If you have young kids, you’re no doubt careful about what snacks and treats they eat at home. But everywhere else they go, their diet is pretty much out of your control. If you want to allow your kids occasional treats but still protect them from artificial dyes and sweeteners, Surf Sweets candies may be a good choice.
Too much sugar in anyone’s diet is a bad idea. And it’s a really bad idea for children with a developing weight problem. My best recommendation is to give your kids healthy foods, including lots of raw fruits and vegetables for snacks. But let’s face it, most of us want a little snack from time to time. And if your child is going to have a sweet snack, it’s way better to give them a healthier alternative than most of the candies on the market.
Worldwide, there’s growing concern over artificial sweeteners and synthetic food dyes. The following information is from a press release I received from Surf Sweets: In July of 2010, “European food and beverage manufacturers will be required to include a strong warning statement on products containing six synthetic dyes indicating their products ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.’ In the U.S., the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is urging the FDA to ban completely eight widely used food dyes that have been linked to behavior problems in children, specifically those with ADHD.”
Naturally, Surf Sweets is promoting this information because it doesn’t apply to their products. “Chicago area-based Surf Sweets® is one of the few candy companies in the United States that avoids using synthetic dyes or artificial flavors in any of its products, which was a primary goal of the brand when it was originally founded. All Surf Sweets products are Stage 2 Feingold-approved, meaning they are approved by The Feingold Association, a non-profit that publishes approved food lists to help people avoid certain synthetic food additives.”
When my own kids were young, I knew moms who almost religiously adhered to recommendations from the Feingold Association. Controlling the amount of food additives — especially dyes — their children ate made a dramatic difference in their children’s behavior. And Feingold was a leader in identifying the link between food additives and hyperactivity. So, I’m a believer (albeit through second-hand experience) that synthetic food dyes are a potential problem for many kids. And if Surf Sweets are Feingold-approved, that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
Unless you’re so young you never knew anything different (or really don’t want to know), you can’t avoid the increased “artificialization” of pre-packaged foods today. And one of the greatest culprits is synthetic food dyes. In 1955, according to FDA statistics cited by Surf Sweet, “the amount of food dye certified for use in 1955 was 12 milligrams per capita per day. In 2007, it was 59 mg per capita per day, or nearly five times as much.”
But Surf Sweets uses only natural food dyes. “Where most candy gets its color from synthetic dyes, Surf Sweets uses natural ingredients like black carrot juice concentrate and turmeric (from the ginger family) to color our candy,” says Bert Cohen. Cohen is president and founder of TruSweets, LLC.
But dyes aren’t the only culprit. Artificial sweeteners are also potentially hazardous. We hear an awful lot about high fructose corn syrup leading to obesity and diabetes. It’s ubiquitous, and nowhere more so than snacks and treats. Cohen adds, “And where most candy is sweetened with corn syrup, Surf Sweets candies are organically sweetened with real organic fruit juice and evaporated cane juice instead.”
Also of concern to many consumers, whether or not we’re parents, is the use of foods that have been genetically modified (GMOs). Surf Sweets are free of those, too. And, to my mind, that’s a very good thing. Of course, it’s also a nice touch that they also “provide 100% of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of antioxidant Vitamin C.”
I received a sampling of seven Surf Sweets treats (yes, this job has benefits), and though I’m not generally given to snacking on candy, I’ve been having fun writing this review.
Here are the treats I received (and which I am busily consuming out of my “duty” to accurate reporting).
- Gummy Bears
- Gummy Worms
- Organic Jelly Beans
- Sour Worms
- Organic Fruity Bears
- Gummy Swirls
- Sour Berry Bears
I very nearly wrote that my favorite is the Surf Sweets™ Sour Berry Bears. Then I tried another of their Gummy Swirls. Ooh. Delicious there, too. But the Gummy Worms were also a big hit with me. They were almost creamy; an odd description for Gummy Worms, I suppose, but accurate to my taste.
Everyone has their favorite as far as flavors, but mine has always been cherry. That holds true for me with Surf Sweets treats, too. Each treat I tried came in a variety pack. (If I had my choice, every pack would just contain the cherry treats.)
All of the treats except the Jelly Beans were of the “Gummy Bear” variety, in that they are jelly-like candies. Most also have a light dusting of sugar on them. For me, that’s overkill. I’d be content with just the sweetness of the treat itself.
I was initially willing to accept samples of Surf Sweets treats not only because of their natural food dyes and sweeteners, but also because the products use organic ingredients. Is every ingredient organic? Doesn’t appear that way. But between the seven products, several ingredients are organic; and every product’s main ingredient is organic.
There’s more good news about Surf Sweets, too. Surf Sweets treats are —
- Gluten free
- Dairy and casein free
- Allergy friendly (no wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish, shellfish)
- Feingold approved
- Produced and packaged in a dedicated nut-free facility
- Four vegan options (Fruity Bears, Gummy Swirls, Sour Berry Bears, Sour Worms)
- Five vegetarian options (Fruity Bears, Gummy Swirls, Jelly Beans, Sour Berry Bears, Sour Worms)
Are they fattening? Not particularly. “Each 2.75-oz bag of Surf Sweets candies contains only 120-140 calories per serving depending on the variety.”
The suggested retail price for a 2.75 oz. bag is $1.99. You may well be able to find Surf Sweets treats in your local grocery store, as the company says, “They’re currently available in mainstream grocery and natural foods stores, online and at specialty retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada.”
For those of you who are looking for healthier snack options for the Trick-or-Treaters in your neighborhood, watch your store shelves in October for the Surf Sweets Sour Worm Halloween Pack. Each package contains 20 individually wrapped treat packs of Surf Sweets Sour Worms. The suggested retail price is $4.99.
A final note from the company: “Unlike other candy brands, Surf Sweets proudly makes its products in the USA.” For more information visit the Surf Sweets website.
And a final note from your intrepid candy reviewer: Because I love chocolate, and I didn’t see that listed on any of the labels, I thought I’d be disappointed. But these are definitely yummy. I’ve just spoiled my dinner.
The Small Print
Blue Planet Green Living received a free sample of the product described in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.
Blue Planet Green Living’s review policy is to only review those products we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a product, we do not review it. We are not influenced by complimentary products and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.
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I once heard a story about a lonely man who ate a tuna sandwich for lunch every day for 20 years. His cause of death? Mercury poisoning. I can’t say if this is true or not, but it certainly gets the point across: There could be something fishy in your fish.
For years, we’ve been hearing about the potential hazards of eating fish with a high mercury content. But what have we done about it? What can we do about it? Do we eat fish anyway? Or must we say goodbye to the fish we love?
Malcom Wittenberg founded Safe Harbor as a way to help consumers know which fish are safe to eat. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke by phone with Wittenberg about his revolutionary technology. — Megan Lisman, Intern
WITTENBERG: Safe Harbor sprang from my interest in mercury’s effects on human physiology. In 2000 – 2001, the mercury issue was being widely talked about in the media. I heard commentators noting that humans consume high levels of mercury from seafood. But the problem was difficult to solve, because the only way to test the levels of mercury at the time was in a laboratory, which is very expensive.
I saw a problem with no solution, so I took it upon myself to connect with people I’ve had relationships with for years, who are skilled in science, math, and physics. We sat down and tried to find a solution to this problem. It took us from 2001 to 2004 to create our technology, and we began testing fish commercially in 2004.
BPGL: How did the first test kit work in 2004, and is it the same technology that you use today?
WITTENBERG: Initially, we developed a test kit for the consumer to use at home. The idea was, the consumer would buy the fish and put a small piece of it into a vile, shake it up, and see their results. This way the consumer would know how much mercury was in the fish they were about to eat.
After we spent about a year trying to develop that technology, we conducted several focus groups. We found that most people were not interested in testing the fish at home; they’d rather have the product tested before they bought it. If the test showed a high mercury level, what were they going to do with the fish? They can’t take it back to the store, so they either eat it or discard it. We discontinued research in that area and went back to the drawing board.
We began developing a robust, electromechanical device that can be brought into a processing facility to test fish as they are caught. Our machine is accurate and fast. It is capable of testing fish at a rate of better than one a minute, and it’s sensitive to 10 parts per billion (ppb).
BPGL: When you say you can “test fish as they are caught,” do you mean that you have someone on board the ship who is doing the testing?
WITTENBERG: Our operators are stationed at docks around the world. We have machines located in Los Angeles; Seattle; Washington; Rome; General Santos City in the Philippines: and a suburb of Santiago, Chile. We will shortly be in Ecuador.
When the ships are unloaded, workers grade the fish. They do this by laying the fish out, taking a small section from each fish, and inspecting the color and fat content. This takes a little bit of time. While that is being done, we are testing the fish with our device. By the time the grading process is over, our testing procedure is done as well, so we don’t disturb the work they are doing.
BPGL: How do you perform the testing?
WITTENBERG: While our specific technology is private to us, I can tell you the way we do it. We created our own biopsy needle that is inserted into the muscle of the fish. It retrieves about a 50 milligram sample, roughly the size of your pinky nail, which is then placed into the device. The machine vacuums up the sample and sends it through the device. A minute later, the operator sees either a red or green screen. If the screen is red, the fish is over the certification level; and if the screen turns green, the fish is at a safer level. For example, with yellow fin tuna the certification level is 0.4 ppm. When the fish passes our screening test, it receives the Safe Harbor tag.
Our testing machine is programmed to the species of fish being tested, the location, date, and the mercury content of that fish. The machine is in internet contact with us at our home office. If needed, we can get on a computer and remotely access any of our testing machines to view the operators’ results.
In addition, the Safe Harbor tag is coded, meaning that the fish can be traced from the time it leaves the plant to its arrival at the retailer. The tag contains the information found which can be used to inform the retailer of the mercury level of the fish, where it was caught, and when it was tested.
BPGL: Does your device test all species of fish?
WITTENBERG: We have programmed our machine with all major species of fish that people consume. One day, we will be checking for halibut, and the next day, we will be checking yellow fin tuna. Once the species of fish is identified, the operator simply presses the touch screen to indicate the species they are testing. The machine is then ready to accept or reject that particular fish at the certification level we established for that species.
We test fish of all sizes. Small fish are generally lower in mercury, so we test them in batches. To determine their mercury levels, we plug in a mathematical algorithm that provides us with better than 99 percent accuracy that the batch meets our certification standards.
BPGL: When you’re testing fish on the dock, and you find one that is high in mercury, what do you do with it?
WITTENBERG: The fish that do not pass our certification standards simply do not get tagged with our Safe Harbor label. They go back into the general population of the plant to be sold to other vendors. There is no facility in which we test 100 percent of their output. The customers for the Safe Harbor brand represent a very tiny percentage of the fish coming through a particular facility. We test the quantity of fish needed for the demands of our customer, and never see the vast majority of the fish in the facility.
If fish don’t meet our certification standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad fish. We test fish at extremely strict mercury standards. For example, Safe Harbor certifies salmon at a 0.1 ppm. If the operator tests the salmon and it is at 0.2 ppm, that salmon is fine. There is nothing wrong with it. It just doesn’t have the value added that our Safe Harbor label attributes to the product.
BPGL: While your operators are out on the docks, are there any other organizations doing similar testing?
WITTENBERG: Basically, this is the only program I know of that tests fish for mercury. Certainly, the government and the FDA don’t do it. Perhaps they give people the perception that an adequate job is done in testing food being imported in this country, but in reality, that’s not the case.
We know the shortcomings of the FDA testing. They conduct spot checks on some high-mercury fish, like swordfish, but the fishing industry can easily get around those tests.
A typical swordfish weighs anywhere between 125 to 300 pounds. Vendors are bringing in small swordfish, called pups, weighing around 60 to 80 pounds — half the weight of a large swordfish. The vendor will bring in a few hundred pounds of pups in a day. The FDA tests them, and they pass, because they haven’t lived long, so their mercury levels are low.
After the vendor passes the FDA screening with their pups, they will bring in their 250-pound fish that have very little chance of passing the standard. But the FDA will not scrutinize the vendor again for a year, because the vendor has already been cleared as an importer.
BPGL: Could the FDA benefit from your technology?
WITTENBERG: I don’t know the budget the government has for imported fish testing. But I am aware that the FDA intercepts fish at main ports of entry — usually Miami or Los Angeles — and sends fish from the batch to a lab. So their budget must be somewhat significant.
About a year ago, I met with the head of the FDA in Maryland and offered to put our machinery at ports without any financial impact on the process. I was told they are not interested.
I was informed that the FDA is not a testing organization; they are more interested in messaging. Their focus is to warn consumers, particularly those in high-risk categories, such as pregnant women or young children, to stay away from certain species of fish. That’s where they draw the line.
I told them I didn’t think that our process would interfere with that. They could still message the same way, and do more testing for basically the same budget. But they did not want to get involved with us.
BPGL: How do you think the FDA’s lack of interest affects the quality of fish found in stores?
WITTENBERG: Consumers may be misled to think that products on store shelves meet FDA standards. While it is legal for fish to be sold that does not meet FDA standards, FDA’s 1.0 ppm limit is set so that the FDA can take action if it wishes to do so by pulling fish from the shelf, but that’s never done. In fact, we have conducted random tests on store-bought swordfish and have found the mercury level as high as 5 parts per million. That’s five times the FDA action level. We told them this, but nothing is being done about it.
For example, in northern California, we bought swordfish at a number of high-profile retail outlets. We bought the swordfish three times a week. We tested swordfish over time. We found that 4 out of 5, or 80% of swordfish tested were over the 1.00 ppm action level of the FDA. FDA data cites the mean mercury concentration level of swordfish at 0.97 ppm. The mean we measured over our random purchasing was 1.63 ppm.
BPGL: What are the dangers for consumers eating fish high in mercury?
WITTENBERG: I’m not a doctor, but I have read a lot on the subject. The best book I read recently is Diagnosis: Mercury. Jane Hightower, a physician at Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, writes about her experiences with patients who suffer from an excess of mercury. She describes some of the symptoms as including: loss of dexterity, loss of memory, fatigue and, sometimes, hair loss.
A huge issue is the unborn. A woman with an elevated mercury level is likely to have a baby born with an IQ 7 – 10 points lower than it otherwise would have had. That’s fairly significant.
BPGL: With what you just said, why would anyone eat fish?
WITTENBERG: Fish is great for you. There’s no question about that. It’s low in fat, high in omega 3s, and a great source of protein. Every physician I know of will tell a pregnant woman to eat fish, but in moderation, and to avoid certain species. It is not wise to eat swordfish or sushi while pregnant, but salmon and shellfish are fine.
The problem is, there are high and low mercury levels within each species and within each catch. But I would say, if someone is going to eat salmon a couple times a week, they’ll probably be okay. The mercury level in salmon is small compared to shark, swordfish, halibut, and tuna; and as long as the fish are smaller, they will be generally okay.
However, we have found examples of high mercury in fish that we were surprised to see. We discovered Atlantic salmon, which is farmed, at six times the FDA-published mercury level maximum.
BPGL: How is it possible for mercury to be in farmed salmon?
WITTENBERG: The waters in the Atlantic are very high in mercury. If you read the statistics, one in five women on the eastern seaboard — particularly in New England — has elevated mercury levels. We think this is because the power plants located in the Midwest and East burn coal to generate power. When the coal is burned, it causes mercury to be spewed into the atmosphere. It is then moved along through the jet stream, which is a westerly wind. By the time the jet steam hits the East Coast; the mercury will be in rain and accumulate in waters along the Georgia Banks, Eastern Canada and along the United States.
We find that fish in the Atlantic have more mercury, in general, than the fish in the Pacific. We tried to establish a swordfish testing facility in the Boston area. But at our certification level of 0.8 ppm, we found only two or three percent of the fish we tested could pass our standard.
BPGL: What about fish raised inside a controlled space? Is it possible to create a safe fish?
WITTENBERG: Farmed fish, such as tilapia, are low in mercury. If you were to advise someone to eat a safe fish, tilapia would be a good choice. A problem with tilapia is that it doesn’t have the omega 3s that many other fish offer.
But finding a low mercury fish may be getting harder. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that there are 12 million acre feet of lakes, waters, and estuaries that are polluted with mercury. That’s about 30% of the waters in the US. We’re not just talking about ocean fish, but also sporting fishing. It’s getting worse, because Asia at one time was an agricultural area, but now it’s industrialized. China and India produce a lot of electricity by burning coal.
BPGL: Do you think this going to kill the fish industry?
WITTENBERG: I don’t think so. Overfishing and failing to engage in sustainable practices are more likely to kill the fishing industry. It depends on consumption level. There is always going to be a demand for fish. Our job is to actually promote fish consumption. We are trying to build consumer confidence; get those who may have strayed away from the fish counter because of the mercury issue to return. We want them to start eating fish again, as we come up with a solution to their problem.
BPGL: Where are Safe Harbor fish being sold?
WITTENBERG: We have retailers located in the US and Italy, and we just began to sell our product in Canada. In the US, we sell to Haggan Markets and Tops Foods, a Seattle-based grocery store chain. And in the greater Bay Area, we sell to independent grocery stores DeLano’s IGA Market, Andronico’s Market, and Woodlands Market. We’re being used by a couple of major chains, but can’t disclose which ones just yet. Several additional chains have shown interest, so we’re making good headway there.
We are also making progress on getting restaurants to adopt our program. The Fish Market’s Northern California restaurants and retail counters have started to use Safe Harbor-tagged products in addition to some other high-end restaurants in California we can’t mention yet. Guests dining at these restaurants will see an asterisk on the menu to indicate that the product was tested and certified.
BPGL: What is sparking this increase in demand?
WITTENBERG: Customer demand clearly drives this program. Unless consumers demand that their fish be tested for mercury, it’s not going to happen. The retailer is not going to do it of their own volition. A major problem we encounter, as we offer our program, is that many retailers do not hear from the public that this is an issue they are concerned about. We believe this is because there has been no solution to the problem until now; people had no incentive to complain about the issue.
An operator in a Miami plant told me a story that is a perfect example of this. His daughter refused to eat fish throughout her three pregnancies, because she was scared about the mercury issue. I’m sure this woman never went to her retailer and said, “I wish you could do something about mercury.” Knowing the man behind the counter couldn’t fix the problem, she simply avoided eating seafood.
If retailers aren’t told of their customer concerns, they won’t adopt mercury testing. It’s a customer-pull situation. Our job is to get consumers to become aware that there is a solution to the problem of high mercury fish.
One of the many fun parts of my job is to review product samples that we receive here at Blue Planet Green Living. Of course, when goodies are involved, I have to share. And the products I’m writing about today are definitely in the goodies category.
SunRidge Farms sent us three packages of treats (Organic Sunny Worms, Organic Yogurt Pretzels, and Hickory-Smoked Almonds), so I enlisted the aid of my daughter, Lindsay, and my husband, Joe. They were more than willing to act as test subjects.
Before I describe our responses to the treats, I want to give you a heads-up: This article isn’t exclusively about food. It’s also about sustainable, environmentally friendly business practices that make SunRidge Farms the kind of company we believe in. But let’s talk about the goodies first.
Hands-down, the favorite of the three was the package of yogurt pretzels. The combination of sweet and salty tastes won all of us over in no time. We were also pleased to see that the ingredients include a roster of organic items:
“Organic Yogurt Coating (organic evaporated cane juice, organic fractionated palm kernel oil, organic nonfat yogurt [milk], organic soy lecithin [an emulsifier], lactic acid, salt and organic vanilla). Organic pretzels (organic wheat, flour, salt, organic malt syrup, organic canola oil and/or organic soybean oil, yeast, baking soda).”
I have to admit to having taken far more than my share. These were good — really good!
Second favorite — for all of us — were the Organic Sunny Worms. I’m not a big fan of so much sweetness (unless it’s chocolate), but aside from that, the flavors were delicious. Though Joe said the actual Sunny Worms were good, he brushed off the sugar crystals before eating the candy. Lindsay said she didn’t want any, but somehow they kept disappearing when she had custody of the bag. The truth is, these little guys didn’t linger too much longer than the rapidly disappearing Organic Yogurt Pretzels.
SunRidge Farms Organic Sunny Worms are 100% Vegetarian, Vitamin Enhanced, Gelatin-Free, and Certified Organic. The ingredients include:
Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Grape Juice, Pectin, Citric Acid, Supplement Premix, Natural Colors Added (including Turmeric, Black Carrot Juice Concentrate, Annatto), Natural Flavors.
The last item we tried was a bag of Hickory Smoked Almonds. I love almonds. I love them in chocolate (especially) and I love them plain. But I didn’t love them with the hickory smoke flavoring. I know that some people really appreciate this flavor, but I’m not one of them. Neither is Joe. I actually washed most of the hickory smoke flavoring off of the almonds before we ate them. The small remainder of hickory flavoring was plenty. For someone who loves both almonds and hickory smoke flavoring, these would be a real treat. For us, not so much.
The Hickory Smoked Almonds are not among the organic items sold by SunRidge Farms. Here are the ingredients:
Dry, Roasted Almonds; Hickory Smoke Seasoning (salt, maltodextrin, torula yeast, onion powder, smoke flavor, expeller pressed safflower oil).
While I have no idea what “expeller pressed safflower oil” is, I’m pleased to see that the ingredients actually sound like foods, not a laundry list of chemicals.
The food items are nearly all organic.
By selling bulk foods, they provide “The ultimate consumer choice to reduce grocery packaging.”
SunRidge Farms installed a 99W solar panel system onto the warehouse to convert the headquarters to solar.
The company “recycled” an existing manufacturing plant in order to stay in the local area.
The air purification and ventilation systems have improved air quality in the entire facility.
The office layout takes advantage of passive solar lighting; and the fluorescent lighting system uses “up to 80% less energy than incandescent lighting arrangements.”
All water devices are low-flow, and landscaping is designed for low water use.
Recycling programs have long been in place for paper, ink-jet cartridges, shrink wrap, corrugated cardboard boxes, and plastics.
Food waste from the manufacturing process is used for animal food.
The company uses only green cleaning products at their headquarters.
Every day that an employee bikes to work, he or she earns $5!
Finally, the company gives generously in both food and money to many organizations .
I’m impressed by this California company, which is living its values by implementing sustainable and environmentally responsible practices. So, if you’re in the market for a treat, check out your grocery store’s bulk food aisle and look for foods from SunRidge Farms. You can be assured of superior quality and, in many cases, organic ingredients. Chances are, you’ll also feel good knowing you’re supporting a company that values both the environment and its workers.
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My son and his girlfriend arrived today from California for Joe’s daughter’s wedding. They’re omnivores, as are the rest of the offspring from our blended family. Whenever we have a family gathering, my three look forward to an old family recipe (graciously handed down from their dad’s Italian grandmother), Italian beef. This presents me with a dilemma.
Joe and I are trying hard to swear off meat. We’re not entirely successful, because food allergies limit access to other sources of protein: dairy, soy, and some nuts. We do need protein, of course, and we were starting to feel less-than-healthy on our vegan diet. But we do not want to support the factory farms that treat animals as mere commodities.
We abhor the way cattle and hogs and chickens (and ducks, and presumably just about every other food-producing animal) are so often housed in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. We are also disgusted and deeply saddened to read how dairy cows are misused, their offspring yanked away shortly after birth and their bones so weakened by the overproduction of milk that they often break on the way to the slaughterhouse at the end of their “useful” lives. But that’s another story.
So, I promised Italian beef to our family. Then, this morning, I came across a movie review by Roger Ebert. It’s a review of Food, Inc., a powerful recounting of the way food is produced by Big Ag in the United States. Ebert’s review touches on the very issues that made Joe and me want to forgo all meat and dairy products.
I haven’t yet seen Food, Inc., but I have heard that it is not to be missed. Ebert’s review is so powerful that I couldn’t write a better one, even if I had seen the movie. I urge you to read it, and then to see Food, Inc. when it comes to your local area. If you’ve already seen the movie, please give us your own review.
As I read Ebert‘s article, I felt increasingly guilty about my promise to my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t cook Italian beef for them. By doing so I’m betraying the values Joe and I have come to share. But, the truth is, he and I also eat meat at times. So is my promise to my kids any different than what we ourselves do now and then? No, it’s not. As Joe and I said when we first started this website, “We’re on a journey; we aren’t there yet.” That goes for living sustainably, for being vegetarian or vegan, and for being the best humans we can.
I’ll buy meat for my family, despite my reservations. We will serve Italian beef this weekend. But, if I can find it, we’ll eat grass-fed beef from a farmer who treats his animals well, not meat from a factory farm. I’d rather not serve meat at all, but it’s a compromise. Like religion, a vegetarian diet is a choice. But, also like religion, nonbelievers sometimes catch the fire — as long as it’s not forced upon them. I have to remember that our kids are on their own journeys, and they will come to agree with us — or not — in their own time.
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Here in the Northern Hemisphere, summer will officially make her debut on Saturday, but Nature’s bounty is already being harvested. If your community has a farmer’s market, consider yourself lucky, indeed. Grab your canvas bag or a little red wagon, and gather up fresh, local fruits and veggies, plants, honey, and baked goods. Tables loaded with luscious, ripe produce are as much a feast for the eyes and soul as they are for the palate.
Whether or not there’s a farmer’s market in your community, we invite you to stroll along with Personal Chef Lindsay Rice through Iowa City’s downtown Farmer’s Market, sampling the wares of local farmers and other enterprising ecopreneurs. We bet your mouth will be watering before you’re finished reading. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
What to have for dinner? It’s that ever-present question that we ask ourselves night after night, meal after meal. To keep things fresh, I love to take a walk through the farmer’s market to determine my dinner. Early summer at the Iowa City downtown market provides many ingredients to build wonderful meals. Farmers are offering great abundance from their fields now, including fresh strawberries, glistening radishes, green onions, fresh-baked breads, tomatoes, cilantro, and dill.
Sometimes an obscure vegetable can be the inspirational starting point. Hmm... What can I build around garlic scapes? Can kohlrabi slices line the salad plate? How about beets tossed in lemon juice and locally made olive oil, with a drop of Iowa honey?
Farmers are often all too happy to provide instruction and insight about what to do with odd vegetables. When the farmers of Adelyn’s Organic Gardens sold me a $1 bunch of garlic scapes, they told me to cut them like green beans, avoid using the pointy ends, and sauté or fry them with soy and ginger, and meat or veggies.
Eric Menzel from Salt Fork Farm just south of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, said to cut off the tough root and fibrous leaves of kohlrabi, then cut up the bulb. “It’s crisp and sweet,” he said. “Eat it raw, make a slaw, or mash it with potatoes.”
Farmers also often have creative ways of using familiar veggies. After all, they often have great abundances on the farm and quickly get creative when facing yet another pound of broccoli or radishes on their dinner table.
The farmer from Pure Prairie Gardens, Mt. Vernon, Iowa told me to try roasting radishes: Slice or leave whole, toss with olive oil, and place in a roasting pan. Roast for 5–10 minutes, then take out of the oven, and sprinkle with sea salt. “Radishes are sweet, delicious, and retain color this way,” he told me.
Also try little cucumber sandwiches: Squirt a bit of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt on thinly sliced cucumbers. Then pile them on cubes of toasted sunflower bread that has been lightly brushed with farmer’s market olive oil. Ineichen Tomatoes from Blue Grass, Iowa has the best burpless cucumbers I’ve tasted.
If you are short on time, the market also offers some ready-made items from local chefs and restaurants. Try incorporating Russian perogies, fried spring rolls, or fresh-veggie spring rolls as an appetizer. Cut the steps of making a sauce or dressing by purchasing Leaf Kitchen’s sesame or ginger salad dressings.
Cocina Del Mundo has great rubs and spices for the grill — like Citrus Honey Mesquite BBQ Rub and Smoked Alder Meat Rub (try them on lamp chops, beef or elk steaks you can also find at the market). They also sell packaged grain, bean, and soup mixtures that just need water and a touch of olive oil. Try exciting flavors like the Cashew Coconut Rice, and Bayou Rice and Beans packages.
Make a Mexican feast by starting with chicken, pork or vegetable tamales from La Reyna, a container of green salsa and a platter of roasted beets and radishes. Heap green lettuce leaves on a platter as an accompaniment. Or start with the tasty green leaves and pile Iowa-grown bacon from Pavelka’s Point Meats, along with sharp green onions, and juicy red or yellow tomatoes.
My personal favorite market catchall is a quiche. Roll out some dough, buy a dozen eggs from a Kalona farmer’s market stall and all the veggies that spark your fancy — plus an optional bit of meat from the market and a bunch of fresh herbs. Bake it all with that bit of cheese left in the fridge. Some of my favorite combinations include: asparagus, yellow squash, and tomato or spinach, ham, shallot, and dill.
There is no shortage of homemade desserts at the market. Cindy Cary gets up at quarter after four in the morning to bake 98 pies for the market, so you don’t have to. She has a variety of flavors: peach, cherry, red raspberry, apple, and pecan. Her small-tin pies cost $3 and are perfect for two, with a half-scoop of ice cream or yogurt.
Many vendors sell other tasty treats, like pumpkin bars, chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes and Rice Crispy treats. And if it’s a movie night, pick up a bag of Kettle Korn made in giant steaming poppers right at the market. And don’t forget to grab a delicately arranged bouquet of flowers from Barbara’s Country Flowers for your table.
Now go home and enjoy your very own feast. Summer won’t last forever.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
I was at the local food bank today, having given a ride to a friend. He’s talented and capable, but temporarily out of work and low on resources in this tough economy. The experience was a painful one for him, and I write this with his reluctant permission. He wishes to be anonymous, he says. He’s embarrassed that he has to avail himself of these life-saving services. He’s not alone.
In the short time we were there — possibly 15 or 20 minutes — three dozen people crossed our paths, arriving, waiting, leaving. Ours is a relatively small city of 60,000 or so. I can only imagine the numbers of hungry residents lining up for help in Dallas, New York, or downtown L.A.
Our local food bank is a compassionate place. The folks who go there for help are treated with dignity and respect by the staff and volunteers. Clients are treated like human beings, not like numbers. And yet, there seemed to this observer to be a pervasive sense of embarrassment among many of them. I saw several people quickly scan the waiting room, then furtively watch the door as they waited for their names to be called for a bag of groceries. Others’ heads were lowered and their shoulders hunched, perhaps in defeat, perhaps in an attempt to draw inside and become as small as they could.
Not all reacted the same way. Two women stood at the entrance, openly snacking on a bit of this pastry and a mouthful of that fruit bar. The elder of the two tossed boxes of generic macaroni and cheese onto a worker’s cart as he passed her. “I don’t want no more of that crap,” she said sharply. “Every week, it’s the same bad stuff.” The worker took her comments in stride, smiling. I got the impression that he’d heard the same story many times before.
In the center of the reception room, people gathered around a large table loaded with cartons of soy yogurt, wilted greens, organic sour cream, French onion dip, cottage cheese, and a few stray cans of fruits and vegetables with unappealing labels. Bread racks on two sides of the room were loaded with loaves of French bread, wheat bread, ciabatta rolls, and dinner rolls. All this is a bonus; clients can help themselves to as many of these items as they can carry. And they do.
When their names are called, each person gets a single bag of groceries assembled from the donations of concerned citizens and businesses. The intake form asks about dietary restrictions, and my friend wrote “Soy Allergy” in big letters. He might not die from eating soy, but he suffers with welts that last for more than a week. He is understandably cautious.
In his bag of groceries, allowed once per week, at least three quarters of the items listed soy in the ingredients on the labels. Coffee cake: soy lecithin and vegetable oil (may contain soy). Canned soup: contains soy protein. Canned chili: contains soy protein. And soy and soybean oil and more soy and soybean oil. “Go back and ask them again,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“I heard you shouldn’t make trouble, because they’ll remember the name on your slip and give you all the bad stuff the next time,” my friend said. But after looking at the slim pile of groceries remaining in his bag, he went to the counter and asked to exchange. A second try, and the volunteer cheerfully brought him a small bag of Doritos (soy ingredients). He also handed my friend a few cans of tuna and some beef jerky — which one might expect to contain just tuna and just beef. “These should be fine,” the man said. My friend checked the labels and said, “Thanks for trying, but all of these list soy in the ingredients.”
“What can you eat?” the volunteer asked. I thought he sounded exasperated, but he surely couldn’t have been as exasperated as my friend, who kept his cool through the whole ordeal. A third try, and he brought out two small, sealed snack packets, one containing tuna and the other shrimp. No soy this time, but not enough food to get through the week, either, after having to forgo the soy-inclusive items (canned beef stew, etc.) that had formerly filled the bag.
The canned fruits and vegetables in his shopping bag were the cheapest quality goods on any grocery store shelf. I get it that the food bank needs to stretch its dollars as far as it can. If green beans are priced at three for a dollar for the generic brand (with lots of sodium and water), and the brand name beans are 79¢ apiece, then it’s no contest. The food bank will opt for the cheaper variety every time. Feeding three people wins out over feeding one. But no one asks about the quality of the ingredients; they can’t afford to raise the question.
What struck me as I waited was that almost all of the clients were overweight, and some were grossly obese. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm (one of Senator John McCain’s main economics advisers during the presidential campaign) is quoted as saying, “Has anyone ever noticed that we live in the only country in the world where all the poor people are fat?” The implication seemed to be that overweight people couldn’t possibly be that poor, because they’re obviously eating. But what are they eating?
Another friend who had lived with us for a while also took regular trips to the food bank. Most of what he brought back was pastries and breads and pasta. The pastries and breads were the items available daily (rather than weekly) in the waiting area, because stores freely offer those items as their expiration dates pass. Like my friend today, he could take as many of those as he wished. So what does a hungry person do when nutritious food is hard to come by, but starches are plentiful? What would you do, if your belly was aching to be filled and that was your only option?
It’s a vicious cycle, of course, as malnourished people have difficulty mustering the energy to get a job. And people without a job have no money to buy healthy foods — for themselves or their children. Malnutrition also begets despair, and despair often feeds its belly with comfort food. Comfort food — the pastries and breads and pastas — lure the poor onto a treadmill that fattens them. And being fat begets inertia, so that getting a job becomes less of a goal — and less of a possibility — all the time.
So much for my penny psychology.
What I learned today — the takeaway that I would like to share with you — is this: When you have the wherewithal to donate to a food bank (and, unless you’re receiving food there yourself, perhaps you do), please choose selections that will provide first-rate nutrition. Sure, everyone loves a guilt-filled snack now and again, but try to remember how much healthier it is to munch on trail mix or dried fruit. Donate food (or funds) with the sobering thought that one day you, too, could be on the receiving end of the generosity of others.
Oh, and it would also be helpful if you could find some foods without the ubiquitous soy. (Read the ingredients label.) Someone who’s hungry may thank you.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
June 4, 2009 by Sabrina Potirala
Filed under Agriculture, Blog, Cancer, Central America, Consumer Spending, Diet, Food & Drink, Front Page, Health, Nutrition, Research, Scams, Slideshow, South America
If you listen to the hype, you may begin to think that the acai (pronounced a-sigh-EE) berry is the wonder food for everything that could possibly ail you. The ads are all over the Internet, in magazines, on television. They lure you in with questionable (if not outright fabricated) celebrity endorsements, “free” sample offers, and broad claims of almost mythical proportions.
Although acai is most commonly advertised as a weight-loss product, marketers also claim that it provides increased energy levels, improved sexual performance, improved digestion, detoxification, high fiber content, high antioxidant content, improved skin appearance, improved heart health, improved sleep, and reduction of cholesterol levels.
The acai berry has been touted as one of the most highly beneficial dietary supplements on the market. And WalletPop named it the #1 hottest product of 2008, after marketers dubbed the berry a “super food.”
But despite all the hype, groups are challenging acai’s health and weight-loss claims, and warning consumers to beware of acai berry scams. With so much conflicting information, it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction.
What It Is
The acai berry grows in Central and South America on eight different varieties of palm trees, primarily in swamps and floodplains — areas with heavy rainfall or standing water. The berries are small, round and black-purple in color. You might find them similar in appearance to a blueberry, but with a large, inedible seed in the center. Acai palm trees are tall and slender, reaching between 50 to 100 feet. Due to recent demand for their berries, acai palm trees are currently cultivated primarily for their fruit; but their fronds can also be made into hats, mats, baskets, and brooms.
Acai is commercially available in a number of forms, including juice, pulp, powder, and capsules. It has been marketed as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, and an antibacterial. It’s also said to contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential to human health.
Acai’s other chemical contents are impressive, too:
- A concentration of 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes, and 10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine, which helps combat premature aging
- Monounsaturated (healthy) fats, dietary fiber, and phytosterols to help promote cardiovascular and digestive health
- Anthocyanins and flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that help prevent free radicals from forming in the body and starting chain reactions that damage cells
- Amino acids and trace minerals that are vital to proper muscle contraction and regeneration
Amazon Wonder Berry?
Although some people say they have more energy and feel healthier after taking acai dietary supplements, these claims are not supported by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the medical community does agree that — like the cranberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry — the acai berry, carries antioxidants.
Claims of weight loss from acai are unfounded, however, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that acai pills will help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colons, enhance sexual desire, or perform any of the other commonly advertised functions,” according to a press release from CSPI.
Kristina Conner, a licensed naturopathic physician and Assistant Professor of Naturopathic Medicine at National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois, said naturopaths sometimes work with the acai berry, because it is a natural substance. But she agrees that the berry is not a one-stop, quick fix for weight loss or any of the other ailments the companies are claiming the berry can improve.
“It is important to address lifestyle things first. So supplements including something like the acai would be considered beneficial on top of making healthy lifestyle changes — like a good diet, sleep, exercise, all of that stuff. Relying on just one agent like [the acai berry], no matter what it is, is not the wisest course. If you look at things like weight loss or cardiovascular disease, it is never one cause, so it should never be one fix,” Conner said.
According to Conner, the acai berry is a reasonable alternative to drinking red wine, because the two products are both preventive substances. Because many people do not incorporate the acai berry into their normal diets, some people can see positive results where others may not.
“There is probably going to be a percentage of people who do [an acai] diet and are going to respond really well to it, but then there is a larger percentage who probably aren’t. They need to make sure they are not throwing out common sense when they try a new diet or a new product,” Conner said.
A Pricey Alternative
Mark Stibich, a physician specializing in health behavior, has expressed concerns about the sudden and tremendous fame of the acai berry. “A week’s supply of acai berry juice will cost you about $40 (over $2,000 a year). For that much money, there are a lot of more proven things you can do to increase your health.” Yet Stibich said that the fruit did hold at least some promise, commenting, “It is true that the acai berry has about 10 times the antioxidants of grapes and twice the antioxidants of blueberries, but that’s not enough nutritional punch for all the claims.”
Even nutritionists are weary of the numerous health benefit claims associated with the acai berry. I spoke with 10 nutritionists and dieticians, all of whom said they were unfamiliar with the real benefits of the acai berry. None said they would recommend any acai products until they themselves became more familiar with the fruit.
Although other research studies are reportedly in progress, a recent study by the University of Florida is the only research that has been completed to investigate the benefits of the acai berry. Researchers at the University of Florida found that in a laboratory setting, acai berry extract caused a significant decrease in cultured cancer cells. During the testing, various concentrations of acai extract were applied to the cells. After a period of 24 hours, the results varied from 35 percent to 86 percent of the cancer cells dying. The acai berry stands up well in a lab setting, but this claim has yet to be tested and proven in humans.
“A lot of claims are being made, but most of them haven’t been tested scientifically,” Assistant Professor at the University of Florida Stephen Talcott said in a press release. “We are just beginning to understand the complexity of the acai berry and its health-promoting effects.”
The acai berry has just recently become popular, so not all of the claims have been researched. But with time, Talcott said that more nutritional information will be revealed.
“One reason so little is known about acai berries is that they’re perishable and are traditionally used immediately after picking. Products made with processed acai berries have only been available for about five years, so researchers in many parts of the world have had little or no opportunity to study them,” Talcott said.
Beware of Scams
Since the berry’s popularity has exploded in the past few months, offers for free acai berry trials are becoming ubiquitous online.
But remember how your parents told you, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is”? That warning is certainly applicable to any company claiming it will send you acai products for free. Free trial offers for acai berry supplements are rarely — if ever — free.
The CSPI and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) said companies offering free trials of diet pills made with the acai berries have tricked thousands of consumers using fake celebrity endorsements and blogs to lure customers into buying the acai products.
According to the Better Business Bureau, FWM Laboratories, Advanced Wellness Research, AcaiBurn, FX Supplements, and SFL Nutrition all received an F rating, which is the BBB’s lowest rating. The BBB evaluates companies on numerous categories before assigning a grade, such as the number of customer complaints and a company’s ability to adequately resolve issues.
Central Coast Nutraceuticals, FX Supplements, FWM Laboratories and Advanced Wellness Research are just some of the businesses accused of scamming customers into accepting “free” trials. These companies reportedly hook consumers by advertising a “free” bottle of acai pills, for example, and by claiming that the customer only has to pay for shipping and handling. Many customers neglect to read the terms and conditions pages, which often specify that the total price for the bottle of pills will be charged to the credit card used to pay the shipping and handling fee. Often, the companies will sign consumers up for a monthly subscription of the product and charge them for more bottles of the pills that the customers unwittingly “consented” to receiving each month when agreeing with the fine print. Each of these bottles costs approximately $80 and will be billed to a credit card every month until the customer calls and cancels the subscription.
I signed up for a “free” trial of Acai Berry Edge in order to test the scam claims. For this product, the terms and conditions specified that the customer would “Get two bottles of Acai Berry Edge free for 21 days during the trial period. You invest $3.97 s&h today then $39.95 per bottle at day 21 only if you are satisfied.” I sent both bottles back within the 21 day time frame, yet was still charged $79.90. Upon calling the company, a representative said that they had not received the bottles. Yet I intentionally sent the bottles back with a delivery confirmation receipt from the U.S. Postal Service. With the delivery confirmation number, the representatives could not dispute that the bottles had been returned. Even if you do read the fine print and return the bottles, make sure to send the product back with a confirmation number from the postal service or an express carrier. Those few extra quarters could end up saving you $80 — or more — in the long run.
Connor said people can ask the company for objective information about the product or studies published about the product to determine whether or not any health claims made about products are true. She also recommended asking a health care practitioner who knows about natural products and cautioned consumers to always be skeptical.
“If people find that it is one company offering a particular type of product no one else offers, or if it seems very expensive — more expensive than other products on the market that are like it — that always raises my suspicion level,” she said.
The Jury’s Still Out
Much is still unknown about the acai berry. And, with studies still in progress, health care professionals are understandably cautious about judging the berry’s merits as a “super food.” Nutritionists say that, for most people, taking moderate amounts of acai supplements won’t negatively impact your physical health. But it just might hurt the health of your wallet.
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You light the grill. You prep the meat. You cook it: Blackened and charred, well done, pink in the center, or still mooing when it hits the plate… the range of preferences is vast. But which is better for you? Or does it even matter? In the last few days, I’ve read several sources that have me wondering whether there is any safe way to cook meat.
An article in the Daily Mail, a publication from the UK, warned to not eat meat that is over-cooked. Columnist David Derbyshire reported, “In a nine year study of more than 62,000 subjects, those who liked their steak well done were found to be almost 60 percent more likely to develop cancers of the pancreas, colon, stomach and prostate.” Derbyshire was referencing a study by Dr. Kristin Anderson of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who was investigating the connection between charred meat and pancreatic cancer. 60%? Suddenly that charred appearance of a steak on the grill doesn’t look so appetizing.
Danger in the Flames
Following news of Anderson’s study, Dr. Mercola (mercola.com) warned that anytime meat is cooked too fast or at too high a temperature, three harmful chemicals are created in or on the meat. This is true whether the meat is grilled or fried.
- Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These form when food is grilled at high temperatures, searing the meat, creating blackened or burned areas of the muscle fibers. Those blackened grill lines, the parts that actually sit on the steel grid of your grill, or any sections of the meat that should become burned to a black color, are the most dangerous; those are the areas you should avoid, because they are linked to cancer. How bad is the cancer risk from HCAs? Eating a lot of flame-grilled meats (especially chicken) can raise your risk of pancreatic cancer from the average of 1 person in 10,000 to a shocking 1 in 50.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): When cooking on the grill, you’re bound to see flare-ups caused by fat that drips onto hot coals. The flames rise up and engulf the meat, searing the flesh. Often, this results in blackened sections where the heat is highest. Sometimes you’ll also see small billows of smoke surrounding the meat. In either case, cancer-causing PAHs are being transferred to the food you are about to ingest.
- Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): High temperatures increase the formation of AGEs in food. This happens even when the food is being sterilized or pasteurized, not just when it’s being grilled. Eating food cooked at high heat transfers AGEs to your body. The result can be higher incidences of kidney disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
There’s another problem with overcooking meat, and this is especially important if you have any digestive difficulties to begin with, according to Nancy Appleton, Ph.D. When food is cooked at too high a heat or cooked too long, your body has more trouble digesting it. This causes the food to stay in your digestive system longer, as your body works to break it down.
Your body is designed to make use of food at the cellular level, but because overcooked food doesn’t break down very well, it’s not readily available. If your body can’t make use of the food you put into it, you won’t function at an optimal level and can become ill.
The upshot is, don’t eat any meat that is burned, charred, or seared. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re cooking on a grill. Grilling is grilling because of the charring and searing. The article concluded that it’s best to eat meat that is raw or only lightly cooked. (Hey, I can do that with a Bic lighter.)
Cook Pork Thoroughly
But wait! The very next article that I read (on Wikipedia) contradicted that wisdom with the title: “Trichinosis and e-coli, the hazards of eating meat that is too raw.”
Trichinosis is caused by Trichinella species (also termed parasitic nematodes, intestinal worms, and roundworms) that initially enter the body when meat containing the Trichinella cysts (roundworm larvae) is eaten. For humans, undercooked or raw pork and pork products, such as pork sausage, has been the meat most commonly responsible for transmitting the Trichinella parasites.
These cysts, or eggs, are nasty little buggers. The enclosure breaks open inside your digestive track and the round worms become embedded in your stomach wall. First you feel stomach pains, and you experience diarrhea and vomiting. If the Trichinella parasite is discovered early, in the intestinal phase, medications like albendazole (Albenza) or mebendazole can be effective in eliminating the intestinal worms and larvae.
Eventually, the larvae enter the blood stream and settle into muscle tissue, where they feed. Once they enter the muscle invasion stage, there’s not a thing you can take for it, other than pain relievers. You’re stuck with these tiny invaders for the rest of your life. And don’t think trichinosis is a disease of the past. A research scientist friend of ours recently told us about observing slides of muscle tissue from a man who has trichinosis. He got it after eating undercooked pork at a family reunion right here in Iowa.
E. Coli Alert
Less than a year ago, U.S. media carried reports of raw spinach contaminated with E. coli and dozens of cases of E. coli-caused food poisoning from undercooked hamburger.
In a Wikipedia article on Escherichia coli (E. coli), I read, “Food poisonings caused by E. coli are usually associated with eating unwashed vegetables and meat contaminated post-slaughter. Meat has to be cooked well enough, or at a high enough temperature to kill the E. coli bacteria. O157:H7, one particularly nasty strain, is further notorious for causing serious and even life-threatening complications like hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). Severity of the illness varies considerably; it can be fatal, particularly to young children, the elderly or the immunocompromised.”
With modern methods of meat production, you never know what has happened to the meat before you bought it. An average pound of hamburger may contain meat from more than 500 different cattle. There’s no way of knowing which meat was contaminated or where it came from.
How prevalent is poisoning from E. coli? World wide, a strain of E. coli called ETEC causes more than 200 million cases of diarrhea and 380,000 deaths, mostly in children, every year. And that’s just one strain of four.
It’s important to thoroughly wash all raw meat before cooking it. And, as any experienced cook will tell you, it’s also necessary to wash all surfaces that came into contact with the raw meat. That’s because E.coli can be transmitted to other foods that touch a cutting board the meat sat on or a knife used to cut the meat. Finally, make sure to cook the meat hot enough and thoroughly enough to kill any E-coli bacteria on it.
These guidelines printed in the New York Times in 1996 are still used by the Department of Agriculture today:
- Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces that touch raw meat and poultry before and after handling the food, using hot soapy water.
- Do not allow raw meat or chicken to sit at room temperature for more than 30 minutes; refrigerate.
- To prevent problems, cook food thoroughly.
- Cook both beef and pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees, so that it is slightly pink. The fleshy parts of poultry should reach 180 degrees.
Weighing the Options
So what’s the right thing to do? Do you want to cook those chops or that steak till it’s well done, or eat it rare? Do you want to get cancer of the pancreas, colon, stomach or prostate? Or do you prefer to take your chances with the possibility of tiny worms burrowing into your muscle tissue, or getting sick from E-coli and possibly dying? For some people, this is a hard decision. But not for me.
That veggie burger’s looking better all the time. And pass the potato salad.
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I’ve been called diminutive, and I guess I am, at 5’2” and kinda thin. So when I walk anywhere with my son, who’s 6’4”, 330 lbs., no one believes I’m his mom. In fact, when he was little, people thought I was his nanny — he was so big compared to me even then.
His high school football team had a good laugh when I walked onto the field with him during Mom’s Day. His dream was to be an NFL defensive lineman, and although his workout routine still, at 24, equals NFL stats, he changed his direction to pursue another lifelong dream unrelated to sports. Most of his friends are athletes, and most of them stayed with us at one point or another. And they all came to know and really appreciate the food he was brought up on — whole grains, greens, beans, and sugars all as organic as I could find and cooked at home from scratch. Before their next visit, they’d phone in their orders to me or through him. Feeding a football team, if you’ve never done it, even for a few days, can be daunting. But surprise of surprise, they finished it all and wanted more.
DOC APPLAUDS OUR LIFESTYLE
My son ate his first beef burger at age 12 or 13, inadvertently, and never really did develop that much of a taste for it. True story: During a football game in high school, he banged bodies with an offensive lineman, also big. What a hit! What a horrible sound! It was a clash of the titans. And they were both carted off to the hospital. The orthopedic surgeon reported to us that the other kid came away with a broken shin bone, I’m sorry to say. However, he was incredulous at my son’s injury, a slight bone bruise. With taped leg and crutches he went back to the sidelines to cheer his team on.
“Whatever you’re feeding him, keep doing it. I’ve never seen bones that size or that dense in a kid before!” Those were his exact words. That was an extraordinary feeling to have our lifestyle applauded, though not the way I would have chosen.
A LIVING ANSWER TO QUESTIONS
He’s still my trophy and my testament to natural foods for kids, especially when he visits my cooking classes. People just don’t believe it. True, you’re thinking there must be some big genes somewhere in the family, and yes there are, but it’s not the size, it’s the quality. He’s a walking testimonial to a lifetime of natural foods, with a presence that answers their questions: “Will my child get enough calcium?” “Will they grow?” “Won’t they get sick more?” “Can they grow up healthy without all the protein and vitamins from meat and dairy?……… Yes, yes, no, and yes. Absolutely. Here. Look. And in he walks.
I’ve had non natural foods kids raiding my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator forever. One 10-year-old made a B-line for seaweed whenever he came. Didn’t bother him at all what it was. He just wanted it. Loved the taste, and he said it made him feel good. You can’t argue with that.
Like that 10-year-old. They want to be shown, but also to be allowed to experiment. I have another true story here: I was asked to make two dishes for a grand opening for a holistic heath center last year in Coronado, CA. One of the dishes was an Asian style tofu appetizer (go to my website, www.chewbite.com, and click on Asian Style Tofu Wrap-Around — the very same one). A 13-year-old boy (difficult to please at that age regardless, unless…) came by in the line and wouldn’t try it (Tofu, yuk!) until I told him he could spit it out in front of me if he didn’t like it. No pressure. That intrigued him enough to try it. Guaranteed, he liked the idea of spitting it out in front of me.
I was distracted by other people asking questions and didn’t see his reaction or his leaving. About ten minutes later, he returned with a few friends. They didn’t say a word, but they did polish off the entire platter and left. Maybe they had a new regard for tofu after that. I like to think so. Kids want to know you care by giving them options, challenging them, and respecting their opinions. And what better place to start than in your own kitchen, where your daily soul replenishment for the five senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and feeling all come together to create the ultimate sense of well being from food. “Home (and hearth) is where the heart is.”
PRIDE OF CREATIVE OWNERSHIP
Make it a game, interesting, fun. Dress it up. Make it all natural and as organic as you can. Make it look like what they’re used to, but the ingredients can either mimic or be completely different. Season it and spice it up with a familiar aroma, appearance, and mouth feel. But whatever it is, it’s got to taste great! Another thing about them, which you probably already know, they don’t spare your feelings. They tell you the truth. So ask them what the dish needs, and get them involved in the kitchen and the preparation by letting them fix it the way they want.
Let them make it their own. For you, it’s hands off unless asked. Whatever the mess, whatever their tastes, whatever their additions or deletions, it’s theirs and not only deserves, but requires, your respect. My son is getting to be one incredible chef, choosing food and spice combinations I would never think of in a million years. He astounds not only me, but his friends, with his choices and complexities of taste, while still sticking to organic whole grains, veggies, even meat, chicken, and wild fish. Allow them the gratification of astounding you. Their tastes are often so different from ours. There’s no age limit or requirement, by the way. So much more fun than going to formerly frozen formula Chili’s or McDonald’s or wherever, and their memories are priceless. Oh yeah! And invest in a bread machine. Let them invent variations on their staple. So easy.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE REQUIRED
Prenatal to post natal to pre-school to post college, they need and want guidance from mom and dad. Their culinary creativity being rewarded early with applause and respect will give them the confidence to continue natural foods in their lives and to teach their friends and their own children. Give them their jump start by changing to whole grains and veggies during pregnancy. When nursing, they’re already used to the foods. And when you start introducing solid foods, they intuitively know them already. Even seaweeds. Really. Yup, even seaweeds can be luscious. It all depends on your creativity and that intangible ingredient that makes it all a hit, your LOVE.
My son once observed to us from a boarding school he attended for one year for football before going to college, that he thought he was the only person there who loved his parents. Wow! Now that blew us away. He realized that we always inspired him to achieve and create, to have his own opinions, and respected his choices. Experiment. That was the year he started cooking for himself and starting teaching me. Very gratifying. He’s still teaching me.
SOME ANSWERS REALLY ARE THAT SIMPLE
With the meteoric rise of childhood and young adult health diseases: diabetes, obesity, eating disorders, high cholesterol, asthma, high blood pressure, depression, ADD, ADHD, and the lists goes on and on… Diseases once thought to be brought on by age deterioration in adults are now epidemic, even plagues, among our children. Drugs are not the answer. One definite answer is natural foods. Too simplistic? Things in life don’t have to be that complicated. You really are what you eat.
WE SOLD OUR SOULS AND OUR HEALTH
It’s the insidious invasion of the soul snatchers in the guise of the big pharmaceutical companies and the big brand name food manufacturers all in collusion with the advertising companies and the food/chemical lobbyists in Washington, D.C. I refer to Dr. David Kessler’s (former FDA commissioner, 1990-1997) new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. He writes about just this, not that we didn’t know it already, but a former FDA boss telling us from the “inside” about how our souls and health have been hijacked for profit is pretty frightening, along with our disastrous eating habits being engineered by those companies’ food scientists. Very scary, but not irreversible.
CREATE YOUR OWN GOOD HEALTH
Get your whole family into the kitchen. Have fun creating a lifestyle change that makes you happy and gives you the power of choice. Food becomes an exploration into a culinary world of individual tastes designed by you that changes with your whims by adding a little bit of this or a whole lot of that. And your children? They’ll love it!
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You eat snacks, don’t you? Most of us do. And if they’re good snacks — natural, healthy foods that aren’t too high in refined sugars, salt, or the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup — we can even feel good about eating them. At least that’s what I told myself when I set out to review a couple of natural and organic goodies for this website.
From time to time, at Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) we receive sample items for review. As I’ve said in previous posts, those items are free, and it’s fair to keep that in mind. We do our best to be unbiased, but we’re not immune to feeling bad if we can’t say something nice. So, Joe and I decided, if we really don’t like something, we simply won’t review it. No point adding to the negativity of the world.
Sometimes, however, we purchase the items we review. And that’s the case with the food item I’ll write about today. We’ve been trying to eat more healthy foods, and with access to all sorts of good choices on our e-Commerce site (Blatant bias alert! Earnings from our e-Commerce site support BPGL, but you can most likely find this item in your local food co-op, too), I took some time to make a selection.
Because Joe is supposed to stay away from certain foods, our choices were a bit narrower than many of yours might be. Here are the criteria we used to identify the snacks we purchased:
1. Healthy snacks with no pineapple, oats, cashews, or milk products. Unless you have similar sensitivities, this doesn’t really apply to you. If you are sensitive to gluten, peanuts, or other foods, you’ll need to make a list of your own.
2. Made of organic or natural ingredients. Natural was okay, but organic food was definitely preferable.
3. A good value for the money. Value is a relative term, of course, but what it meant to me was to find a dense food, filled with nutrition for a reasonable price.
So, I set about finding two snack bars to purchase. Because of the way our e-Commerce site works, some of the items from the earth-friendlier side of the shopping site are available only in bulk. That turned out to be true of the two foods that I purchased.
I looked at a few of the many stores offered on the green side of the e-Commerce site and found several items to choose from. But if they met the last three criteria, they frequently didn’t meet the first one, because many of the items contained one or more of the foods Joe shouldn’t eat. Other than that, it was a surprisingly easy quest. We settled on the Almond Sunflower Bar from Bora Bora Organic Bars and another bar, which I’ll review in another post.
Bora Bora Organic Bars — Almond Sunflower
This one’s densely packed with healthy ingredients. The bars are sweet, but not too sweet; chewy without being a jaw breaker; and — in both Joe’s and my opinions — delicious. They also met all three of our criteria:
1. With “raisins, peanuts, sunflower seeds, agave syrup, almonds, Brazilian nuts, walnuts, crisp brown rice, rice syrup, and pumpkin seeds,” we were already salivating just by reading the ingredients list. And no pineapple, oats, cashews, or milk products to be found.
2. Although the ingredients list doesn’t specifically say “organic raisins, organic peanuts, organic sunflower seeds” and the rest, the label indicates that the bar is organic. That’s comforting.
3. The appearance of value starts with the delicious, healthy ingredients. Every one of these Bora Bora bars is densely packed with nutritious foods. On a couple of occasions, we each ate a bar at lunchtime instead of taking on something bigger.
But that’s not the only part to the value equation. The other is cost. At $1.71/oz., these 1.4 oz. Bora Bora bars are not cheap. But, if you factor in the shopping discount ($4.30 for the case of 12), then figure out the cost per oz., you get $1.45/oz. To put that in a bit of perspective, at the advice of a friend who is a naturopath, today at our local co-op I bought some items for making an herbal tea. The herbs ranged in price from $0.82/oz for scullcap to $1.88/oz. for white willow bark. (And I won’t even eat those.)
What else might someone dislike about Bora Bora Organic Almond Sunflower Bars? Take a look at the table below.
|Serving size: 1 bar|
Amount Per Serving
|Calories from Fat||
Amount Per Serving and/or % Daily Value*
|*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower based on your calorie needs.|
Given the fat content, a Bora Bora bar probably isn’t something to try if you’re on a diet. On the other hand, if you eat this product instead of chips, candy, or sodas, calorie for calorie, it seems like you’d have to be ahead with the Bora Bora Organic Bar. And, take a look at the following features:
- All Natural
- 100% USDA Organic
- Certified Vegan
- Gluten Free
- No Sugar or Preservatives
- Trans Fat Free
- Low Sodium
- Low glycemic carbs
If any of these matter to you, odds are they matter a lot. The Almond Sunflower bar may not the perfect food (that’s an apple, in my book), and it’s no weight-loss item, but it makes a nice alternative choice for a healthy snack. To find out whether it’s right for you, check the ingredients and nutrition facts with care.
And if you try this organic bar — or want us to review another one — please let us know in the comments field. We value your opinion.
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In yesterday’s post, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) talked with Robyn O’Brien to find out what motivated her to start AllergyKids, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting children with food allergies. In Part 2 of this two-part interview, O’Brien tells us more about her book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, which was released by Random House yesterday. — Publisher
BPGL: After bumping up against so many obstacles as you looked for answers, it must have been quite a change to have support from the team at Random House. How do you feel about the experience of getting your message out by publishing a book?
O’BRIEN: Having been so isolated in the story and so dismissed initially — and slandered — to be now in a position where I have this remarkable team at Random House pushing it out — it’s incredibly humbling. It took me a long time to trust that other people were going to advance my message, because it had been so tough early on. And it took a while to trust that Random House was really my team, given how isolating the journey had been. I kept doing things myself, and they had to tell me, “You need to leave this to us.” I really had a hard time with that because I hadn’t been able to trust too many people up until that point.
Now, it’s amazing, because the team has done a remarkable job with the book. The head of publicity said, “You can’t not feel absolutely compelled to do something, once you read that book.” It’s so inspiring to see how people can be inspired by my story and by the information.
I’ve been asked in interviews, “Are you angry? Are you mad?” I say, “The last thing the world needs is another angry mom. We don’t have time to be angry.” Our kids are sick. We all are. And under our commercialized health care system, in which sickness sells, there is profitability in this illness, so there is very little incentive to keep chemicals out of our food supply. So ten years ago, while government agencies in other countries were protecting the health of their citizens, the financial health of these corporations were the priority here in the US. We’ve got to fix this as fast as we can, which means, we just have to get to work. There’s no time to be mad.
BPGL: One of the chemicals you highlight in your book is recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. There’s been a lot of press about the detrimental effects of injecting rBGH in lactating cows, both in the adverse affects on cows and on people who drink milk — particularly children. Some people have called the use of rBGH a crime. What’s your stance on the issue?
O’BRIEN: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) was introduced in 1994. It was the first genetically engineered protein and is a synthetic hormone that enhances the lactating profitability of dairy cows. It was hugely controversial. Some definitely consider it criminal what has happened. I’ve been interviewed by Robert F. Kennedy who wrote a book called Crimes Against Nature. I really, honestly would love to co-author one with him called Crimes Against Our Children. It’s criminal. And it’s not just against children. rBGH has been banned by governments around the world because this synthetic hormone elevates a hormone in the bloodstream called Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). An elevated level of IGF-1 in the blood is linked to prostate, breast, and colon cancer. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, only 1 out of 10 breast cancers are genetic, which means 9 out of 10 of them are environmentally triggered. Shouldn’t we be doing our part to control these environmental triggers the way governments around the world have been doing?
BPGL: Can you file a civil suit?
O’BRIEN: I’ve been approached by law firms as, to many, this story is reminiscent of the tobacco industry. I am not an attorney, so it is not my place to define whether this is a civil suit or a class-action suit. And my concern is that in 2005, under the Bush administration, there was a bill passed — it’s known as the Cheeseburger Bill — that basically says, should any of the chemicals in our food supply be proven to cause harm, the corporations responsible for having them in the food supply are not liable.
BPGL: Can we get that bill overturned by President Obama’s administration?
O’BRIEN: It will be interesting to see, especially because his kids have allergies and asthma. I am very hopeful. I have recently written an article, “Heavy Metal in Our Daily Bread,” about the contamination of high-fructose corn syrup with mercury. Perhaps Michelle can give President Obama one of those discerning looks of hers, with Sasha and Malia at hand!
BPGL: We have not learned what his wife is going to be spending her time on. The contamination of our food supply could be her issue.
O’BRIEN: I would love for Michelle to embrace the role that clean food plays in our health care for children, because it very much ties into health care costs. Sick food, sick people and our sick health care system are interrelated. The chemical contamination of the American food supply places a tremendous economic burden on our health care system. You have to start implementing preventative measures, and one of those measures is to remove the chemicals from the food supply the way that governments around the world have already done.
BPGL: When you wrote this book, you talked to a number of doctors who backed up your claims. Who did you work with?
O’BRIEN: I worked with amazing scientists and researchers from Harvard and beyond. One of my heroes is Dr. Kenneth Bock, who wrote the foreword for The Unhealthy Truth and is a published Random House author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics. He appeared on Good Morning America with me. He looks at the environmental toxicity of our children, which I highlight in my book. Again, my point in the book is, can we conclusively say that, singlehandedly, genetically engineered proteins are responsible for the allergy epidemics? No. But there’s enough of a concern that led governments around the world to remove these chemicals from the food supply because of the novel proteins and allergens that they contain.
I read a lot of FDA hearings from 2004 in which scientists were trying to alert us of the dangers in the food supply. But sadly, their concerns were dismissed and replaced with industry-funded research. I think what’s fortunate for all of us is that we have just had a changing of the guard. There have been so many reports out of the FDA saying, “We’re trying to protect the food supply,” and they haven’t been able to.
BPGL: Why do you think doctors don’t have the power to persuade the food industry from using harmful chemicals to produce food?
O’BRIEN: It’s simply a money thing. That’s why it has been a grassroots movement, and that’s why it’s so remarkable to have a team like Random House working to inspire and inform our nation of 300 million eaters. The influence of the food industry — from lobbying efforts to a man profiled on 60 Minutes called “Dr. Evil” — and the financial muscle of these industries is amazing. We’re not just talking corporations, we’re talking the soybean industry. It’s absolutely all about money. No one has the money to compete with these industries.
BPGL: Are any legislators supporting your cause?
O’BRIEN: Yes. We have some amazing leaders. I actually have a friend in DC who has just offered to hold a Senate hearing on it. Locally, Senator Mark Udall has been a champion for our health in Colorado. And Senator Whitehouse has been amazing in his efforts to inform and inspire. Senator Boxer in California has been a tireless advocate for environmental issues. And Senator Dodd has young children with food allergies. There are a lot of people who are doing their part to improve our food system. One of the things I’m working on for the website is to write these letters that people can just sign and send off to their Congressional leaders.
BPGL: Have you ever been contacted by Monsanto?
O’BRIEN: I have been contacted by someone from one of their law firms. It was pretty funny. She called, and she was asking these questions. I thought, this is really interesting, given that this firm is associated with Monsanto. She was saying that she had a child with food allergies. So I started asking her questions that only a mom with a child who had food allergies would know the answers to, and she couldn’t answer them. I thought, I don’t have it in me to follow up with this person at this point in time, and left it at that.
I write for a lot of blogs, and it’s been entertaining to see some of the comments that I get. I tend to follow the advice of President Obama, who says the only things he reads are the criticisms. And boy do I get them! I can just get ripped by some bloggers who are commenting on my stuff. It’s obvious they’ve got this vested interest that they’re protecting. So one of the things I highlight in the book is how these tactics have been used against people like me: shoot the messenger tactic, destroy the credibility of the person talking. It will be really interesting when we launch, which is why, in the write up, Random House says “one brave woman.” It really is for the sake of our children.
BPGL: Are you afraid for yourself and your family?
O’BRIEN: My husband and I dealt with the decision we had to confront: How will they intimidate us? They’re going to try to do who-knows-what. Other messengers have had their credit scores messed with. They’ve had all kinds of strange things happen. In November of 2006, when Jeff and I decided to pursue this, we did it with our eyes open, knowing that there might be some hard tactics, which is also why I highlight in the book how these tactics have been used on other people .
“Berman Exposed,” the profile by CBS 60 Minutes, calls Richard Berman “Dr. Evil.” It’s unbelievable what that man does. He’s a lobbying guy from the food industry. I think what’s interesting is that it’s gotten so bad and so corrupt, and the children are so sick, and Alzheimer’s is so prevalent, and cancer is so prevalent, that these former FDA scientists can’t live with themselves.
Every time I’m in the press, whether it’s Good Morning America or something else, I always get a handful of whistle blowers [contacting me] — though I prefer to think of all of us as “truth tellers.” Part of my job is to try to listen to all of these voices, to discern who’s credible, who’s really got some meat on their stuff. And in launching the book, one of the pages I’m setting up on my site at www.robynobrien.com will be a “Truth Teller” page, because there are going to be so many people who have remarkable insight to share — from the corporations to the government agencies.
BPGL: So, you are inviting people to start writing to you?
O’BRIEN: Yes, on the Contact page at www.robynobrien.com. Together, we have a powerful story to share. We are our own best resource.
BPGL: Have you considered making a movie about this?
O’BRIEN: People ask that a lot. My husband and I just laugh. I suppose that The New York Times article referring to me as “Food’s Erin Brockovich” launched that idea, as people seem to get their heads around it easily.
BPGL: Knowing your analytic mind and the love you have for your family, I’m wondering if you’ve taken some security measures?
O’BRIEN: You are not the first to mention that. My husband said, “People know who you are now.” They joked in The New York Times article about a conspiracy theory and asked, “Does she need to look in her rear view mirror?” Everybody’s joked about that since I unearthed all of this. It was funny at first, and then it sort of got not funny. And now, it’s part of my story, and everybody goes there. Who can blame us, we grew up reading John Grisham and watching The Bourne Identity!
We had to go there. My husband, Jeff, and I had to go there, and think, Okay, there are bad people in the world, and they don’t want this information out. George Clooney does an awesome job of conveying this kind of story in Michael Clayton.
In the film The Future of Food, Deborah Garcia exposes a lot of this. It is a remarkable film, if you haven’t seen it. I asked her the other day, “Did you ever get threatened?” She said, “No, because it would have been horrible publicity for them.” So, a lot of it is faith. There’s a lot of faith. There’s a lot of making sure I’ve done everything I can. I’m not perfect; there are going to be flaws. However, the overwhelming evidence is absolutely critical that it be put out in the public.
BPGL: You’re courageous.
O’BRIEN: To your point, I have a friend who consults for executives, and helps them manage fire drills. And she volunteered to counsel me. In the winter of 2006, it was brutal. The concerns you have, you can only imagine how that is internalized when you unearth a story like this. And then I struggled with, if I don’t try to tell this story, if I don’t have the courage to tell this story — knowing what I know, ten years from now when all of these children are developing leukemias and cancers — how will I be able to live with myself, if I haven’t tried to do everything I could to get the message out? It was just like, you couldn’t win. You couldn’t escape the story. The publicity team at Random House said, “You cannot unlearn this once you learn it.” For the life of me, I cannot understand why we have not valued the lives of the American children the way children in other countries have been valued.
BPGL: Did you get support from researchers and scientists?
O’BRIEN: There are remarkable people who have been trying to warn us of these dangers for decades. I am honored to narrate their story in The Unhealthy Truth. And there are others who chose to turn a blind eye.
BPGL: Do you name those who ignored the problem? Do you ask them, “How can you live with yourself?”
O’BRIEN: Not explicitly, but given the “Who’s on First” routine that these guys pull, I write in the book, “Seriously, Gentlemen, will you please make up your mind?” You have scientists essentially saying, “Oh my god, we are putting our population at risk for something we don’t know what the consequences will be.” And it’s documented in FDA transcripts.
Find out more in Robyn O’Brien’s new book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It.
Part 2: The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
April 29, 2009 by Elias Simpson
Filed under Agriculture, Blog, Books, Diet, Economy, Ecopreneurs, Environment, Factory Farming, Farms, Food & Drink, Front Page, Green Living, Health, Iowa, My 5, Organic Food, Regulations, Slideshow, Sustainability
If you could interview your food, what would it say? As a journalist Michael Pollan attempts to give a voice to what we eat: That is to say, he explains what food really is, where it comes from, and what it can do for us. The Omnivore’s Dilemma expounds on fast food, big organic food, local food, and foraged food, identifying the resources, causes, and effects of each one.
Devoted to the scientific, while valuing the personal significance of food, Pollan reveals not only the corn behind our food, the government behind the corn, the corporation behind the government, but also investigates the possibilities for eating that can bring us back to earth, and everything in between. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is our fascinating predicament; written for those who care about what they eat, it presents us with an array of menus, encourages us to eat, and to eat in good conscience.
It begins with corn. Not corn on the cob, but corn in a box, or corn in a Happy Meal bag. Corn has apparently invaded our supermarket, culture, and bodies. As Pollan puts it, “How this peculiar grass, native to Central America and unknown to the Old World before 1492, came to colonize so much of our land and bodies is one of the plant world’s greatest success stories. I say the plant world’s success story because it is no longer clear that corn’s triumph is such a boon to the rest of the world, and because we should give credit where credit is due. Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest that we have been calling the shots…there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”
There are a few people who benefit from the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually in America. They are the owners of corporations that genetically engineer the corn, and who process the corn. The farmer earns only four cents on the dollar for what his corn is eventually turned into. The industrialization of our food depends on the enormous production of corn at extremely cheap market prices. Taxpayers support corn from their pockets, and pay for it with their health.
The easiest way to explain corn’s role is financially. Starting in 1972, during Nixon’s rule, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz addressed the rising cost of food by simplifying the agricultural system. Rather than encouraging farmers, government subsidies went instead to corn, paying money per bushel of corn produced rather than the size and diversity of a farm. Since then, the production of corn has skyrocketed, and the cost has plummeted. Farms have become corporate endeavors, rather than family occupations; the government has become strongly influenced by corn corporations; and the health of the population has flared into an obesity epidemic.
Today it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn. The market pays $1.45 for that bushel. “The market” is primarily Cargill and ADM, that, combined, buy one third of the 10 billion bushels. The government pays the rest, though it is barely enough to sustain a farmer. Many, if not most, are in debt, and some take on second jobs. The farmers cannot be said to really benefit from the flood of subsidies — $5 billion a year for corn. Rather, it is Cargill, the biggest corporation in the world, that reaps enormous profits from the massive yearly surplus. A typical Iowa corn farmer sees only four cents on the dollar for corn sold in the supermarket.
To understand how farmers — “the most productive humans who have ever lived” — who each raise enough food to feed 129 people, can be going broke, one has to look at what happens to corn before it enters the field, and after it leaves. Corn is especially inviting for genetic modification because of its simple reproduction patterns. Corn hybrids can be drought resistant and insect resistant, and, of course, are modified for optimum yield per acre. Natural variation is eliminated, so one cornfield contains thousands of identical plants that grow straight up to the sky. This is called monoculture, and it is effective because the soil is fertilized and sprayed annually. Although this industrial seed corn is expensive, it produces an incredible amount of corn. This is not always a boon to the farmer, however, because the more corn that is raised, the lower the selling cost.
Still, why does the farmer only get 4% of the retail value? The answer is that the buyers of corn are specialists in processing corn into an incredible range of products. The technological and industrial costs soak up a lot of the price of a $2.29 frozen dinner of corn-fed pigs and mashed potatoes (made with corn). Six billion of the ten billion bushels of corn are invested in animal rearing. Pollan visits a steer confinement, and actually purchases a cow, so he can be more connected with his study. He finds the cattle are practically all sick from the diet of corn, which they are incapable of digesting (the cow’s stomach is designed for grass). Since corn is cheap, animals that eat corn produce cheap meat.
In the end, including fertilizer, transportation, and milling, it takes an enormous amount of oil to reach a final product. As a kind of demonstration, Pollan took his family to McDonald’s. It took 1.3 gallons of oil to produce the 4,510 calories his family consumed. If the corn had been unprocessed, there would have been enough grain to fill and overflow from the trunk of his car (his calculations and estimate). You might say, “B t there’s no corn on the McDonald’s menu.” Not exactly, but scientists in food labs have discovered ways to make cheap corn into various types of “food.” The soda is 100% corn syrup. The milk shake is 78% corn. Chicken nuggets, 56%. The cheeseburger (remember the corn-fed animals), 52% corn.
This quick-and-easy meal has a hidden cost, and it is not the free meal that Pollan is looking for. In his search for a menu that gives as much back to the earth as it takes, he studies the organic food movement. His evaluation is that organic doesn’t mean what it used to. The federal standardization of the word organic doesn’t mean sustainable. One could think of it as a struggle between what he calls, “Big Organic” and “Small Organic.” Both types of producers are competing for the same market, but the Big Organic farms benefit from more relaxed standards, because they are capable of a greater output (they have more machines, more equipment for packaging, etc.).
“Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entitled to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments.” The two key requirements for organic labeling are: no synthetic fertilizer, and no synthetic pesticide. Organic foods are thus more environmentally sound, but really, as the example of a bagged lettuce shows — 57 calories of oil are used in making one calorie of food — “the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”
Pollan’s research leads to a week-long stay Polyface Farm in Virginia. Here he meets Joel Salatin, a grass farmer, whose farm is an example of local and sustainable food. The cows eat the grass, the chickens eat the worms from the cow manure, they both work to fertilize the ground, and the farm is essentially a self-sustaining meat and egg producing “factory.” The animals become producers on the farm, and seem happy to do it. Pigs are used to compost manure and clear underbrush. Reading about the farm, it seems strange that Joel’s methods aren’t implemented around the country. Government regulation might be the reason for that. “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm.”
Joel calls it a “freedom of food,” the right to choose what we eat without federal standards. Indeed, such strict federal regulations wouldn’t be needed if mass-produced meat weren’t so prevalent. Sustainable food is being marginalized. It is clear that local food is threatened by government regulations. Beginning with the corn policy, that subsidizes per bushel, driving the production of corn up, the cost down, and farmer into debt, and ending with requirements like a processing plant must provide a restroom for federal inspectors (something small producers can’t reasonably afford).
Before he pursues his most ambitious meal (the foraged dinner), Pollan reflects the ethics of commonplace food. He most notably questions the eating of animal products, particularly those produced by conventional means, those the USDA supports through its policies. “This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.” He becomes a vegetarian, contemplates his place on the food chain, and emails Peter Singer.
In the same way he concludes that corn has out-evolved humans, to benefit from us, he applies evolution to the modern predicament. If humans can, and are, inclined to eat meat, it is not unethical to do so, as long as the animals do not suffer when raised. This means Joel Salatin’s meat is acceptable, since he witnessed “animals” who were happy “being animals,” but supermarket cuts are not. Hunting, since the only meeting of animal and Pollan is as brief as it takes the animal to die from a bullet, is also an ethical way of obtaining meat; as he puts it “isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature?”
His journeys hunting mushrooms and hunting pig in California are more of a personal narrative than scientific or journalistic research. Since he is inexperienced in foraging/hunting for his own food, the narrative is a decent how-to guide, as well as a report on what the experience is like. The experience is long, stressful, and a testament to how a “free meal” is really difficult to come by. He calls it the “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving,” and, with his helpers and family around the table, the experience becomes something that can be physically shared.
The lesson is that by being connected with food, and in valuing stories of where food comes from, we can enjoy our food. He does not stress the need to change what we eat, but only to be conscious of our food. “Without a need for fast food there would be no need for slow food, and the stories we tell at such meals would lose much of their interest.” Pollan understands that wherever we’re headed, our stomachs are coming with us, and that shouldn’t make us lose our appetites.
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