Dietary diversity: is there such a thing as too much choice in the shopping cart?

What are your thoughts about the relationship between the diversity of choices we have at the grocer, and the diversity that exists in the natural world?

When I was a kid growing up in the 60s, winter meals were mostly root veggies, meat from the freezer, fruit preserves and maybe something exotic like tangerines at Christmas time. When i think about it, I didn’t even taste a fresh mushroom until I was well into my late teens.

Now? the average level of diversity of food sources as expressed in number of species and variants and availability is probably at an all-time historic high around the planet.

And of course food fads and crazes. They come and go and as they do, they can have an enormous ecological impact when they do–not just in direct factors, like the energy cost (mostly fossil-fuelled) or water and fertilizer/chemicals, but often at the cost of wilderness diversity.

How diverse (in terms of international sources), is the food that you eat?

Does ‘dietary freedom’ have a net negative effect on sustaining or preserving biodiversity?

Should we be looking now at trying to reign in the choices of the number of different types of foodstuff we consume, or minimally become more aware of the consequences of those choices?

Do you think we need to change our expectations and consumer behaviour in order to achieve a more environmentally accountable diet? How? Education? Labelling? Other?

And what would YOU be willing to give up (if anything) in order to get there?


It’s complicated. From my perspective, the largest issue is the industrialization of farming and the concentration of the industry into mega-farms controlled by a small number of large corporations. This monopolization leads to smaller biodiversity over large swaths of land, and concordantly the shipping of food over greater distances.


It also leads to lower food pricing – supply and demand. That is, if the prices of ‘locally-grown’ produce or even just farmer market prices are to judge. It’s often the case of twice or three times the cost. Of course, the problem with food pricing comparisons is that super complex mix of government subsidies, marketing board protected monopolies, and competitive factors outside of food nutrition and quality (such as food cosmetics and the massive wastage ratio).

There are some exceptions, but basically, isn’t the argument to return to smaller scale farming also a return to higher priced food (relative to % of income)?

Another extreme change that I’ve seen in just the last 10 years is the further dominance of the prepared food market, where the real margins lie. Plus the movement to NOT cook for yourself.

In some cultures, everyone expects to eat out at least once a day and in many there’s the companion issue of the so-called ‘food-deserts’ that often leaves nothing but nutrition-poor choices.

Complicated indeed.


I think food diversity is inversely proportional to biodiversity since more farming means less wilderness.

There’s also the problem of food waste that’s much bigger than just lettuce going bad in your kitchen, which probably scales. Messed up, but economically it makes more money for some grocers to let half (not sure what percent exactly) the produce go bad and have it available in a wealthy area on demand, than to offer it in more places with unknown availability. For example, who would go to that store if they couldn’t get a Bell Pepper (Capsicum annum)?

Most of the food I’m able to purchase in Southern California is grown in Mexico or central California. The most local food I can eat is whatever I’ve grown in a pot or some “wild” weeds like Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), since farmers markets are often the same exact produce with a different sticker.

I have noticed that how exotic/international a food is correlates directly with price, the more expensive, the more international. I prefer simple/cheap though, something built around rice and beans. I’m not sure adding anything exotic regularly to my diet makes any sense to health when macronutrients are the bulk of it.

Edit: Where possible I like to understand local ethnobotany since it of gives a good idea about what the environment historically supports for agriculture. A book I enjoy for my area is Temalpakh: Cahullia Indian knowledge and usage of plants.

Another useful reference is NAEB which I’ve preset to search Palo Verde (Parkinsonia), though I would do way more research before trying anything shown. For example searching Castor Beans (Ricinus communis) has very dubious uses.


I doubt it will happen as food is a natural drug for human brain and only a few people are ready to cut their consumption and I’m not sure I can get them.


I agree with everything you wrote. The subsidies question is a huge one; the corn subsidy in the US comes to mind, and the concordant rise in usage of high-fructose corn syrup in so much food–so terrible for you, hard to digest, hard to lose as fat etc… The complexity is the integration of environmental, health, and political concerns in a capitalist context. Ideally we are all growing our own food, but then who has access to land, and the time and energy etc.


I’m vegetarian. I try to buy local (which I stretch to Africa since I live here and I feel we need all the support we can get). In season. Unpackaged. Organic where possible.

Realistically. Having read that local people can longer afford quinoa, since it is ‘trendy’ I avoid that. I have stopped eating almonds (Californian drought) - seeds are better water use than tree nuts, so sunflower and pumpkin seeds instead. Trying to - live simply that others may simply live.

But even something like rooibos (redbush) tea which seems to tick all the boxes. Indigenous. Local employment. Waterwise. Is still a problem as diverse natural vegetation is cleared to plant a crop of one particular variety - destroying the genetic diversity that WAS there.


Diversity is good, but I think in light of things like food miles, nutrient diversity should take precedence over food diversity. Case in point: I’m currently sitting in Las Vegas eating peaches that were grown in Greece and packaged in Thailand (It was free, which arguably makes it worse). Here’s my favorite tool to assess nutrient quality:

It breaks things down into individual amino acids, etc. One can meet their daily nutrient requirements (all of them) with ~12-20 ingredients per day. That’s the level of reduction that could occur. Here’s an example (complete nutritional breakdown not shown in screenshot):

I’d like to see more integrated agriculture. Production per acre is higher, but it’s a pain to harvest on a commercial scale. Requires a change in lifestyle, values, etc. to be successful.


I cringe a little whenever a new superfood becomes popular since it seems like wherever it comes from ends up with problems because of it. In the southwest US, we have Mormon Tea (Ephedra), which I hope won’t become as trendy as Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) has for your region.

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By integrated agriculture, do you mean more than one crop per unit land?

Intercropping, relay cropping, aquaponics, etc.

It’s often labor intensive because a machine usually can’t plant or harvest one crop without destroying another, an herbicide used to benefit one will kill all the other crops, etc.


I mean ideally we’d localize our food sources for fresh produce and have more limited imported foods (shelf stable foods like pasta etc. likely are less energy intensive to move around the world). This is a complex problem, though. My dream is to grow and preserve food, eat seasonally and local (while also enjoying food) with less external input needed to make the food in the first place.


I think that people becoming used to it is adversely affecting whole thought processes. One of my current jobs is at a grocery store. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “Do you have anymore ________ in the back?”

I can’t tell them the honest answer: We shouldn’t. That’s called overstock, and we try to avoid it.

The backroom is for recieving and staging. There really isn’t room back there to store excess inventory. But the public doesn’t see that; they see the pallets of stock coming out of the backroom, and mistake what that observation means. Although I must say, to me this is equivalent to a kid whose parent comes home from shopping, brings the groceries in from the garage – and the kid assumes that groceries must be stored in the garage and brought out as needed. Same “logic” as far as I’m concerned. The garage is for receiving and staging, just like the backroom.

Why? Even before I worked in a grocery store, I don’t remember it ever crossing my mind, when seeing an empty space on the shelf, to ask if there was anymore in the back. I believed my eyes – that they were out of it. But when people are used to everything they want being there when they want it, they have a hard time wrapping their mind around the idea that it isn’t.

When I go up to the breadnut tree, and I see that there are no breadnuts, do I look for an associate and ask if there are anymore breadnuts in the back? When I pass a guava bush without guavas, do I find someone to ask, “When are you getting more in?” When the passionfruit vines have no fruits, do I say, “Well I got them here before,” as if that makes any difference? No. That would be stupid. As a forager, I have learned not to get my heart set on any one thing. I may not find what I went looking for, but that’s okay, because I can always find something else instead.

I have actually seen this: a shopper walking down the aisle, commenting to herself, “The shelves are so empty!” And I look where she was looking, and I see abundantly full shelves, just with a few empty spaces for the most popular items that everyone wants. When something serious happens to our supply chains, a lot of people are going to lose their minds at not being able to buy what they had their heart set on when they had their heart set on it.


"On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry and seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it.

When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots."

To me, the story of Christ cursing the fig tree has to be one of the weirdest biblical tales.

At the same time, one of the most real vivid acts of human frustration.

Just so you know, I’m not a religious guy, but a story like that from Sunday school days stuck with me (maybe because it teacher couldn’t answer my follow up questions).

But it’s one of the dark essences of humankind. As living creatures, we are still entirely dependent on the very powers of nature that we have historically struggled to collectively control and defeat.


D’oh! As part of my caffeine-free existence, I discovered Rooibos about 10 years back, and have grown to love it. [sigh] (I find it an exceptionally good choice for singers.) Back to decaf instant then.

Just like I get a little thrill whenever I come across a new species, I have to admit the same goes for my sense of taste, to some degree. For instance, I had heard about the growing demand for a new spice from Brazil. A plant–Acmella oleracea–known as Jambu. The taste sensation sounds very intriguing.

So much so that it’s taken off in many places and of course, the demand has sparked another hit against natural diversity.

Does anyone else remember a 1987 film from Denmark titled, ‘Babette’s Feast’? It popped into my head while thinking of this subject. Spoiler alert: plot.

Babette, a famous top-chef to the aristocracy, is on the run from the throngs in Paris during the Revolution and finds safe shelter in a small Danish coastal village. In gratitude, she introduces revolutionary flavours to their otherwise monotonous diet. Then when the opportunity arrives for her to return home safely, she plans a royal-level feast for the natives as a gesture of thanks, and arranges to procure boatloads of exotic foodstuffs. (Including a live sea turtle, and many, many other wild creatures).

The movie is quite charming but it made me think about the relationship between luxury food, and the diversity of wildlife. As extinctions continue to accelerate, should we bet on less poaching–or more? It’s a test of your optimism to pick one of those answers.

Please pass the jellyfish.


Rooibos tea is paying back (a little) Please to sing on!


(1) We have many food sensitivities. We appreciate the variety of foods available not just at one store but also at the many different chains of grocery stores within 3 miles of our residence. We shop at five different grocery stores (well, actually, Spouse does 99% of the shopping/ordering for delivery) in order to have the variety we appreciate, which is used to coax ourself into eating enough calories due to (2) mental health challenges (diagnoses, including eating-related). These really complicate our personal food consumption, too, So, again, we appreciate the choices.

We are helping to lobby (letters to state representatives) for locally grown, harvested, produced, sold clean water crops (like kernza). Supply chain development funding was passed this year. Even though we may not consume it (it’s got gluten), we would like to see if it helps the water.


Other than traditional teas and decaf, have you tried any other coffee substitutes? I’m only aware of:

Neither of which are exactly like coffee, but still interesting.

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