Ten years ago, a family health crisis led noted pediatrician Alan Greene down the healthy eating path. After a decade of nutritious family meals, the good doctor decided to push himself even further: to eat 100-percent organically. A year into his project, he admits to having eaten foods mistakenly identified as organic a time or two, but remains true to his quest. "I want to see if I can become certified organic … like a cow!" he says, only half jokingly.
Greene's travel through life searching for organic meals is only part of his claim to fame: He is the author of several books, and is cited by the American Medical Association as the first physician to have a Web site. Greene teaches at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., is attending physician at Stanford's Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, president of Hi-Ethics (Health Internet Ethics) and serves on the board of directors of The Organic Center. Greene was the first pediatric expert for Yahoo! and, much to the delight of his patients, he always wears green socks.
Q: When did you switch to a completely organic diet?
A: Oct. 17, 2005, 5:07 p.m. I'd just visited Paul and Kristine Stecker's Maple Lane Farm in Vermont. George Siemon, the chief executive of Organic Valley Family of Farms, talked about how much healthier cows are once they transition from conventional feed to organic, and he made the offhand comment that it would be impossible for a human to eat 100-percent organic in modern American culture. The word "impossible" really caught my attention!
Q: So basically, you decided to rise to the challenge?
A: Exactly. I wondered what it would be like to be 100-percent organic. I wanted to learn why and when and where it was difficult to obtain organic food. Where are the gaps? Where are the opportunities? And anyway, I was excited by the sheer challenge of it.
Q: But didn't your interest in organic food begin prior to this decision?
A: Yes. When I was a medical student—and then a resident with a family—I ate like the typical rushed American: convenience foods and fast food.
Even so, I was more interested in nutrition than most of my fellow med students. I simply had an extremely busy schedule and no way to easily find healthy foods.
Q: What was it that really encouraged you to change your diet?
A: In 1996, my wife, Cheryl, was diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer. She wasn't supposed to live. We got very serious about eating well—we embraced a healthy diet with enthusiasm. Today, Cheryl is cancer-free.
Q: That's terrific! It often takes a crisis—or a scare—for many of us to make big changes in our lives. Do you think her cancer was related to environmental toxins?
A: When she was diagnosed, I kept asking myself: "Where did this come from? Why does Cheryl have cancer?" There had been no family history of cancer. Then we thought about her upbringing in California's Central Valley. Her parents grew grapes. Her childhood bedroom was literally a few feet from the vineyards. It's quite possible that her cancer was a result of the toxins in the pesticides used on the grapes.
Q: So the Greene family chucked the conventional food and began eating a super-wholesome diet. How much of your food at that time was organic?
A: We were eating about 80 percent organic.
Q: So, as of October 2005, you made that final 20 percent organic?
A: Correct. It's been an interesting journey.
Q: Have you found any difficulties along the way?
A: Yes, but I must say that since I started this project, the organic industry has changed, evolved and grown. There are many more choices now than there were even a year ago.
Q: But are there times when you find it difficult to stick to your regime?
A: Oh, yes. Eating organic at home is relatively easy. It's eating out and eating on the go that presents issues—and the opportunities.
Q: How so?
A: Consider this: Travelers—particularly air travelers—are trapped. They're stuck in an airplane, stuck in an airport. They are hungry, tired, and many want to fuel their bodies with something better than a cinnamon pastry or nachos made with dubious-looking cheese. There is a real opportunity here—in planes and in airports—for the natural foods industry.
Q: How do you deal with hunger when you travel?
A: I brown-bag it. I'll usually pack an organic apple, some organic nuts and some organic cheese sticks. If I'm on a really long flight, I'll add an organic sandwich and an organic bar or two.
Q: But sometimes travelers have layovers. What happens when you get stuck—and you're really hungry?
A: It's so challenging. I really encourage the natural foods industry to take a look at the opportunities in airports.
Why not offer something organic—healthy snacks, sandwiches and meals—at newsstands and airport concessions? Even those nut kiosks could have one or two organic selections.
Q: Let's talk about restaurants. What happens when you arrive at your destination, check into the hotel and need to take a client to dinner? Where do you eat?
A: When I began this quest, I couldn't eat out much at all. It was so frustrating. Then there was a turning point: I was in Chicago, and had reservations with colleagues at a very nice restaurant. One of them called several days in advance and asked if the chef would prepare an all-organic dinner for me.
A: The chef was totally jazzed! As we were eating, he kept coming to the table to see if we were enjoying ourselves. And of course, we were; the food was delicious.
Q: I'm sure there are other chefs who would enjoy doing this. Did this experience in Chicago inspire you to make similar requests?
A: Yes. Like any business traveler, I do a little research about restaurants in my destination city. I look for restaurants that already have something on the menu that is organic, like a salad with organic greens. The whole salad may not be organic, but at least I know they are aware of organic food options. Then, a few days in advance, I call and ask if the chef would be willing to prepare an organic meal. In nearly every case, the answer is "yes."
Q: That's what vegetarians had to do 20 years ago: Call ahead, or just sit back and eat the baked potato and salad—sans bacon bits.
A: Exactly. And now look: Nearly every restaurant in America—even the simplest diner and coffee shop—offers a vegetarian dish.
Q: And some are beginning to offer vegan dishes. Maybe organic selections are next.
A: I hope so. In fact, that is one of my goals in doing this work: That one day soon there will be an organic selection on every menu. If you think about it, it's a win-win situation: The diner is happy, and the restaurant can make a little extra money.
Q: Did you make any discoveries by looking for organic fare while you were traveling?
A: I did. Most coffee lovers don't know that Starbucks serves organic French press coffee. You just have to ask for it, and be prepared to wait a little longer because it takes a few minutes to brew. Plus, Starbucks usually has organic milk and soymilk … as well as organic muffins and scones.
Q: Is there any organic product that you can't find?
A: Fresh mozzarella cheese. I finally found organic pizza (with organic, part-skim mozzarella), but not fresh-in-the-tub mozzarella.
Q: What about the cost of eating organically?
A: Some organic foods cost more, yes. But if we eat really good-quality foods—without pesticides and unnecessary chemicals—then our health is going to be better and therefore the cost of health care drops.
A: Absolutely. I keep thinking about those healthy cows when I began my journey more than a year ago. If a cow eats all organic and is healthier, then the vet bills go down. Why not do the same with human beings?
Q: For newcomers to the world of organics, is there a list of foods you can suggest retailers educate their customers about?
A: I've developed Dr. Greene's Organic Prescription, a guide to the top 10 foods to adopt, in order, to improve the health of your family and of the planet. (To see the list of the top 10 foods, see the sidebar below. To learn more about why these foods made the list, visit www.DrGreene.com.)
Q: Any other advice for retailers?
A: Cross-merchandising is very powerful in terms of getting the word out. Why not have recipes and basic information at the point of sale? Let's make it easy for the shopper. Let's make it easier for them to incorporate organic fare into their diets. Let's have a healthier community, a healthier nation and a healthier world.
Editor's Note: Dr. Greene's comments were paraphrased and edited for clarity and brevity.
Sarah Belk King is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Mont.
*Change made after original print article went to press.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 40, 42, 44, 46