This is kind of a funny followup to my lamentation about my car (which turned out, once they replaced some other things as well as the o2 sensor, to be over $700, sigh) but the other thing going on in my financial life right now is that I’m spending more money on food.
Food shopping is kind of a weird topic in the PF world because people have really different takes. Some are clearly spending as little as possible; they buy pasta and dried beans in bulk from Costco, and fruit at Walmart, and so on. Some don’t cook, so their food budgets are large because they go out to eat and/or buy convenience foods a lot. Some eat meat every meal; others don’t. Some are focused more on quality than on price. Etc.
In my experience, it’s really hard to be both budget-conscious and also ethical when it comes to food shopping. The cheapest foods (unless you grow them yourself) are typically not great for the environment, not great for your body, and probably made using some kind of exploited labor too. But actually, strike my first sentence: it’s really hard to be ethical, period, when it comes to food shopping, because most food is probably produced using some kind of exploited labor at some point along the line, and I’m always reading exposes about how the supposedly organic or fair trade or local whatever is actually, well, not. Plus, even at farmer’s markets, farmers often can’t charge enough to actually make a decent living, because the price it really costs to produce food ethically and have a fair profit is so high that people get sticker shock because we’re so used to paying way less than it should cost based on good environmental and labor standards.
In a world where the food supply is so ethically fraught, there’s pretty much no way to be sure you’re not eating chocolate produced by child slaves in the Ivory Coast or basically enslaved tomato and strawberry pickers in Florida or poultry plant workers in Maryland who aren’t allowed to take bathroom breaks. Or if you do find out that you are, via one of these articles, and start avoiding it, you’re probably eating something else that you have no idea about.
I’m not presenting this as a solution or something everyone should do or anything. But I recently decided that I wanted to choose some ingredients that I use often and start paying more for them. I started with sugar, for a few reasons. The first is that it’s always one of the things on a short list (chocolate, coffee, shrimp) that we know has a lot of ethics problems in the supply chain. We also know that it’s often grown in an environmentally destructive way. I also wanted to look at the way I used sugar for historic reasons. Since the 16th century, sugar was one of the major cash crops made by slave labor. Before then, it’s not like Europeans didn’t eat things that were sweet, but slave labor in the Caribbean and South America made sugar a commodity available to the masses, and everyone knew it. Abolitionists refused to put it in their tea, and everyone else massively expanded their sugar consumption in a way that had big consequences for politics, human welfare (of the slaves) and human welfare (regarding the effect of so much extra sugar on our bodies). So I was reading up on sugar production and consumption in the 17th-19th centuries and it made me want to rethink the way I use sugar — I wanted to start thinking about it as something precious and rare, not something as cheap as dirt. And finally, I wanted my baked goods, when I did bake them, to taste better — less industrial, fuller and richer and with more varied and complex flavor. I knew that changing from super-cheap Domino’s to a much less refined product would help with that a lot (ditto for flour, but that’s another post.)
So I went shopping! I had some extra cash this month because I was traveling for the first part of the month and not buying groceries. I decided to go to the health food store and to Whole Foods and to my regular grocery store and look to see what kinds of options I had.
Turns out there are quite a few, although I’m never sure exactly how much to trust what I read on packages.
Whole Foods has several kinds of sugar that it sells under the 365 brand. The Vegan sugar also said it was fair trade. However, since it was white, and I was specifically on the hunt for natural sugars that hadn’t been stripped of all their molasses, I skipped it.
I sometimes buy Bob’s Red Mill brown sugar (along with a lot of their other products.) I like doing that because it tastes good, but also because BRM is an employee-owned company. However, the sugar doesn’t say fair trade on it. I know that certification doesn’t guarantee it, but I’m curious about their supply chain, so I just wrote them an email to ask about it.
Wholesome Sweeteners makes a widely available (by which I mean it was at my normal grocery store) full line of organic/fair trade sugars (dark and light brown, white, powdered, and sucanat, which I’ll get back to in a sec.) They’re expensive, at $4-5 for a 1.5 lb bag, but like I said I feel like that’s just what the deal is: sugar that costs what Domino’s does, does it for a reason.
I had the most fun at the health food store, where I bought three different kinds of more or less unrefined sugars. Sucanat/rapadura are both terms used for these sugars that look kind of like dark sand. They’re uneven because they’re unrefined. They taste really interesting because, not having been through industrial processes to make them look/feel/taste all alike, they have some variation and a lot of caramel-molasses flavor. In short, I really like the three kinds I bought and I’m excited to start baking/experimenting with them.
Alter Eco makes a slightly lighter and more refined version they call “muscobado” — it’s not as sandy as sucanat/rapadura. I bet it will be really good for baking, though so far I’ve just taste-tested these on yogurt and in tea. It’s $4.39/lb and you can buy it online if you can’t find it near you.
Rapunzel sells a 24-oz bag of unrefined, unbleached, fair trade, organic, non-GMO (whew!) sugar under the name Rapadura. That link is to amazon which has it for over $9, but I paid $7 at the health food store. It’s from Brazil, and on the back it has a cool graphic that shows how it’s produced, vs. “normal” sugar:
The third kind I got is from Heavenly Organics. It was $6 for 20 oz. Its marketing material is a little goofy (“rare and exclusive…produced by a small cooperative of family farmers from the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains…ancient method of removing impurities from organic whole cane juice by using wild-crafted herbs and then sun-drying” — what the heck is a “wild-crafted herb”???) but at the end of the day, it’s fair-trade, sustainably produced, and organic. Texture-wise, it’s somewhere between the Rapunzel and the Alter Eco; in the bag it looks sandy, but it’s moister than the Rapunzel, a little closer in texture to a molasses-y brown sugar. I’m not sure it “enlightens my spirit through health, harmony, and deliciousness” but it’s definitely very good sugar with an interesting flavor.
At the end of the day, all of the fair-trade sugars I found seemed to come in around $.25-30/oz, though the sizes of the packaging varied. It definitely felt weird paying that much when you can get Domino’s for as little as $.03/oz. On the other hand, let’s say I use a cup of sugar in a cake recipe. That’s about 7 ounces. It doesn’t seem that unreasonable to put $2ish of sugar into a cake. I guess it comes down to, should sugar be a mass commodity that costs essentially nothing? Or should it be a specialty product to be used lightly, and should it cost enough to make a person think before using it?
By the way: do I know any Canadians that would be interested in helping me import some sugar from Camino Foods? They don’t sell in the US but I’d happily pay for the cost of product plus shipping in order to do some more taste-testing in my quest for the ultimate fair-trade natural sugar 🙂