Blue Evolution seaweed pasta

I like this pasta fairly uniformly across a trifecta of criteria: flavor, nutrition, and sustainability. I’m a fan to the extent that I went back to the Grocery Outlet to get more (it’s only $0.99 per box instead of the normal price of $4.99) and have now begun pushing it on others, like a seaweed pasta evangelist.

I’ll start with flavor: you cook the pasta without salt because the seaweed provides enough sodium, along with other minerals. When you eat it alone, it tastes faintly of the ocean, but not so much that it screams Seaweed! The flavor is like a light kombu (kelp) broth and may seem a bit weak on its own but it’s actually just strong enough to complement sauces without making everything taste of the sea.

My favorite thing to have with it is not really a sauce, but just portabella mushrooms that have been sautéed with spring onions, garlic, and rosemary. It also works well with things like tomato sauce and vegan sausage. I’ve cooked it several times now and it always turns out well – perhaps because there’s no guesswork with adding salt. I especially like the texture – it has a nice firm bite when boiled (with the lid off) for 8 minutes, as directed.

 I’ll move on to the nutritional benefits…

Blue Evolution seaweed pasta – nutrition

Blue Evolution seaweed pasta is slightly higher in protein (8 grams per serving instead of 7 g) and lower in sugars (1 g instead of 2 g), compared to regular 100% durum wheat pasta. Like regular pasta, it’s a decent source of iron, and is also fairly rich in iodine, magnesium, and manganese. Perhaps more important than the minerals are the unique fibers (polysaccharides) found in seaweed that are believed to be beneficial for gut health, which is increasingly viewed as paramount to our overall health. The health benefits of seaweed may include protection from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The East Asian countries (Japan, Korea, and China), where seaweed is a staple food, have a significantly lower incidence of dementia (including AD) than Europe. – GSP

Note that the dried pasta is around 14% protein – fish is not that much higher in protein, at around 21%. That’s worth bearing in mind if you think of pasta as purely “carbs” – a serving of pasta contains as much protein as a glass of milk. More on our obsession with protein (and how meat industry groups manipulate us) in these GSP posts on Proteinaholic and the Paleo Diet. Also check out this post on sustainability and health benefits of carbs (spoiler: a high-protein animal-based diet will shorten your lifespan).

Blue Evolution seaweed pasta – Ingredients

Ingredients: durum wheat semolina, seaweed.

Certified Vegan, Non GMO Project Verified

Blue Evolution seaweed pasta - nutrition facts. A box of Blue Evolution seaweed pasta is shown, together with the side panel showing nutrition facts. Each serving of 56 grams of dry pasta contains 40 g of carbs, 8 g of protein, and 1.5 g of fat.

Seaweed is a sustainable crop

I’ve covered seaweed on the GSP site, so please take a look if you want to find out why I think seaweed is a very sustainable food (5/5 Green Stars for seaweed, in general). At this stage, with climate change really starting to show its teeth, our diets need to change – and fast – if we want to stand a chance. Seaweed is one of the best solutions, in my opinion, for the reasons outlined in the post mentioned above.

Researchers in the Netherlands have calculated that it would only take 1% of the ocean (an area equivalent to Washington State) to grow enough seaweed to supply enough protein for the entire human population. – GSP

Blue Evolution is of course aware of the environmental benefits of seaweed. Here are a few quotes:

By farming seaweed, we sustainably source nutrition from the ocean, reduce dependence on freshwater for food production, and mitigate ocean acidification. – Blue Evolution

Roughly 98% of the seaweed we consume in the U.S. is imported. We brought harvesting seaweed closer to home – cultivating our own seaweed in farms along the Pacific Coast. In Kodiak, Alaska, we operate the largest commercial seaweed hatchery, propagating local spores, and seeding lines for outplanting by local fishermen in their offseason. – Blue Evolution

In Baja California — the renowned gastronomic and food growing region and the Wine Capital of Mexico — we started by partnering with the local University to grow our seaweed in a dynamic biological environment, learning from renowned seaweed experts and grad students alike. We’ve taken all that expertise and are thrilled to now be operating our very own onshore farm in the same region. – Blue Evolution

Dr. Jose Zertuche, who researches seaweed ecophysiology and cultivation at the Autonomous University of Baja California, is one of the experts guiding Blue Evolution on cultivation practices.

Many people are coming to the conclusion that growing seaweed in coastal waters is one of the best ways to tackle the problems of climate change, land degradation, food scarcity and acidification of the oceans. For example, John Roulac, the founder of Nutiva (which I researched last month) is one of many people that want to restore the kelp forests off the coast of California.

Blue Evolution seaweed pasta - ethical rating. Two kinds of Blue Evolution seaweed pasta are shown - penne and rotini - and underneath is a graphic showing an ethical rating of 4.5 green stars. The Green Stars score represents a score (out of 5) for social and environmental impact.

Ethical rating for Blue Evolution seaweed

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Blue Evolution seaweed pasta, which I’m scoring 4.5 Green Stars:

  • Made with two simple, natural ingredients: wheat and seaweed
  • The main attraction for me is the company’s mission to bring sustainable seaweed culture to US coastlines. Seaweed needs to become a bigger part of our diet.
  • Seaweed culture provides an alternative (and more sustainable) source of income for local fisherman. I guess I should say fisherpeople 😉
  • The wheat is not organic, but it is certified non-GMO.
  • A vegan product.
  • Packaging is made from recycled materials, boxes are printed with vegetable-based inks, and the window is derived from plants.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Blue Evolution seaweed pasta:

  • 5 gold stars for quality and value
  • 4.5 green stars for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

The impact of processed food

An article came out in the Guardian today that reminded me to post on this topic. Here’s the headline and link: Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price.

The main point of the article is that a few multinational corporations dominate our food supply and that they do this by exploitation of people and the planet. This is not new information but it’s good to have a reminder of the situation with some useful stats on market share. Domination of our food supply by a few, largely unscrupulous, players is central to many of our social and environmental problems.

We found that for 85% of the groceries analysed, four firms or fewer controlled more than 40% of market share. It’s widely agreed that consumers, farmers, small food companies and the planet lose out if the top four firms control 40% or more of total sales. – The Guardian

At least 450 farmers died by suicide across nine midwestern states between 2014 to 2018, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2020, 552 farmers filed for bankruptcy – 7% fewer than the previous year, as commodity prices and government aid increased during the pandemic, but still the third-highest figure over the last decade. – The Guardian

Minimize your processed food intake

Ethical Bargains is focused mainly on evaluating products that I’ve bought at the Grocery Outlet and most of them are processed food items. I focus on the most ethical products in each category (e.g., plant-based butter, vegan cheese, beer from sustainable breweries, etc.) with the aim of minimizing our impact when we do buy processed food. My last post on Earth Balance is an exception in that it’s all about a product to avoid: I specifically wanted to highlight this product as it serves to illustrate what’s wrong with “Big Food” (in that case, Conagra).

I’ll summarize what I want to say in a few bullet points just to make it clear:

  • The vast majority of us are going to buy some processed food (pasta, beer, cheese, etc.) and it’s important to make the right choices. This site focuses on the evaluation of processed food and aims to highlight the more ethical choices.
  • Most processed foods entail larger carbon and material footprints compared to eating fresh veggies. It’s hard to completely avoid processed items because there are some products (e.g., chocolate) that we’re not so likely to make at home from scratch. But bear in mind that there’s a huge difference between a good chocolate bar (e.g., Alter Eco, Endangered Species) versus a bad one (e.g., Hershey, Nestlé). Note also that there are some processed food items (e.g., the pasta that I’ll feature in my next post) that have a minimal footprint and are perhaps even net positive.
  • However, even for the items that I’ve rated highly, I’m not suggesting that we buy a lot of them – our intake of processed food should be as minimal as possible. I try to spend at least two-thirds of my shopping budget on fresh veggies and fruit (no packaging, mostly organic, and mostly from local farmers).
  • Many studies show that if we mainly ate fresh veggies and fruit (sustainably farmed, as much as possible) that we would go a long way towards solving many of the world’s problems, from deforestation and climate change to food shortages and equality.
  • Everyone’s on a different stage in their journey. To take a common item of milk, I’d say that a good first step is to move from dairy to plant-based milk, even if it’s packaged in plastic. Then, if you’re ready to take another step, consider making your own vegan milk (I’m planning a Green Stars Project post on this soon, focusing on oat milk) to further reduce your footprint.
  • When evaluating products on this site, I’ll always state when the brand is owned by a major multinational company. In general, the best brands are independent but there are a few that I still consider fairly ethical despite the fact that they are now owned by larger corporations. There is, after all, a need for the largest multinationals to clean up their acts, so their purchases of smaller, ethical companies is not always a bad thing (unless they are ruined in the process).

Here’s a little more on the impact of processed food and why cooking is one of the best forms of activism.

Is Earth Balance ethical?

Earth Balance makes a range of vegan butters, mainly from palm oil. Somebody mentioned the brand while discussing palm oil and I figured it would be useful to evaluate Earth Balance for social and environmental impact (hey Willow Croft!). I used to buy Earth Balance butter but things have changed since then so I thought it would be a good time to reevaluate the brand. I reviewed Nutiva Shortening, which is also made from palm oil, in the last post so that we can learn how to differentiate between good and bad palm oil products.

Earth Balance has been around for quite a while and, like many brands these days, the company ownership shifted a few times over the years. It was owned by Boulder Brands, then acquired by Pinnacle Foods, and is now owned by Conagra, one of the largest food companies on the planet. Unfortunately, standards seem to have slipped along the way.

Originally (more than 5 years ago) Earth Balance was involved in the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which was designed to raise the bar on palm oil sustainability because people had lost faith in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). However, under Conagra’s ownership, standards for Earth Balance palm oil purchasing are worse than they’ve ever been. More on that later – first I should get to the actual products that I bought!

Earth Balance vegan spreads

Earth Balance products are regularly stocked at the Grocery Outlet and I’ve tried the Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread and also the Omega-3 Buttery Spread. They cost somewhere around $2 at the Grocery Outlet, compared to a normal price of around $5. I didn’t like the Omega-3 Buttery Spread much and it became relegated to back-up for use only when I had run out of (better) vegan butter. The Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread is not as bad but I can’t say I enjoyed it. There are so many vegan butters available these days and virtually all of them are significantly tastier and more ethical than Earth Balance.

Earth Balance also makes an Organic Whipped Buttery Spread (which I used to buy, years ago) and this product is a little better, both ethically and in terms of taste and texture. However, having reevaluated Earth Balance now that it’s owned by Conagra, I’m now putting the entire brand on an avoid list – and other Conagra brands for that matter.

Is the Palm Oil in Earth Balance sustainable?

Short answer: No. As mentioned above, I used to have a higher rating for Earth Balance because the company had been working with the POIG to raise ethical standards for palm oil. That relationship ended as Earth Balance’s owners changed and now Earth Balance is back to using RSPO – the certification scheme that the POIG is hoping to improve upon. Before I get to the details on that, I want to refer you to the last post on Nutiva Shortening because that’s certified under the only scheme that I currently support – Palm Done Right.

In the absence of a Palm Done Right certification I would rate POIG next (e.g., L’Oreal is a POIG member and is considered to be better than average for palm oil sourcing) and then RSPO comes last.

Even within the RSPO there are better and worse certifications. Identity Preserved is the best of the RSPO certifications because it traces the palm oil from farmer to purchaser. Then there’s Segregated, then Mass Balance, and finally Book and Claim. The Book and Claim system involves a company (like Conagra) purchasing credits that are intended to support sustainable palm oil, thereby “offsetting” the impact of the non-certified palm oil that the company buys.

I contacted Conagra to get more detail on its palm oil sourcing policy and this was the company’s response:

We purchase palm oil from U.S.-based suppliers, who sometimes run integrated operations that both harvest and process the palm oil or from commodities traders who simply purchase and distribute palm oil. Conagra had purchased Palm Trace Credits for all of our purchased palm oil and has begun to move to the Mass Balance system.

So, Conagra buys palm oil on commodity markets, etc., and currently uses the RSPO Book and Claim system by purchasing PalmTrace Credits to offset the damage caused by the purchase of non-sustainable palm oil. In the hierarchy of palm oil certifications, this is the weakest certification level from the weakest certification body (RSPO).

Palm Oil certification logos are shown on the left, ranked from best to worst: Palm Done Right, Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO certifications are further subdivided from best to worst: Identity Preserved, Segregated, Mass Balance (RSPO Mixed) and Book and Claim (Palm Trace Credits). On the right, brand logos are shown to represent the certifications. Palm Done Right is represented by Nutiva and Dr. Bronner. POIG is represented by L'Oreal and Danone. RSPO is represented by Conagra and its brand Earth Balance, which uses the RSPO Mixed logo.
Palm Oil certification logos are shown on the left, ranked from best to worst. On the right, company logos are shown to represent the certifications.

What are PalmTrace Credits?

PalmTrace replaces the GreenPalm credit system – it’s basically a way of allowing companies to “offset” the impact of their non-sustainable palm oil by buying credits that “incentivize” the production of RSPO-certified palm oil. Remember that “RSPO-certified” doesn’t count for much anyway, as enforcement of RSPO rules (e.g., on deforestation and peat burning) has been weak. So the credits are an even weaker version of this and they allow companies to continue to buy non-certified palm oil on commodity markets.

Earth Balance Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread – Ingredients

Ingredients: Sunflower Oil, Palm Kernel Oil, Flaxseed Oil, Sea Salt.

Certified Vegan, Non GMO Project Verified, RSPO Mixed.

Earth Balance, Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread - Nutrition  Facts and certifications. Certifications include vegan, non-GMO, and RSPO-Mixed.

As explained above, Conagra is mainly using PalmTrace credits to offset the impact of the palm oil that’s purchased through commodity markets, etc., and is moving towards the Mass Balance system (the second lowest level of RSPO certification). That’s encompassed by the RSPO logo stating “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil – Mixed.” Yes, it’s not straightforward, but refer to the earlier image with the various certifications ranked from best (Palm Done Right) to worst (RSPO PalmTrace and RSPO Mixed).

Ethical rating for Earth Balance

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Earth Balance Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread, which I’m scoring 1 Green Star

  • Earth Balance products such as this Sunflower Oil Spread are vegan.
  • However, the impact of the ingredients offset this benefit.
  • Sunflower oil that’s not organic is most likely hurting rather than helping bees and other insects due to the prevalence of neonic insecticides such as imidacloprid and other industrial farming practices.
  • The palm oil sourced by Earth Balance (Conagra) is certified at the weakest level and should be considered to be net harmful to the planet. Earth Balance used to have a progressive policy on palm oil before ownership changed – Conagra ranks among the weakest major food companies in terms of palm oil ethics.
  • The opening sentence on the Sustainable Agriculture section in Conagra’s 2020 Citizen Report is this: “Conagra Brands is a proud partner of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA)…” Other USFRA members include Monsanto (Bayer) and the organization exists to promote industrial agriculture practices such as feeding with antibiotics, raising animals under intensive conditions, using GMOs and pesticides, etc.
  • Conagra’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, increasing by 2% from 2019 to 2020.
  • Waste generation per lb of food produced at Conagra increased by 28% from 2019 to 2020
  • Conagra management is 68% male and 86% white and the board of directors is 73% male and 73% white.
Earth Balance Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread - Green Stars rating for social and environmental impact. Earth Balance, now owned by Conagra Brands, is scored 1 out of 5 Green Stars for ethics. The product, Earth Balance Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread, is shown over a graphic of 1 (out of 5) Green Stars.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Earth Balance Pressed Sunflower Oil Spread:

  • 2.5 gold stars for quality and value
  • 1 green star for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

Nutiva Shortening & Palm Done Right

Nutiva make a vegan shortening product that’s made from palm oil and certified by Palm Done Right – I bought some at the Grocery Outlet and tried it out. Somebody asked me to review Earth Balance, so I decided it might be useful to review two palm oil products as a comparative case study in palm oil sustainability.

First, I’ll let you know how it worked out. I used the Nutiva Shortening as intended – as a shortening for baking. I made typical pie pastry, following Maida Heatter’s recipe, which involves just four ingredients – flour, shortening, salt, and iced water. The pastry is made by cutting the cold shortening into the salted flour and then adding just enough water so that it holds together.

I’ve made this pastry with regular dairy butter and also with vegan butters – Kite Hill and Califia plant-butters. Making it with Nutiva shortening was not much different to using the other plant butters and I’m realizing that vegan baking isn’t difficult. I would prefer if Nutiva used packaging typical of butter – i.e., waxed paper and perhaps cardboard – instead of this tub. As you can guess, I would prefer the paper packaging from a sustainability perspective, but it would also make the measurement easier than scooping the cold hard shortening out of the tub.

As it turned out, scooping it out of the tub wasn’t such a big deal and it resulted in curls of shortening that were easy to incorporate into the flour. Bottom line: I’ve had pretty good results with any of the fats that I’ve used – the Nutiva Shortening produced a pastry that was as good as the dairy- or plant-butters. I think that, for an amateur baker, getting the technique right is more important than choice of fat. Having said that, all of the products I compared were pretty high-quality to begin with.

Nutiva Shortening was used to make the crust for the vegan mince pie shown. Nutiva Shortening is certified by Palm Done Right
A vegan mince pie made with Nutiva Shortening. Maybe not up to Mary Berry’s standards but not bad!

So, I’m pretty happy with the baking results and might buy the product again if the packaging was improved. It cost $2.99 for a 15-ounce (425 g) tub at the Grocery Outlet, compared to a normal price of $6 or $7. For me, the critical thing is to evaluate sustainability of the product, since it’s made from palm oil, so I’ll get to that next.

Can you trust Palm Done Right?

Nutiva Shortening is certified by Palm Done Right, one of the newest certification schemes for palm oil, covering both sustainability and social impact. I’ve written about the issues with palm oil and older certifications such as RSPO or GreenPalm. My conclusion at the time was to continue avoiding palm oil in the vast majority of cases, with one exception being products that are certified by Palm Done Right.

Alfons van der Aa, CEO of Natural Habitats, a producer of organic palm oil in Ecuador, sought to establish a “proper” set of social and environmental standards for palm oil. What emerged was Palm Done Right, which combines existing certifications – Organic and Fair for Life – with specific rules for key issues like deforestation and also guidelines on things like biodiversity and community development.

Here’s a brief description of what the Palm Done Right certification covers:

  1. 100% organic. The organic certification is awarded and monitored by an independent organization (USDA, etc.) This includes the planting of nitrogen-fixing cover crops to enrich the soil; the use of palm leaves and outer “husks” for compost or as fuel for processing.
  2. Deforestation-free. Obviously certified sustainable palm oil should not involve deforestation, and yet RSPO has failed to fully safeguard against this.
  3. Supporting biodiversity. Palm Done Right emphasizes the need for biodiversity by dedicating a portion (15%) of farmland to supporting native species. Complementary crops are encouraged like cacao or native plants that encourage beneficial insects and provide habitats for local wildlife.
  4. Fair Trade. The palm oil is certified by Fair for Life, a certification scheme that’s very similar to Fair Trade but wider range of crops.

I haven’t conducted any kind of investigation into Palm Done Right, other than online research. One thing that gives me some confidence is that the companies that have signed up so far are mission-driven companies that I would rate highly: Dr. Bronner’s, Jovial Foods, Wholesome Bakery, and others.

At a minimum, you’re buying a product that’s certified Organic and Fair for Life, and these certifications are independent to Palm Done Right. They cover the essentials of both the social (Fair for Life) and the environmental (Organic) impact, meeting requirements that aren’t met by the vast majority of palm oil products.

What is Fair for Life and can you trust it?

Ethical Consumer did a good evaluation of Fair for Life, so I’ll refer you to that article – it basically concluded that it’s a worthwhile certification from a legit organization that’s similar to Fair Trade International.

Fair for Life tends to only certify small companies and the Ethical Consumer article brings up a quandary that I’ve raised here several times: what happens when a smaller brand is acquired by a larger company?

If a company which has the label then becomes part of a bigger company then we have to assess the whole group and not just the smaller company,” explains Louisa, “we’ll be reassessing Pukka in the autumn so we’ll have to wait and see. – Ethical Consumer.

I guess Pukka Herbs made the cut as they are still listed on Fair for Life’s list of certified companies. In general, the list is comprised of smaller, mission-driven companies.

In the case of our Nutiva Shortening, you can look up Nutiva on the Fair for Life site, and find an overall rating as well as individual scores for things like working conditions, traceability, and environmental impact.

Should you support Palm Done Right or just avoid all palm oil?

Well, that’s your call but I like the idea of supporting companies certified by Palm Done Right for these reasons:

  1. Palm Done Right is the only certification that covers the essentials for palm oil, as far as I’m aware.
  2. Palm “done wrong” is one of the most harmful products for the planet and human rights.
  3. Palm oil is not going away soon, so we desperately need to shift to an ethical version of palm oil, and RSPO membership is not enough.
  4. Because palm oil is the highest yielding oil crop it can actually help reduce our land footprint.
  5. Palm Done Right has improved social conditions in farm communities. Fair trade, organic and deforestation-free palm oil can help communities (e.g., in South America and Africa) develop sustainably.

Nutiva Shortening – Ingredients

Organic Palm Fruit Oil, Organic Unrefined Red Palm Oil, Organic Unrefined Virgin Coconut Oil

Nutive Shortening is shown with Nutrition Facts listed alongside it and a few of the certifications shown beneath. The certifications include non-GMO, USDA Organic, Fair for Life, and Palm Done Right.

Ethical rating for Nutiva Shortening

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Nutiva Shortening, which I’m scoring 4.5 Green Stars

  • Palm Done Right is a certification for palm that I think is worthy of support, because the palm oil industry needs to transition.
  • The Palm Done Right certification includes independent Organic and Fair for Life certifications, covering many of the main social and environmental issues. Other issues such as the maintenance of forests and biodiversity are addressed by additional Palm Done Right requirements and guidelines.
  • Nutiva gets a high score from Fair for Life, covering labor conditions, trade practices, and some environmental issues. The USDA Organic certification independently certifies farming practices.
  • Based in Richmond, California, 80% of Nutiva’s workforce is represented by ethnic minorities and 50% of senior managers are women.
  • Nutiva’s social impact includes support of local organizations like Planting Justice, which helps folk transition to life after prison though programs like urban farming and landscaping.
  • One of Nutiva’s other social contributions that I liked was the introduction of schoolyard orchards to all 28 public schools in Richmond, CA.
  • Nutiva contributes 1% of sales revenue to support regenerative agriculture systems. One example in 2019 is the development of climate-resilient, transparent supply chains for organic avocado oil in Ethiopia.
  • Nutiva is a contributing member of One Step Closer and a member of the Climate Collaborative, both aiming to make agriculture and the food industry more sustainable. 
  • Container is polypropylene – not post-consumer recycled. I imagine that this shortening could be packaged in wax paper and cardboard, like other kinds of butter and shortening such as Miyoko’s vegan butter. That’s the main reason why the rating is not 5 Green Stars.
  • John Roulac, founder of Nutiva, stepped down as CEO in 2017, but stays on as Chief Visionary officer and Chairman of the board. Roulac will spend his extra on projects such as to bringing back California’s giant kelp forests “as a way to restore our ocean and create blue-green jobs.”Roulac was previously instrumental in a legal victory against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2004, which paved the way for the legalization of hemp-based foods. Nutiva has also directly supported education and approval of hemp.
Nutiva Shortening is shown with a graphic underneath of 4.5 (out of 5) Green Stars. This is an ethical score, representing the social and environmental impact of the product.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Nutiva Shortening

  • 4 gold stars for quality and value
  • 4.5 green stars for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar – review & ethical rating

Miyoko Schinner is well known as a pioneer in the field of vegan cheese and butter. The company started small (in Sonoma, California) and is now one of the most respected vegan food companies, with products available across the US, Canada, and parts of Australia.

Discovering Miyoko’s vegan butter was an eye-opening experience as it made it clear to me that vegan alternatives were becoming as good as their animal-based counterparts. And that’s saying a lot as I love butter even more than cheese and I come from Ireland, home of Kerrygold butter.

Here’s a video of Miyoko accepting one of the many awards that Miyoko’s Creamery has won:

Review of Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar

I ended up trying both the block and sliced versions of Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar – they are exactly the same, nutritionally, so it’s really just a question of what format works for you. If you are mainly melting the cheese on top of burgers then the sliced version may make the best sense. However, I prefer the block as I like to cut the cheese thinner than these slices for putting on crackers, etc. I also prefer the texture of this Farmhouse Cheddar when it’s cut thin with a serrated knife and a little rough on the surface.

Texture is one of the key aspects that makes or breaks a vegan cheese. Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar has a much more complex texture than the So Delicious cheese that I reviewed recently, and at first I found it a little off-putting. However, in the right situation the texture (or mouthfeel – how I dislike that phrase!) actually becomes a benefit. On its own, the cheese was a bit grainy (almost gritty) for me, but on a multigrain cracker the textures of the cheese and cracker melded well and now I’m a fan!

Cheese (and tomatoes) on crackers is one of my all-time favorite snacks – I think I would be pretty happy on a desert island for a month with just that (and perhaps veggie fried rice) to sustain me. So, it’s really great to have found a vegan version of cheddar that’s just as delicious as the dairy version!

So, finding the right way to use these vegan cheeses is important – textures vary and some melt much better than others. Here’s a video review of Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar where kids try it in several formats (straight up, grilled cheese, mac and cheese) – the winner was the grilled cheese format (aka, cheese toastie).

One of the key factors that make Miyoko’s products good is that they are cultured (i.e., fermented by microbes) in a similar way to making sourdough bread, soy sauce, kombucha, yogurt and, in fact, most cheeses! Most of my favorite vegan dairy products involve some culturing – like Spero cream cheese, Violife feta, and Kite Hill butter. I’ll be reviewing Miyoko’s vegan cultured butter in a future post.

Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar – ingredients

Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Milk (Oat Milk (Filtered Water, Organic Oats), Navy Beans, Organic Garbanzo Beans, Cultures), Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Oil, Fava Bean Protein, Potato Starch, Organic Tapioca Starch, Contains Less Than 2% Of Sea Salt, Calcium Sulfate, Natural Flavors, Organic Yeast Extract, Organic Annatto, Organic Cultured Dextrose, Konjac, Organic Locust Bean Gum

Lactose Free • Palm Oil Free • Gluten Free • Soy Free • Palm Oil Free • Cashew Free • Allergen-Friendly  

Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar – Nutritional Facts. Nutritional info is shown next to a block of Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar. 1 serving of 28 grams provides 4.5 g of fat (3.5 g of saturated fat) and 3 g of protein.

Compared to the So Delicious vegan cheese (American and Cheddar slices) that I reviewed previously, there’s more nutritional appeal here. The main ingredient is cultured plant-based milk that’s made from a mix of oats, navy beans and garbanzo beans (chickpeas). There’s also protein from fava beans, bringing the protein content to 3 grams per 1 ounce (28 gram) serving. Based on the ingredients, I presume that there are also some minerals and vitamins, besides the calcium, that aren’t listed here. 

Ethical rating for Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar, which I’m scoring 5 Green Stars

  • It’s a vegan product as are all Miyoko’s products.
  • Most of the ingredients are organic, except for a couple, like the navy beans. As I’ve mentioned in this post on Ripple milk, some legumes can be grown just as sustainably when not organic (because of rules on fertilizer).
  • Miyoko’s Creamery has been central in raising the bar on plant-based alternatives to dairy, encouraging customers to make the switch and reduce their impact.
  • Miyoko’s website (FAQs) provides nice info on ingredient sourcing. For example:
  • “Instead of fertilizers, farmers apply compost made from weeds, herbs, and wood chips resulting from tree pruning with no animal derivatives.” That’s interesting to know!
  • Also from the FAQs: “We do an internal review of our packaging and ingredients to ensure that they are free of animal products.”
  • I’ve also received comprehensive responses from Miyoko’s Creamery when I asked questions (about cashew sourcing). So, the company is good about transparency.
  • The packaging footprint is a little smaller for the block (my preferred format) than the slices.
  • Palm oil free.
  • Miyoko runs a sanctuary for rescued farm animals.
  • Woman-owned (& minority-owned) company.
  • Certified B-Corporation.
Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar – review & ethical rating. The image shows Miyoko's Farmhouse Cheddar (sliced and as a block) with an graphic of 5 Green Stars underneath, representing an ethical rating of 5/5.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Miyoko’s Farmhouse Cheddar block:

  • 4 gold stars for quality and value
  • 5 green stars for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

So Delicious vegan cheese slices – review

So Delicious make several kinds of vegan cheese, so I picked up two kinds at the Grocery Outlet as part of my continuing mission to seek out the best vegan cheeses. I’ve already tried and reviewed some frozen products from So Delicious – their healthier “330” frozen desserts (vegan mousse) and a couple of So Delicious ice creams – and liked them (especially the mousse). The two products that I’m going to cover here are sliced vegan cheeses from So Delicious – American Style and Cheddar Style.

So far I’ve featured two kinds of vegan cheese that I thought were pretty worthy of your consideration – Violife’s vegan feta, made from coconut oil & potato starch, and Spero’s vegan cream cheese, made from sunflower seeds. While these cheeses were pretty solid replacements for feta and cream cheese, it has been harder to find a decent substitute for regular cheddar cheese.

Review of So Delicious vegan sliced cheeses

As mentioned above, the vegan versions of regular cheese (cheddar, Swiss, provolone, etc.) aren’t perfect substitutes yet, but they are getting better. I’ve tried several brands over the last year (Daiya, Miyoko’s, Chao, Violife) and I think that the So Delicious cheese were among my favorites.  (This post isn’t sponsored in any way, by the way.) I’ll start with my favorite…

So Delicious American Style Slices.

Growing up, we referred to sliced cheese (like Kraft’s Easy Singles) as “plastic cheese” because it seemed like there wasn’t much distinction between the cheese and the plastic wrap. Easy Singles, which sounds more like an eighties rom-com or a college band than a kind of cheese, and sliced American cheese in general, aren’t exactly giants in the culinary world. So the bar is kinda low and perhaps that’s why I was fairly impressed with these So Delicious American Style slices!

(BTW, I’m just learning that Kraft’s product is just called Singles in the US – in Ireland they were Easy Singles!)

What impressed me the most was that the So Delicious cheese actually tasted OK on fresh crusty bread. Normally, vegan cheese slices are sufficient for situations when they are melted along with other ingredients (on burgers, in panini, etc.) but aren’t too appealing on their own. This product was actually pretty decent on freshly baked bread.

So Delicious Cheddar Style Slices.

To be candid, there’s not a massive difference between the American and Cheddar varieties, but I did slightly prefer the American style (the shame!). I should try them blind and see if I can tell the difference… OK, I compared them on crackers and there’s really not much difference. I think that you can assume that you’ll also find them to be similar, so buy either one if you want to give it a try.

So Delicious American Style cheese slices – ingredients

Filtered Water, Coconut Oil, Modified Starches (Corn, Tapioca, Potato), Potato Starch, Salt, 2% or Less of: Potato Protein Isolate, Yeast Extract, Cultured Sugar (To Retain Freshness), Lactic Acid, Xanthan Gum, Konjac Gum, Natural Flavor, Paprika Extract and Beta Carotene (For Color).

So Delicious Cheddar Style cheese slices – ingredients

Filtered Water, Coconut Oil, Modified Starches (Corn, Tapioca, Potato), Potato Starch, Salt, 2% or Less of: Potato Protein Isolate, Yeast Extract, Cultured Sugar (To Retain Freshness), Lactic Acid, Xanthan Gum, Konjac Gum, Natural Flavor, Annatto Extract (For Color).

So Delicious vegan cheese slices – Nutrition Facts. Nutrition Information is shown for So Delicious American Style and Cheddar Style slices. Each 20 gram slice provides 60 calories that are derived almost exclusively from 5 grams of fat (coconut oil) with a little coming from the 4 grams of starch.

There’s not much to distinguish these cheeses. The nutritional breakdown is identical and even the ingredient lists are identical except for the colors! I imagine that there’s a slight difference in processing that results in minor textural differences and melting properties…?

The So Delicious ice creams that I reviewed previously were made with organic coconut milk, so it’s a pity that So Delicious isn’t using organic coconut oil here. There’s not a lot going on nutritionally – no protein, calcium, or fiber. Compared to conventional cheese these have the advantages of no cholesterol, no sugar (lactose), and perhaps a better fat profile. Most importantly, vegan cheese contains none of the growth hormones and other components that make dairy a bad fit for an adult human diet.

Still – I would prefer if there was something else in there (protein, fiber, minerals, vitamins) to make them more attractive, nutritionally. The Spero cream cheese is nutritionally the best of the vegan cheese products that I’ve tried so far and even the Violife feta contained vitamin B12.

So many vegan cheese products are made from coconut oil and starch and not much else. That would be fine if it produced an amazing product that persuaded people to switch from conventional dairy. I think that vegan cheese needs to improve some more but, in the meantime, these So Delicious vegan slices are one of the best-tasting alternatives to dairy.

So Delicious vegan cheese slices – review. Under the images of So Delicious American and Cheddar slices is a graphic showing an ethical score of 3.5 (out of 5) Green Stars for social and environmental impact.

Ethical rating for So Delicious vegan cheese slices

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of So Delicious vegan cheese slices, which I’m scoring 3.5 Green Stars

  • These cheeses are vegan, as are all So Delicious products.
  • The ingredients are not organic, unlike the So Delicious ice cream and 330 light frozen desserts. The ingredients are certified as non-GMO.
  • So Delicious uses plant-based plastic (from sugarcane) for some products and post-consumer recycled or FSC-certified paperboard for others. The sliced cheese containers are not recyclable.
  • Not individually wrapped, significantly reducing the plastic footprint compared to most conventional cheese slices that are each wrapped in a layer of film.
  • So Delicious is part of Whitewave Foods, which is now owned by the French multinational food company, Danone Group. Danone Group, like many multinationals, is a mix of good and bad. The negatives are similar to those of Nestlé – bottled water and pushing infant formula in developing countries. But, overall, Danone looks better than Nestlé to me.
  • Danone North America is a certified B-corporation, with a modest score of 84.9.
  • Neither So Delicious nor Danone North America report very much on ingredient sourcing; Danone is making progress on some sustainability metrics (e.g., carbon and water footprints) but its reports are a little thin on detail.

Summary scores (out of 5) for So Delicious cheese slices:

  • 4 gold stars for quality and value
  • 3.5 green stars for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

Founder’s Brewing: Sustainability & KBS review

Over the last few years I’ve become a big fan of the Founder’s Brewing Co., based in Michigan (Grand Rapids and Detroit). I love many Bay Area breweries and brewpubs (shout out to Hoi Polloi, the best microbrewery / pub in the Bay!) but I think that Founder’s ranks as my favorite brewery on the planet at the moment. I was pleasantly shocked (more than just pleasantly surprised) to find Founder’s KBS at the Grocery Outlet last week.

KBS stands for Kentucky Breakfast Stout and it’s an imperial stout, made with lots of coffee and chocolate, that’s aged in bourbon barrels. Let’s see – stout, coffee, chocolate and bourbon – what’s not to love?

I’ve seen (and bought) other Founder’s beer at the Grocery Outlet, including their Porter and Breakfast Stout, but it was a big surprise to see KBS there. That’s partly because KBS is hard to come by anywhere, and partly because it’s a seasonal winter beer, so it’s not even normally available at this time of year! It cost $15.99 for a 4-pack at the Grocery Outlet, compared to a normal price of around $18.99 at BevMo.

Is it worth spending $16 for a pack of four 12-ounce beers? Absolutely! For one thing, KBS is 12% alcohol, so it’s more than twice as strong as most beers. But more importantly, it’s simply one of the best beers in the world. On Beer Advocate’s list of top beers of any style, KBS comes in at #28, and it ranks 20th on RateBeer’s list. Most beers on these top 50 lists are pretty obscure so it’s unlikely that you’ll come across them in your local grocery store – or even your local craft beer store. Here’s a video about Founder’s Brewing and KBS:

By the way, most of Founder’s beers are vegan but this KBS beer isn’t vegan as the beer is made with (milk) chocolate. So it’s still vegetarian – there’s no fish product (isinglass) used for clarification – it’s just not vegan because of the small amount of dairy in the chocolate.

Founder’s barrel-aged beers

Founder’s Brewing was one of the first breweries in the US (after the excellent Goose Island in Chicago) to age beer in bourbon barrels. It’s a good use of resources as the rules for bourbon don’t allow barrels to be reused (for more bourbon) but they can be used for aging other things like maple syrup or beer. Founder’s Brewing Co. was struggling financially before the barrel aging experiment that produced KBS beer.

This then led to an amazing range of barrel-aged beers, several of which I’ve been lucky enough to try. I absolutely loved the Underground Mountain – an Imperial brown ale made with Sumatra coffee and then aged in bourbon barrels for a year. Backwoods Bastard – a Scotch ale aged in bourbon barrels – is another good one. More recently, there’s Panther Cub, which is a tasty barrel-aged porter and two Mas Agave beers that are actually aged in tequila barrels and are crafted for margarita fans! I’m not a margarita fan but friends loved it : )

My favorite Founder’s beer is called CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout) and it’s similar to KBS. It’s made from the same base beer (imperial stout with coffee and chocolate) but aged in barrels that had been used to first age bourbon and then maple syrup! Founder’s announced that their 2019 batch of CBS was their last so I’m going to have to ration the bottles that I squirreled away when it was available.

Here’s a bit more about Founder’s barrel-aging story:

Founders is owned by Mahou San Miguel

Anyone who has been to Spain is probably familiar with San Miguel beer. Well, in 2019, the Spanish brewing company purchased Founder’s Brewing Co., with the original Founder’s founders (haha) maintaining a 10% stake.

The Grupo Mahou-San Miguel is touted as a family-owned and family-run business by members of the Mahou family who first founded the Hijos de Casimiro Mahou brewery in Madrid in 1890.

As mentioned in the ethical review below, I appreciate that Founder’s Brewing Co. continues to set its own sustainability goals and do its own reporting. Too often, when smaller companies are acquired by larger corporations, the smaller company stops reporting on its own metrics – e.g., Lärabar (now owned by General Mills) or Sweet Earth (now owned by Nestlé). It’s frustrating because it makes it really difficult to tell how that company is doing and whether it is maintaining its ethics standards.

So, hopefully Founders will continue to report on its own impact even now that it’s part of Mahou-San Miguel.

Founder's KBS is shown under a graphic of 4 Green Stars that represents an ethical rating. 4/5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact.

Ethical rating for Founder’s KBS

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Founder’s KBS beer, which I’m scoring 4 Green Stars

  • If you’re going to drink beer, it makes sense to drink beer that’s strong and good! One bottle of KBS is so intense (and high in alcohol) that it’s about equivalent to three regular beers. I rarely drink more than one in an evening (and sometimes even half a bottle) so it reduces my packaging and transportation footprints.
  • As mentioned above, the barrels used for aging are actually making good use of barrels that can’t be used twice for aging bourbon. 
  • Most Founder’s beers are vegan. KBS is not vegan because it contains milk chocolate, but it is vegetarian (Founder’s doesn’t use the fish product, isinglass, for clarification of their beer).
  • Founder’s is now 90% owned by Spanish brewing company, Mahou-San Miguel. You can see on Ethical Consumer that Mahou-San Miguel gets a medium rating (it’s a useful article). It rates better than many of the largest breweries like Molson Coors, Heineken, and Asahi.
  • Mahou-San Miguel publishes numbers on sustainability that look quite good to me. Founder’s Brewing also reports on sustainability, which I appreciate. Some of the other brands that I’ve looked at stopped reporting on their own sustainability metrics after being acquired by a larger company.
  • Founder’s has a sustainability task force that tracks numbers on energy, water and waste diverted from landfill and sets an annual goal for reducing each by a few percent.
  • Founder’s also has a program for supporting local or national efforts in three areas: Social Justice, Environment and Arts & Culture.
  • Founder’s Brewing doesn’t report much on other aspects of sustainability, like ingredient sourcing or packaging materials but I have contacted the company for more info…
  • Glass in bottles is 34% recycled and cardboard packaging is FSC certified.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Founder’s KBS

  • 5 gold stars for quality and value
  • 4 green stars for social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )  

Kiss My Face olive oil soap – sustainability

I bought two kinds of Kiss My Face soap at the Grocery Outlet – both made from olive oil. There’s not a big difference between the varieties of Kiss My Face olive oil soap as they are all made with 86% olive oil. The unscented variety contains only three ingredients – olive oil, water, and salt – while the other versions also contain plant extracts: lavender, aloe, or green tea.

Soap made from olive oil is one of the oldest forms of bar soap, going back millennia, and it’s one of those staple products that haven’t needed any improvement. Of course, that doesn’t stop companies battling over market share with new formulations so that we now have an assortment of soaps that are way too complex and full of ingredients that are dubious in terms of sustainability and/or safety.

Kiss My Face Olive Oil Soap – review

I’ve used Kiss My Face soap on and off for years and consider it a good choice from most perspectives. I usually opt for the unscented or the aloe version, but I think they are all fine. They function well for both hands and body and don’t dry out my skin. Olive oil soap, sometimes called Castile soap or Marseille soap, is well regarded for its mildness.

If I was being fussy and trying to find a downside, I would say that the large 8 oz. bars are a bit awkward to handle. I sometimes cut these large bars in half, lengthwise, so I end up with two bars that are about the same shape as regular soap bars. Or I just buy the smaller 4 oz. bars 😉

Kiss My Face Olive Oil Soap – ingredients

Unscented olive oil soap: Sodium Olivate (Saponified Olive Oil), Aqua, Sodium Chloride (Sea Salt)

Olive & Aloe soap: Sodium Olivate (Saponified Olive Oil), Aqua, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Sodium Chloride (Sea Salt), Parfum

A big factor for me in buying soap is that I’ll avoid soap made from palm oil, unless I’m certain that it’s sustainably sourced, which is rare. That was the main reason why the Tom’s of Maine soap that I reviewed recently only scored 2.5 Green Stars. Tom’s of Maine scored a medium (rather than terrible) rating because there are several positive aspects to the company – there are both worse and better soap choices.

Unilever’s Dove soap, made from palm oil, animal fat, and a bunch of other ingredients, is probably one of the worst soap choices, ethically.

There are several soaps on the other end of the spectrum that support communities and habitats, for example Alaffia (also known as Good Soap) which I wrote about on the Green Stars Project.

Bar soaps versus liquid soap

The first consideration when buying soap is whether to buy a liquid or solid soap. Liquid soap has a significantly higher footprint, requiring five times more energy for raw material production and nearly 20 times more energy for packaging production than bar soaps do. Liquid soaps also don’t last as long: on a per-wash basis consumers use more than six times the amount of liquid soap than bar soap.

Are olives a sustainable crop?

As Kiss My Face soap is made mainly from olive oil, it’s worth asking the question: how sustainable are olives? First off, I was surprised to see that the yield of olives can be really high!

A good consistent yield [of olives] would be about 4 tons per acre (9 metric tons per hectare) – University of California

The yield of oil per hectare is also pretty decent – typically higher than sunflower oil but not as high as coconut.

Besides yield, I also like that olives can be grown on land that wouldn’t be that useful for many other crops – like hillsides or dry, rocky ground. The trees provide stability that helps maintain soil health and get crops through droughts and water shortages. Of course, olives can also pose problems if farmed intensively. You would imagine that the olive oil used to make soap can also reduce waste, if it makes use of oil that wouldn’t sell for culinary use.

Kiss My Face – ownership

The company seemed to have a glitch in late 2018 and some (very loyal) customers had trouble finding their products. At that point, Kiss My Face was acquired by Aliph Brands and Aliph partnered with some new manufacturing partners. I’m not sure if there were financial difficulties or maybe the founders wanted to reduce their workload – they had been at it for over 35 years since establishing Kiss My Face in the 1980s. You can read about the founders in this blog post, or watch the short video, below:

The olive oil soap, mentioned in the video above, is still made in Greece, so perhaps not much has changed.

Ethical rating for Kiss My Face

Overall, I think that Kiss My Face deserves 4.5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact, based on these factors:

  • This soap is vegan, as are all Kiss My Face products, except for a couple that include honey or beeswax.
  • Products were never tested on animals. Kiss My Face is PETA-endorsed as cruelty-free.
  • Kiss My Face use good ingredients for its whole product range – using olive or coconut oil for surfactants, combined with plant extracts and some organic ingredients.
  • The olive oil soap is packaged in paper that’s 80% recycled.
  • Kiss my Face are not as transparent about their operations as some companies like Dr. Bronner’s – it’s hard to find information on things like their energy use and whether ingredients are sustainably farmed or fairly traded.
  • Supporting LGBTQ and animal rights.
Kiss My Face olive oil soap – sustainability. Three varieties of Kiss My Face soap are shown - Pure Olive Oil, Olive and Aloe, and Olive and Green Tea. Underneath is a graphic showing an ethical rating of 4.5 (out of 5) Green Stars for social and environmental impact.

Summary scores (out of 5) for Kiss My Face:

  • 4.5 gold stars for quality and value
  • 4.5 green stars for overall social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, be excellent to each other.

Lärabar – social and environmental impact

I tried two kinds of Lärabar that I bought at the Grocery Outlet – I really liked one and the other is growing on me. First off, the ä in Lärabar is decorative – it’s not a Danish or Swedish company, but an American brand that’s now owned by one of the largest food corporations, General Mills. Lärabar founder, Lara Merriken, sold the company to General Mills in 2008 and remains an adviser (she wrote a letter at the time, addressing the sale). I’ll get to the social and environmental impact part later, but I’ll review the products first.

I don’t eat a lot of Lärabars as I’m not a big fan of dates and I’ve usually found that I’d just rather eat nuts or trail mix. The two bars that I tried for this post (all in the name of science!) are a bit more appealing for two different reasons. The first bar (Hemp Seed Brownie) is appealing mainly because it just tastes a lot better than other Lärabars that I’ve tried and in part because it contains hemp seeds. The second one (Apple Cobbler Protein bar) was attractive from a nutritional perspective more than taste – each bar contains 11 grams of protein (mainly from peas).

Lärabar – Hemp Seed Brownie

I love hemp for both health and sustainability reasons so I picked up a box of Lärabar hemp seed brownie bars a little while ago at the Grocery Outlet. The packaging and shape changed (see image below) and now they are marketed as a brownie rather than a bar. They’re especially good if they warm up a little bit in the sun (like in your bag while you’re hiking) because they become gooey and the chocolate flavor intensifies. It’s actually hard to find chocolate energy bars that really taste of chocolate, but these do : )

Lärabar – Apple Cobbler Protein bar

The newest products in the Lärabar range are high-protein bars that contain pea protein along with the usual mix of nuts and dates. I found them to be very compact and dense – even more than regular Lärabars – and it felt a bit like eating rations. Not that that’s always a bad thing – I actually like dense, high-energy food, especially for traveling or hiking. I also think that if we are going to buy packaged products then the product should be nutritious enough to justify the packaging.

Drinking water with these bars makes them more pleasant to eat – fluid intake is actually important for high-protein meals in general.

Lärabar – ingredients & nutrition

LÄRABAR Original Fruit & Nut bars are made by a simple process in which fruit, nuts, and spices are ground and mixed together. They are not baked or cooked. We use a handful of ingredients, as close to their natural state as possible. – Larabar

Here are some of the Lärabar certifications / features:

  • Gluten free
  • Kosher
  • Fair Trade Certified™ cocoa and coffee
  • Vegan
  • Non-GMO (not made with genetically engineered ingredients)

Hemp Seed Brownie – Ingredients

Dates, Cashews, Semisweet Chocolate Chips (Unsweetened Chocolate, Cane Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Vanilla Extract), Hemp Seeds, Cocoa Powder*, Sea Salt, Vanilla Extract

Although the packaging changed, the ingredients haven’t, and each bar/brownie provides 370 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, thanks to the hemp.

Apple Cobbler Protein Bar – Ingredients

Dates, Almonds, Pea Protein, Apples, Cinnamon, Sea Salt

These bars are 21% protein – that’s 11 grams of protein per bar.

Lärabar – social and environmental impact. Ingredients and nutrition facts are shown for Larabar products, Hemp Seed Brownie and Apple Cobbler Protein Bar

Lärabar is owned by General Mills

Lärabar is now owned by General Mills and like some other companies owned by food giants (e.g., Kashi, owned by Kellogg’s) there are some discrepancies between the ethos of the smaller company and the parent. For example, Lärabar make a stance against GMO ingredients, while General Mills (and Kellogg’s too) funded campaigns to defeat labeling of GM food.

I’ve already reviewed a couple of products that are fairly ethical brands owned by a less-ethical giant parent corporation. For example, Sweet Earth pizzas (now owned by Nestlé) and Back to Nature cookies (now owned by B&G Foods). It’s good (if I’m thinking optimistically) that these multinational giants are attempting to include more ethical brands. The danger is that a smaller brand may become compromised if it switches over to using commodity supply chains of the parent company. So I try to take these factors into account when reviewing a brand that was once an independent company but is now owned by a larger corporation.

In 1999, General Mills launched a new division of its company called Small Planet Foods, dedicated to natural and organic products. You may have seen the brands in grocery stores: Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm. LÄRABAR will be part of Small Planet Foods, conducting business as usual and continuing to produce and innovate the healthiest foods possible. – General Mills

Ethical rating for Lärabar

Lärabar doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years – I actually wrote a review of Lärabar five years ago and rated the company 4 green stars for social and environmental impact. The fact that the company hasn’t changed is both good and bad – it appears to have maintained its standards but it would be nice if it had made some improvements on things like carbon footprint or agriculture.

Lärabar – social and environmental impact. An graphic of 3.5 Green Stars representing an ethical score is shown under an image of two Larabar products. The products are Larabar's Hemp Seed Brownie and a Protein Bar.

Overall, I think that Lärabar deserves 3.5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact, based on these factors:

  • Lärabar products are certified vegan (even those that contain chocolate).
  • Cocoa and chocolate chips are certified by Fair Trade USA.
  • Minimal processing of ingredients, which keeps the carbon footprint low, generally. A large part of the carbon footprint of processed food comes from the processing part, rather than the agriculture.
  • The box that that holds the bars is made of recycled cardboard and made with wind energy.
  • However, besides that outer box, Lärabar doesn’t report on carbon footprint or other metrics.
  • I’d be more supportive of Lärabar if they used organic ingredients and were more transparent on ingredient sourcing.
  • Lärabar was a woman-owned business, until sold to General Mills.
  • We would have to look to General Mills for reporting on sustainability – and General Mills has a fairly poor reputation for sustainability.
  • General Mills is, however, trying to improve this situation by starting a regenerative agriculture program, but it’s very small so far:

In the past year, we accelerated farmer adoption of regenerative agriculture practices on more than 70,000 acres in key regions where we source ingredients – getting us closer to our 1 million acres commitment by 2030 – General Mills 2021 Global Responsibility Report

Summary scores (out of 5) for Lärabar:

  • 4 gold stars for quality and value (hemp brownie) and 3 gold stars (protein bar)
  • 3.5 green stars for overall social and environmental impact

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe.

Spero vegan cream cheese – ethical review

Spero Foods sells a range of vegan cream cheese spreads that are made from organic sunflower seeds. Like everything else on this site, I discovered them at the Grocery Outlet – they cost $2.49, compared to the normal price of $5.99 at Whole Foods. I’m happy to say that they are now one of my favorite vegan cheese products, alongside Violife’s vegan feta.

About Spero Foods

Phäedra Randolph, a scientist who previously worked as a software developer, established Spero Foods in the Bay Area around 2017. Since then, the company has been attracting a lot of attention for a number of reasons. First, it’s a well thought out idea that has sustainability advantages over dairy and even compared to nut-based cheeses. Second, it’s a tasty and nutritious product and a significant step towards replacement of dairy with products that don’t compromise on flavor.

Spero Foods also have a vegan egg product called Scramblit but it looks like the company may be in the process of redeveloping and relaunching that product as The Egg.

Spero cream cheese review

Spero Foods currently make 8 flavors of cream cheese – three of which are sweet (strawberry, chocolate, and cinnamon). I bought three savory varieties at the Grocery Outlet – the original, the herb and the goat. I tried them in various scenarios – toast, crackers, and even tortilla chips, because they are light enough to scoop with a chip. I actually liked all of them about equally – even the original had a good flavor – and I think my favorite would depend on the situation. For example, the goat, which is a little tart, goes well with a spicy tortilla chip : )

There’s some similarity to one of my other favorite vegan cheeses (Violife’s feta) in that a lot of thought went into production and secret flavors. Besides the natural vegan flavors that go into Spero’s spreads, there are also probiotics – i.e., microbes such as lactic acid bacteria. This makes sense to me – cheese should contain microbes as they typically add a lot of the flavor and they are also good for gut health, of course. The Spero products are only available in the US for now but will eventually be going international, starting with Canada.

Spero cream cheese – ingredients and nutrition facts

There’s almost no difference between the flavors in terms of nutrition – the main ingredients in each case are organic sunflower seeds, water, coconut oil, salt, natural flavors, and probiotics. The only difference is the composition of the natural flavors and possibly the probiotics.

Spero vegan cream cheese – ingredients and nutrition facts are shown. The ingredients are organic sunflower seeds, water, coconut oil, salt, natural flavors, and probiotics.

Seeds are really amazing, nutritionally, because they contain everything required to start a new plant (besides sun, water, and soil!) and I always try to include them in my diet. Because sunflower seeds are the main ingredient, Spero cream cheeses are fairly rich in minerals and also high in vitamin E. Another aspect that I like is that the products are also fairly high in protein (around 10%, by weight) and lower in fat than most of the vegan cheeses that are primarily coconut oil.

How sustainable are sunflower seeds?

You can probably guess that sunflower seeds are a reasonably high yield crop – otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to use them as a source of cooking oil. Yield per acre of land is an important sustainability metric and others include agricultural inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticides), carbon footprint, and impact on soil health.

As you probably know, vegan cheese is generally a big improvement over dairy in terms of sustainability and ethics. Spero Foods goes beyond this by pointing out that cheese made from sunflower seeds is also an improvement over cheese made from almonds or cashews. Spero makes some bold claims when it comes to sustainability of sunflower seeds compared to the competition:

  • Sunflower seeds require 96% less water to grow than almonds.
  • Sunflower seeds require 97% less land to grow than cashews.
  • Sunflower seeds generate 99% less CO2, compared to dairy.

Spero doesn’t actually include a reference on its website for these claims (tsk tsk) and it would nice to see the assumptions – especially for the comparison to cashews for land use. It must factor in the fact that cashew trees need to grow for a few years before they achieve commercial yields but I’m not sure that it accounts for the higher yields of newer dwarf cashew varieties. The numbers for water consumption and CO2 emissions compared to almonds and dairy sound about right to me.

Spero vegan cream cheese – ethical review. A graphic shows the following three facts cited by Spero Foods on sustainability of sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds require 96% less water to grow than almonds.
Sunflower seeds require 97% less land to grow than cashews.
Sunflower seeds generate 99% less CO2, compared to dairy.

If you want to read more about the benefits of sunflower as a crop, check out this 2017 paper. One benefit of sunflower as a crop that Spero didn’t mention is that those big beautiful flowers, when grown without insecticides, are a great support to pollinators.

Besides the carbon, water, and land footprints, one thing that I’m especially glad about is that Spero chose to source organic sunflower seeds. If you’re familiar with my posts then you’ve probably heard me expressing disappointment when companies chose to use conventional sunflowers (or soy) as most conventional crops in the US are treated with insecticides known as neonics (neonicotinoids). My recent post on the Green Stars Project site that takes an in-depth look into the risks associated with imidacloprid, one of the most common neonic insecticides used on crops like sunflower.

Ethical rating for Spero cream cheese

Overall, I think that Spero cream cheese deserves 5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact, based on these factors:

  • Spero Foods products are all vegan
  • The main ingredient, sunflower seeds, is organically grown  
  • The carbon, land, and water footprints are very low, compared to dairy – even compared to nut-based cheeses
  • Besides the low footprints, sunflower crops also support pollinators
  • The container is made from polypropylene, which may actually be slightly greener than PET.
  • I would prefer, however, that it was made from post-consumer recycled PET / polypropylene.
  • Woman-owned, mission-driven company

Summary scores (out of 5) for Spero cream cheese:

  • 4.5 gold stars for quality and value
  • 5 green stars for social and environmental impact
Spero vegan cream cheese – ethical review. Three varities of Spero Foods cream cheese are shown with a graphic of 5 Green Stars underneath, representing a score of 5/5 for social and environmental impact.

Three other products that have achieved a score of 5 Green Stars so far on this site: Alter Eco truffles, Nature’s Path cereal, and Endangered Species chocolate. There is still room for improvement in all of these products but all three companies have done something big (or several things) to address social or environmental issues and improve life on this planet.

I think that Spero’s products also leave a little room for improvement but are certainly in the top 10% (in the cheese category) and therefore deserve this score. Processed food is a luxury and, considering our planet’s situation, all products should be developed with sustainability as the main criterion (and nutrition, second). I think Spero Foods have achieved this pretty well in the vegan dairy space.

If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )