Saturday, February 4, 2012

raw milk

This is a veritable exercise in the illusion of choice: there are hundreds of brands of milk available in the United States; there are hundreds available in your state; there are dozens available at your grocery store. You can choose to buy organic, conventional, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, lactose-free, fat-free, cheap, expensive, chocolate, strawberry and/or some random number more types of milk.

But all of it is pasteurized. Almost all of it is homogenized. Why?

Pasteurization, in a nutshell, is the process of heating a substance to a high enough temperature that all the organisms in it die.

While there are many different methods of pasteurization, the end result is basically the same. See for more information.

Why is raw milk pasteurized? "John F. Sheehan, JD, Director of Plant and Dairy Food Safety at the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, stated the following in his Mar. 15, 2007 testimony before the Health and Government Operations Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates, available at '...Raw milk is inherently dangerous and should not be consumed. Raw milk continues to be a source of foodborne illness and even a cause of death within the United States'" (

So raw milk is inherently dangerous? That would mean that the danger is a permanent and inseparable element from the milk. That would mean that raw milk is bad for you just because it's milk.

"The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated the following in a July 16, 2011 press release, "Foodborne Outbreak Associated with Raw Milk from Tucker Adkins Dairy of York SC," available at '...Proponents of drinking raw milk often claim that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and that raw milk is inherently antimicrobial, thus making pasteurization unnecessary. There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk, and raw milk does not contain compounds that will kill harmful bacteria'" ( ).

If there is no meaningful nutritional difference between raw and pasteurized milk, then how can the danger be inherent to the milk? The FDA seems to be claiming here that the ONLY difference between raw and pasteurized milk is that, "Pasteurization, a process that heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time, kills bacteria responsible for diseases, such as listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis..." (

So, then the problem is inherent to the bacteria, or other disease-causing pathogens, NOT the milk. That would mean that raw milk is not inherently dangerous; however, listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis are. And while we're on the topic of bacteria, let's get a few things straight.

Not all bacteria are bad for you. Bacteria are a required ingredient in making both cheese and yogurt. Helpful bacteria, called flora or probiotics, live in our intestines and help us digest food. In fact, "A stable, healthy intestinal microflora is thought to contribute to overall health by excluding foreign, potentially harmful bacteria" (

So what about the bacteria in raw milk? Are they helpful or harmful?

Lactic Acid Bacteria are normally present in milk and can be added to milk to make cheese or yogurt. "LAB is one of the groups of bacteria that occur physiologically in the digestive tract of mammals. These bacteria influence the distribution and the numbers of lymphoid cells in lymphatic tissues associated with the gut, ensure the balance in the composition of the gut microflora, and through their activity are able to maintain the integrity of the gut mucous membrane" (Lactic Acid Bacteria). Basically, these bacteria already exist and take part in maintaining healthy intestines. These strains of bacteria are also sold as probiotic supplements that people can take to help improve their digestion.

Spoilage bacteria are also found in milk. "Spoilage is a term used to describe the deterioration of a foods' texture, colour, odour or flavour to the point where it is unappetizing or unsuitable for human consumption" (Food Science). The spoilage bacteria in milk are not pathogenic, disease-causing bacteria: if something is "spoiled" it is a quality issue, not an infection issue.

Pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria can also be found in milk. These bacteria are not inherently present in the milk as it is sterile while in the udder (Milk Hygiene), but can enter the milk through contamination. The CDC lists the following sources of contamination of milk (and I quote):
  • Cow feces coming into direct contact with the milk
  • Infection of the cow’s udder (mastitis)
  • Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
  • Bacteria that live on the skin of cows
  • Environment (e.g., feces, dirt, processing equipment)
  • Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
  • Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots
(Raw Milk FAQ at CDC).

So, inherently speaking, milk is sterile. Once bacteria do enter the milk, the Lactic Acid Bacteria are good for you, spoilage bacteria just make your milk undesirable or undrinkable after a while, and only through contamination by specific exposure does raw milk become a bearer of food-borne illness causing bacteria.

So then why do we pasteurize? If as long as our farms are sanitary the milk is safe, shouldn't we be able to drink clean, raw milk?

"In the early 19th century, the alcohol distillery business in the United States began to grow. Large amounts of swill (spent-grains) were produced as a byproduct of whisky and other alcohol production. Many distilleries opened dairies and began feeding their dairy cows with the waste swill. The low nutritional content of the swill lead to sickness in the cows and in the humans who drank their milk. 'Confined to filthy, manure-filled pens, the unfortunate cows gave a pale, bluish milk so poor in quality, it couldn't even be used for making butter or cheese'" ( Pasteurization was a sanitation miracle. Louis Pasteur aided in proving the "germ theory", which showed that pathogens cause disease. By heating these organisms until they died, food-borne illness was drastically reduced without having to understand exactly where these pathogens came from our how they got into our food. Thus, by 1917, mandatory pasteurizing had begun in parts of the country and grew from there (

But today, we understand pathogens better. We know where they come from, and how they get in our food. The CDC even has a helpful list. So why are we still pasteurizing? Why don't we just change our farming methods to create sanitary conditions for our cows so that they can produce milk without it becoming contaminated?

Although there are probably multiple reasons, one main issue is profit. "Dianne Feinstein, Senator for the State of California, stated on her website in an Apr. 4, 2006 article titled "Senator Feinstein Co-Chairs Newly Formed Congressional Dairy Farmer Caucus" that: '...Milk accounted for about $27 billion of cash receipts for producers in 2005. Americans drink more than 6 billion gallons of milk per year, and another 10 billion gallons of milk are used to produce cheese'" ( $27 billion is a lot of money. What do they do with it all? Of course the money funds expenses, etc., but in 2011, the dairy industry as a whole also spent over $6 million of their profits to lobby the government (

Pasteurization allows dairy corporations to relax sanitation standards at their huge dairy farms because even if the milk is contaminated, the pathogens are killed by the pasteurization. I, for one, would prefer that the cows were just given sanitary and healthy living conditions, and I didn't have to worry about what was once in my milk.

Finally, pasteurization affects the quality of the milk. "Linda Melos, ND, primary care naturopathic physician, stated the following in her article "The Health Benefits of Raw Milk," available at (accessed Aug. 15, 2011): '...Pasteurizing milk kills off all bacteria, including the health-giving lactobacilli [Lactic Acid Bacteria]. This allows milk to putrefy with bad bacteria over time, rather than sour or ferment from good lactobacilli. Pasteurization also destroys vitamins, especially C, B6 and B12, and denatures fragile milk proteins. It destroys 20% of the iodine, and makes insoluble the major part of the calcium content'" ( Basically, pasteurization also kills the Lactic Acid Bacteria that help us with healthy digestion. It also destroys vitamins, minerals, and even *gasp* makes it difficult for our bodies to use the calcium in it.

Melos's opinion is a mild one. The Weston A. Price Foundation states in their article, "What is Real Milk?" that pasteurization can be linked to "...allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer..." (

In fact, multiple PubMed articles show a correlation between consumption of farm milk and a decrease in allergies and asthma in children: PubMed, PubMed, PubMed.

This information is interesting at the very least.

Homogenization is the mechanical process of pushing milk through a small hole at high pressures which causes the fat molecules to be decreased in size.

Just as oil separates from water, so does the fat, or cream, separate from the rest of the milk. Homogenization allows the milk to stay homogeneous, or evenly mixed, without requiring shaking (

Some advocate that homogenization causes normal digestive processes to go awry as it confronts these miniature fat particles and claim that this process can cause cancer and/or heart disease. Others claim homogenization has no effect on these diseases (

However, science aside, are we really just doing this because we're too lazy to shake a bottle? Even if you're not ready to give up pasteurization, go to the store and buy a bottle of non-homogenized milk and just give it a good shake before you pour. That way, you don't even have to read about whether or not it will give you cancer, it's a non-issue.


Now, whether you side with the raw milk advocates or the government organizations, the above information is cause for some concern on a public and personal level of health.

Also, I want to be clear: of course raw milk can make you sick if it's contaminated. So can any other food you eat. The news is peppered with stories about recalls, salmonella outbreaks, and the like. The solution is not to give up these foods all together. Instead we can (A) get cleaner and focus on the health and sanitation of our animals, plants, and farmers and (B) buy from farmers we trust. When you know your farmer, you know what kind of person is responsible for making sure your spinach isn't contaminated with pathogens from manure, you know who is making sure the cow's udder is clean before he/she starts the milking process, and you know exactly what ingredients are in what you are buying because you can ask the person who produced it. This makes shopping a whole lot simpler, and it puts the responsibility of preventing contamination into fewer hands which leaves less room for mistakes. For more information on reasons to buy local, see my previous article: Eating Local: Knowing Where Your Food Comes From.

To conclude, at the writing of this article, 46 of 50 states have adopted the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, at least in part, which states: "only Grade "A" pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized or aseptically processed milk and milk products shall be sold to the final consumer, to restaurants, soda fountains, grocery stores or similar establishments" (See link below). However, through legal loopholes such as buying raw milk for "pet consumption" or taking part in a herd share where the consumer buys a cow or part of one in a farmer's herd and then receives milk from his/her cow or partial cow (legally speaking) as if they were drinking raw milk from a cow they raise on their own land, raw milk is available for distribution or purchase in 32 states (

This means that it is illegal or at least very difficult to drink raw milk in the United States, which, considering the dangers of other legal products, take tobacco for example, seems a bit silly. So despite the hundreds of brands of milk we have to choose from, when it comes to pasteurization, we have very little choice in the matter, which is of course just a small part of the grander scheme that I like to call the choice illusion.

If you are interested in finding raw milk in your area, try:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

eating local: knowing where your food comes from

I had never been to the farmer's market. The Saturday farmer's market is quite an affair in Bloomington, with around 50 participating farms and, depending on the day, miscellaneous vendors, arts and crafts stalls, musicians, chess tournaments, and even a man with a parrot. By July, and nearing the end of the summer, after missing Saturday after Saturday, I finally got my act together and visited the considerably smaller Tuesday market (I kept sleeping too late on Saturday, and Tuesday afternoon seemed like an easier goal than Saturday morning). Upon arriving, despite there being only a dozen stands available to choose from, I immediately knew that I should have come sooner. I walked from stand to stand and bought blackberries, a cucumber, an eggplant, peaches, a zucchini, tomatoes, onions, green beans, potatoes, and way too much corn. Okay fine, I bought way too much food period, but I was so entranced by the selection! All local and all organic! Well... at least the first part is true. It turned out that I had a lot to learn about farmer's market shopping. Actually, I had a lot to learn about farmers, and, I'll be honest, food.

First lesson: Not all food at the farmer's market is organic. Some local farmers rely just as heavily on synthetic chemicals as big industrial farms do to get rid of bugs and weeds (of course in smaller amounts), especially if they grow produce that isn't well suited to the climate. For example, one farmer told me that the humidity in Indiana makes his peaches ripen too quickly, and he loses too much product if he doesn't spray (now, how peaches are able to grow in Georgia if this is the case is beyond me, but that's what he told me, or at least something like it). Farmers that choose in-demand products over local-climate-suited ones are more likely to need to spray due to climate-produce incompatibilities. Additionally, some bugs are more common in certain areas than others. Indiana seems to have trouble with cabbage worms. Even the most natural and organic farmers I've spoken with still spray their cabbage with Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacterium that kills cabbage worms, but is basically harmless to everything else: Wikipedia will give you the general idea and will give you the details. Insects also like some foods better than others. Berries are soft, sweet, and easy to get to. What bug wouldn't take a bite? In any case, when it comes to questions about pest and weed control, ASK. The answers may surprise you. Even some certified organic farms use sprays for pest control, and I tend to prefer more sustainable methods that discourage pests while still encouraging beneficial insects and plants.

This brings me to my first point: You can't ask your grocery store what kind of farmer they are. No two farmers do things exactly alike. While slapping the label "organic" on some tomatoes might be enough for some,  I want to know HOW organic they are. Were they sprayed with organic sprays? If so, are these sprays toxic to other beneficial insects, plants, animals, the earth, or even people? Were they planted on a giant farm that uses fossil fuels and rototillers to till its beds? Or were they grown in a smaller patch that can be tilled by hand? Were they covered with hard-to-recycle plastic to protect them from the frost in early spring? Or were more recyclable/reusable materials used? What is their farmer's philosophy about farming? Does he/she try to coexist with nature, or dominate it? The next time you eat a sandwich, think for a second: who grew that tomato you just put in your mouth? What kind of person is he/she? Do you even care? That works both ways. If you don't know/care who they are, they certainly don't feel any closer or more obligated to you. When you aren't involved with the people who buy your products, it's you hardly wonder if they're having a healthy and happy experience. Having the ability to talk to farmers about the veggies I'm putting in my soup later is freeing. I don't have to picture industrial-potato-farm-with-a-million-potatoes-that-were-driven-100-miles-to-get-here-and-who-knows-what-happened-between-the-farm-and-my-mouth scenarios as I'm eating. This thinking applies doubly when you consider products like eggs and meat (which are also available at many farmer's markets): it's especially comforting to know where these often contaminated products originated.

Second lesson: If they aren't selling bell peppers, it's because there aren't any bell peppers. Surprise! Food only grows certain times of the year! Bell peppers don't grow in February in Indiana. So unless the farmers preserve, store, or grow their produce indoors or in greenhouses, they can't sell you bell peppers in February.

This brings me to my second point: The produce at the grocery store did not arrive by magic. It arrived by truck, boat, plane, train, whatever you want to picture traveling thousands of miles to make it to your local produce aisle. "We're consuming about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen--about 17 percent of our nation's energy use--for agriculture...Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles" (Kingsolver, 5). Not only this, but buying food from another country, is NOT helping the workers/farmers that live there. "Developed nations promote domestic overproduction of commodity crops that are sold on the international market at well below market price, undermining the fragile economies of developing countries...Global trade deals negotiated by the World Trade Organization and World Bank allow corporations to shop for food from countries with the poorest environmental, safety, and labor conditions. While passing bargains on to consumers, this pits farmers in one country against those in another, in a downward wage spiral" (66-7). This means that you're not helping the local farmers, AND you're not getting a high quality product. You're getting the cheapest stuff that big name produce distributor company could find regardless of safety/health concerns, bought for the lowest price possible (thus supplying very little income at the bottom of the farm hierarchy to your average worker), and sold to you at a price that is making them rich: "...the CEO of Dole Inc.... [is] worth $1.4 billion" (66). When you buy from the farmer's market, your produce probably traveled less than 30 miles (and probably more like 10 miles), and it IS helping the farmer you buy it from. You get to watch them put the whole $1.50 in their pocket when you buy a butternut squash.

Third lesson: It's easier to be creative when you have random vegetables in the house. After enjoying the browsing and buying of the market and getting to know a few of the farmers, I did some research online to supplement what I already knew, and decided to buy a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) winter share. I paid about $80 for six weeks, and each week I go to the farmers market to pick up a half bushel of produce. I'm on the fourth week, and I have never eaten so interestingly or deliciously in my life. Granted, it takes a little recipe research to keep up, but after an adult life full of repetitive meals of spaghetti and pizza (and the occasional pad thai or matar paneer, okay I was already a little creative), it is awesome to make a tenth variety of home-made soup, or figure out what you're supposed to do with two heads of cabbage (I recommend stuffed cabbage, super delicious, seriously, I know it doesn't sound great, but really it is), or what sunchokes are, or how to eat radishes, or turnips, or the greens that come attached to them. Plus, the more variety, the more vitamins. If my hard-working organs could talk, I bet they would be thanking me for the $10 raise they get every time I eat a bag of mesclun mix for lunch.

Which, of course, brings me to my third point: Vitamins are complicated and they work better together when you get them from natural sources. "Both vitamin pills and vegetables are loaded with essential nutrients, but not in the same combinations. Spinach is a good source of both vitamin C and iron. As it happens, vitamin C boosts iron absorption, allowing the body to take in more of it than if the mineral were introduced alone... Our bodies aren't adapted to absorb big loads of nutrients all at once... but tiny quantities of them in combinations--exactly as they occur in plants. Thousands of the phytochemicals [chemicals that occur naturally in plants] we eat haven't even been studied or named yet, because there are so many, with such varied roles, finely tuned as fuel for our living bodies. A head of broccoli contains more than a thousand" (Kingsolver, 60). The Mayo Clinic also supports diet over supplements, stating, "Supplements aren't intended to be a food substitute because they can't replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables" (Mayo Clinic on Vitamins). The article goes on to discuss additional nutrients, such as the aforementioned phytochemicals, that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables but are not in vitamin supplements.

In conclusion?
For me, doing my part to make a difference when it comes to carbon footprints and poverty is enough reason to eat local. But the heavy stuff aside, I also like to eat local for the relationship it gives me with food and the way it make me feel about eating. I have already learned so much about how plants grow and which parts of them we eat (i.e. a potato is a root, a tomato is a fruit that grows in the place of a small yellow flower, etc.), or even if I already knew the information from a text book, I feel like I understand the information better now that I'm interacting with these phenomena on a more intimate basis. I get to be a bigger part of the food process (including all of the cooking), and I get to make clearer decisions about what I eat and what I don't. I also get more variety due to changing availability of produce over the season (both due to climate and the farmer's planting choices). Plus, going to the farmer's market is just plain fun! Honestly, I'm the kind of person who likes grocery shopping, and the supermarket pales in comparison to the joys of the farmers market and its quaint stalls and friendly farmers (and not-so-friendly ones). So, whether you want to save the world or just change up your diet a bit:

Look for local farms and farmer's markets in your area at

Monday, November 21, 2011

plastic patrol: the dos and don'ts of food storage

To put it simply, plastic is toxic. Making plastic releases dangerous chemicals into the environment and into our communities. Even the safest plastics have been shown to leach chemicals into food and/or beverages in scientific studies. Recycling plastics, although in some cases very effective, is often difficult, and it of course requires the consumer to actually put their plastics in the recycle bin instead of the trash can. In the United States, plastics are categorized into 7 different types. This is the number you see in the little recycling symbol on the bottom. Here is a break-down of each type and how dangerous it may be (list of plastics and their common uses taken from The Complete Organic Pregnancy by Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu):

1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate): used in most clear beverage bottles, like bottled water
If you must buy drinks in a one-time-use plastic bottle, remember that it is made for just that: one-time-use. Although controversial (the thesis was not peer reviewed, government reviewed, or published in a scientific journal), D. Lilya, a graduate student at the University of Idaho did find that chemicals in water bottles leached into the water after multiple uses (D. Lilya's Abstract). Also take a look at this study supporting the occurance of leaching: Antimony Leaching into Bottled Water. Besides putting chemicals in your body, making this type of plastic is not so great for the earth, either: "producing a 16 oz. PET bottle generates over 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass" (Problems with Bottled Water). Plus, landfills are filling up with these types of bottles. On a more positive note, this plastic is the easiest to recycle (PET Recycling).

2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene): used in opaque food bottles, like milk or water jugs
It seems this is the safest plastic out there, though it's hard to find sites that specifically cite why (it seems most people take this as fact, and thus for granted), although I did find this site, which shows that it's pretty difficult to break down without the help of some serious chemicals: Dynalab and HDPE. However, I did also find this study, PubMed and HDPE, which shows that certain chemicals do leach into drinking water as it moves through HDPE pipes, some possibly carcinogenic (aldehydes). HDPE fits easily into the recycling process (HDPE Recycling).

3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride, aka vinyl): used in food containers, plastic wraps, soft bottles
This is the "bad guy" of plastics. Everyone seems to agree it's a bad choice, and not without reason. "PVC is not bioavailable, so the polymer itself is not toxic during use. But vinyl products are not pure PVC; they contain both accidental contaminants and chemical modifiers that are added to the plastic on purpose, and some of these may pose health hazards" (see below). These contaminants and modifiers make it difficult to recycle PVC because it is difficult to separate these non-recyclable substances from the plastic product (How PVC Gets Recycled). Included in these modifiers are both lead and phthalates, which are added to the PVC to stabilize (extends product life even if exposed to light) and plasticize it (makes it more moldable), respectively. "About 5.4 million tons of phthalates and 156 thousand tons of lead are used each year in the worldwide production of PVC" (see below). But can the lead and phthalates get into our food? Yes. "The additives are not chemically bonded to the PVC polymer but are mixed into the plastic during its formulation. Over time, these additives leach out of vinyl products, entering the air, water, or other liquids with which the product comes in contact. When PVC containers and films are used to hold food products, plasticizers migrate out of the plastic and accumulate in foods, especially fatty ones like cheese and meats" (Environmental Impacts of Polyvinyl Chloride Building Materials by Joe Thornton, PH.D., pp. 41). Another study found that PVC containing bisphenol A (BPA) does leach BPA into food (BPA Migration from PVC into Food). BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and can cause problems with the hormone systems of the body. (Observed Effects of Endocrine Active Substances). Take a look at its numerous potential hazards on EWG, where it receives a rating of 5-6 depending on usage: EWG on BPA. It is suspected to be especially dangerous for young children, and thus, pregnant women (or really, the child they carry) (Canadian Evaluation of BPA). Additionally, in areas where PVC is produced, in Lousiana for example--the location of half of the United States's PVC production factories, "the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry tested blood samples from 28 residents in Mossville for dioxin, a known human carcinogen and the most dangerous toxic known to science" (PVC Information). They found that these residents have dioxin levels three times higher than the average U.S. citizen. So, whether for your own health or the health of others, if you choose to give up any plastics, give up at least this one.

4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene): used in food storage bags and soft bottles
This is generally listed as a safe plastic, however it "contain[s] antioxidants to minimize degradation during processing" (Migration of BHT from LDPE to Food) including butylated hydroxytoluene or BHT, a common preservative. BHT has been linked to hosts of health concerns, including immune, organ, and reproductive toxicity as well as cancer (EWG/Skindeep on BHT). Therfore, I'm not so convinced about LDPE's safety... Additonally, it's not widely recycled either (Care2 Safe Plastics).

5 PP (polypropylene): used in rigid containers, baby bottles, cups, bowls
Another plastic generally considered safe, but once again I am not convinced. Researchers at the University of Alberta found polypropylene, polyethylene and polystyrene (numbers 5, 1, and 6 respectively) to leach two types of chemicals into their lab experiments, ruining their progress. One of these, oleamide is only ranked 1 on EWG's hazard scale, but is listed as an organ system toxicant and is a suspected environmental toxin (EWG on Oleamide). The other, di(2-hydroxyethyl)methyldodecylammonium, or diHEMDA, I could find no information about. However it is a quaternary ammonium biocide, and biocides in general are used to kill living organisms and are heavily regulated. EWG also ranks PP specifically, from hazard level 1-3 depending on usage, citing immune system and organ system toxicity (EWG on Polypropylene). This type of plastic is also not widely recycled (see Care2 link above under #4).

6 PS (polystyrene): used in styrofoam, take-out containers, meat/bakery trays, plastic cutlery, plastic cups
This is generally not considered safe. Polystyrene contains styrene: "Since the manufacturing process is not 100% efficient, polystyrene contains some residual styrene... styrene is soluble in oil and ethanol [1,2,3,4] -- substances commonly found is foods and alcoholic beverages," and studies show that styrene does leach into foods and beverages (Polystyrene Health Information). Whether you like it or not, styrene is getting into our bodies: "Styrene is a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin... It has been detected in the fat tissue of every man, woman and child tested by the EPA in a 1986 study. Styrene has been found in 100 percent of human tissue samples and 100 percent of human nursing milk samples tested" (More on Polystyrene). Of course not all of this exposure comes from food/beverages that come into contact with PS, but some of it does. Also, PS throws off around 57 chemicals during production (Polystyrene Production) and is not easily recycled (Polystyrene Recycling).

7 Polycarbonate, or Lexan: used in 5 gallon water jugs, baby bottles, metal can linings (in canned foods)
This plastic is also a "bad guy" because it contains bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disrupter and human health hazard (see above information on BPA under the section #3 on PVC). BPA has been shown to leach into hot (BPA and Baby Bottles) and cold beverages (BPA and Cold Beverages) as well as food (EWG Study on BPA), which makes it a notable health concern. You should know that not all #7 plastics are polycarbonate: this is also the "other" category for plastics that don't fit in to the other 6. However, unless you want to call up the manufacturer of each #7 item you have in your home and ask what kind of plastic it is, you should probably assume the "better safe than sorry" approach and just replace it all. In addition, because #7 is a "grab-bag" of plastics, it is difficult to separate for recycling, plus, it quickly become non-recyclable plastic after being recycled multiple times (Recycling #7 Plastic).

Invest in some glass:
While glass does require quite a bit of energy to make (the ingredients must be heated to very high temperatures) it doesn't release toxic byproducts, and it is easily recyclable over and over. In fact, scrap glass is often an ingredient in making new glass, which reduces waste from using completely fresh ingredients every time (Info on Glass). It is made from non-toxic materials such as sand, washing soda, lime, magnesium oxide, and occasionally aluminum oxide (this last ingredient surprisingly receives a 5 on EWG, however, it seems it cannot leach out of the glass unless repeatedly exposed to water vapor at high temperatures, this usually occurs in scientific labs, for example (Scientific Properties of Glass)). Just make sure your glass doesn't contain lead (most types of glass don't, be careful with crystal and ceramic glass products).

Pyrex makes great glass tupperware with air-tight plastic lids (although they are plastic #7, they fall under the category of "other" and do not contain BPA, and if you're careful, you can make it so they never actually touch the food, which might help). They can be used in the oven, the microwave, the dishwasher, the fridge, and the freezer. You can get a 20 pc. set of containers of multiple sizes and shapes for about $30, and if you're careful, you'll never have to buy food storage containers again: Pyrex. I'm sure you could also find them cheaper at other retailers besides Pyrex itself.

As far as beverages go, since I buy my water, I need somewhere to store it. Most 5 gallon jugs contain BPA and finding a safe container for water storage was a nightmare (I decided completely against plastic, and my husband doesn't like the taste that metal gives water) until I found Specialty Bottle. While it costs quite a bit to ship glass (due to weight) if you get multiple items at once, it's worth it. I bought 4 1-gallon glass jugs for $3.84 a piece (this is a steal! I was SO happy to find this site after weeks of searching and finding only expenisve or plastic products!), and I fill them with the thoroughly filtered water from my grocery store (for more on this see my previous post: The Tap Water Problem) and put them in the fridge (or in the pantry to save fridge space): 1 gallon glass jug at Specialty Bottle. They also offer a wide variety of glass (and plastic) containers in all shapes and sizes! This site is just plain fun to explore whether you buy or not, although I highly recommend buying! I also ordered glass jars from here to use as portable water bottles. Since milk and juice cartons are made from the safest #2 plastic, I've just decided to deal with it for now. I'm not pouring them through a funnel into a glass jug every time I buy them. That's a bit much even for me...

Problem Solved?
While this does solve the problems of food and beverage exposure to some extent, we are still surrounded by plastics in our computers, furniture, houses (building materials), clothes, and more. I try to avoid PVC (especially in shower curtains which are exposed to heat) since it is the most likely to release toxic chemicals in the air, and other than that, well... I choose to accept that there is nothing I can do when there isn't anything I can do, and to solve the problem when there is an alternative option (especially if it's cheap and easy). So, good luck in your future glass exploits, and...

Look for my next post on local produce and how it changes your perspective on how food is grown, sold, cooked, and eaten!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

the tap water problem

It's a hot day. You've been outside working in the yard. You come inside, grab one of those cups that comes free when you order a pizza, and fill it with cool, refreshing tap water. Unfortunately, that water is full of contaminants (and your plastic cup isn't innocent either).

Types of Contaminants:
Your tap water contains varying levels of the following (depending on where you live) (List of contaminants mostly taken from The Complete Organic Pregnancy by Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu pp. 38-9, all other sources cited below):

Lead is a toxic metal occurring naturally on Earth. "Today, the most common sources of lead exposure in the United States are lead-based paint in older homes, contaminated soil, household dust, drinking water, lead crystal, and lead-glazed pottery" (NIEHS on Lead). Lead can make its way into your body by ingestion or inhalation. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning because "Children's growing bodies absorb more lead," and "Children's brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead" (see link below). Lead can also cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure and hypertension, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain in adults (EPA on Lead).

"The pure chemical element has the physical form of a diatomic green gas. The name chlorine is derived from chloros, meaning green, referring to the color of the gas. Chlorine gas is two and one half times as heavy as air, has an intensely disagreeable suffocating odor, and is exceedingly poisonous. In its liquid and solid form it is a powerful oxidizing, bleaching, and disinfecting agent" (Chlorine). Chlorine can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Ingestion of chlorinated water has been linked to artery damage, cancer, and allergic reactions. In addition, chlorine is able to separate from the water under certain conditions: "Taking a warm shower or lounging in a tub filled with hot chlorinated water, one inhales chloroform. Researchers recorded increases in chloroform concentration in bathers’ lungs of about 2.7 ppb [parts per billion] after a 10-minute shower. Worse, warm water causes the skin to act like a sponge; and so one will absorb and inhale more chlorine in a ten-minute shower than by drinking eight glasses of the same water. This irritates the eyes, the sinuses, throat, skin and lungs, dries the hair and scalp, worsening dandruff. It can also weaken immunity" (More on Chlorine).

Heavy Metals:
Arsenic (ranked number one on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Top 20 List), lead (see above), iron (although necessary for proper body function, taking more than appropriate can result in poisoning, and does in cases of small children taking adult vitamins), aluminum (linked to Alzheimer's disease) (Heavy Metals), chromium, cobalt, copper, selenium, and titanium are all found in tap water (I'm not sure this is a complete list).

First, take a look at this site just to see the sheer number of pesticides that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): EPA Registered Pesticides. "Some, such as the organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body" (EPA on Pesticide Health Effects). They obviously have a wide range of effects, depending on the pesticide you are exposed to. Even from proper usage, all it takes is some rain to wash the pesticides into our water supply (Pesticides and Drinking Water).

"Nitrate is an inorganic chemical that is highly soluble in water. Major sources of nitrate in drinking water include fertilizers, sewage and animal manure. Most nitrogen containing materials in natural waters tend to be converted to nitrate. Nitrates also occur naturally in the environment, in mineral deposits, soil, seawater, freshwater systems, and the atmosphere... Nitrite changes the normal form of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body, into a form called methemoglobin that cannot carry oxygen. High enough concentrations of nitrate in drinking water can result in a temporary blood disorder in infants called methemoglobinemia, commonly called "blue baby syndrome"" (Nitrites/Nitrates). Additonally, long term exposure to nitrites may cause cancer and reproductive/developmental effects.

Well this one's obvious right? This is why chlorine is added to our water, to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa and prevent us from getting sick. Of course, ingesting microbes can lead to any wide number of diseases, although some microbes are beneficial, and certain parasites (although not necessarily microbes) are not killed by chlorine (More on Chlorine (same link as above)).

"Asbestos is a group of minerals that generally look like separable, long, thin fibers. These fibers are small and can be seen with a microscope. When these fibers are disturbed, causing the fibers to float in the air, they can be easily breathed into the lungs. Scientists have recognized asbestos as a health threat to humans because these fibers can be breathed into the lungs and can cause cancer and other lung diseases" (ATSDR on Asbestos). "Most epidemiologic studies to see if cancer incidence is higher than expected in places with high levels of asbestos in drinking water detected increases in cancer deaths or incidence rates at one or more tissue sites (mostly in the gastrointestinal tract). Some of these increases were statistically significant. However, the magnitudes of increases in cancer incidence tended to be rather small and might be related to other risk factors such as smoking" (More on Asbestos from the ATSDR). Since asbestos is proven to be a carcinogen when inhaled, it follows that it may be a carcinogen when ingested as well.

There are three main ways that sediment can enter water: "installation of a new well," "precipitates from certain dissolved minerals" (a precipitate is a solid formed by a chemical reaction in a liquid), and "continuous entry of fine clay or sand particles from the soil or from poor quality bedrock" (Sediment in Water). The main problem with sediment is that it seems to be just a general word for stuff in the water that makes it look cloudy. It ranges from harmless to dangerous.

"Chloroform is a clear, colorless, and mobile liquid with a pleasant, sweet odor" (see below). The effects of chloroform are well known in humans, because of its historical use as an anesthetic. Chloroform is associated with cardiovascular depression, liver necrosis and enlargement, psychiatric and neurological symptoms such as hallucinations and moodiness, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headache, effects on the central nervous system, interaction with ethanol (ingested alcohol), redness, irritation, burning, pain of the eyes and skin. Additionally, "Based on experimental animal studies, IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] has concluded that chloroform should be regarded as a cancer risk to humans. One study of people exposed to chloroform in their drinking water showed a correlation between chloroform concentration and rectal and bladder cancer [Hathaway et al. 1991]" (Chloroform and Health according to OSHA).

Certain radioactive minerals, radon, and radon gas can all make their way into your tap water. Above certain levels all of these may present a greater risk of developing cancers. Look here for more information on radionuclides: List of Pollutants in Water.

This is a controversial topic. Some sites claim it's everything from a carcinogen to bad for your teeth and gums, others claim that below a certain dosage there are no adverse affects. Everyone agrees that it is toxic in high amounts and can cause death if too much is ingested. Most agree that it does prevent tooth decay and cavities, although some claim it does not. The medical community seems to agree that 1ppm [part per million] in the drinking water system is optimal for prevention of tooth decay, but one study shows that of water plant operators involved in the study, "Only one-fourth of operators were able to maintain the fluoride concentration to within 0.1 mg/L of the optimal concentration" (PubMed Article on Fluoride). Certain medical studies point to higher rates of bone fractures, certain cancers, or reduced birth rate caused by long-term exposure to fluoridated water, although at different levels of exposure: (Fluoride and Bone FracturesFluoride and Uterine Cancer, Fluroide and Osteosarcoma, Fluoride and Birth Rate). In the end, you will have to choose whether you believe it to be a necessary component of your diet and/or drinking water.

Water Filters:
So what can you do about this? Besides problems from drinking tap water, it can damage you in the shower (see above on chlorine absorption), and it gets into the food you boil and in the plants you water (tap water kills some of my plants, and slows the growth of others, which is especially annoying when you are trying to grow food plants). There are many different kinds of water filtration processes. Some of these can be easily installed in your home, others are more costly/difficult to use, and each removes different contaminants, so a combination of filters will lead to the purest result. See this website for more information on the below processes.

Water is boiled and the water vapor is collected and condensed into water by cooling. While this removes contaminants with boiling points higher than 100°C, those contaminants that boil before water are also captured with the water vapor and are not effectively removed.

Ion Exchange:
Water is passed through resins that react with the water, exchanging ions between the water and the resin. While this effectively removes dissolved inorganics, the resin creates a breeding ground for microorganisms, and particles are not effectively removed. Brita filters combine this method with carbon filtration.

Carbon Absorption:
"Activated carbon is created from a variety of carbon-based materials in a high-temperature process that creates a matrix of millions of microscopic pores and crevices. The pores trap microscopic particles and large organic molecules, while the activated surface areas cling to, or adsorb, small organic molecules" (see link above). However, while carbon filters effectively remove dissolved organics, chlorine, and microorganisms (in some cases), they don't remove heavy metals and other dissolved solids. As stated, Brita filters use this method in conjunction with ion exchange.

Microporous Filtration:
These filters are like woven nets of material that block contaminants that are bigger than the holes. While effectively removing solids, this obviously has little effect on dissolved contaminants.

Reverse Osmosis Filtration:
Water is passed through a semi-permeable membrane by hydraulic pressure that separates the water out from its solution (water + the contaminants). This effectively removes 90-99% of contaminants including, dissolved solids, lead and other heavy metals, asbestos, radium, certain dissolved organics, chlorinated pesticides, and heavy VOCs (volatile organic compounds: although part of a solid or liquid product, these easily break off as a gas; basically, they are like fumes: VOCs). This type of filtration is best used in conjunction with a carbon filter to achieve the purest outcome.

Ultraviolet Radiation:
Water is exposed to UV lights which effectively kill the microorganisms in the water. Although a good method of sanitizing, this removes no particles, dissolved or otherwise.

KDF Filtration:
"Kinetic Degradation Fluxion (KDF) is a high-purity copper-zinc formulation that uses a basic chemical process known as redox (oxidation/reduction) to remove chlorine, lead, mercury, iron, and hydrogen sulfide from water supplies. The process also has a mild anti-bacterial, algaecitic, and fungicitic, effect and may reduce the accumulation of lime scale" (KDF Filters). While this is very effective at removing chlorine and metals, it does not remove other contaminants. It does remove the main contaminant that can be absorbed through skin and inhaled when it detaches from the water at high temperatures: chlorine. Since most contaminants in tap water are mainly only a danger if ingested, this is optimal for use in the shower/bath, especially since it is still effective on water at high heats (such as water temperatures one would expect to find in the shower). If you purchase one of these, it is advised not to by a filter that forces the water to travel upwards, as this greatly decreases the water pressure. For a fairly cheap KDF filter that is easy to install (and doesn't leak at all with a little plumbing tape applied around the central grooves where it opens for filter replacement and maintenance) see KDF filter on Amazon.

Buying Water:
While it may be easy to purchase a carbon filter system for your kitchen sink or for storage in your fridge, and installing a KDF filter on your shower is no big deal, as mentioned above, this doesn't really remove all contaminants. Because of this, although I use both of these methods at home (the carbon filtered water is used to boil pasta, veggies, etc., and the KDF filter protects me while I shower), I choose to purchase the water that I drink (I cannot currently afford to buy a reverse osmosis system for my home and have it installed). I buy a brand of water available at my grocery store, and it goes through an activated carbon filter, a micron filter (basically microporous filtration from what I can tell), reverse osmosis filtration, a post carbon filter (just a type of carbon filtration), and exposure to ultraviolet light. The water is stored in a large dispenser at the store. I press a button, and it fills my glass gallon jug with clean water, which I then take home and put in the fridge. Before you run to the store though, here is a little blurb on water that is pre-bottled (and why you shouldn't buy it):

Bottled Water:
First, despite the contaminants in it, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does regulate tap water. However, "The FDA regulates bottled water, and cannot require certified lab testing or violation reporting; bottlers themselves are responsible for testing. Furthermore, FDA doesn't require bottled water companies to disclose where the water came from, how it was treated or what contaminants it contains" (Story of Stuff: Bottled Water (video)). Thus, you're not really getting a better product, anyway. To be exact, one third of bottled water in the U.S. is filtered tap water, including Aquafina and Dasani, Pepsi and Coke products respectively (and who knows what filtration process they use). Second of all, the bottled water industry creates mountains of waste per year, not only from manufacturing plastic bottles made from petroleum with energy created from petroleum and shipped using petroleum, but also from the mountains of waste that are created by bottles and bottles of water that is consumed every day. So, when you go to the grocery store, avoid bottled water, avoid plastic gallon jugs of water, in fact avoid plastic all together. And that brings me to my next point: toxins in plastic.

Look for my next post for details on which plastics are safe for food/water storage (if any), which aren't, and alternatives to plastic storage.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

a low sugar diet? this just in: not impossible!

Before you read this, you might want to take a look at my previous post: sugar, sugar, sugar

Get rid of soda (and other sugary drinks):
Many sodas today contain caffeine, a diuretic (a substance that makes you urinate). They also contain salt. Because you are losing water through urine and ingesting about 55 mg of sodium per can, soda makes you thirstier. While this is great for the soda companies (if you're still thirsty, you'll grab another can), it's not so great for you because this means you're also ingesting incredibly high amounts of sugar or HFCS, both of which mask the taste of the salt (who would drink salty-tasting soda?) (Information taken from Lustig's lecture, see previous post for more information). If you must drink something besides water, milk, or tea and coffee (preferably not sweetened with sugar), get 100% fruit juice with no added sugars and lots of pulp (the more pulp, the more fiber). Honestly, I still drink fruit juice from time to time (even low-pulp juices, like grape juice), I just try not to drink it with every meal. As for alcohol, well, that's your call, but there is no level on which alcohol can be considered healthy for you. This is in terms of sugar content, carcinogenic properties, and other health concerns (and yes, this includes red wine: again look for future posts on this topic).

Maximize honey:
It has been shown that honey does not have detrimental effects on triglyceride levels like sugar/HFCS does when tested in rats (Substituting Honey for Sugar). This is not to say that honey should be consumed with abandon: it is still sugar. However, if you can find products that use mostly or only honey instead of sugar/HFCS this is a good way to go. Also, try substituting honey for sugar in baking/cooking. Try to buy local/organic where you can (or ask your farmer/company how they feed their bees) because commercial bee keepers often feed their bees HFCS because it's cheap: HFCS and Bee Populations, which beyond possibly adulterating the honey product, can actually harm bee populations. Additionally, the less the honey is processed, the more nutritious it is, so raw honey is your best bet. Honey has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties, as well as an ability to fight cancer, suppress a cough, and help your body maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Honey has also been used to heal wounds like burns for centuries with excellent results. Did I mention the vitamin, anti-oxidant, and flavonoid content? More on Honey

De-sugar your breakfast:
Add honey, fruit, and/or honey-based granola to plain yogurt to make it taste sweeter. Vanilla yogurt can have more sugar in it than ice cream: Sugar Content of Common Foods. If you can't go without sugar in your yogurt, try drinking a glass of milk instead. For cereal, make your own granola (see recipes below) with honey instead of sugar, or buy cereals like Grape Nuts and toasted wheat that don't have any added sugars.

Minimize sauces/dressings/spreads:
Salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce, sweet and sour sauce, jam, peanut butter, etc. are packed with sugar/HFCS. It's really easy to make your own salad dressing (olive oil + balsamic vinegar = balsamic vinaigrette) and most sauces are also easy to make (especially if you're cooking anyway). For example, make your own teriyaki sauce instead of buying one that's probably full of sugar (even if your recipe calls for sugar, you can control the amount of sugar in the sauce. Or, try substituting honey for a slightly different flavor). There are more natural versions of jam/jelly and peanut butter (often even in the store brand) that are sugar-free and basically taste the same. You may even find that by making your own sauces/dressings you save money in the long run (ingredients are almost always cheaper per ounce of product yielded than the pre-made product).

Make your own soup:
Home-made soup is delicious and you have complete control over how much sugar (and salt) goes into the pot. If you don't have time to make your own, check the ingredient list before you buy. Almost all name-brand non-organic tomato soups contain HFCS, and even the organic ones usually contain sugar. It is possible to find flavors without sugar, but if you prefer your traditional tomato or other variety, look for soups with sugar low on the ingredient list (and if possible low-sodium, too).

Check your snacks and bread:
Bread, crackers, and chips often contain sugar when you least expect it. All of these items can be purchased sugar-free or low-sugar (once again, check your ingredient lists), and often at around the same price (unfortunately almost all of the cheapest breads have HFCS, so it may be slightly more pricey to buy one without). If you can't find brands you like, try making your own bread or use veggies to dip instead of crackers/chips. Finally, be careful with energy/granola bars: most are sugar bars. Many get their high sugar rating from fruit and/or honey, which isn't as much of a problem, but many have sugar/HFCS high on the ingredient list. Make your own with the granola recipes below, find a low-sugar brand, or switch to a different snack.

Watch out for non-sugar sweeteners:
Just because it's sugar-free doesn't mean it's better for you. In fact, synthetic sugar substitutes are generally unsafe or at least suspect. This site about Synthetic Sugar Substitutes suggests carcinogenic properties, irregular blood sugar levels, and neurological, mood-related, organ swelling/shrinking, immune system, and gastrointestinal problems. If that's not enough, look up your favorite sweetener in the following list of Food Additives, I think you'll find consumption is generally not recommended.

Natural Alternatives:
In terms of more natural alternatives, here's a list and some helpful hints as to whether or not they are a good choice for sugar substitution (for more on honey, see above): Sugar Alternatives and their Glycemic Index

In addition to the list above, I want to highlight some information about stevia. "Stevioside comes from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni), a perennial shrub of the Asteraceae (Compositae) family native to Brazil and Paraguay" (Synthetic Sugar Substitutes, cited above). Despite the fact that it is therefore a naturally occurring sweetener, safety is disputed: some government organizations around the world (including the FDA) choose not to approve it, but people have been using it for years in other countries with no apparent ill-effects: "In 1992, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) petitioned the FDA to declare stevia as GRAS [generally regarded as safe], citing historical usage and referring to numerous toxicology studies conducted in Japan and other countries. The FDA rejected AHPA's petition, contending inadequate evidence to approve the product" (Synthetic Sugar Substitutes, cited above). However, other studies (I'm not sure who conducted them) show, "High dosages [of stevia] fed to rats reduced sperm production and increased cell proliferation in their testicles, which could cause infertility or other problems. Pregnant hamsters that had been fed large amounts of a derivative of stevioside called steviol had fewer and smaller offspring. In the laboratory, steviol can be converted into a mutagenic compound, which may promote cancer by causing mutations in the cells' DNA" (Food Additives, cited above). A refined version of stevia, rebiana, may cause DNA mutations, but has not yet been thoroughly tested (although it's already on the market, especially in beverages). In the end, it is your choice whether you choose to believe the FDA or the AHPA and historical precedent, but look out for stevia in traditional and herbal teas if you're trying to avoid it.

In general, your best rule of thumb is, less refined = better for you:
It seems that honey (as long as you're getting a pure, unrefined version, the more raw the better) is your best alternative. Sugar Cane Juice may also be used in moderation, as it also has many healing and nutritional properties (this is not to be confused with evaporated cane juice or raw sugar, both of which come from sugar cane and are less processed than table sugar, but more processed than sugar cane juice). It should be noted that sugar cane juice is still processed (from the stalk to a liquid form). Maple syrup is more nutritious than many sweeteners, but it is refined, so it is not your best choice. Watch out for sweeteners like Agave Syrup, which although it touts a low-glycemic index and is marketed as a natural alternative to sugar, was invented in the 90's, is hardly natural, is refined, and is more than 70% fructose: "The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS.35 The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites36 (More on Agave Syrup). Brown sugar/natural brown sugar/turbinado should also be avoided: at best, these are only one-step less refined than table sugar, and at worst, are just table sugar with added molasses (Sugar Refining Process + How Brown Sugar Fits In).

granola recipes: "look here, I prefer not to give up cereal, ma'am"

Since packaged cereals and even packaged granola tend to have lots of table sugar (even if they also have honey), here are a couple easy-to-make, easy-to-store recipes to help you make your own, so you don't have to give up your breakfast routine:

Olive Oil + Honey Granola (I substitute 1/2 cup of honey for the 3/4 cup of maple syrup)
Minnesota Plenty: Dehydrated Apple + Honey/Maple Syrup Granola (once again feel free to substitute more honey for less (or no) maple syrup)

As far as the ingredients go, you need oats, but the nuts/seeds/fruit choices are all up to you (you can also put as much or as little as you want of each, just make sure to try to have a good oat-to-nut/seed balance). In the first recipe it says 1 tsp. of kosher salt, but I would use just a pinch of regular salt (like the second recipe says) as the big kosher salt chunks get clumped and make for a few really salty bites. Additionally, feel free to use unsweetened as opposed to sweetened coconut flakes (it will still taste sweet, don't worry).

As for cooking time, it really varies depending on your oven. I would check the granola and stir it every ten minutes (despite what the second recipe says about 15, just to be safe): this prevents it from burning on the baking sheet. The granola is done as soon as most of it is golden brown. It may even be a little orange brown but as soon as you start to see orange, take it out! Orange, in my experience, means that it's starting to burn. If the granola burns, the honey looses a lot of its sweetness and you end up with pretty bitter granola.

Also, using a cake pan to bake it isn't a bad idea as this makes stirring easier without spilling (as a side note, the more your granola is piled on top of itself the more sticky it will be when it's done, the more spread out the granola, the less sticky). Feel free to double the batch so you don't have to make it as often, in this case you may need two cake pans.

Finally, you can store the granola in a glass dish with a seal-able lid (or one of those cereal container things you can buy at the store, although I would check the plastic on these as certain plastics can leech chemicals into your food) and it will last at least 2 weeks in the pantry (honestly I've eaten all mine before it's lasted longer than this). You may choose to store it in the fridge if you like, especially if you make bars out of it, to help solidify the honey and make it a bit thicker.

Be sure to check out the Minnesota Plenty blog mentioned above for more great recipes and do-it-yourself food storage and preservation techniques!

Monday, October 17, 2011

sugar, sugar, sugar

I love sugar. I love candy, cake, cookies, pie, all sweets. If it's sweet, I will eat it even if it doesn't taste that good because I love eating sugar. But how does all that sugar affect my body? We know sugar isn't good for you, but is it bad? Recently, I watched a video called "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," which now has over 1.7 million views on You Tube. A video-taped lecture given by Robert H. Lustig, MD a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco who is also the Director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program at UCSF, it details sugar on many levels, including chemically, and gives insight into how it affects our bodies. Because the video is an hour and a half long, I decided to summarize it for you. All quotes are from Lustig's lecture unless cited otherwise.

What is sugar?
Chemically speaking, white table sugar is a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule bonded together.

What is glucose?
Besides sugar, glucose is found in many carbohydrates like pasta, bread, and rice. When you eat calories from glucose, "...80% of the total will be used by all the organs in the body...because every cell in the body can use glucose. Every bacteria can use glucose, every living thing on the face of the Earth can use glucose because glucose is the energy of life." The remaining 20% of the calories is metabolized in the liver. There, most of this glucose is transformed into glycogen to be stored. Your liver can store an unlimited amount of glycogen, because it is non-toxic, and it can be reconverted into glucose to be used for energy as needed. The remaining glucose becomes citrate. Enzymes break this down to create very low-density lipoprotein, or vLDL cholesterol. This can cause heart disease and is related to obesity. "[If] You started with 24 calories [of glucose in the liver], maybe a half a calorie will end up as vLDL." Your insulin goes up in this process, and your brain shuts off your hunger urge, so you stop eating.

What is fructose?
Fructose is found in fruit and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) ("The most widely used varieties of high-fructose corn syrup are: HFCS 55 (mostly used in soft drinks), approximately 55% fructose and 42% glucose; and HFCS 42 (used in many foods and baked goods), approximately 42% fructose and 53% glucose" (Wikipedia)). When you eat calories from fructose, every single calorie will be metabolized in the liver because the liver is the only organ in the body that can metabolize fructose. Similar to glucose, the fructose is processed into citrate, however, in large amounts due to the larger number of total fructose calories being processed by the liver. This leads to the production of large amounts of vLDL cholesterol. Additionally, enzymes act on fructose to transform it into fat to be stored: about 30% of the fructose you eat ends up as fat. "...everybody talks about a high-fat diet. Well a high-sugar diet is a high-fat diet. That's the point." In this process, reactions occur in the liver that interfere with the insulin processes, which means the liver becomes insulin resistant. Other reactions cause problems such as:
  • high blood pressure
  • gout
  • dyslipidemia
  • non-alcoholic steatohepatitis
  • muscle insulin resistance
  • inflammation of the liver
  • hepatic insulin resistance
  • over-working of the pancreas (due to insulin resistance of the muscles and liver)
  • increased fat-making (which leads to obesity)
  • interference with brain's response to leptin (a chemical that tells your brain that you are full, and leads to decrease in hunger urge)
  • a reward signal released in your brain which continues your appetite and thus consumption: "Your brain gets the signal that it's starving even though your fat cells are generating a signal that says, 'Hey, I'm full like all get-out.'"
"So what do we call it, where, when you take in a compound that's foreign to your body, and only the liver can metabolize it, and in the process, generates various problems... What do we call that? We call that a poison."

What do you mean, "fructose is a poison"?
"...chronic fructose exposure alone, nothing else, causes this thing we call The Metabolic Syndrome... So this is the conglomerate of the following different phenomena: obesity, type II diabetes, lipid problems, hypertension, and cardio-vascular disease." As listed above, all of these problems can be caused by the way fructose is metabolized in the liver. Fructose is causing obesity and a host of other problems.

I thought eating fat made you fat!
While fat intake does affect how calories are stored, overall fat intake among American adults has decreased from around 40% in 1960 to around 30% in 2000, yet prevalence of obesity has gone from around 10% to around 30% in the same span of time. So if we're eating less fat as a whole, why are we getting fatter? "We're all eating more carbohydrate." Specifically, we're all eating more fructose because our low-fat cookies and cakes are packed with high fructose corn syrup and sugar (remember sugar is 50% fructose) to make up for the bland taste caused by removing the fat. Remember that 30% of all fructose consumed is stored as fat. Basically, we replaced our intake from fat calories with sugar calories.

But I don't eat cookies and cakes. I must not be eating much fructose.
Unfortunately, this probably isn't true. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are in practically every ingredient list you read, especially high fructose corn syrup because it's cheap. "'s so cheap that it's found it's way into everything. It's found it's way into hamburger buns, pretzels, barbecue sauce and ketchup, almost everything...So we are being poisoned by this stuff, and it's been added surreptitiously to all of our food, every processed food."

Then, how much fructose do I consume in a day?
A lot more than people used to consume. According to a 2008 study, "Adolescents (12 - 18 years of age) had the highest intake (72.8 g/day, or 12.1% of total energy intake). For 25% of adolescents, at least 15% of energy consumed came from fructose." In 1977, data shows that "...mean estimated fructose intake was 37 g/day, or 8% of total intake." Therefore, fructose intake (at least for adolescents) has increased by about 35.8g/day from the invention of HFCS to 2008. "...this [high fructose corn syrup] is something we were never exposed to before 1975, and, currently, we are consuming 63 pounds per person per year."

What about the epidemic of obese infants? How could they eat a lot of fructose?
"We have an epidemic of obese 6-month olds. Now if you wanna say that it's all about diet and exercise, then you have to explain this to me. So any hypothesis that you wanna proffer that explains the obesity epidemic, you've got to explain this one too." (See Kim et al, Obesity 15:1107, 2006 for more information). Baby formula is full of sugar. "It's a baby milkshake. Soda, Coca-cola is 10.5% sucrose. Formula is 10.3% sucrose." While they may also be getting helpful nutrients from formula, they are also ingesting a very high amount of sugar. Additionally it is being shown that the earlier you expose children to sugar, including in the womb, the more they crave it later.

Well why is fructose in everything?
As discussed before, it in part replaced the flavor that was removed when fat was removed from our processed foods. This is not the whole story, however: sugar didn't just replace the fat. "...U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. Commodity farmers can only survive by producing their maximum yields, so they do. And here is the shocking plot twist: as the farmers produced those extra calories, the food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn't really want to eat 700 more calories a day...Most of these calories enter our mouths in forms hardly recognizable as corn and soybeans, or even vegetable in origin: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) owns up to its parentage...our HFCS [consumption] is up by 1000 percent" (Kingsolver, 14-15).

Isn't sugar better for you than high fructose corn syrup?
"High fructose corn syrup, sucrose, it's a non-issue. It's a wash. They're the same." "They're both equally bad. They're both dangerous. They're both poison." "The real issue is that excessive consumption of any sugars [as opposed to just high fructose corn syrup] may lead to health problems" (Center for Science in the Public Interest, Press Release Feb 6. 2008). This is important to know when you look at many organic products. They usually contain cane sugar instead of HFCS, but this doesn't make much of a difference (if any) in the health affects caused by the consumption of the product.

If fructose is in fruit, does that mean fruit is bad for you?
No. Why? Because fruit has a lot of fiber. "Wherever there's fructose in nature, there's way more fiber. Did you ever see a piece of sugar cane? It's a stick." This is why fruit is healthy, despite its fructose content. "Fiber: reduces rate of intestinal carbohydrate absorption, reducing insulin response; increases speed of transit of intestinal contents to ileum, to raise PYY 3-36, and induce satiety; inhibits absorption of some free fatty acids to the colon, which are metabolized by colonic bacteria to short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which suppress insulin." In laymen's terms, this means it lowers your insulin levels (remember high levels cause insulin resistance), causes you to feel full (so you don't overeat), and reduces insulin production (again, helping to counteract insulin resistance).

Well don't processed foods with sugar/HFCS have fiber?
Not really. "We as human beings, walking the Earth 50,000 years ago, used to consume 100 to 300 grams of fiber per day. We now consume 12... We took the fiber out. So why'd we take the fiber out? It takes too long to cook, it takes too long to eat, and shelf-life." Products last longer with less fiber, so most processed foods have great shelf-lives but no fiber.

What about alcohol, isn't alcohol mostly sugar?
Yes. "How do you make ethanol? Naturally. Right, you ferment sugar. Hasn't changed, 'cause it has all the same properties, because it's basically taken care of by the liver in exactly the same way and for the same reason, because sugar and ethanol are the same, every which way you turn." 20% of ethanol (the kind of alcohol we drink) consumed will be absorbed/used by the stomach, intestines, kidney, muscles, and brain. 80% of calories go to the liver. Initially, the ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde, a substance that cross-links proteins (which can cause cirrhosis of the liver) and is carcinogenic (which means it can cause cancer). The more alcohol you consume, the more acetaldehyde is produced. This acetaldehyde is processed into citrate (which we saw in the glucose process as well - remember that citrate is broken down to create vLDL which causes heart disease and affects obesity). While in the glucose reaction only half of a calorie becomes vLDL, in an ethanol reaction, a large amount of vLDL is produced, because 80% of the calories reach the liver, where in a glucose reaction, only 20% of calories reach the liver. In this process, other reactions occur which can lead to such health problems as: dyslipidemia, muscle insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), alcoholic steatohepatitis, and inflammation of the liver. Does any of that sound familiar? That's because sugar/HFCS and alcohol consumption cause the same problems on a metabolic level. Sugar/HFCS and alcohol consumption are both linked to:
  • hypertension
  • myocardial infarction
  • dyslipidemia
  • pancreatitis
  • obesity
  • hepatic dysfuction (non-alcoholic/alcoholic steatohepatitis)
  • fetal insulin resistance
  • habituation, if not addiction
Fructose is "alcohol without the buzz" because it produces the same metabolic health problems, but it is not metabolized by the brain (which causes the buzz). Since both cause weight gain, in some ways it is just "beer belly vs. soda belly." However, it should be noted that while both fructose and alcohol are processed in similar ways in the liver, alcohol itself is a carcinogen, not to mention the carcinogenic substances that are produced as it is processed in the liver or the cells it kills/mutates by being in the body. The major difference between fructose and alcohol lies in the fact that fructose is in no way (as far as I have read/reasearched) a carcinogen. Look for future posts for more information on how alcohol affects the body.

Alcohol is regulated by the government. If it's bad for you, why isn't sugar regulated?
The FDA is in charge of regulating food additives. They give HFCS GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status. According to FDA definitions on what constitutes a safe food additive, "A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health." However, this does not apply to chronic [long-term] disease. The acute [short-term] symptoms of alcohol are many: 
  • CNS depression
  • decreased BP
  • hypothermia
  • tachycardia
  • myocardial depression
  • variable pupillary responses
  • respiratory depression
  • diuresis
  • hypoglycemia
  • loss of fine motor control
The acute symptoms of fructose consumption are none. The FDA only regulates acute toxins, and fructose is not an acute toxin.

What about exercise? Even if sugar makes you fat, I can burn it off, right?
Not exactly. We've all been raised on the principle: "If you eat it, you better burn it, or you're gonna store it." However, no one ever really goes into the details of this rule. While you can burn calories through exercise, the amount of activity required to burn off a noticeable number of calories is exorbitant. "Why is exercise important in obesity? Because it burns calories? Come on. 20 minutes of jogging's one chocolate chip cookie. You can't do it!...I mean, one big mac, you know, you've gotta, you know, mountain bike for 10 hours."

Well if I can't burn much fat by exercising, what's the point?
Exercise is still very important. While it doesn't really burn enough calories or fat to be worth the time, it does do the following things:
  • improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity (which helps bring your insulin levels down)
  • reduces stress, and resultant cortisol release (which also reduces your appetite)
  • causes the TCA cycle (this is how your body makes energy) to run faster and detoxifies fructose (basically this means your metabolism gets faster, and your liver is less insulin resistant (along with lower instances of all other fructose related problems))
In other words, exercise helps with insulin levels, appetite, metabolism, and processing of sugar intake (all of which can lead to weight loss), but it does not really burn a substantial number of calories.

Then what do I do?
For me, in theory this information means no more sugar. In practice, really it means very little sugar. But how can we go about decreasing the sugar in our diets? Like Lustig said, it's in everything. Well here is what he recommends to start:
  • get rid of all sugared liquids--only water and milk
  • eat your carbohydrate with fiber
  • wait 20 minutes for second portions
  • buy your screen time minute-for-minute with physical activity
Lustig has achieved great results with children at combating obesity and other fructose-caused health problems with these methods. What else can you do? See my next post for more tips and tricks to get sugar/HFCS out of your diet. In the mean time, check out these resources:

To see the full video and follow along with the slides:
Sugar: The Bitter Truth
Lustig Slides (be sure to check out all the studies he cites if you want more information, FYI: these are not the exact slides as those used in his lecture, although similar)

To view parts of the video:
Fat makes you fat vs. sugar makes you fat: 29:00-36:20
Glucose vs. Fructose 43:00-45:00
Bio-chemistry of how glucose, fructose, and alcohol are metabolized in the liver: 45:00-1:09:00
Argument that high blood pressure epidemic is caused by sugar: 59:00-1:00:40
Why diet and exercise are important: 1:09:40-1:13:00
Fiber and how it detoxifies sugar: 1:13:00-1:16:00

Other resources:
Substituting Honey for Refined Carbohydrates Protects Rats from Hypertriglyceridemic and Prooxidative Effects of Fructose
Fructose Intake Has Increased to More Than 10% of Daily Energy in U.S. Diet
How bad is fructose? 
Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin (recommended in the video)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2007.