A commentary on clean eating in Costa Rica

It’s Saturday morning in Costa Rica and as I write this thousands of people are headed to their local ferias, or farmers markets. I picked up my veggies at my neighborhood organic shop a couple of days ago, so I’m enjoying the beautiful morning sitting on my deck looking out at all this awesome natural beauty that is Costa Rica. And my mind goes to why I choose Karla’s little shop (Ayni’s) after decades of going to the farmers market.

Food quality here has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, and not for the better. If additives, chemicals, GMO’s, and sustainability regarding what you consume are not concerns for you, I suspect you won’t enjoy this article much, so I’ll just wish you a great day and let you get back to your life. On the other hand, if these issues do interest you, please read on.

July 30, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of my Costa Rican grandmother’s death. Abuela Mencha lived to the age of 105. She was rarely sick and never suffered from arthritis, osteoporosis, or cancer. In fact, other than deafness and inner ear-related vertigo (the family curses), she never had any major illness or disease.

I give her healthy diet and lifestyle most of the credit, and am grateful for having had her as a mentor in what is now considered holistic health. Today’s ticos rarely eat as much freshly prepared food as my Abuela did; certainly they don’t consume as many vegetables as she did. Sadly, the food she taught me to love is now loaded with dangers she could never have imagined.

In her day, and in my youth, everybody in Costa Rica had something edible growing in their yard. I loved making the rounds of my cousins houses where mangos might be at one house, sugar cane at another, and so forth. My grandmother had grapefruit and all kinds of vegetables and herbs tucked in among her flowers.

Costa Rica touts its “green” image, but the nasty truth is that it heads the global lists for the most pesticides/herbicides/fungicides applied per crop acre. This doesn’t include the tons of “bug sprays” used in homes and commercial businesses. I’ve been seeing more articles in national newspapers about the toxicity of the produce, and even the rice and beans eaten by most Costa Ricans—they run along the lines of, “is our food killing us?”

The link between the extraordinarily high rates of stomach cancer here and chemicals is too great to ignore, despite efforts to spin those numbers and discredit the studies that point in that direction. Nitrites are naturally present in the volcanic soil here, which can certainly increase cancer risk, but I can’t swallow that explanation. It took decades to prove that smoking caused lung cancer—just reminding you how this kind of thing works.

Costa Rica is home to one of the world’s Blue Zones, recognized for its high numbers of active centenarians. (Not where my grandmother was from, in case you’re wondering.) It’s striking that the area best known for its healthy oldsters is also one of the poorest and until recently, the most isolated. They have been living on food grown traditionally—what we now call organically, yet the nitrites in the soil haven’t impacted them in the past.

Antibiotics and hormones are used by many, if not most, commercial animal product operations, and although the problems associated with these (including obesity, antibiotic resistance, and reproductive organ cancers) are acknowledged and recognized, there is little to no genuine regulation in Costa Rica, and even less consistency regarding monitoring and documentation. The issues are being discussed, however, I see little in the way of action.There certainly isn’t any labeling.

Many Costa Rican communities have banned the use of GMO’s, but the fact is there are no national laws prohibiting their sale or use, and no labeling laws are currently on the books. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) in Costa Rica oversees the importation of GMO’s into the country, despite increasing opposition. So be aware that not only are GMO products common here, even the neighbor with a flock of chickens in her back yard might be unknowingly feeding them GMO corn.

Tilapia, trout, and shrimp are all being aqua farm raised here, as is salmon. The quality is all over the place with typical variations in oversight of conditions. Just so you know. Trash and sewage contamination along local sea shores is also a significant concern, although I dearly wish it wasn’t so. Having said all this, you must realize that the identical issues exist in the US. By the way, since tilapia is not inherently very good for you in the first place, avoiding it seems like a no-brainer to me.

Your best bet is to establish a good relationship with a local fisherman or fishmonger. Fresh, wild caught seafood can be excellent here, but please ask about where and how it was caught. Overfishing and non-sustainability are decimating fish populations all over the world. Between 2000 and 2007 alone, Costa Rica saw a 40% decline in the total volume of fish caught in its oceans. That amount went down by another 50% by 2012. Most of this is blamed on illegal commercial fishing practices, but local fishermen are becoming ever more desperate. The situation is both complicated and extremely alarming. What’s worse is that it isn’t being very openly addressed.

Always ask where everything comes from if not clearly labeled. You might be surprised to find that while lamb is raised here, much of what is in the stores comes from Australia, with its accompanying sticker shock.

I’ve returned to growing my own garlic after discovering that virtually all the garlic sold in Costa Rica comes from China. It didn’t use to be like this. I lived in Santa Ana for years when the entire area practically smelled of garlic and onions drying after the harvest. Of course that was when the main drag from town to Belen was a gravel road and onion & garlic stands were everywhere. No matter where you lived in San José, you drove out to Sta. Ana on a regular basis to get your trensa (braid) of onions. No one does that anymore, and I find it a sad aspect of “progress.”

                             

The changes I’ve seen in recent years in dairy products is equally dismaying. Cream, yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream is filled with all kinds of stabilizers and additives, not to mention made with milk containing rBST, a recombinant bovine growth hormone. Some artisan-made yogurt and natilla (a rich flavored sour cream) is available but you have to go out of your way to find it, and may still have no guarantee of it being antibiotic or hormone free. I often buy Danish or French butter, and Häagen-Dazs ice cream to avoid added hormones. FYI: several popular companies here like Pop’s ice cream and Monteverde cheese are no longer Costa Rican owned, and while the quality has dropped, their prices have risen.

Organic products are increasingly plentiful but be aware that certification and reliability is hit or miss, and there is little to no assurance that standards are being met or verified. The cost of certification is also prohibitively high for the small farm operation.

Organic stores here tend to be very small. The macrobiotica shops carry some herbal related health products and a decent selection of nuts, seeds, and grains, but rarely carry fresh produce. There are exceptions of course. The more foreigners in a given area, the more organic or macrobiotic stores you’re likely to find.

Local grocery stores do stock organic products and organic produce, but they are much more expensive, whether they’re local or imported. I’m only feeding myself, so I can splurge a bit on my groceries, but most families I know here have to make harder decisions. Food prices are already high for the average Tico, so paying for organic products is even more of a stretch. This is a major reason why expats are a driving economical force behind the growth of organically raised food sources.

I shop at Ayni’s in Santo Domingo and trust that the owner is doing her best to stock the best quality foods she can find. She carries a lovely selection of produce as well as pastured eggs, meats, cheeses, and basic pantry items like nuts, flours, spices, and much more. I can get almost everything I need from her. By giving her my business, I am supporting each of her suppliers as well, and sending the message that I am willing to pay more for cleaner, higher quality food.

Many communities outside the central valley have access to organic and sustainable farms and markets. The Feria Verde in San Jose on Saturday mornings and the one in Ciudad Colon on Tuesday afternoons are two of the bigger ones. See my links at the end of this article. Smaller ferias often have a few vendors who sell organic products, as well, but you’ll have to find them.

The bottom line is that it can be a challenge to eat organically or sustainably here, and unless you are raising your own food, you will have to make adjustments and concessions. However, it can be manageable. Start asking around and you will discover a whole new world of like-minded folks. Get to know the people in your community and create your own network for finding cleaner food products. One contact will lead to another, and another. I’ve added a great guide to organic sources link below.

And, if you have even a small yard, you can plant something virtually any time of year. When I lived in CR before, I had lemon and orange trees in my yard–it was great! I am lucky to have a landlord who lets me plant what I want in a small plot on the property, and I am experimenting to see what I can grow on it. Microclimates here abound and not everything does well everywhere, but I’ve already had success with garlic, herbs, and small tomatoes.

Most fruits and vegetables sold here were picked hours or days before you buy them, so they ripen on the plants. The flavor of farmers market produce tends to be far superior to what you find in the grocery stores, by the way. The wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables here is mind boggling, and it’s quite possible that nutritional density offsets some of the undesirable residues they contain. My personal strategy is to avoid eating large amounts of any single thing unless I am confident of how it was grown.

             

I have a graduate degree in holistic nutrition, and I’m fairly knowledgeable about everything food related—sometimes I wish less so. In my former life I had a nice organic garden (pictured above, and garlic heads at top) and I gave presentations on many of the issues I bring up in this article. I’m pretty picky about the quality of my food ingredients and the food chain itself. I tell you this so you understand that I have been active in this field, but I am content right now to scale back a bit. I do want to help people make informed choices about their food. I educate when the opportunity presents itself (like here!) and support local efforts as best I can. I see a growing movement toward improving the food quality in Costa Rica. Progress is slow, but it’s happening.

An American pro-GMO friend once asked me how I didn’t freak out about eating out here. My answer was and is, “ I pretend not to know and I try not to think about it. I avoid certain things. I make the best choices I can wherever I am and go on.”

I used to be much more rigid about what I ate, but I have chosen to worry less and be more relaxed about everything in my life. (Being put through a wringer will do that for you.) I continue to eat as organically as possible, but I also believe that enjoying a meal with family and friends is ultimately more important than what’s in the food. Joy in life and laughter at the table are two of the most potent factors that I know of when it comes to health. And with that in mind, I urge you to do the best you can, and let the rest go!

Salud y Pura Vida!

P.S.  I have added a new link after discovering it through sheer chance yesterday–I don’t believe in coincidences, so I know it was meant to be included here!

Photos: my own pictures of the Sto Domingo Farmers Market, my US and CR plants. Featured Image of Ayni Tienda Organica  used with permission.

Links:

https://www.ayniorganica.com/   Facebook: Ayni tienda organica

https://www.feriaverde.org/           Facebook: Feria Verde

Primary Sources of Information:

http://www.iica.int/es/countries/costa-rica

http://www.mag.go.cr/

http://www.pan-uk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/HHP-Phase-Out-and-Alternatives-in-Costa-Rica-Project-Intro.pdf

http://photos.state.gov/libraries/costarica/231771/pdfs/Agricultural%20Biotechnology%20Annual_San%20Jose_Costa%20Rica_12-20-2016.pdf

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