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    Archive for the ‘organic’ Category

    The Ultimate Chocolate Shopping Guide

    Last year’s “ultimate olive oil guide” was so well received that I thought it deserved a bigger and better sequel.

    While everyone else this year will be talking about the Mayan calendar, we’ll be over in this corner talking about something the Mayans ever-so-intelligently loved, worshipped, and cherished like gold: chocolate.

    My view of chocolate is undoubtedly passionate, yet objective. I don’t think of it as a magical elixir or a  — groan — “super” food. It is, however, very healthful.

    Sadly, a lot of chocolate out there — and I’m talking all sorts of price ranges here — is harmful to your health, the environment, and the well-being of farmers.

    I guarantee that after reading this post, you’ll never shop for chocolate the same way again.

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    2011: A Year to Remember (and Forget!)

    It wasn’t until I started compiling stories for this post that I realized just how much had taken place this year on issues of food, agriculture, and nutrition. While by no means a definitive list, I think it covers the most substantial events.

    So, if you’ve been spelunking in Antarctica for the past twelve months — or just want a short trip down memory lane — let’s review 2011, the year where:
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    Thinking Organic? Think Beyond Fruits & Vegetables

    When it comes to organic food, the vast majority of attention is focused on fruits and vegetables.  The Environmental Working Group, for example, provides their handy “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” guides every year — the former details the fruits and vegetables one should aim to buy organic if/when possible (due to their high pesticide loads); the latter lists produce that contains minimal to low pesticide loads and is therefore less concerning.

    Considering the fact that the average conventional apple is sprayed with 36 pesticides — and grapes with up to 34 — it certainly makes sense to prioritize organic choices.  However, too often, other foods are left out of mainstream organic “conversations”; foods that people may consume more often — and in higher amounts — than fruits and vegetables.

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    “What’s Organic About Organic?”: Takeaways

    woaologoYesterday afternoon, I attended a screening for “What’s Organic About Organic?”, a neat new documentary by Shelley Rogers that illustrates the differences between organic and conventional farming, highlights the challenges that many small organic farms face, and touches on issues that fall outside the scope of organic certification.  You can watch the trailer here!

    The darkness of the screening room was no match for my trusty notebook and pen.  Here are notes, factoids, quotes and questions I jotted down as I watched:

    • One organic farmer explains that conventional apples are sprayed with chemicals that are specifically created to withstand rainstorms.  He then poses the question, “how big of a rainstorm can you produce in your kitchen sink?”
    • Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., environmental health scientist and consumer advocate, explains that most agricultural pesticides are simply diluted versions of chemicals originally created for chemical warfare.
    • Colorado organic farmer Andy Grant recounts an anecdote that truly stuck with me.  One day, as a young boy growing up on a farm, he spotted a few grasshoppers that had been sprayed with insecticides jumping close to where his dog was laying.  As a result of the insecticides’ effects on their nervous systems, the grasshoppers were jumping erratically.  This caught the attention of his dog, which ended up eating one or two.  The dog died soon thereafter.
    • Sewer sludge is commonly– and legally — used as fertilizer in conventional farming.
    • Current USDA organic guidelines do not touch upon issues of agricultural workforce.  Some farmers believe that the organic seal should also reflect humane treatment of farm workers (i.e.: providing safe working conditions, providing healthcare, etc.).
    • The best part of the documentary, in my opinion, is a 10 to 15 minute segment in which a conventional dairy farm is juxtapositioned with an organic one. In the conventional farm, the cows are milked three times a day, subsist on an unnatural wheat diet, and are often injected with a wide variety of medications and antibiotics to treat the multitude of symptoms and diseases that are a direct result of their living conditions.  At the organic farm, cows are exclusively pasture-fed.  We also learn that cows’ symptoms (i.e.: diarrhea) are treated with herbs.  As farmer Jim Gardiner explains, a lot of weeds that are considered “nuisances” in conventional farming are powerful medicines for cows.

    I definitely recommend watching this if you get a chance.  It’s not only informative, but also a wonderful “organics 101” for people who may not be fully aware of the issues that pop up with conventional farming practices.  I also appreciated the humanizing aspect of focusing on a small handful of organic farmers.

    Click here to remain informed about future screenings.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    crop05-6soybean0.2 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the United States are certified organic.

    The most ironic part?  The people consuming most of these genetically modified byproducts (mainly corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, and soy protein isolate) aren’t even aware they are eating them.

    Soybean consumption is not limited to vegetarians!  Most fast-food hamburger buns contain some sort of soy byproduct, and most fast-food french fries are cooked in soybean oil (or a combination oil that includes soybeans).

    Whole, organic corn and soybeans are not the issue.  After all, it is certainly possible to buy bags of frozen organic sweet kernel corn as well as organic canned soybeans (or organic edamame).

    Processed byproducts are the true red-flag-raisers.

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    Numbers Game: Top Crops

    soybeans____ percent of corn and soybeans grown in the United States are certified organic.

    a) 10
    b) 4
    c) 0.2
    d) 1

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Tuesday for the answer.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Genetically Modified Beans

    beansI’ve been trying to eat more organic and “real”  food (as well as staying away from soybeans) since seeing the movie “Food Inc.”

    Are beans like pinto  beans, black beans, and kidney beans genetically modified?

    Should I buy organic?

    Susan (last name withheld)
    Grand Rapids, MI

    While I understand your concern about soybeans, there is no need to completely shun it from your diet.

    Keep in mind that the vast majority of genetically-modified soybeans are used to make processed food.

    Since soy is a subsidized crop, the production of soybean oil, soy flour, and soy protein isolate is extremely cheap.

    Next time you are at the store, take a look at processed “junk” food and you are bound to see some, if not all, of these ingredients.

    If you see the words “non-GMO” or “not genetically modified” on a package of tofu or tempeh, you can trust those soybeans have not been tampered with.

    While it is absolutely possible to have a healthy diet without a single soybean, tempeh (fermented soy) is chock-full of nutrition and healthy compounds.

    Companies like Lightlife and Turtle Island offer non-genetically-modified varieties.  If you like how it tastes, certainly continue to consume it!

    While genetically modified kidney beans, pinto beans, and black beans certainly exist, they are not as rampant as genetically modified soybeans.

    Buying organic is a fairly good precaution — organic food can not, by definition, be bioengineered.  I say “fairly good” because there are some loopholes.

    I do want to point out that many conventional (meaning “not organic”) beans are NOT genetically modified.

    However, since there are currently no mandatory labeling guidelines for genetically modified food, consumers are kept in the dark.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Giving Up Dairy

    lecheI’m seeing a nutritionist who has given me a regimen to follow. I’m a little skeptical of it, so am researching each of the items one by one.

    One of the items is forgoing milk. She said cow’s milk is particularly bad because it’s pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, and our stomachs aren’t meant to digest the milk of another animal.

    If I must have some milk, she recommended small amounts of goat’s or sheep’s milk (or cheese), because those animals aren’t fed as many antibiotics and hormones as cows are. (This last part makes me think that organic milk would be no worse than goat or sheep milk, but anyway…)

    I know many people are lactose-intolerant because we aren’t meant to digest milk after childhood.

    However, if I’m not lactose-intolerant, is it still possible that milk is affecting my digestive system negatively? Do you ever recommend to your clients that they drop dairy entirely?

    Should I care that all of the substitutes for dairy milk (soy, almond, rice) are highly processed and don’t really occur in nature?

    — Meredith (Last name withheld)
    (Location withheld)

    Wonderful questions, Meredith.

    First of all, not all cow’s milk is pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

    While, sadly, that is the norm, it is possible to purchase organic milk from cows that have not been fed either of those two things.  You can also purchase milk from grass-fed cows (that have also not been pumped with antibiotics and hormones) in most health food stores.

    As for the arguments that our stomachs aren’t meant to digest the milk of another animal — it depends.  That is certainly true for some individuals, but not for others.

    For information on the digestibility of goat’s milk (it goes far beyond lower lactose levels!), please read this post.

    Bottom line: if you are not lactose intolerant, there is no reason why dairy products would affect your digestive system negatively.

    I would never recommend that a client of mine who is able to digest dairy products completely eliminate them (I do think it is a good idea for omnivores to get calcium from a variety of different foods and not rely solely on dairy, though).

    Similarly, I would never tell a vegan client (or one who is lactose intolerant) that their diet is inferior because it does not include dairy.

    The mere presence — or absence — of dairy does not make a diet any healthier.

    From a purely nutritional standpoint, there is nothing wrong with having it or eschewing it.

    Ultimately, your body knows you best.  There are people who, while not allergic or intolerant to dairy, feel better without it in their diet.  Others feel better when they consume dairy on a daily basis.  Both experiences are valid.

    In terms of dairy milk substitutes — I enjoy making different nut milks at home.  It’s easy, inexpensive, and less processed than some products out there.

    That said, if you are buying unsweetened varieties that consist of two or three ingredients, you don’t have anything to worry about.

    FYI: One of my favorite home-made nut milks is cashew milk.  In a blender, mix a  half cup of cashews, two cups of water, a pinch of salt, and some vanilla extract.  This makes two cups of cashew milk — delicious by itself or over cereal.

    For a chocolate version, add a tablespoon of cacao powder!  You can also try substituting cashews with almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, or hazelnuts.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Organic vs. Genetically Modified

    soy millkI was at the store buying soy milk the other day.  I saw several brands that were organic, but [their ingredient lists] did not specify [the use of] non-genetically modified soybeans.

    Is that because organic soybeans are never genetically modified?

    In other words, does “organic” automatically mean NOT genetically modified?

    — Rebecca Baerth
    Chicago, IL

    Wonderful question!  Not surprisingly, the answer is a little convoluted.

    From a technical standpoint, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 states that the term “organic” can not be used in reference to foods that are genetically modified.

    However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

    1. When the Organic Foods Production Act was drafted, genetically modified crops were nowhere near as prevalent as they are now.  It is estimated that 91 percent of soybeans grown in the United States in 2007 were genetically modified.  In 1990, there were absolutely NO genetically modified soybeans grown in the United States.
    2. Testing for genetic modification — and labeling products as “non-GMO” — is completely voluntary

    Since testing is voluntary, there is a possibility that organic products — especially those using soybeans — are contaminated with non-GMO crops.

    Therefore, if avoiding genetically modified foods is important to you, the absolute best way to ensure that is by purchasing products that are labeled non-GMO.

    Hopefully, the Food & Drug Administration will take a cue from other countries and impose mandatory testing and labeling in regards to genetic modification.

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    In The News: Organic Food Isn’t Healthy??!! OMG!!

    organic_production1Ugh.  I dread news articles that ultimately do nothing but confuse the public.

    A few moments ago I received a tweet from @intellijenntsia, who wanted to know what I thought of this article, which reports that according to research from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, “organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over ordinary food.”

    While vitamin and mineral content in organic and conventional crops may be the same (that, by the way, is what the researchers based their conclusion on), I find the “organic food is no healthier” headline absolutely misleading.

    It could very well be argued that the lack of pesticides in organic crops inherently makes them a healthier alternative to conventional varieties, especially when it comes to berries, peaches, and apples (which have some of the highest pesticide loads).

    So, in reality, what we are looking at is that organic “may be no more nutritious“, which is different from “no healthier”.

    I also greatly dislike the fact that organic food is only discussed within a framework of health and nutrition.  Many people prefer to buy organic for environmental reasons.

    The findings are relevant, though, in the sense that the term “organic” carries with it a health halo.

    People have told me they prefer to buy organic gummy bears for their children because they are “healthier.”  I beg to differ.  Empty calories are empty calories.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Eggs

    s_half-dozen-eggsCan you talk about eggs?

    You have mentioned before that there is no nutritional difference between white and brown, but what about all of the other labels we find on eggs these days, like free-range, cage-free, and organic?

    The cage free eggs I buy at the grocery store seem better than the regular ones (the shells are thicker and the yolks are more yellow), but sometimes I feel like it’s just a big marketing scheme.

    I have heard that cage free chickens often live and are treated the same as the caged ones, only without the cages.

    If that’s the case, the eggs shouldn’t be much different.

    What eggs should we buy and what should we look for on the packages?

    — Kristin MacBride
    (Location Unknown)

    The marketing of eggs is among some of the most confusing — and meaningless — I can think of (yes, even worse than whole grain trickery!)

    Let’s break down the most popular terms and reveal their true meanings:

    • Free range eggs are produced by hens that have access to the outdoors.  Read that again.  Free-range hens only need to have access to the outdoors.  In other words, they may simply be housed somewhere with no doors.  Or, the doors to their abode may be open for twenty minutes a day. Additionally, the “outside” only needs to offer them five feet of space.  It is not required to be a grassy field with lots of vegetation.  A dirty concrete backyard that is accessible twenty minutes a day can still fall under “free range.”
    • Cage-free eggs are produced by hens that are not in cages.  Keep in mind, though, they can still be crammed alongside other thousands of hens in a small space.  They simply are not confined by a cage.  Many “cage-free” hens have no room to walk around.  Additionally, their beaks are still cut off without anesthesia and they may be fed very low-quality feed with antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified crops.
    • Organic eggs are produced by hens that are fed organically.  While these hens may not legally be in cages, they may suffer the fate of cage-free hens (have no more than an 8.5 by 11″ space to themselves, but just not inside a cage).  They may also have their beaks cut off without anesthesia, and never see sunlight.  This claim refers more to how the hens are fed, than to specific living conditions.
    • The same goes for eggs labeled as “vegetarian feed” or “Omega-3 fortified.” This claim ONLY refers to their feed, not to the conditions they live in.  FYI: I always chuckle when I see eggs advertised as being produced by “vegetarian” hens, since they are naturally omnivorous.

    Is it possible to consume eggs from hens that had a decent life?  Yes.

    The keyword you want to look for is “pasture fed.”  These hens exclusively eat worms, insects, and vegetation found outdoors.  The only caveat is that these eggs are only available at local farmers’ markets.

    Although slightly pricier than other eggs, they are more nutritious.  Studies have found that pasture-fed eggs offer more Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and beta-carotene than eggs produced in any other ways.  This is, partially, by the way, because of their omnivorous diet.

    Eat Wild is a wonderful website for all things pasture-fed.  Click here to see where you can find pasture-fed eggs in your state.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Organic Food Labeling

    44728post-honeybunch_organicWhen I buy something that has a pretty long list of ingredients (like a cereal) and claims to be “organic”, does that mean every ingredient is organic, or only some of them?

    Is it possible that an organic raisin bran cereal uses organic flour but not organic raisins?

    — Ashley Goldman
    New Haven, CT

    Unlike whole grains (where a laughable sprinkle of whole wheat flour on a chocolate chip cookie can be advertised as “made with whole grains!”), organic food labeling is subject to stricter regulations.

    The term “organic” can only be used to label products containing an ingredient list that is at least 95 percent organic.

    The use of “100% organic” is reserved for products that are made solely with organic ingredients.

    “Made with organic ingredients” is used for products with an ingredient list that is anywhere from 70 – 94 percent organic.  Manufacturers have the option to list the ingredients if they so choose (ie: 9-seed bread “made with organic flour” but not organic seeds).

    Products containing a lower percentage of organic ingredients can not make any organic-related claims on their packaging.  However, they can identify organic ingredients on the ingredient list (ie: if the only organic ingredient in your cereal was the raisins, they would be listed as “raisins (organic)”).

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    You Ask, I Answer: Veggie Wash

    1010_image_1When I go to a posting abroad I am often advised in places where there is a lot of soil contamination or poor food handling, to soak produce in a diluted bleach solution.

    [That] always seemed really extreme to me … I always wondered if those vegetable washes they sell would do the trick.

    — Quinn Andrus
    Via the blog

    Vegetable washes are usually made from a combination of vegetable and fruit extracts (particularly grapefruit seed extract).

    Are they worth it?  Depends on what your purpose for using them is.

    They are more effective at removing wax and water-resistant chemical residues on produce than water, but perform pretty much equally when it comes to removing bacteria.

    In countries where tap water is safe to consume, rinsing produce under running cold tap water (hot water tends to trap organisms in) is the best strategy.  Otherwise, you can concoct your own veggie wash by mixing boiled water with white distilled vinegar and lemon juice.

    One of the biggest misconceptions I come across is people who think organic or “fresh from the local farmer’s market” produce doesn’t need to be washed.  Wrong!  Contamination can occur at any point in the chain between farm and table.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    fresh-apple1233606650According to the Environmental Working Group, 36 different pesticides are sprayed on conventional apples.

    While a conventional piece of fruit is certainly better than nothing, in some cases (like apples, which have some of the highest levels of pesticide residue of all produce) it is highly advisable to buy organic.

    Remember, research on pesticides is in its infancy.

    Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the launch of a study that will screen comonly-used pesticides “for possibly disrupting the human, as well as animal, endocrine system.. which regulates all biological processes in the body – specifically, growth, metabolism and reproduction.”

    Pesticides also show up in farms’ water runoffs, often disrupting waterway ecosystems.

    As a reminder, here is a list of the top ten fruits and vegetables you should try to buy organic as often as possible.

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    In The News: Supplementing Their Way Through The Recession

    I’m slightly alarmed by this New York Times article that details the surge in supplement and multivitamin sales since last October’s infamous stock market crash.

    “Sales of vitamins and nutritional supplements, which have grown consistently for years, have surged in recent months. The Vitamin Shoppe has tracked a rise in new customers of about 20 percent over the last six months,” the paper reports.

    Facing unemployment and rising healthcare costs, some of the consumers interviewed for the piece are turning to echinacea, oregano oil capsules, and protein supplements to stay healthy.

    One woman even repeats a classic myth, explaining how “energetic” and “strong” she feels as a result of taking vitamins.

    Eek! I am most disturbed by the notion that people in financial hardship are throwing away their money on products that have not been shown to promote health.

    The vast majority of studies on echinacea, for example, have not shown much of a benefit compared to a placebo.

    Oregano oil? There have been no human studies, and at best it is touted as a way to possibly, perhaps, maybe minimize the symptoms of sinus infections.

    Protein supplements, meanwhile, have absolutely nothing to do with health.

    As I have said before, there is no reason why anyone consuming enough calories from many food groups should be concerned with getting more protein.

    And then there’s this: “Amy Breslin, who is 33 and studying to be a physician’s assistant, has pared back on fresh fruits and vegetables and stocked up instead on fish oil capsules and antioxidant supplements.”

    Her reasoning? Organics are expensive, so she gets a better “bang for her buck” with capsules and supplements.

    I hear this line of logic many times. Here are my problems with it:

    * While the lack of pesticides used in organic farming is wonderful , conventional fruits and vegetables offer plenty of nutrition. Many people erroneously think that conventional produce is akin to eating rat poison.

    * Fish oil capsules and antioxidant supplements do not offer the same health benefits as eating actual fish and produce.

    * Eating fruits and vegetables does not need to be expensive. Store-brand frozen fruits and vegetables are inexpensive.

    Many people also forget that one of the most important things you can do for your immune system is FREE — get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night!

    In any case, I need to send my crystal ball in for repairs. A few months ago I “predicted” to friends that The Vitamin Shoppe and/or GNC would suffer as a result of the recession.

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