As the raw food movement picks up steam, so, too does the demand for healthy, fresh, and safe foods that stay within the rules of the diet. But for raw foodies in small towns or urban neighborhoods, where natural food stores are hard to come by (what, your corner bodega doesn’t carry chia seeds?), the supply in stores just isn’t keeping up with demand–so they’re going online. Ordering raw goods is convenient and affordable–but is it safe? Sustainable? What do you need to know before you get go cyber shopping?
Sites like Sunfood, The Raw Food World and Raw Power have come to rely on raw food followers who can’t get the things they need locally. These retailers, who offer goods like raw nut butters, cereals, raw protein powders, and cookies and other sweets, source and stock the products, which are manufactured by other companies, and then sell and ship them for a profit. Which means that, while the food items are convenient for the customer, they’ve also exchanged hands a lot of time–and there’s sort of no way to know how long they may have been left on a palate, unrefrigerated or otherwise improperly stored. And if the supplier is using the United States Postal Service, they can be in transit for as many as 10 days.
Produce and packaged raw foods (like nut butters) are more likely to grow bacteria (like salmonella) when they’re uncooked, and by the time they’ve arrived to the customer, they may have had ample time to foster foodborne illness. But even if you can verify that the foods have been kept safely (a phone call to the company at hand should let you know whether or not they’re savvy on safe shipping and storage practices), or are only ordering foods that are safe (those that are properly dehydrated or otherwise packaged), because the retailers don’t actually make the products, many (like The Raw Food World) won’t accept returns if the item at hand does seem to have become compromised. Instead, they’ll ask that you take it up with the manufacturer. Reading the fine print of your retailer of choice is a smart idea if you’re even remotely concerned about return policies for an unstable food item. If you’re not sure you trust the company, keep Googling. There are, so to speak, plenty of fish.
Another potential concern with ordering raw food online is the sustainability and environmental impact of ordering and shipping products from across the country. Shipping by traditional means–especially when food is, say, coming in a heavy styrofoam cooler full of artificial ice products–is pretty carbon-costly, and not very sustainable. And if you’ve turned to raw food to be more eco-friendly, this may not be the wisest way to go about it. Try looking for a retailer–or a manufacturer–that’s closer to where you live–even if the food has to travel a smaller distance, it’s more likely to arrive fresh and without the additional pollution of a far-away package.
And finally, there are the individual products themselves. Because they’re coming from a third-party manufacturer, even if you’ve carefully vetted the retailer, you may not be aware of the practices of the people making the food you’re about to consume–though some retailers, like Sunfood, are more dedicated to sustainability than others. But, fortunately, there’s an app for that. The GoodGuide Transparency Toolbar is a plug-in for your browser, which will give you an idea of whether the product you’re about to order is sustainable and ethical. The toolbar only works on Amazon products, but many raw food manufacturers who work with third-party retailers also have their goods listed there, so you can do a quick double-check if you’re concerned. You can also check which labels are listed on the products, to see whether or not they’ve been inspected or certified.
In a perfect world, everyone could buy fresh, locally-produced raw goods at their corner store. But until that day comes, ordering raw foods online may be the only option for those who don’t have cars, or live somewhere where the only thing that comes raw is the parsley beside their meat and potatoes at a diner. And while it’s in imperfect solution, careful consumer choices and a little research can help make the most of it.