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    Archive for the ‘pesticides’ Category

    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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    Petroleum: It’s What’s For Breakfast

    Petroleum dependence has our food system in an increasingly suffocating vice grip.  Plastic packaging — a by-product of oil refining — is ubiquitous, livestock operations gobble up fossil fuels in mind-blowing amounts, and the concept of “food miles” (the total distance food travels from farm to table, often times including multiple stops at factories and processing plants) has entered public discourse, albeit with some controversy.

    As important as packaging and transportation are to environmental concerns, it turns out that ingredients also matter.  Processed foods are consumed at all hours of the day, but one of the most startling examples of foods high in petroleum-derived ingredients can be seen with popular breakfast products — especially cereals.  The ingredients listed below do a better job of feeding our food system’s reliance on petroleum than they do nourishing our bodies.

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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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    You Ask, I Answer: Pumpkins Full of Pesticides?

    3 pumpkinsI have heard that supermarket pumpkins are treated with a lot of insecticides and other chemicals that keep them aesthetically intact, and lengthen their shelf life.

    Is this true or BS?

    — Thomas Johnson
    Via Facebook

    As I often like to say, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    Conventional pumpkins are certainly treated with pesticides and insecticides, but they do not make the “dirty dozen” list of produce that contains the highest amounts of these substances.

    By the way, the wonderful folks at Local Harvest have provided this nifty search tool to help you locate farms in your area that offer organic pumpkins!

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    You Ask, I Answer: Agave Is The New Enemy?

    Before reading my response below, I recommend you read his article first.

    One more thing before we get started.  Look back at previous posts on this blog and you will see I am by no means an agave enthusiast.

    From the inception of Small Bites, I have always said that, in my world, “sugar is sugar is sugar”.  All sweeteners offer 4 grams of sugar (16 calories) per teaspoon.  The best thing you can do is limit all added sugars — whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave.

    That said, I don’t see the need to demonize agave, which brings us to this post.

    Dr. Mercola’s statements are in red.  My responses are in black.

    “We have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn’t until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause – – fructose.”

    Here we have one of the most basic (yet very prevalent) erroneous statements about obesity rates — that a certain component in food “causes” obesity.

    Rising obesity rates are clearly linked to increases in caloric consumption.  Technically — though very misleadingly — one could argue that carbohydrates are behind rising obesity rates in the sense that some of the additional calories consumed over the past thirty years come from carbohydrates.

    Protein intake has also increased in the past forty years, so one could also technically claim protein is behind rising obesity rates.  Of course, those sorts of statements are ultimately untrue and distract from any sort of serious conversation on the matter.

    The issue with sweeteners — ALL of them — is that they provide empty calories.  Empty calories do not satiate.  That is why we can easily drink 600 calories of soda (whether it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, or agave nectar) and still feel hungry.  Eat 600 calories of a whole food that offers fat, protein, and fiber and I guarantee you will be full for hours.

    “Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup — in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.”

    Except that no one who consumes agave seeks it out because of lower fructose levels. Some reasons why individuals prefer agave over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) include:

    • Avoidance of genetically modified organisms
    • Flavor/texture preferences
    • Veganism (the filtration of white table sugar often utilizes bone char from animals, thereby making it unsuitable for vegans)
    • Practical use (you can purchase agave nectar and bake with it, add it to beverages, or pour some over yogurt)

    “Most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals.”

    Okay, and most yogurts contain excessive amounts of sugar.  That doesn’t mean all yogurt should be avoided.  Similarly, a lot of salmon is farmed and offer less omega-3s than wild salmon.  The key isn’t to completely shun salmon, but to know which types to pick.  That said, though, the processing of agave only requires one step.

    As Marion Nestle explained on her Food Politics blog earlier this year, “agave contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener.  It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high fructose corn syrup.”

    Raw agave nectar achieves this process through enzymes, while other varieties utilize heat.  I don’t know where the “caustic acid” notion comes from.

    “While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

    A pretty terrible comparison.  I am not a fan of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” based solely on their glycemic index.  After all, ice cream has a ‘better’ score than watermelon.

    “There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup — how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess.”

    Concerns that have never been substantiated, to the best of my knowledge.  Again, they key is to look for reputable sources.  Look for the USDA Organic seal on bottles of agave nectar, and make sure the ingredient list only lists agave nectar.

    “Agave is known to contain large amounts of saponins. Saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting. There is also a possible link between saponins and miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus, so if you’re pregnant, you should definitely avoid agave products.”

    Saponins are found in a variety of foods, mainly legumes and beans.  They actually have health-promoting effects, including the lowering of LDL cholesterol.  When consumed in extremely high amounts, they can cause gastrointestinal distress.  Look at the data, though. and the amount of saponins needed to experience those symptoms is ridiculously high.  Dr. Mercola’s hyperbolic statements would be akin to a warning not to drink wine because it contains alcohol, which is capable of causing alcoholic poisoning.

    “Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations, that is one tablespoon.”

    I don’t know where the “25 grams a day” figure comes from.  It is not referenced and I certainly have not seen it in any reputable journal or publication.  What is most ridiculous about this quote is that it literally doesn’t add up.

    One tablespoon of agave nectar contains 12 grams of sugar.

    Let’s assume we are talking about one of these “super high in fructose varieties”.  Fine, if ninety percent of that sugar is fructose, that leaves us with 10.8 grams of fructose.

    How Dr. Mercola concludes that a tablespoon (12 grams) of agave equal 25 grams of fructose beats me — and scientific reasoning.

    For the record, a medium mango contains more than 25 grams of fructose, so does a medium pear and half a mango.  Would you consider that “metabolically poisonous”?

    As for pesticide claims: if this is a concern for you, look for certified-organic agave.

    Is agave addictive?  I have yet to see any evidence of that.  The very preliminary — and very controversial — research on sugar addiction only places the spotlight on sucrose, not fructose.

    As I have stated before, I never considered agave a “wonder” food.  I never advocated liberal consumption, nor did I classify it as “healthy”.  While I take issue with anyone who classifies agave as a health-promoting “super food”, I also will not stand for absurd demonizations of it.

    As one distributor or raw, organic agave put it, “[Agave] is not going to solve world peace, cure cancer or do your laundry, but it will provide a delicious alternative to highly refined sweeteners, poor tasting nutritive sweeteners, and high glycemic natural sweeteners.”

    One last point — what is it about the word “doctor” that inspires blind trust in so many?  For years now, I have heard people parrot absurd nutrition “facts” with the assumption that said information must be true because “a doctor” said it.

    Don’t get me wrong.  There are many intelligent, well-informed doctors with extensive nutrition knowledge.  There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe that having ‘MD’ after their name automatically makes them THE authority on every topic under the umbrella of health.

    The word “doctor” before someone’s name simply means they were granted an MD or PHD.  It tells us absolutely nothing about someone’s character, motivations, or extent of knowledge.

    So, no, Edrie, please do not forward that inflammatory article to your girlfriend.  Allow her to enjoy a small amount of agave nectar in her coffee.

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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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    You Ask, I Answer: Pesticides in Produce

    washing-vegetables-225Do we know if pesticides are absorbed after being sprayed on the surface of produce?

    Do we need to be concerned if we wash the fruit or vegetables well before eating?

    — Nicole Journault
    Via the blog

    All pesticides are not created equal.  While some don’t make it past fruit skins and peels, others are absorbed into the flesh.

    Similarly, some pesticides can be rinsed off with water (contrary to popular belief, rinsing under running water is more effective than soaking), and others are  specifically created to be resistant to water (so as to not be washed off by rainfall.)

    Remember, too, that many conventional fruits are treated with wax, which often times traps pesticides in the skin.

    When it comes to the top offenders, I always try to buy organic.  There is still a lot we don’t know about pesticides’ effects on human health.

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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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    Numbers Game: Would You Like an Apple With Your Pesticides?

    brown_bag_appleAccording to the Environmental Working Group, _______ different pesticides are sprayed on conventional apples.

    a) 7
    b) 15
    c) 28
    d) 36

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Wednesday for the answer!

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    In The News: "For The First Time"??!!

    Encouraging — yet disturbing — news courtesy of The Washington Post: “The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time will require pesticide manufacturers to test 67 chemicals contained in their products to determine whether they disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates animals’ and humans’ growth, metabolism and reproduction, the agency said yesterday.”

    Two thoughts immediately came to mind.

    First? “Victory!”

    Second? “For the first time?? What have they been waiting for??”

    Well, I suppose the article gives some indication of what they might have been waiting for — science-fiction turned reality.

    After all, “researchers have raised concerns that chemicals released into the environment interfere with animals’ hormone systems, citing problems such as male fish in the Potomac River that are bearing eggs.”

    That’s what I call a substantial “oops!”.

    Oh, there’s even more jaw-dropping material.

    “Pesticide industry officials said they had anticipated the move, which was set into motion in 1996 by the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act, and they planned to cooperate on the matter.”

    Well, gee, pesticide industry officials. I certainly hope that after 13 years of contemplation you are willing to cooperate with the matter.

    How, exactly, did it take over a decade for this act to take effect?

    This is certainly one to watch. Testing is set to begin this summer, and results are expected by 2011.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Methyl Bromide & Chocolate

    I was going to buy a chocolate bar at a supermarket recently, and a fellow shopper informed me that the source chocolate that constitutes most chocolate bars (even the one I was buying, a 70% cacao Chocolate Santander bar) is treated with methyl bromide, a potentially harmful chemical, to inhibit the growth of fungus, etc. and exponentially lengthen shelf life of the finished product.

    She said that one of the few chocolate bars available that doesn’t undergo such treatment is Kallari.

    You will note that the issue of methyl bromide treatment is addressed on the Kallari website.

    Is there any truth to these claims? If so, what health risks does ingestion of chocolate that has been treated with methyl bromide entail?

    Are there any other brands of chocolate in addition to Kallari that may be somewhat safer to consume than those treated with methyl bromide?

    Finally, what is your informed opinion on chocolate consumption generally?

    — Tim Fisher
    Boston, MA

    Those claims are indeed true.

    Remember, cocoa beans are a crop, just like fruits, vegetables, and legumes. This means you have conventional (grown with the use of pesticides and chemicals) and organic (pesticide-free) varieties.

    Methyl bromide is usually used to fumigate cacao beans when they depart from — and arrive at — ports.

    Since it is not at all uncommon to have insect infestations on cocoa beans, methyl bromide is mainly used as insurance.  It also, as you state in your question, inhibits fungus formation during the transportation process.

    In fact, some countries — particularly those that rely very heavily on cocoa beans for trade — spray methyl bromide on the cocoa bean crops to ensure minimal losses.

    Methyl bromide is so controversial — it also happens to be a class 1 ozone-depleting substance — that the Environmental Protection Agency only allows very specific uses of it (one of them being the fumigation of cocoa) in the United States.

    The only way to ensure you are getting methyl bromide-free chocolate is by looking for a “certified organic” label, or browsing around a company’s website.

    I am sure that any company not using methyl bromide will be more than happy to let site visitors know!

    I know, for instance, that Dagoba does not spray their cocoa beans with methyl bromide.

    Although inhalation of the gas is known to have very serious effects on the lungs, kidney, and central nervous system, there isn’t much information regarding health risks in the context of eating food that has been treated with methyl bromide.

    Some in the industry believe that since it is a very quickly-dissipating gas, only minimal — well below the permitted standard — amounts make it into the actual food.

    As for my informed opinion on chocolate, I think a high-quality product makes for a most excellent culinary treat.

    For optimal health benefits, look for at least 75% cocoa content in chocolate bars, and choose varieties not made with Dutch cocoa (a process which removes a lot of the health-promoting flavonoids and antioxidants).

    The healthiest way to consume chocolate is via raw, unsweetened cacao nibs or unsweetened cocoa powder.  I like to add both to smoothies for an intense chocolate flavor — and a strong mineral boost!

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    The Pesticide Pack

    Organic farming is gentler on the planet and minimizes our exposure to pesticides and other chemicals utilized in conventional farming to maximize growth conditions and output.

    It’s funny — what we now call organic farming WAS conventional farming decades ago.

    While ideally we would always have access to — and money to spend on — purely organic produce, I realize this is not the case for everyone.

    Lucky for us, the non-profit Environmental Working Group conducted 43,000 tests over the course of five years (2000 – 2005) to determine what fruits and vegetables carry the highest pesticide load (AKA which ones you should always try to go organic for).

    The top ten offenders, in order, are:

    Peaches
    Apples
    Sweet bell peppers
    Celery
    Nectarines
    Strawberries
    Cherries
    Lettuce
    Imported Grapes
    Pears

    The safest?

    Onions
    Avocados
    Frozen sweet corn
    Pineapples
    Mangos
    Frozen sweet peas
    Asparagus

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