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At Risk in the Womb?

October 4, 2010 •  45 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Submitted by Jeff Cox

The news was astounding. When researchers tested the blood in the umbilical cords of newborn babies, they found 273 different commercial chemicals. That means that all those chemicals passed the placental barrier and reached the developing fetus’s body. Babies today are swimming in a contaminated sea of chemicals called the amniotic fluid.

Then the news broke that there are about 80,000 chemicals sold commercially in the U.S. today, used in almost every manufacturing process, from TV dinners to furniture polish. But surely the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration has checked these chemicals for toxicity and issued guidelines for their safe use, right? Wrong.

“Under current laws,” writes Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post for August 1, 2010, “the government has little or no information about the health risks posed by most of the 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today.” She reports, for example, that Kellogg recalled 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, and Honey Smacks this summer because of elevated levels of 2-methylnaphthalene in the packaging. Complaints came in from consumers about a strange taste and odor, and some cases of nausea and diarrhea were reported. Kellogg issued a statement saying a panel of experts they hired concluded there was no harmful material in the products. But the FDA has no data on 2-methylnaphthalene’s impact on human health. The EPA also has no data on the chemical’s health and safety—even though they’ve been seeking that information from the chemical industry for 16 years.

But it gets worse. When the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, it exempted from control 62,000 chemicals then in common use, including 2-methylnaphthalene. Furthermore, chemicals developed and sold into commerce since 1976 don’t have to be tested for safety. The chemical companies are supposed to forward any safety data to the government, which will then decide if further testing is needed or if the chemical should be banned. Talk about a disincentive for doing safety testing! The chemical industry isn’t in business to protect the health and safety of the public. It’s in business to make chemicals and sell them for a profit.

Now, nature has created a system for keeping harmful substances away from babies in their mothers’ wombs. Among many other functions, the placenta can screen out toxic substances. But the placental system developed before there were manmade chemicals, and the screening system prevents mostly natural toxics—toxins in plants for the most part–from reaching the baby. The fact that 273 synthetic chemicals crossed the placenta from the mother to the baby shows that not only does the placenta fail to deal with manmade synthetic chemicals, but that we all are living in a chemical swamp, and that no one is doing much testing at all about the safety of tens of thousands of chemicals.

There is something you can do. Eat organic food whenver possible. Many if not most of the chemicals in our bodies come in through the food we eat. By its very definition and by law, organic food cannot be grown or processed with synthetic chemicals.

For the health and safety of us all, and especially for women either pregnant or thinking about conceiving, organic food is food that will not add to the toxic load we all carry and is a food system that we should invest in at the federal level so that it is affordable to everyone.

Jeff Cox is the author of 19 books on food, wine, and gardening from the organic perspective, including the James Beard Foundation-nominated “The Organic Cook’s Bible.” He’s the former managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine and has hosted two TV series on gardening, Your Organic Garden on PBS and Grow It! on HGTV. He’s a contributing editor of Horticulture magazine and The Wine News, and writes frequently for Decanter, a London-based wine magazine.

Eating Rules? Chew On This…

October 1, 2010 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News

At the AllergyKids Foundation, we get a lot of questions about the definition of “unprocessed” — so we turned to the experts at Eating Rules and found insight and guidance from our friends over there who have decided to eat only unprocessed foods for the month of October.

As any parent, knows, the landscape of childhood has changed. And in the face of the current rates of obesity, allergies, autism, ADHD, diabetes and asthma, when it comes to eating, you obviously need to do what’s right for you and your family. No one is watching over your shoulder, and just as all food is intensely personal, so too is this challenge…to see if you can reduce the amounts of unprocessed foods that your family eats for the month of October.

Now the team over at Eating Rules is going whole-hog. But over here at the AllergyKids Foundation, we’re all about learning, taking baby steps, and not making “the perfect” the enemy of “the good”. So if you feel you need to make any exceptions, by all means feel free to do so. Just make sure it’s a deliberate choice whenever possible.

So with that introduction, we’ll turn it over to our friend, Andrew Wilder, at Eating Rules, as his insight and guidance are thought-provoking as we work to inspire change in the ways we feed our families.

Now his definition may not match your definition — and that’s okay. In fact, he encourages disagreement and discussion, since that’s the best way for us to learn together.

Having said all that, here’s Andrew’s working definition of unprocessed from Eating Rules. He calls it The Kitchen Test:

Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.

It doesn’t mean that you have to be able to make the food — but that the food could be made in a home kitchen by someone who knows what they’re doing. If it needs high-powered, industrial equipment, or could only be made in a laboratory, then it’s out.

Here’s a good example. Look at the ingredients for a PowerBar Triple Threat® Chocolate Peanut Butter Crisp:

CORN SYRUP, SOY CRISPS (SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, RICE FLOUR, ALKALIZED COCOA), CHOCOLATEY COATING (SUGAR, FRACTIONATED PALM KERNEL OIL, COCOA, WHEY, NONFAT MILK, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL VANILLA FLAVOR), WHOLE OATS, DRY ROASTED PEANUTS, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, INULIN (FROM CHICORY), NATURAL FLAVORS (CONTAINS PEANUT, MILK, SOY LECITHIN), RICE CRISPS (MILLED RICE, SUGAR, SALT, BARLEY MALT), SALTED PEANUT BUTTER, VEGETABLE GLYCERIN, AND LESS THAN 2% OF PEANUT FLOUR, ALMOND BUTTER, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, MINERALS: CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, FERROUS FUMARATE (IRON), VITAMINS: ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C), VITAMIN B6 HYDROCHLORIDE, RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMINE MONONITRATE (VITAMIN B1).

I’ve bolded any ingredients that I’m pretty sure you can’t make at home (or without some sort of industrial process). Compare that to the ingredients of a Cashew Cookie Lara Bar:

CASHEWS, DATES.

I’m absolutely certain that a cook with average skills could make something comparable to the Lara bar in your kitchen. But the PowerBar? Not so much.

Okay, so let me toss out a few other specific foods that I’ve been asked about:

Chocolate. Yup, it’s okay, because it’s possible to make chocolate at home. However, if the store-bought chocolate contains extra emulsifiers, flavorings, or other additives that you wouldn’t use if you were make it at home, it’s off the list.

Coffee. Yup. Try this fun project: Buy some green coffee beans (they’ve already been cleaned for you), and toast them in your popcorn air popper. (Skip the little yellow, blue, or pink packets and the powdered creamer.) Or you could grow your own coffee plant, and then wet-process the beans yourself. Totally doable at home (how much time do you have?)

Beer. Yup, I’ve got quite a few friends who make beer at home (one even grows his own hops — he makes truly incredible beers. Just saying.)

Wine. Yes, I’ve got quite a few friends who make wine at home. There is the question of sulfites, though. My winemaker friends usually add sulfites (sourced from winemaking suppliers, not from your regular grocery story, I believe) — so you’ll need to decide for yourself if you’ll seek out sulfite-free wines. [Update: Please read Dave's clarification in the comments.]

Vodka, Gin, and other Spirits. Although I don’t recommend distilling your own (and it may be illegal), it’s certainly possible to do this at home. Just skip the gimmicky flavored ones and I’m sure you’ll be fine. Of course, it depends on how picky you want to be. You may wish to consider what sugars/starches are being used to feed the fermentation process. If you want to research this some more, please report back!

Bacon and Sausage. As long as there are no additives (nitrates, flavorings, etc.), and it’s a high-quality product, you’re probably okay here. Maybe this is a good opportunity to get to know a local butcher.

“Veggie Burgers “and “Fake Meats.” Most of these should be avoided, as they usually contain a lot of textured vegetable protein (which I’m almost certain you couldn’t make at home). But if you are in a pinch, you can probably find something that’ll work. You’ll really need to read the ingredient list: An All-American Flame-Grilled Boca Burger is definitely out. Dr. Praeger’s Gluten Free California Veggie Burger is certainly better, though it’s got a couple of ingredients that are questionable. (Personally, I’m going to do my best to avoid these).

Cooking Oils. It is possible to press your own oils at home, though it would be a rather inefficient process. I would expect that nut oils would be easier (just grind them up and let them separate, like your jar of peanut butter, right?). Also, these old oil press instructions and drawings are fun.

Salt. Depending on how refined it is, this may or may not be okay. Stick with the natural, unprocessed salts such as the fabulous Fleur De Sel.

Sugar. Usually, the term “sugar” refers to bleached table sugar, those fine-white granulated crystals that come from sugar cane or sugar beets. The bleaching is done with sulfur dioxide, an ingredient that hopefully isn’t in your pantry. Next!

Turbinado Sugar (“Raw” Sugar) is the same stuff — but it hasn’t been bleached. I think it would be possible to make turbinado sugar crystals at home, if you had some sugar cane stalks ready to go. Although there are a couple of steps in the commercial process that you couldn’t do, I’m guessing you could still get the crystals if you’re patient enough (perhaps a countertop food dehydrator would help evaporation).

[Update: Please read MrJackHonky's thoughts on sugar in the comments.]

Honey. Good to go; in fact, this is probably the most “unprocessed” sweetener available.

Agave Nectar. You’re probably okay with this one. Some agave is simply heated (at relatively low temperatures). It may also be enzymatically processed. Any agave experts out there want to weigh in?

Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup. Both of these are too complicated to make at home. Off the list.

Flour. As long as it’s 100% whole grain flour, it’s okay. You could certainly grind whole grains in your kitchen. As Bob’s Red Mill says, one pound in, one pound out. Refined flours, however, have had the germ and bran removed (leaving just the fluffy endosperm) — and are likely bleached or brominated, and may be enriched with nutrients that had been previously removed.

Corn Meal and Masa. Again, if these are made with the whole grain (such as the whole grain cornmeal in my Bob’s Red Mill giveaway), then it’s all good.

Butter. Yup, you could certainly make real butter at home, if you’re so inclined.

Cheese. Yup. In fact, I already make cheese at home. Skip the “pasteurized processed” cheeses, or “cheese foods,” of course.

Nut Butters. Look at the ingredient list. If it’s just “Nuts & Salt” (or better yet, just Nuts), then it’s great. But if it’s got stabilizers, sweeteners, and oils, it’s a no-no (Skippy, I’m looking at you!)

Spices. Yup, these are okay. You could certainly grow them at home, dry them, and then grind them as needed.

Breads. Again, it’s all about the ingredient list. The best option, of course, is to make it at home. But if it’s store-bought, read the ingredient list. The flour should be whole grain (avoid these pitfalls), and there shouldn’t be fillers, preservatives, artificial sweeteners (yes, they sometimes add those to 100% whole wheat breads. Oroweat, I’m looking at you and your acesulfame potassium!)

Okay, I think that covers most of the biggies. I’m sure I’ve missed some, so please ask in the comments. Also, if you disagree with any of my conclusions, or can add any other bits of advice, we’d all love to hear about it! ~Andrew Wilder, Eating Rules

If you haven’t taken the October: Unprocessed pledge yet, you can join our friends at Eating Rules and now’s the time!