Archive for March, 2010
I love NPR’s science Friday. Especially when they talk about food! Today they featured some new research on real maple syrup (NOT Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, or any other pseudo maple junk) that found that maple syrup contains more than 20 different health-promoting plant compounds. Shockingly, Canada sponsored the study. But I’m still cool with it. The research was done by a scientist at the Univeristy of Rhode Island and presented at the American Chemical Society.
What the study found is that real maple syrup contains several components that are anti-oxidants, and contain anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic properties. This is on top of the minerals they already knew were in there, including zinc, thiamine and calcium. One interesting finding was the presence of phenolics -the same class of antioxidants found in berries. They suspect that when the tree is tapped it lets off the phenolics as a healing response. Kinda cool.
Now this isn’t exactly a reason to drink maple syrup as a health tonic, or load up with extra on your pancakes. The impact of maple’s sugars are still rough on the body just like sugar - especially in excess. But this is yet more evidence that eating natural foods is best - if you’re going to have some sweetener why not get the trace minerals and nutrients in maple syrup? Plus is tastes so, so much better than the fake stuff. And here is Ohio we have the benefit of getting locally produced, top-quality maple syrup. Check for it at your local farmer’s marker…or if you’re feeling crazy and have a maple tree -you can even make your own
I was really looking forward to watching this show, where Britain’s celebrity “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver promises to re-make the cafeteria food in Huntington, W Va. which was recently names as the most unhealthy city in America based on its rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mortality. Jamie’s mission is to get fresh, from-scratch foods with healthy ingredients into the town’s school lunches. The program documents his many struggles in accomplishing this goal, which in the first episode (which aired last night) included the strong-willed school cooks, the principal, the food budget, the school kids’ taste buds, and the completely illogical USDA school food requirements.
In my opinion the show did not disappoint, and I highly recommend watching it, for so many reasons. Perhaps reason #1 is that with very few exceptions school food is the same all over the country. If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, friend, or colleague of anyone with school children you will get an enlightening view into what our kids are being fed on a daily basis at school. Pizza for breakfast, chicken nuggets, fries (which meet USDA criteria for a vegetable), and flourescent colored strawberry milk are just a few tantilizing menu items. I know enough to understand that most of these heavily processed foods have scary, unnatural, and dangerous ingredients, but even I am shocked at some things. For example, Fast Food Nation found that one strawberry milk has 59 ingredients, most of which are chemicals and ”E” words (and no actually strawberries). Chicken nuggets can be less than 30% actual chicken (in England one study found 16% – which includes skin), and the process that is used to make them is beyond frightening. I’m not even going to go into that here. I watched a clip of Jamie’s show online and freeze framed a shot of ingredients on the chix nuggets box – here are a few of the contents: sodium benzoate, caramel color, vegetable protein product, pyridoxine hydrochloride, partially hydrogenated soybean oil (read: trans fat), disodium guanylate, and sodium phosphate. And that’s just what I could read, based on the 50% of the label in the shot. Some of these ingredeints are fillers (i.e. misc vegetable protein), some are chemical preservatives, and some are artificial flavors that the nuggets need to taste like anything. MSG anyone? Perhaps the most disturbing indicator of the food quality is that the actual label for the product reads: “Meat/Meat-Alternative for Child”. That alone speaks volumes about the quality of the content, and there’s certainly some sad irony in the “for child” part of the label.
Jamie states that one of his goals is to make us angry about this sad food reality. That serves a purpose, but the show also portrays what we’re up against, which will be helpful for any activist looking to initiate some change in their local district. I like and appreciate that Jamie is not afraid to call out the powers that be – the food and fast food industries, the USDA, and our own tendency for reluctance to change. These are substantial powers, and 2/3 have large budgets and affinities for lawsuits. I’m a little scared for him, honestly.
I will keep watching, and hoping for a positive conclusion. If there are lessons that we can learn from this show and then pass them on to our own school systems, wouldn’t it be great? Think of all the millions of little lives that can be improved. We are in a day and age where type II diabetes is striking younger and younger, people in their 20s are experiencing heart disease, and kids’ life expectancy is less than their parents, all due to a crap (gov’t sponsored!) diet. I sincerely hope that this show can pioneer a process for wide-spread change, and can’t wait to see the rest of the season.
To sign a petition supporting Jamie’s efforts, go here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution/petition
Perhaps you’ve heard murmerings over the past 5-10 years about the plight of the honeybee, whose population has dropped 50% in the past 50 years in the U.S. While many of you are probably thinking, “sweet, fewer irritating bee stings for me”, there is much, much more at stake than your carefree picnic time. Honeybees do much, much more than make honey.
Honeybees pollinate 80% of the flowering plants in the US, and pollination is necessary for plants to produce fruit. A huge percentage of our food supply is dependent on this process, and if the bees disappear so will our food. Here is an excerpt describing just how critical the honeybee truly is to our ability to eat:
“Typically, according to the US Department of Agriculture, these under-appreciated workers pollinate 80% of our flowering crops which constitute 1/3 of everything we eat.Their loss could effect not only dietary staples such as apples, broccoli, strawberries, nuts, asparagus, blueberries and cucumbers, but may threaten our beef and dairy industries if alfalfa is not available for feed. One Cornell University study estimated that honeybees annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the US. Essentially, if honeybees disappear, they could take most of our insect pollinated plants with them, potentially reducing mankind to little more than a bread and water diet.”
Before 2006 the honeybee population was declining at a relatively constant rate, and was believed to be due to certain pests (mites), pesticides, and reduction in beekeepers and natural bee environments. However, in 2006 the honeybee population took a major hit, declining by 25% with no understood cause. This was labeled Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and is characterized by bees that leave the hive and mysteriously do not return – a behavior that is extremely odd.
In the January edition of EcoWatch, which I picked up at Organic Energy yesterday, I read about one factor is believed to contribute heavily to CCD. Ironically, it’s related to one of our primary food crops – corn. Corn is frequently treated with harsh insecticides, via sprays and increasingly seed coatings. One type of insecticide – nicotinyl insecticides (neonicotinoids) are so persistent that toxic levels are found in plants’ pollen – traces are even found on water droplets on plants’ leaves! (Does that freak you out a little? It should). There is mounting evidence that these chemicals are deadly to bees, and federal bodies in France, Germany, and Italy have suspended the use of these chemicals as a result. Italy has since seen a resurgence of its bee population.
This freaks me out. I love honey, I love fruit, and I love food. I do not want to see our diversity in food options diminish because we produce 10 billion bushels of chemicalized corn per year. Not too surprisingly,and unfortunately, the EPA is sluggish to act. The Sierra Club has an active campaign to force action on this issue. Here is what EcoWatch suggests that YOU do to support saving the honeybee population:
“Watch the documentary Nicotine Bees. Producers and Directors Kevin Hansen and Krista Keenan did an excellent job researching, interviewing and splicing together an extraordinary story on the CCD problem. Show the 45-minute film at organizational meetings, home parties, classrooms and community events. Then contact EPA’s Steve Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-202-564-2902 to request a suspension of the neonicotinoid seed coatings until independent scientists verify safety.”
One other thing you can do: buy corn locally, or buy organic. Local producers are more judicious about pesticide use, and tend to choose varieties that are not as dangerous to health and the local environment. For products like frozen corn, polenta, corn meal, corn starch, and others, organic versions are available for little more than conventional prices. Not only is it better for the environment, it’s better for your health.
This recipe is awesome for a snack or small munchie to have with drinks before a meal. It’s easy, something you can whip up from ingredients you keep on hand, and fast. I like to mix up the seasonings – one of my favorites is to use 1-2 tsp of curry powder along with some heat from a little cayenne or crushed red pepper. But have fun with it and use whatever flavors you enjoy!
- 1 (12 ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tsp cumin
- salt and black pepper
- garlic salt
- crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- ¼ cup pistachios
- Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F
- Rinse chickpeas and drain well, roll on a clean towel to dry
- Put chickpeas in a bowl, toss with olive oil, and season to taste with seasonings.
- Spread on a baking sheet, and bake for 20 to 35 minutes, until browned and crunchy. Check the chickpeas occasionally and shake the pan to rotate. Add pistachios for the last 5-10 minutes.
The absolute most satisfying thing about my business is seeing my clients thrive. On Saturday I woke up with the following email in my inbox, and it was so inspiring I just had to share it here (with permission, of course). Read on, to hear one of my clients describe how her late-night food craving became a major dietery epiphany!
“I just had to tell you this…
So, about a half hour ago I was having a complete snack attack. I had a snack attack last night, too, and cured it by munching slowly on some yummy granola I made this past Sunday. I was surprised to experience yet another snack attack – two days in a row. Before indulging I decided to think about what I ate all day and what my body might be lacking. I had eaten half a grapefruit, eggs with oatmeal (delicious btw), some greek yogurt, a couple grapes, a small bowl-full of this rice mixture I made on Sunday (extra yummy! can’t wait to tell you about that), and a protein shake with banana, peanut butter, protein and fiber powder. It totaled up to less than 1,200 calories, so I figured it was okay to eat snacks since I really didn’t get much energy from food today.
But what to eat? I was going to go for the granola again, but it didn’t seem pleasing. So, I took a moment to settle my mind and really listen to what my body was telling me. Then I looked at my pantry, saw some grape tomatoes and had a couple. Tasted good! Still wasn’t satisfied, though. I went through the fridge, thought about having more of that rice mixture or some soy milk…but when I opened my freezer, I found the exact item I was craving – kale. Yup, green leafy veggies was the cure for the snack attack. I had some kale and spinach in my freezer because I remember you telling me that I could store them there. I grabbed both, heated some water over the stove, put some greens in the hot water for 30 seconds, and drizzled some yummy balsamic and olive oil with italian seasoning over them. Amazing…
This is seriously a first – craving vegetables and eating them to cure the late-night munchies. Who am I? What did you do to me?! haha
Well, sorry for the drawn out story. I couldn’t resist telling you the details, though! Thank you for all your inspiration and knowledge over the past months – it’s obviously been creating positive change in my life without me even realizing it!
Maybe, when it comes to food.
Several years ago, Dr. Joan Gussow said, “As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.” This is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s meaningful on more than one level when it comes to food.
Regarding butter vs. margarine, this quote really has to do with the ability, or lack thereof, of man to improve upon nature. Certainly, chemistry has led to some incredible accomplishments: vaccines and drugs that fight cancer come immediately to mind. But when it comes to food, we seem to be a long way away from improving upon what simple, organic nature provides us. Margarine is the perfect example. Margarine was created by French chemists (mon dieu!) in the mid-late 1800s when fats were of short supply. Plant oils were extracted and hydrogenated – a process that allowed the liquid fat to solidify into a solid that, conveniently, also offered a much longer shelf life.
The resulting hydrogenated fats were eventually embraced as health food, due to the fact that they were unsaturated, and went about replacing butter. This delighted processed food manufacterers, as margarine is cheaper than butter and doesn’t spoil nearly as fast, which led to their wide-spread adoption in packaged crackers, cookies, cakes, donuts, and fryer oil. Little did we know at the time that trans fats are exponentially more dangerous than saturated fats. Not only are they a time bomb in the arteries, but they trigger an inflammatory repsonse that can contribute to a long list of diseases – cancer, alzheimers, heart disease, and many many more. (Current US gov’t recommendations are to eat less than 2g of trans fats per day – which is too generous).
What other examples exist? There may very well be others that we don’t even know about yet. Despite the incredible advances of science, we really know very little about the complexities of nutrition. We do know that we’re eating more man-made, or man-altered food than ever before, and are simultaneously seeing historically high rates of chronic disease at increasinly young ages (20-somethings with heart disesase, teenagers with type II diabetes – both previously unheard of phemomena). We know that societies, such as the US, that eat more packaged and fast-food, are worse off than societies that eat whole foods, including unadulterated grains, vegetables, and naturally-raised animals.
I bring this up because we tend to think – perhaps due to our ambition and optimism – that we can take anything and improve it. This may not be the case when it comes to food, at least not yet, and it’s a good idea to start questioning foods that have been altered from their natural form. Take low-fat dairy, for example. It’s stantard nutritional advice ( not from me) to eat low-fat dairy products, again to limit your intake of saturated fat. But there aren’t any substantial studies showing the overall, long-term health benefits of a high intake of low-fat dairy. (Just like there weren’t any studies demonstrating the benefits of trans fats). In fact, there’s recent research showing that high intake of low-fat dairy can alter the balance of hormones in the body – enough to disrupt ovulation in women. Who knows what else is it’s doing?
I simply to encourage you to develop a natural suspicious of “altered food” of any kind. Things that have been enriched, lowered, added-to, reduced, etc. Just ask “why”? Maybe there’s a reason – but that reason may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, as is the case with ice cream, eating the whole version is also a lot more fun.
Do you have a question about food choices, public policy, food health and safety, or anything else food/health related? Send me an email at email@example.com, and each week I’ll answer 1 reader’s question on my blog. Can’t wait to hear from you! -Alissa
I hear a lot of questions from clients and friends who are concerned about the potential dangers of plastics. Parents of young kids tend to be the most concerned, and for good reason, as developing bodies are more susceptible to chemical exposure. What we hear via various media outlets about plastic food containers is all over the board: plastic water bottles cause breast cancer vs. it’s completely harmless vs. avoid certain types of plastic, etc. This happens to be an area that fascinates me and that I know a lot about…and it can get confusing. I had a chance to study the issues in-depth in my former career as a strategy consultant. For several years I helped a prominent glass company understand the pros/cons of plastics vs. glass in various applications, and in fact chaired a white paper on food containers. While the career didn’t stick (although that particular project, as it pertained to food, was my very favorite), what I learned about plastics sure did.
The chemicals in plastics are no joke. There are very real health dangers, although the level of danger depends on the type of plastic, how you use it, and how susceptible your particular body is. That said, everyone can take a few simple steps to reduce their exposure to the most dangerous chemicals. Here are my top learnings and recommendations regarding plastic food containers. I follow all of these suggestions myself, and while it may seem like a hassle at first, it’s really not so bad. Small changes over time add up, so take it one step at a time.
- Use glass if you can – it’s the safest bet, by far. Glass is more chemically inert than ANY type of plastic, it’s also more heat-resistant, will last forever, and comes in forms that are incredibly break-resistant (tempered glass). Yes, certain plastics are better than others and yes, you can take certain precautions with your plastic, but absolutely nothing will give you the peace of mind that glass will. I have replaced all of my plastic tupperware with glass versions- I got mine at Costco, but you can also find then at Target and other retailers. The glass “tupperware” comes with tight-fitting plastic lids that won’t leak. While they’re heavier than plastic and are more expensive, they can go from freezer to oven or microwave with no problem (sans lid), and will last forever. No dangerous chemical leakage and no erosion o f material. Have you ever noticed that the tupperwares you used for tomato sauce get stained pink? That’s because the acid in the tomato is eating into the plastic. It’s DISSOLVING the plastic into your food, literally. That will not happen in glass. Ceramic is another excellent material, and I use glass or ceramic for all of my mixing bowls, glasses/mugs, and serving containers.
- Realistically we can’t avoid plastic food containers all the time, even I use convenience foods packaged in plastic sometimes. But there are certain plastics I absolutely avoid – these include Polycarbonate (PC, or #7), Polystyrene (PS, or #6), and Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or #3), commonly known as vinyl. These are the most dangerous, and a quick google search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about how nasty the chemicals in these plastics can be. They are either neurotoxins (can cause neurological damage), endocrine disruptors ( meaning they mimic hormones in the body), or carcinogens (cause cancer). For more info on these plastics read the following sub-sections. Sorry it’s kind of long, but there’s just a lot of info to share here.
- Polycarbonate is the hard, brittle and clear plastic that is used in many water bottles including water cooler containers. It is also used for baby bottles, although many manufacturers are now making BPA-free versions. ( BPA is the dangerous endocrine-disruptor in PC, and it’s particularly dangerous to young children whose little bodies are still developing. These chemicals are actually causing male fish to become hemaphrodites in highly-exposed waters.) HOWEVER, most of us get our largest exposure to BPA via canned food, because BPA is used in the epoxy on can lids (look at the lid the next time you open a can – see that yellowish coating on the inside? That contains BPA, and it leaches into the canned food. A recent study found that canned green beans are the most highly contaminated. It’s been tough for food manufacturers to find a suitable replacement, but Eden Foods is making some headway.) BPA, by the way, has been found in the cord blood of 9/10 infants, and 93% of all adults. I use canned tomatoes far more than any other canned product, and there aren’t many good alternatives at the moment, although at least one manufacturer in the UK is now using tetra packs for their tomatoes, a trend that will hopefully catch on.
- Polystyrene can take a few forms. It’s also a hard and brittle plastic in some applications, such as frozen food containers, although it’s also the material used in styrofoam. Ironically this plastic is most dangerous when heated, as it will release toxic vapors. If you’re wondering why manufacturers use it for heat-sensitive applications it’s pretty straight forward: it’s a good insulator (in foam form), and it’s CHEAP – one of the cheapest plastics and it will hold up just long enough to withstand some heating (physically, not necessarily chemically). My recommendation is to completely avoid styrofoam, and if you buy any food with a PS or #6 on the bottom, absolutely do not heat it up. Transfer the food to another container for heating.
- PVC is probably the worst offender of them all, and is known as the poison plastic. PVC has been known for its health dangers for a very long time. Not only is it dangerous for consumers, but it’s incredibly dangerous for factory workers who manufacture it. What makes PVC dangerous are the phthalates that are added to it to make it flexible, as well as dioxins that are a by-product of the production process. Again – the health dangers include endocrine disruption, associations with cancer, and there are even associations with allergies in children. PVC isn’t used in a lot of food containers, but it is used widely in plasic wrap. Buy PVC-free plastic wrap, and DO NOT microwave plastic wrap. If you want to look more into how to avoid PVC there are a lot of resources available to help you understand where its used and how to eliminate it. Kids toys, shower curtains, and pipes are three common sources of PVC. You don’t want kids sucking on PVC, believe me – in fact is some european countries PVC and/or some of its phthalates have been banned, and California is considering bans of its own.
- All plastics are most likely to leach chemicals when they’re heated. Plastic in general is very sensitive to heat, which is why you can’t put it in the oven (most can’t withstand 300-400 degrees -they’ll melt). But something happens before it actually melts -it starts to lose its stability and degrade/leach chemicals, especially if it has a nice liquid nearby to leach them into. I never put plastic into the microwave that is actually touching food (and never put any of the above 3 plastics in the microwave at all). Transfer to glass or ceramic first, and cover with a ceramic plate or paper towel. And, most plastics will say not to put them in the bottom row of the dishwasher, where it’s hottest. To be extra safe just wash by hand, or even better, use glass containers.
- Fat and plastic chemicals get along like peas and carrots. The dangerous chemicals in plastics tend to be lipophilic, meaning they love to attach themselves to fat – they’re attracted to it. Full-fat yogurt, for example, will leach more chemicals out of a plastic container than fat-free. Heat it up and you’ve got an even larger chemical transfer going on. I avoid buying high-fat food items in plastic – for me that means mostly oils and dairy. Paper-based containers and glass are a better bet. Likewise, avoid storing and heating high-fat items in plastic containers.
I know this can be a lot to take in, but again, baby steps in the right direction can really pay off.