let’s start with the basics and bear in mind that each of the liquids that follows includes a lot of it, not only as a base, but also in the growth of its other ingredients, its processing and its distribution. But I digress. Unless your tap water is on fire (or otherwise un-potable), we dig it. Its pre-bottled counterpart? Not so much.

Bottled water: if I could sum it up in three words: unhealthy, unregulated, wasteful. Unfortunately the belief that bottled water is safer than tap water is still out there and corporations are tapping (no pun intended) into natural resources to continue this public myth. The most recent fight against bottled water is taking place in Cascade Locks, Oregon, where Nestle is seeking to draw water from the Columbia Gorge to supply their latest bottled water plant. The campaign against the plant is being lead by Food & Water Watch, who wrote up a petition last spring and continues to speak out against it in the press. Currently, Nestle is conducting a one year study to test the effect of municipal water (instead of the current well water) on the local fish hatchery. We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

The Best Part of Waking Up?

Good morning, Joe. For Americans, when it comes to coffee (with the exception of Hawaii) coffee is a decidedly un-local product. However, at the very least, increased awareness among conscientious consumers has led to fair trade programs, which help ensure farmers are getting a fair wage. Some coffee companies source their beans directly and roast them locally. There are various labels when it comes to coffee such as Rainforest Alliance certified and fair trade certified. Direct trade, which Intelligentsia practices, provides the closest relationship between the company and the farmers, whose employees make monthly visits to maintain a tight relationship with their coffee growers. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy started Peace Coffee in Minneapolis in the late 1990s -- java doesn’t get much more direct (or delicious) than theirs.

Getting Juicy

Turns out, “from concentrate” isn’t the worst thing that could happen to your OJ. Food and Society Fellow Alissa Hamilton put the squeeze on the industry and wound up writing an entire book on the topic, uncovering shocking information about orange juice production. Spoiler: most of the oranges come from Brazil (where their production is more loosely regulated), not Florida, and though the final product is “not from concentrate,” the juice is stored in tanks for up to a year, where it loses its flavor and is then sweetened with flavor packs (which explains why no matter the season, it always tastes the same). Gross!

What’s that? You prefer pomegranate?

Are you gonna swallow the health claims issued by POM Wonderful juice? I wouldn’t. The company is currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for "false and unsubstantiated claims about treating or preventing heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.” Pomegranate juice may be full of antioxidants, but don’t expect it to replace Viagra any time soon.

How about some apple juice?

Unfortunately, much of the apple juice produced in the United States is made from concentrate from China. In fact, the US is the largest importer of apple juice concentrate.

But milk’s wholesome, right?

When the FDA approved Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in 1993, they did so under the auspice that there was "no significant difference" between milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone and that from untreated cows. However, states can decide on their own whether to include voluntary labels, and it’s exciting to see this happening in some parts of the country. Last month in Ohio, a ban on labeling rBGH- free milk was struck down, as the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit substantiated the claims that the hormones in milk render it different in composition from its more natural counterpart.

Pop, Pop

Soda has gotten a very bad rap over the years, but a fun part of the DYI movement is the wave of homemade sodas. From birch beer to creations such as ginger-spiked dandelion-and-burdock, locavores are making certain their fizzy drinks have the best ingredients, and we're guessing that nary a one includes high fructose corn syrup --- ahem, excuse me --- corn sugar. Brands such as GUS (Grown-up Soda) and Boylan’s are popping up in stores across the country. Check out Food and Wine’s artisanal pop picks for some interesting creations.

In short, it’s always best to do your homework when it comes to food – and drink! – labeling and health claims. In other words, don’t believe everything you read, except of course, for this post.