June 2012

Trust Your Food, Know Your Farmer

Author: David Tobias

Eating healthy isn’t all that complicated. Just ask Holly Mlodzinski and Mary O’Neill who have it down to a simple science. Mlodzinski (pronounced Ma-jin-ski) is health promotions coordinator for the Hilton Head Hospital and a registered and licensed dietitian. O’Neill, who, in addition to being marketing director of the Bluffton Farmers Market and president of the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival, is vice president of U.S. sales for Sable & Rosenfeld, distributor of a wide variety of food products. Both have some rather basic advice for those who want to ensure that what they’re putting in their bodies is nutritious and beneficial rather than detrimental or even dangerous.

Surprisingly—or not, depending on which hat she’s wearing—O’Neill recommends buying local at every opportunity. A farmers market (Bluffton, Hilton Head or any number of regional markets,) is about as simple as it gets. You know what you’re getting, she says, and it’s possible you even know the farmer.

“We support our local farms and Kim Viljac, market manager for the Bluffton Farmers Market even does farm visits and inspections as part of her job,” O’Neill said. “That’s part of this being a cool place to shop, and it’s one of the most important steps toward healthy eating—to know where your food comes from.”

The same applies to local seafood. “I can go down to the dock and see Larry hauling shrimp right off his boat,” O’Neill said. “And I know that shrimp didn’t come out of some disgusting pond somewhere. I’m not against farm-raised because we do a lot with the Waddell Mariculture Center. That’s a clean, wonderful environment. But where is the shrimp coming from that’s not controlled that way? You don’t want to know. My husband spent six months in China and I know for sure, you don’t want to know.”

Even with her VP hat on, she’s in the midst of promoting and selling organic and all-natural products indirectly, calling on stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare. The difficulty for consumers, she says, is in the differentiation between organic and all-natural. Learning to read a label is part of understanding the difference, but another part is interpreting the level of control a manufacturer has in assuring something is 100 percent organic and knowing whether that’s important or not—and affordable.

Mary O’Neill

Organic means that nothing has been used that’s not natural, O’Neill said—no herbicides or pesticides applied. Pure organic would mean that every single ingredient used to manufacture the product is certified organic, and with some ingredients, that’s difficult to do. Often produce used in the manufacture of a product comes “certified organic” from a foreign country, and O’Neill says that is sometimes suspect.

“Who’s certifying it?” she asks, “And how comfortable are you with those inspectors and that designation?

Which brings things back to the basic question: really how important is organic versus all-natural, versus fresh.

Mlodzinski recommends a simple rule of thumb.

“When you shop, use the two-thirds/one-third rule,” she said. “Try to keep it simple. People get confused reading labels, and who’s got that much time? What I tell my patients and in my educational talks is that when people go to the grocery store two-thirds of their cart should be fresh food and one-third can be processed—two-thirds fresh meats, fresh vegetables, fresh breads and only one-third processed foods.”

To make it even simpler, she has a more memorable and fun approach. She recommends shopping for a “rainbow of colors,” a strategy that applies mostly to fruits and vegetables, but not to searching the candy aisle for Skittles and Starbursts.

To accomplish that, her recommended strategy is to keep to the store’s outside aisles and stay away, as best you can, from the inside aisles where the processed foods, canned soups and high sodium packaged foods live.

Holly Mlodzinski

“It’s the four to five cupfuls a day of carrots, peppers, leafy vegetables, apples, bananas and tomatoes, in addition to the high anti-oxidant fruits like blueberries, avocados, papaya and pomegranate that will help to assure a balanced diet that’s also good for you,” Mlodzinski said.

She also suggests that pick your own and grow your own are options that can be applied to healthier living.

Mlodzinski and O’Neill both agree that there seems to be a turning of the tide, if not a full-blown sea change.

“People are definitely questioning what they’re eating,” O’Neill said. “For a while, we had blinders on and we would go to a store and get strawberries in December and be happy with that. Then, all of a sudden, this little light went on and we said maybe we should think about this.”

Thinking about it and acting on it are clearly two different things, but both O’Neill and Mlodzinski have references for those who take the issue seriously. Mlodzinski is a big believer in WebMd online as a resource, especially postings on healthy eating and diet. She also recommends The Academy of Nutrition and Dietitics’ www.eatright.org.

O’Neill echoes Mlodzinski, but comes back to the simplicity of local connections to healthy food products. “Every food product on display and available for sale at the Bluffton Farmers market is grown within 180 miles of Bluffton and Hilton Head Island,” she said. “So we know it’s not coming from the rice paddies of Thailand. It goes back to one memorable mantra: know your farmer.”

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