Archive for December, 2009

Soups On

December 19, 2009

Winter is a season for hot soup. And in my house, winter and hot soup are great partners. This year, I am curious not only about the taste of the soup, but the ingredients within the soup and the process by which the soup is made. I was curious specifically about how “sustainable” my soups are. The first stage in my investigation was to look in the cupboard. I quickly discovered three major brands: Trader Joe’s, Health Valley, and Campbell’s. (It is pretty hard to imagine a soup cupboard without anything from Campbell’s, but that is another issue). The labels told me that all of the soups and stocks were low sodium, and the Trader Joe’s and Health Valley ones were also organic. This was good, but I was curious about whether “soups and stocks” and “sustainability” could actually go together.

The result of this exploration became a case study in the intersection and divergences between “organic” and “sustainable”’. “Organic” on a label actually means that the ingredients comply with specific US Department of Agriculture regulations. The general idea is that the food used is raised without the toxins and pesticides that poison the land and water. “Sustainable” is a broader concept, and can go beyond the ingredients of a specific product and include other aspects of the production chain.

For the soup consumer who cares about environmental impacts, it is easy to assume that buying organic is the extent of what they can do. A fairly quick perusal of the Health Valley website reinforces the organic aspect. This site also includes references to “sustainable agriculture”, without too much detail. The Trader Joe’s site had almost no information on any sustainable production practices. At least the soups and stocks I buy at Trader Joes happen to be organic.

Somewhat to my surprise, however, the Campbell’s site had an entire section on what sustainable agriculture actually is. This is very fortunate, because Campbell’s soup, is well…mmm—mmm—good! And the mushroom soup goes so well with so many recipes. To Campbell’s credit, they give numerous concrete examples from supply, to manufacturing, to packaging and distribution of how they have adopted sustainable production practices. One example concerning ingredients is a sustainable agriculture practice known as integrated pest management. This basically means that most of the bad pests are eaten by their natural predators. (Call these predators the good bugs). The good bugs eliminate the need for most of the chemical pesticides. Another example is local sourcing, whereby the manufacturing plants buy as much of their ingredients as they can from within a 100-mile radius. I also like the fact that many of the cans for the product are made very close to the factory, so they oftentimes do not need to be trucked in. And, of course, the soup cans are themselves recyclable.

Comparing the soup brands in my cupboard has taught me a lesson or two about what being a customer of sustainability is all about. It is really easy to automatically buy the product (soup, in this case), labeled “organic”. But it is certainly possible that a competing brand may not be labeled organic, but have lots of other sustainable elements in its production process that I am supporting via my purchase—in this case, Campbell’s.

I think the overall lesson is to decide which products are worth buying as if sustainability is not a concern. My initial criteria for soup are low sodium, taste, and availability in the stores where I shop. After this screen, 3 brands qualify—Health Valley, Campbell’s and Trader Joe’s. (Not of these brands’ soups have low sodium or taste good, but enough of them do). Then I need to take the small amount of time to do a little research to look at the provider’s perspective on sustainability. A simple visit to their websites did the trick. In this case, I am happy to find out that I am on solid “sustainable” ground with all three of these choices.

Time to go make some soup—there is a blizzard outside.

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