Dig It: Research

Follow along as we explore fact and fiction about our food. Whether it's through our own experiments, or by reviewing the work that other people out there are doing, this is the place where we share everying we learn about food, as we learn it. Have a question you'd like us to investigate? Let us know.

Dear Diary: Our Experiments

Here we use ourselves as guinea pigs, investigating the questions we have about food. We dig deep, so you don't have to.

Learn more

Our Inner Critics: Reviews

We review books, websites, movies and nonprofits to help you decide where best to focus your own investigations.

Learn more

Celebrity Foodie: Our Inner Voyeurs

Our anonymous industry insider gives us the scoop on Hollywood's famous foodies, and what they have on their plates.

Learn more

Let's Play: Dissect Your Dinner

We look closely at common meals to determine Monsanto content, organic ingredients and environmental friendliness.

Learn more



Trust Issues

Written by Jazz Glastra.

Question: Is raw milk safe?

Answer: Under the right circumstances, yes.

farmI was feeling a bit uninspired about this post, so I did what any reasonable person with writer’s block would do: I asked my best friend to tell me what to write. “What worries you most about food safety?” I asked. “I wish packaging said more about how things are made. Meat and veggies, particularly.” In return, I quipped, “here's a hint: if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.”

I decided to research the food safety controversy surrounding raw milk, instead. Raw milk has not gone through pasteurization, a process which kills bacteria by applying heat. Critics of pasteurization argue that pasteurization kills all bacteria, not just pathogenic ones, which results in “dead,” less healthful milk. Enzymes and proteins in raw milk are also damaged during the pasteurization process.

A quick Google search turns up a host of pages that are either staunchly pro- or anti-raw milk. My first stop was the Centers for Disease Control website. This seemed like a reputable enough source. The CDC pleads, “Make the best decision for the health of your family. If you want to keep milk in your family’s diet, protect them by not giving them raw milk.”  I also found three scare-your-pants-off videos about people who became dangerously ill from infections traced back to raw milk. The testimonials—complete with dramatic photography and concerned male narration—reminded me of something I’d seen in sensational programs like Dateline NBC. This, combined with the complete lack of balance on the issue, made me wonder just how fact-based the CDCs information was.

My next stop was Real Raw Milk Facts, a website that purports to tell straight facts about raw milk. However, there were several sketchy claims—like the side by side nutrition facts comparison between raw milk and pasteurized showing them to be equally nutritious. Last I checked, things like enzymes and bacteria are not reported on nutrition labels. This, too, set off my crap-o-meter and I easily discovered that the site is funded by a Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases. Not exactly the "straight facts" source I was looking for.

The potential danger of raw milk stems from two possible problem areas: the health of the animal and the handling of the product. No one is advocating drinking raw milk from grain-fed, overly confined, sick cows. That part makes sense. The tricky part comes in the handling of milk. No fecal matter or bacteria should ever come in contact with the milk. That means absolutely no dirty hands, udders, equipment, or flies. If you purchase your milk in a grocery store, you have no way of knowing how it was handled or the condition of the animals that contributed to the product. Of course there are rules, inspections, and testing, but these are no guarantee of a particular product’s safety. See: almost every outbreak of e. coli.

What this boils down to is an issue of trust. Whenever you buy a packaged product, whether that product is a box of cereal, a carton of milk, or a bag of baby spinach, that package represents a series of steps that remove you from your food source. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’ve lost trust in labeled and packaged food that is supposed to make your food look safe and clean. Are you going to rely on regulations and labels that tell you your food is safe, or are you going to wash the daylights out of your spinach and cook your steaks within an inch of their….er, lives? I’ll take the latter.

If you know your farmer and you’ve shaken your cow’s hoof, you might not have the same trust issues I do. I’m no germaphobe, but I’m also not ready to throw caution to the wind. That goes for raw milk as well as just about everything we eat. All I’m saying is, if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.






The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

Written by Kate Darlington.

Author: Tracie McMillian

Publishing info: Scribner

In a nutshell: informational, engaging, and enlightening - 5 out of 5 shovels


sketch21Several months ago, I kept seeing blurbs and reviews about the latest piece of food journalism to hit the shelves. Tracie McMillian's book made quite a splash for its humble approach and complexly recriminating analysis of the American food system (even getting the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who called her "overeducated" and derided the critique of a corporate-controlled food system implicit in the section about working in a Walmart produce department). I'm just now getting around to checking it off my to-read list, and I wish I had done it sooner.

The book is primarily a narrative of McMillian’s experience working (as the title suggests) undercover in three different components of America’s “foodscape”: farming in California’s central valley, selling in the produce section of a Detroit Walmart supercenter, and cooking in the kitchen of a Brooklyn Applebee’s. The author devoted a whole year to this experiment, limiting her budget to what she could eek out from these minimum (or below)-wage jobs, and sharing her insight along the way. Interspersed with her personal story is a very well researched account of how our American food system came to be.  For all my previous knowledge about growing food, making food, and inequality surrounding food access and distribution, The American Way of Eating continually made me go, "wow!" or "huh, I never thought of it that way."

Probably my favorite aspect of the book (unlike a lot of other books about food I’ve read) is that the author doesn’t seem to be riding any kind of high horse. Her critique of the American food system is insightful and down-to-earth, derived from personal experience as much as research and data. She writes not as a celebrity or academic, but as someone who had to make the choice between buying healthy food and paying rent on time, between putting up with labor abuses or losing her job all together. Reflecting over a meal at McDonald’s, she writes:

“Either eating well needs to be easier, or the terms of my life need to be more forgiving. And no amount of intelligent analysis or principled argumentation will change those simple, pragmatic facts.  I haven’t landed here with my diet soda and mysterious beef patty because I, personally, haven’t got the right priorities. I’ve landed here because, for a long time, America has ignored a priority that should be one of its biggest: making sure its people can eat well, not just through the agriculture it practices but through the wages it pays, the work and education it provides, and the rules it keeps.”

Overall, this was a great and engaging piece of non-fiction that I would recommend to almost anyone who eats food in this country—gourmets, sociology students, public health people, and Applebee’s lovers alike.


The 2012 Daily Meal's 50 Most Powerful Foodies

The Daily Meal just released it's "50 Most Powerful People in Food List for 2012." It's a helpful big-picture snapshot of who's who in the industry, from agribusiness to politics to chefs to activists. Here's what the editors said about their process choosing the group:

Any catalogue of powerful people — and certainly any ranking of them in order of clout — is bound to be highly subjective, of course. That doesn't mean that it has to be arbitrary. We collaborated to assemble an initial list, then added and subtracted, fine-tuned and developed. We did extensive research and had endless discussions and occasionally strenuous debates. One thing that was clear from the beginning was that the most influential figures in the field weren't always the best-known, and that CEOs could wield more might than culinary celebrities.

Our ultimate criterion was simply this: Is each person on our list capable, whether by dint of corporate station, media access, moral authority, or sheer personality, of substantially changing, improving, and/or degrading the quality and variety of the American diet or the way we think about it? If so, how absolute is the power he or she can bring to bear?

screen shot 2012-01-19 at 9.53.17 am


GMOs, European-Style

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

My family has a soft spot for Europe. It’s partly a ‘grass is always greener’ issue since we’re regularly fed up with American-style politics, and partly a ‘returning to our roots’ issue since we’re Celtic mutts with some Angle and Saxon blood thrown in for good measure. Both my husband and I studied abroad in Europe in college, and one of our bucket list items is to live in Europe (somewhere – anywhere – we don’t really care!).

We last visited the region when we traveled to Ireland and England in 2010. This was the first trip we’d taken there together, and the first trip we had taken since my husband had started tweaking his diet to avoid grains (he has issues with systemic 4705473281_cbb0271322_binflammation that improve when he goes gluten-free, and improve even further when he stays away from grains altogether). But he was going to the land of Guinness, the beer that is basically bread in a glass, and my husband’s Irish heritage would not let him not drink beer. It just wasn’t an option. So he resigned himself to feeling like crap while he imbibed.

Except that it didn’t really happen. No one was as surprised as he was when he didn’t feel like garbage after eating bread or drinking a beer. While he still felt better when he didn’t eat large volumes of grains, the difference was very apparent to him.

While we don’t really know what made the difference, we suspect it may have something to do with the restrictions on GMOs in Europe. Currently banned in six European countries, a proposed EU rule (2010) would enable member countries to ban cultivation of all GMO crops if it were passed. The regulations on GMO foods in the EU are much more stringent than those in the United States, requiring an extensive food safety review before being allowed to be cultivated. GMOs are also required to be labeled in the EU – either on the label or next to the food if sold ‘loose.’

Researching the differences in how the US and EU manage GMOs has given us another reason to love Europe. To me, labeling GMO foods is a no-brainer. I’d like to know if someone has been tinkering with my food at the DNA level, so I can decide for myself if I want to ingest it – or have my children ingest it. In Europe, I can make that choice. Here at home, I’m left wondering.

Dig Deeper:

These companies don’t want GMOs labeled in California

Links In This Post:

European Commission food division

European Commission future rules

Regulation of GMOs in the EU

UK Food Standards Agency: Food Labelling

Is Europe’s ban on Monsanto’s GMO crops illegal?


30 Days of GOOD

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Author: Evan George, www.good.is

In a nutshell: Informational – 5 out of 5 shovels


I'm fascinated with the June #30DaysofGOOD project, partly because I know I should make all my meals at home, partly because I wish I could rearrange my life enough to make all my meals at home. I am also loving their daily prompts - ranging from prepare your own salad dressings for the week to keep your kitchen clean to go outside to eat - which work to combat the macaroni again? rut in which I often find myself.

So this weekend, when I found myself with kids in tow trekking through the Strip District (Pittsburgh’s wholesale food distribution district turned foodie cheese paradise, NOT anyplace with stripper poles, I know what you were thinking), we made the snap decision to walk into an Asian market (Explore a Specialty Food Market). We didn’t grab any exotic produce like jack fruit, though my eight year old was especially fascinated by it. It served as a good reminder that there are places worth checking out that are off the beaten path. I stocked up on rice noodles and quite possibly the juiciest ginger I have ever seen – you know how ginger in grocery stores always looks a little desiccated? Not this one! – and my kids got to see signs they couldn’t read and feel like explorers without leaving their city.market

I’ve also turned roasted chicken bits into a vinaigrette-based chicken salad (Use Leftovers), am a pro at throwing oregano and thyme into pretty much everything (Use Fresh Herbs), and leveraged my market garlic scapes, chard, and zucchini into quickly usable prepped veggies all week (Cook This Week’s Vegetables in Advance). While most of this is common sense, it’s helpful for us overworked folks to have some regular reminders that cooking at home doesn’t have to be hard.


Steve Jobs: Innovator and Vegetarian

As we remember the life of innovator Steve Jobs - and go about our daily business of using his creations - it's worth noting the thought leader was a vegetarian.

The Huffington Post reported today that PETA had praised his work helping "change animals' lives for the better."

I wonder if there wasn't also a touch of this quote reflected in his personal dietary choices:

Steve Jobs Apple“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

– Think Different, narrated by Steve Jobs

Choosing to be a vegetarian in the United States is pretty rebellious by most people's standards. But then, I also remember thinking that Captain Picard's "iPad" was totally futuristic way back in the '80s...Steve Jobs proved me wrong.



Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: What goes through your mind when you see a sign like this?
Answer: I don't want to think about it.

I was in rural Central Pennsylvania on a work trip this summer, and grabbed a ride back to my hotel from a friend who knew the back roads. It was a beautiful July day - the sky was blue, the sun was shining, the puffy little clouds were drifting on by, and the fields of corn were rustling in the breeze. You couldn't have a more idyllic day if you tried. Except for the signs like this:


You've probably seen something similar. Occasional reminders along the road delineating what crop was  growing where, what company the seed came from, and probably what batch of seed from what source (I haven't yet found a good description of what the specific info on this sign means). Probably helpful from the farmer's perspective, or maybe the seed salesman (if there is such a person).

But also a big fat reminder that there is an awful lot of genetically modified corn out there. "Maximum Insect Protection," "Round Up Ready Technology," and even the word BRAND show the increasing proprietization of food products by huge players in the agricultural industry. Genetically modified food isn't something that I had to think of as a kid, or that my parents had to think of when they fed me, because they've only been around in large quantities for the last twenty years. The current generation of children are one giant set of guinea pigs in a nationwide (if not global) experiment with food. And since GMOs are not required to be labeled in this country, most of us don't even realize that we're eating genetically modified food.

Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Dig Deeper:


Weight of the Nation

Written by Sara Padilla.

Name: Weight of the Nation

Network: HBO

In a Nutshell: Informational - 4 out of 5 shovels


Houston, we have a problem.

It’s well documented that the condition of overweight/obesity has exploded over the past three decades.  On May 14, HBO launched a four-part documentary series exploring personal stories and research focused on the obesity epidemic and the consequences of being overweight or obese.


The Weight of the Nation campaign is led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in partnership with Kaiser Permanente and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

The film starts out strong, with compelling evidence that obesity is indeed a factor for significant risk of chronic disease that impacts us in serious and troubling ways. Diabetes and heart disease are not only uncommon anymore; they are increasingly present in youth and young adults. The economic implications are astounding.

But what to do about it?

According to WOTN, strong forces are at work that have caused the perfect storm for overweight/obesity:  junk food marketing to kids, availability of cheap and highly processed foods, agriculture, American food culture, and physical inactivity are just some of those forces.

A lot has been written in support of WOTN; some, however, suggest it doesn’t go far enough. Some critics suggest it encourages size shaming and stigma.

But there is no question that we must continue to examine the influence of the food industry with a greater eye toward how it operates --- and call for change – if we are to make a difference in the lives of young people who are overwhelmed in the presence of junk and fast food marketing. We must continue to examine ethnic and racial disparities and access to healthy food in all communities.

And we must bring back activity into the lives of young people – and not necessarily P.E. class – but field trips to farms and farmers markets and county fairs.

Watch Weight of the Nation (available on HBO’s website) and tell us what you think.







Dissect the All American Cheese Burger

Written by april.

Ever since I started the Month Without Monsanto project, there’s one question I hear over and over: “so, what on this plate could you eat?”

This question has inspired us to create a series for this blog called Dissect Your Dinner, wherein we will take apart a common dish, inspecting it for Monsanto products, genetically modified (GM) foods in general, and generally icky stuff – then wrap up our discussion by telling you how to find healthier versions out there in the real world. Ready? Today’s contestant is the all-American cheese burger.

burgerMonsanto Count: The meat in this anonymous burger is virtually guaranteed to be from cows fed Monsanto corn and soy. The cheese is mostly likely from cows that were injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) (which technically Monsanto sold to Eli Lilly in 2008, but which I still consider a Monsanto product since they developed it). The bun is probably full of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is made largely from Monsanto corn. That leaves the veggies. At last count 80% of tomatoes and about 60% of lettuce were owned by Monsanto (that is, Monsanto owns the company that owns the seed). I don’t have statistics on onions or cucumbers (for the pickles).

GM Count: GM corn makes it’s way to you by way of the beef and the HFCS in the buns. The veggies, though they have a high probability of coming from seeds owned by Monsanto, are not GM. According to the Non-GMO shopping guide, none of the foods that come on a burger are widely available in genetically modified versions.

General Icky Stuff: Some would argue that burgers are murder, and really, there’s no getting around that one. If you’re not in that camp however, it’s still hard to get past the awful conditions of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in this country. Cows are fed food that isn’t meant for cows and injected with antibiotics to combat the resulting health problems. Also, the rBGH used to get cows to produce more milk (for the cheese) has been shown in some studies to effect the hormonal balance of humans – particularly young girls – leading to early puberty. There’s also the pesticide issues of non-organic veggies.

JavaScript is disabled!
To display this content, you need a JavaScript capable browser.

So what’s a burger-loving American to do? Really, we have two options.

First, make the burger yourself. Pick meat that has been raised in open pastures, feeding on things cows are supposed to eat – like grass (your local farmer’s market is a good place to start, and many grocery stores now carry such meats). Look for buns without High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), and buy organic veggies.

Or embrace your inner lazy American, and find a restaurant to cook one up for you. Most cities have restaurants that focus on healthy food, and they’re not just for vegetarians anymore. My favorite resource is the Eat Well Guide. By typing in my zip code I get a list of food providers who provide ecologically sound, community-based food choices. With just one click I found a restaurant that serves just the kind of burger I’m looking for.

If all else fails, the simplest form of activism is to ask for better options. If your grocer doesn’t carry free range, organic meat – ask for it. If you want your favorite restaurant to start making it’s burgers with the good stuff – ask. It will only take a few people asking before food vendors start supplying what customers want.


Raising foodies

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: How do you help your kids make smart food choices when you’re not around?

Answer: Start ‘em young.

duncan_emmy_toronto_marketI was caught completely off guard the first time my son asked my to buy him a Lunchable. BLECH. Where had I failed as a parent? We avoid kid’s menus with everything-fried-on-a-platter, favoring ethnic food places where everyone can eat something healthy. As a result, my roly-poly Michelin baby ate channa masala, pad  thai, and shawarma with gusto. Once he got to school, we packed lunches and explained why – both reading labels and talking about the shortcomings of the school lunch program. I thought he got it, until he wanted that dreaded box of bologna circles and cheese-like product squares.

Turns out he wanted to be like everyone else, for a little while. So we compromised – we bought one, only one! – and made sure he looked at the label and understood how many ingredients he couldn’t pronounce were in there. Well, they taste pretty blah when you’re used to nitrate free pepperoni and smoked turkey, so he went back to our standard packed lunch foods. But man, was I scared for a while.  We also agreed that if he ever saw anything at school that he wanted to eat, that we would make the equivalent at home. So he now knows that French fries come from a potato, and that chicken nuggets don’t have to be made from pink slurry.

It takes CONSTANT VIGILANCE to make sure your kids make good food choices. Last week at our summer block party, my now nine-year-old snuck a glass of fruit punch after at least one (maybe two) glasses of soda. He knows our ‘one and done’ rule, but I wasn’t paying attention, and he got away with it. Since we rarely drink sugary drinks, he got a stomachache and learned his lesson the hard way. Thankfully, that teachable moment didn’t involve seeing the soda and punch again.

Talking to your kids and showing them good food choices are key in this onslaught of media-focused crap alternatives. That’s why I love having a roadmap for school lunches in which your kids can participate. Sure, they may ask for, or sneak, food that you don’t like, but if they have the lessons and example from you, they’ll come back to that again and again.

Dig Deeper:

School Lunches from Around the World

Sources for this Post:

EatWhole BeVital lunchbox roadmap

Jamie Oliver chicken nugget demo

Member Login

Support Us

With your help we'll keep digging to de-mystify questions about food science, safety, sales hype, and highlight solutions. Click here to give.

We launched thanks to more than 100 friends who gave $5,000 to fund our kickstarter.com campaign and super-fantastic pro-bono contributions from our website designers and public relations guru - check out our list of wonderful supporters.

Thanks to all who choose to support our work. We welcome and need your help to keep our site live and spread the word. All donations that exceed our modest technical, supply, and PR costs go straight back to the community as gifts to Heifer International.

Click here to give.