by Shicana Allen Once upon a time, sweets became associated with love and romance, as well as terms of endearment: sweetheart, sweetie pie, sugar lips, honey bun. However, most sugars and sweeteners on the market today have taken a deadly turn, being highly refined and processed, artificially produced, chemically induced, or genetically modified to withstand high doses of deadly pesticides. We must now be more careful than ever with the sweet treats that we shower upon our loved ones on Valentine’s Day…or any day of the year. Here are fourteen smart ways to do just that:
♥ Go ORGANIC
If it’s organic, it won’t be genetically modified nor contain nearly the amount of toxic, carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides. Organic foods also tend to be more nutritious. Organic certification may be displayed on packaging as CCOF, Oregon Tilth, or USDA, amongst others.
♥ Go NON-GMO PROJECT CERTIFIED
To make sure your Valentine’s edibles have not been genetically modified, look for a certification seal on the packaging, such as that from the Non-GMO Project. Companies with this certification are listed in the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, which can be accessed or downloaded for free from: www.NonGMOShoppingGuide.com. Product packaging may also include statements such as: “Not made with genetically engineered ingredients” or “GMO-Free.”
♥ Go RAW or SUPERFOOD
At the Raw Living Expo held recently in Thousand Oaks, California, dozens of vendors displayed raw packaged foods in a wide variety of forms and flavors. Superfoods, defined as those containing high amounts of immune-enhancing, energizing, or otherwise beneficial nutrients, were also prevalent throughout the exhibit halls. Overall, raw and superfood companies tend to be extremely conscious about ingredient sourcing, integrity, and quality. Not only do raw foods, which have neither been cooked nor heated above 118 degrees, maintain higher nutritional and enzyme levels, but the companies that produce them are overwhelmingly careful to use organic, non-GMO ingredients whenever possible.
♥ Go VEGAN
While vegan foods—those containing no dairy or animal products of any type—may contain GMOs, many companies which produce and package them tend to use higher quality and/or organic ingredients. The bovine growth hormone rBGH or rBST, injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, is a genetically engineered substance. (The “r” stands for recombinant.) Unfortunately, many meat substitutes derive from soy protein, the majority of which is genetically modified in the United States. It is extra important to be diligent about consuming only organic, non-GMO soy or avoiding it altogether. Fortunately, soy milk is now sharing the shelves with healthier alternatives, such as almond, hazelnut, hemp, rice, and coconut milks–none of which are approved to be GMO.
♥ Go FAIR TRADE
Food companies that engage in fair or ethical trade practices are often equally conscious about using more natural, organic, and/or non-GMO ingredients. One chocolate company’s wrapper both explains and asks for customer involvement: “Sweet Riot supports fair trade and sourcing exclusively in Latin America, which directly supports a better life for families through fair prices and direct trading. We’re building a sweet movement to save the world. A riot never happens alone; join us!”
♥ Go SUSTAINABLE
Similar to Fair Trade, companies that engage in sustainable growing and harvesting practices will tend to use higher quality, organic, and non-GMO ingredients. On its chocolate bar wrapper, the Endangered Species company states: “We buy our cacao from small family-owned properties, helping sustain the habitats and communities that exist. 10% of net profits are donated to help support species, habitat, and humanity.” The Good Cacao company allies with the Rainforest Alliance to produce “socially responsible, functional chocolate” containing impressive superfood ingredients.
♥ Go SAVORY instead of SWEET
It’s not necessary to cater to the sweet tooth just because it’s Valentine’s Day. There are a wide variety of non-sugary treats that can be gifted and enjoyed equally well. Nuts, seeds, chips, crackers, trail mix, and even sheets of Nori seaweed can satisfy the palate, and there are many exotic varieties and concoctions to indulge in. Wonderfully Raw Gourmet produces two kinds of raw savory snacks: Snip Chips and Brussel Bytes, artfully seasoned mixtures made from dehydrated vegetables and spices. Go Raw makes an organic Banana Bread Flax Bar that is wheat/gluten/nut-free and individually packaged for the purse or pocket. Numerous companies or distributors specializing in raw, vegan, or superfood products, such as Portland, Oregon-based www.WholeLifeSuperfoods.com, offer many tantalizing options sold in bulk and can be searched for easily online.
♥ Go NATURALLY SWEETENED
Unfortunately, the majority of sugar beet and corn crops in the United States today are grown from seeds genetically engineered for herbicide resistance. Not only has the plants’ DNA been dangerously altered, but they can survive being sprayed with exceedingly high amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup, which remains in the food until it is consumed. Therefore, the most common sweeteners used in the food supply–beet sugar and corn syrup–will most likely be transgenic unless organic or non-GMO Project Certified. The artificial sweetener Aspartame (brand names: Nutrasweet or Equal) is derived from transgenic microorganisms. Even the alternative natural sweetener Erythritol may be a culprit. The Coco Polo chocolate company assures potential buyers: “Our Erythritol is naturally fermented from non-GMO corn.”
Of course, avoiding added sweeteners altogether is an excellent healthy option for Valentine’s Day. Many foods are naturally sweet even without added sugars, including dried or dehydrated fruits and vegetables. CGF brand packages the tropical Durian fruit in freeze-dried wedges that are simply to die for. My vote for most decadent unsweetened treat (though on the expensive side) is Pili Nut Butter from Polynesia, which tastes remarkably like a healthy version of Nutella. One spoonful and you’ll be hooked.
♥ Go HOMEMADE
Bake or make your own treats using ingredients you’ve checked out yourself.
It’s said that there’s nothing like the taste of home cooking. It is also the most confident way of maintaining quality control and nutritional value. When it comes to indulging our loved ones on Valentine’s Day, there’s no better way to say “I Love You” than serving cake and cookies still warm from the oven. Or a nice cup of non-GMO hot chocolate on a brisk winter day. There are lots of recipes to be downloaded for free from websites dedicated to health-minded, non-GMO eating like this one. Check out a few sweet treats here that you can make in the comfort of your own kitchen.
♥ Get INFORMED
Call the manufacturer or distributor to check out questionable ingredients on product labels. There is usually either a phone number or website address printed right on the package, but if not, a contact number or email address is easy enough to locate online. A beautiful jar of peach ginger jam that I received as a gift listed only “sugar” on its label. I called the family-owned business located in New England and was immediately assured it had been made with non-GMO cane sugar, not beet sugar. The labeling wasn’t sufficient to make a decision, so reaching out one step further gave me the information I needed. I was thrilled to be able to eat the jam after all, not to mention having the opportunity to let the company’s owner know that customers are concerned about avoiding GMOs.
♥ Support the SMALL GUY
Buy products from alternative, local, family-owned, and independent businesses. Skip those brand name sweets, snacks, and chocolates that you’ve eaten all your life. I’ve found that even the more gourmet, pricey commercial candy manufacturers are still using GMO ingredients, such as beet sugar, corn syrup, dairy, soy protein, and oils derived from canola, cottonseed, and soy.
♥ Be a SLEUTH
Investigate the aisles, counters, and displays of healthy cafés and bakeries, specialty shops, natural product stores, cooperatives, and health food markets. You never know what you’ll find. Smaller venues will often provide a place on their shelves for local manufacturers, many of whom are GMO-conscious. Just don’t forget to read the labels!
♥ Hang out at FARMER’S MARKETS and FESTIVALS
Buying produce and packaged foods at community markets, gatherings, county fairs, and festivals (such as the Raw Living Expo mentioned above) are a great way to buy fresher, to buy locally grown, and to meet the farmers, distributors, and manufacturers of the things you’ll be putting in your mouth. In addition, SAMPLES and DISCOUNTS are often abundant at such places—two simple ways to save. Many vendors have samples available for tasting pre-purchase, so even though some non-GMO, organic items may be more expensive, you just might save money in the end by not buying what you DON’T like, or buying a discounted case or quantity of what you DO like.
♥ Look for SEALS ON PACKAGING
Become familiar with the seals for Non-GMO Project Certified, Organic Certification, and other packaging symbols that indicate fair trade or sustainable practices. Training your eye to scan for these on food packages is a quick way to determine product quality and standards, especially since product printing is often small and difficult to read. (Tip: Carry a magnifying tool or glasses with you on shopping expeditions to assist in reading labels.)
Some seals you should know:
Products with this seal have been verified by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization committed to providing consumers with clearly labeled and independently verified non-GMO choices, including testing of at-risk ingredients. The Non-GMO Project verifies per individual product, not for an entire brand. Visit www.NonGMOProject.org for more information on the third-party product verification program.
The USDA Organic Seal assures that at least 95% of the ingredients are organically certified. Seals indicating organic certification by (left) California Certified Organic Farmers and (right) Organic Tilth, both competent and respected certification boards. The FairTrade seal indicates fair trading practices. The Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal guarantees that cacao beans and other agricultural products are grown on farms that meet comprehensive standards for sustainable farming, protecting soil, waterways and wildlife habitat, as well as the rights and welfare of workers, their families and local communities. Shicana Allen has been a health, environmental, and food safety advocate, writer, reporter, and public speaker for over 20 years.