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Is “Local” healthy?

A recent article1 providing advice on nutrition encouraged readers to “limit your exposure to pesticides by choosing organic and locally grown foods when possible.” The article goes on to explain why pesticides and nitrates (an ingredient in artificial fertilizer) should be avoided.

The writer’s intent is not clear to me. While she may have meant to advise choosing foods that are both organic and local, her subsequent explanation only addressed pesticide and fertilizer exposure and therefore did not support that argument.

If your goal is to reduce such exposure, your best bet is to eat organic foods. Period. End of sentence. If you can find foods that are both organic and locally produced, and locally produced is important to you, then by all means, select those. However, selecting conventionally, albeit locally, produced food does nothing to reduce your exposure. The “local” label does not guarantee that your food is organically produced or is better for you. You are certainly better off, and I would argue that the environment is better off, if you purchase organic fruits and vegetables from half-way around the world instead of a pesticide-ridden fruit or vegetable from your local farmer.

1“Tell Me What to Eat.” Fit Pregnancy, Oct/Nov 2011: 88


The Difference between “Local” and “Organic”

It is arguable that the trendiest word in food marketing is “local.” It is idyllic, prideful, and comforting. Consumers seem to categorize both locally produced foods and organic foods as healthful and environmentally conscious. For locally produced foods, this is not necessarily true.

The organic label is regulated by the USDA and verified by third parties, but the term “local” or “locally grown” is not regulated. Nor is there a generally accepted definition of the term “local.” Nor is it universally agreed that locally produced foods have a smaller carbon-footprint than well-traveled foods.

Understandably, grocery store marketers have taken advantage of the popularity of locally grown produce, the lack of labeling regulation or guidance for the term local, and the confusion of its significance on greenhouse gas emissions.

Local foods tend to be in season where you live, meaning that they can be fresher and tastier. However, buyers beware. It is likely that a tomato grown in a local heated greenhouse may have a much larger carbon footprint than one trucked in from a region in which tomatoes are in season. Therefore, when buying local keep in mind what is in season in your region.

In the case of farmers’ markets, purchasing locally grown often means your dollars stay within your community, and a much higher percentage of those dollars go directly to the farmer. If your local farmer is supplying organic produce, your dollar is encouraging his responsible stewardship of the land. I think this is a good thing.

Interestingly, a study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg found that although many foods are transported over long distances, the biggest impact to greenhouse gas emissions comes from the production of the food, not the transportation. Their study concluded that only 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from food production came from transportation; the transportation from farmer to retailer accounted for 4 percent.

Production of red meat and dairy are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in food production. According to Weber and Matthews, if an American family replaced just 25 percent of their red meat consumption with chicken, that would reduce their carbon footprint as much as buying entirely locally produced food.

My advice is to be wary of foods labeled as local. When it comes to grocery shopping, I firmly believe organic is a lot more important than local. Just because food is produced locally, does not mean it is produced in an ecologically responsible manner. In the summer months, when the farmers’ markets are open and the garden is growing, it can be easy and fun to find organic and local foods. However, for the rest of the year, I will always choose organic over conventionally grown local produce.


“What, exactly, is wrong with GMOs?”

While updating a friend on my latest endeavors, including Aisle of Confusion, he asked me this question.  As I stumbled through an answer, he barraged me with a few more questions: “Won’t they feed the world?”  “What about that Golden Rice? Won’t it help children from becoming blind?” It was clear at the end of the conversation that he was skeptical of everything I said. So I did more research, read a few more books, and hope to succinctly answer his questions in a series of posts.

Perhaps the biggest problem with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) is that we, and by “we” I mean expert scientists, do not fully understand the technology. Our ability to move genes and traits between plants, and now and animals, seems to have outpaced our understanding of the consequences. We have created these new life forms (GMOs) and released them into the environment, without reservation, where they are uncontrolled and unconfined. While traditional breeding selects for traits naturally occurring within the plant, genetic modification tampers with genes by moving DNA from one organism to another. The process is not as precise as it sounds, and can lead to many known and unknown consequences. (This is why I will not use the term “genetic engineering.” The word, “engineering” implies a level of precision and accuracy that does not exist in genetic modification.)

When this new organism is outside of a laboratory, it will contaminate natural breeds with its foreign genetic material and upset delicate ecosystems.

Additionally, many studies have brought to light questions about the safety of human consumption of GMOs or other questions that beg for more research (such as the impact of GMOs on pollinators), and yet the greed of biotechnology companies, eager for a return on investment, have placed profit and shareholder value far above concerns of consumer safety and environmental sustainability.

As a result, the GMO industry is happily having their cake and eating it too.  One on hand, the FDA recognizes GMOs as substantially equivalent to conventional food crops (no doubt a result of the “revolving door” to be discussed later), and therefore GMOs are “generally recognized as safe.” This distinction means GMOs are exempt from testing under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, United States. On the other hand, the food industry has successfully patented these GMOs because, well, they are substantially different from conventional food crops.

The obvious next question is “which is it?”

Home Canning 101

“Maybe next year” was a response I received from many of my friends after hearing my adventures with canning this past summer. There seems to be a surge of interest in canning everywhere, not just among my friends. I notice more stores carrying canning equipment and there are many bloggers dedicated to canning. I think this increased interest is directly correlated with interest in organic, local, and whole foods and increased interest in shopping at farmers markets; according to the USDA there were 16% more farmers markets in 2010 than 2009.

The benefits of canning are numerous. You can pick your own produce by whatever is important to you: local and in season, organic, or heirloom; the jars are glass (instead of BPA lined cans, although canning lids may contain BPA as well); it reduces waste as jars can be reused year after year unlike commercial cans which must be recycled. And, just like any type of cooking, once you cook something yourself for the first time (let’s say salsa, hummus, or barbecue sauce), you understand which ingredients need to be there and which ingredients exist for some other reason – probably to benefit the manufacturer, not the consumer (think high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated anything.) I find this makes it easier to find higher quality products at the grocery store when I can’t make them myself.

Two years ago, when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I made it a goal to learn to can. This was the second summer my mom and I canned together. Here are our lessons learned:

1. Get a good canning book, or maybe two. My mom and I referenced two books, the first by Better Homes and Gardens, You Can Can and the second, The Complete Book of Home Preserving by Ball.

You Can Can has a great introductory section that introduces the reader to both water bath canning equipment and pressure canning equipment and briefly describes the science of home canning in addition to describing the methods, step by step. The book has large color photos of each recipe, and, from what I can tell so far, the recipes taste great.

The Complete Book of Home Preserving has fewer pictures, but contains more recipes. We used this book for its recipes for both years, and my mom for more years, and have been very happy with the results.

2. Know your farmers market. Canning takes a LOT of fruits and vegetables. Unless you have more time, land, luck or better climate than I do, you’ll most likely need to supplement your homegrown goodies with fruits and veggies from your farmers market. It’s good to be familiar with the market, what they offer, and who the farmers are.

My mom and I visited multiple farmers markets this summer. Our least favorite was, unfortunately, Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Our favorite was the Olympia Farmers Market. At Olympia Farmers Market there is a fantastic pepper stand, sweet peppers on one side, hot peppers on the other (I’m kicking myself right now for not having taken a picture of it). The sellers at Olympia Farmers Market are closely tied to the farm, whereas the sellers at Pike Place Market, at least the people we talked to, were essentially middle men, collecting produce from many farms, including farms as far away as Hawaii and California.

3. Plan your shopping carefully. Before shopping, analyze the yield of each recipe. I think it’s disappointing to spend several hours on a recipe, including shopping, chopping, measuring, cooking, canning, and cleaning, to find that the recipe only yields five pints. Which, if you are canning with a friend, you have to figure out how to split in two! You may need larger pots for doubling, and sometimes tripling or quadrupling recipes, but it’s not much more work.

Keep in mind, if you increase recipes, that you must increase every ingredient proportionally. Canning recipes must be followed exactly. This assures cooking time is adequate for the pH of the recipe. Any change to the recipe could alter the pH and therefore affect the safety of the food.

Also cumbersome, if you are using multiple recipes, especially from different books, ingredients are often measured with different units. For example, green peppers may be measured by the each, the pound, or the cup. If one recipe calls for a ½ pound of green peppers and another calls for 1 cup of chopped peppers, good luck figuring out how many green peppers you need to buy! Make your best estimate, and then get a little extra, and you should be okay.

4. Have a backup plan. Have a backup list of ingredients, or better yet bring your cookbooks with you to the farmers market. Sometimes you will need an ingredient that is not available at your farmers market; it’s nice to be able to change plans on the fly. For example, my mom and I wanted to make green tomato salsa, but we had trouble finding green tomatoes. We were able to switch recipes at the last minute and utilize ingredients we’d already bought because we had our recipes with us while we were shopping.

5. Can with a friend. No doubt canning is a lot of work, but as an effort shared with family or friends, canning can be a rewarding weekend adventure that pays dividends all winter long! There’s a lot of cleaning, chopping, measuring, and stirring. I suppose some folks probably find time, and enjoy canning enough, to do it on their own, but for the newbie I would definitely recommend finding a friend to can with.

6. Get the right tools. The equipment for canning is fairly inexpensive. You Can Can has a section called “Canning Basics” that lists, and shows pictures of, the basic tools you will need for boiling-water canning (high acid foods) and pressure canning (low acid foods). For boiling-water canning you can easily get away with a very large covered pot instead of a dedicated boiling water canner (I use a beer-brewing pot – a nice multi-tasker!), just make sure to place a rack at the bottom of the canner to avoid glass jars being in direct contact with the heat source. Many recipes call for boiling-water canning. I’d recommend starting here before buying a pressure canner.

If you do can with a friend, you’ll need all of the biggest pots and measuring cups that you each can supply. Other tools that may be handy are chef knives for everyone to use, rubber clothes for chopping hot peppers (highly recommended!!) and an immersion blender which is convenient for smoothing things like barbecue sauce.

One last note, don’t skimp on buying a jar lifter. You may be able to MacGyver a system for getting jars out of boiling water for a while, but eventually you will probably fail and end up with a trip to urgent care. Avoid this.


My Reluctant and Delayed Acceptance of Organic Food

This is a guest post from Rich – who has recently converted to purchasing certified organic foods in place of “conventional” foods. Rich provides comments on a variety of topics, political, financial, and current events, at Lawyer Musings.


USDA National Organic Program Seal

It was as recently as Christmas 2009 when I argued with Anneke, claiming that there were several problems with organic food, causing me not to buy them. My objections to organic products still exist: (1) there is no labeling or guarantee that the organic food actually contains less pesticide contamination than other food, (2) organic food is more costly, and (3) there seems a high probability of fraud by the growers and suppliers.

However, I now purchase organic labeled food, especially for thin-skinned produce to avoid pesticides and for soy based products to avoid genetically modified organisms. I pay the premium for my three pound block of San Fransisco brand arabica coffee from Costco, too. Although it is more expensive than the non-organic equivalent, it is still about the cheapest coffee sold anywhere.

The reasons for the change to organic purchasing are growing skepticism with U.S food policy, including the lack of testing of synergistic effects arising from the application of multiple pesticides (see Rusty’s blog – Honey Bee Suite), the use of systemic pesticides in food crops, and the lack of labeling of GMO foods. Another influence is anecdotal information; I am old enough to have seen many instances of cancer and morbidity among people whose families were not particularly careful with the chemicals they or their spouses used, ingested, touched. Perhaps it is not too late to mitigate some of the harm from my own history of exposure to environmental contaminants. Maybe I can lower the risk of sickness and lingering death that is often associated with cancer, a disease that is known to be caused by, among other things, many pesticides that remain in use today.

My change in attitude is also based on a belief that our society is incredibly resistant to regulatory change and that the regulation of food safety is quite poor for risks that are long term and not amenable to an easy understanding of cause and effect. Government appointees are rendered powerless by little education and knowledge of technology, industry lobbyists, and their political bosses. Meaningful regulatory change is impossible without catastrophe or strong public demand.

I remain unconvinced of many items on the progressive agenda. For example, I see no reason to buy local. It seems the market price for a given quality product is the best determinant of what I should buy with respect to its geographical source.


200 Years of Cans: From Lead to BPA

Today is the 200th anniversary of Peter Durand’s patent for preserving food in tin cans. Patent number 3372 was granted on August 25, 1810 by King George III of England.

Canning is an incredible feat of mankind. It allows produce and other food to be preserved at the peak of its freshness to be consumed anytime and anywhere. It served as “on the go” food for soldiers and prevented sailors at sea from developing scurvy.

However, early in their history, cans were sealed with lead solder. During the 1845 Northwest Passage expedition much of Sir John Franklin’s crew members suffered from severe lead poisoning after three years of eating canned food.

Those days are long past, but recently cans have come under fire for another toxic reason.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an industrial, toxic compound that is a component of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It is a component of the epoxy resin liner used in almost all metal food cans and drink cans. BPA enters the food through leaching. Of the cans tested by the Environmental Working Group, chicken soup, infant formula and ravioli had the highest BPA levels, and over half of all cans tested had detectable levels of BPA.

In various studies, BPA has shown to be toxic at low doses and has been linked to cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, obesity, and insulin resistance. BPA is an endocrine disruptor capable of mimicking the body’s own hormones. The greatest risk for negative health effects is during early development; this is especially concerning for women of childbearing age, infants and young children.

It’s time to get BPA out of our cans. In the mean time, there are ways to limit your exposure to BPA. Children and pregnant women should avoid exposure to BPA by limiting consumption of foods in metal cans. Select powdered infant formula instead of liquid infant formula. Avoid canned pastas and soups; rinsed canned fruit or vegetables prior to heating or serving. And avoid the use of plastic food or drink containers with recycling number 7. These recommendations can be found in more detail on the Environmental Working Group website.


Summer in a Can

In keeping with the tradition my mom and I started last year (see Learning to Can Part 2), we spent several days together this past week with nothing but canning on the agenda.

Canning, a method of preserving, has an interesting past. In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a cash reward to whoever could devise a reliable method of preserving food for his army and navy. After fourteen years of experimentation, Nicholas Appert discovered that sealing food in wine bottles and then heating the bottles would prevent the food from spoiling. He won the prize. The next year, 1810, Peter Durand, an Englishman, patented a method to seal food inside tin cans and then, in 1858, American John Mason invented a glass jar that made home canning practical. It was not until the 1860s that it was understood why canning preserved food; Louis Pasteur answered that question.

Photo Courtesy USDA National Agriculture Library

My mom has shared with me many memories of her time spent with her depression-era grandparents. One of her grandparents’ activities that she remembers fondly is canning. In keeping with what I know about my great-grandparents, I recently read that canning was most common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among small town families. These families would preserve the vegetables from their gardens and fruit trees and would often trade cans between neighbors.  For people like my great-grandparents, who raised children during the Great Depression, this thriftiness was a way of life — one that lasted a lifetime.

During both World War I and World War II, the government encouraged “patriotic” families to plant “victory gardens” and to learn how to preserve excess yields through canning. Efforts of canning on the home front meant there was more food available for hardworking soldiers and sailors.

These days, canning is more of a hobby than a necessity. However, with the food movement (the increased public awareness of the environmental, ecological and human health issues surrounding industrial farming and the food industry) in full swing there is passion across the country to take greater control of our food supply by obtaining local and organic produce from farmers’ markets and by planting home gardens. Consequently, there seems to be renewed interest in canning so that the local and organic bounty of summer may be enjoyed all year long.

Check out these fun sites to learn how you can can: Food In Jars, Canning Across America, and Punk Domestics!


Food For Thought: Does Meat Make Us Smarter?

NPR recently published a story examining the origins of omnivore diets in humans. Evolution indicates our early ancestors enjoyed a plant-based diet until approximately 2.3 million years ago. The anthropologist interviewed, Leslie Aiello, believes meat-consumption was a significant factor in the evolution of humans, specifically with brain size. She says, “You can’t have a large brain and big guts at the same time.” Indicating that digestion (of plant-based foods) consumed so much energy that no energy was left to devote to the brain. The brain requires twenty times more energy than muscle of the same mass.

The article goes on to discuss cooking. Cooking, in addition to releasing flavor in food and killing pathogens, also makes food more digestible which therefore makes much of the energy more available.

Despite the pleasant closing to the article which argues what really makes us human is our ability to cook which therefore provides opportunity for us to gather as families and communities, to share labor, and to enjoy conversation, this is the type of article that pits omnivores against vegetarians. (Try a Google search for “can meat make us smarter.”)

Aiello’s comment that you can’t have a big brain and a big stomach is perplexing.  At first I thought perhaps our modern lifestyle makes such energy-dense foods such as meat obsolete (as a necessary part of our diet), but Aiello’s comment makes it sound that it is physically impossible to get enough energy to power our brains from plants alone. We know this isn’t true; there are plenty of smart, big-brained people in the world who consume a plant-based diet. Both their stomachs and their brains seem to get enough energy.

Is brain-size indicative of intelligence?

Even if it is assumed that Aiello is correct in attributing meat consumption to brain-size, this article doesn’t discuss how then (2.3 million years ago) relates to now.  Is meat consumption necessary to sustain our brains now?  Are calorically dense foods such as meat necessary when 68% percent of adult Americans are overweight and most lead sedentary lifestyles? How much meat was consumed by these early ancestors? Surely it was much less than today’s humans who have the benefit of agriculture (which began about 10,000 years ago) and the domestication of livestock (even more recent than agriculture.)

This article left me with more questions than answers.


Natural and … Unnatural?

While shopping for sour cream, I noticed a new (new to me at least) product from Tillamook Dairy called “Natural Sour Cream.”

Premium and Natural Tillamook Sour Cream

Of course, this made me curious.  Check out the ingredients:

Tillamook’s Premium Sour Cream contains Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Cream and Milk, Grade A Nonfat Dry Milk, Modified Corn Starch, Sodium Phosphate, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Locust Bean Gum, Maltrodextrin.

Tillamook’s Natural Sour Cream contains Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Cream and Milk, Enzymes.

Tillamook Sour Cream is downright yummy.  I can’t tell the difference (in taste or consistency) between the two products.  So why the extra (and weird) ingredients in the “Premium” stuff?

Same price, by the way.


RoundUp Ready Tacos

It struck me one recent evening out of no where. Quite frankly, it’s scary and slightly embarrassing that it didn’t strike earlier.

For years I have been eating soy burgers and other soy products as a replacement for meat.

But, suddenly, all the pieces fell together from my reading and research. I immediately ran to the garbage can and dug around (sometimes realizations aren’t pretty) for the empty package of MorningStar Crumbles, a soy substitute for ground beef — discarded after eating tacos that night. I knew the Crumbles weren’t organic, but I desperately searched the label for “non-GMO,” “no genetically engineered ingredients,” “GMO free,” anything or something to let me know that I wasn’t eating industrial Monsanto soy as a substitute for CAFO meat. The label gave no such assurances.

With no GMO indication on the label, and with the knowledge that 90% of the soybean crop in the United States is Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready variety, I had the horrible sinking feeling that I had just consumed Roundup Ready Tacos. Perhaps you can just spray me with Glyphosate.

It really angers me that these companies are so deceitful. The reason I am purchasing a “meat substitute” in the first place is because of the environmental, ecological, and health implications of CAFO meat. Why would I want to trade one evil for another?!? For several years, my family and I have been consuming these products, thinking we were doing something good for ourselves and good for the earth. To find we have been consuming large quantities of Monsanto’s science experiments saddens me.

Just to make sure my sinking feeling was correct I did a few searches online. I’ll save you the time. If you want a meat substitute, let’s say a veggie burger, these are your options for ensuring you are not eating RoundUp Ready Burgers:

1. Buy Organic. Certified Organic foods should not contain genetically modified ingredients.

2. If you don’t buy Organic, stay away from processed foods containing soybeans, corn, canola, or cotton (cottonseed oil). These are the largest genetically modified crops. Keep in mind that many, if not most, food additives are derived from soybeans and corn.

3. Make your own veggie burgers using your own carefully selected ingredients.

After my realization, I submitted a comment on the MorningStar website; I told them I was not going to buy another MorningStar product until the entire line is made without genetically modified ingredients.

Since then, I’ve made black bean burgers and I’ve bought veggie burgers from two different Organic brands: Amy’s and Sunshine Burgers. The black bean burgers were delicious, although they did not stick together at all. I will continue to work on that recipe. The Amy’s burgers and Sunshine Burgers are convenient and tasty; I recommend trying either.

As for tacos, I’ve always enjoyed beans more than the Crumbles anyway. Back to beans for me!


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