Considering that this time of year many people are doing or thinking about doing a ‘cleanse’ I thought I’d write about a ‘cleanse’ for pantry and fridge. After all, if you continue to have less-than-healthy food products around, the cleansing of you won’t have long lasting effects! I have a friend who dislikes using the word ‘clean’ when talking about food – he says he expects all the food he eats is clean, meaning not dirty. Of course, in the world of better eating/good nutrition ‘clean’ means something else and he knows that. I get his point but haven’t found a better word to describe what is meant. So I want to talk about cleaning your food choices up. Cleansing your kitchen may mean replacing some food with better choices, removing some altogether, and adding in some new items. It many also mean switching food storage containers to avoid certain elements.

So what is ‘clean’ food? Generally it means food as close to its origins as possible, optimally organically grown. Minimal processing, few added ingredients of unknown purpose. Raw, plain nuts rather than those covered with questionable flavor coatings. Applesauce made from apples, period; no need for sugar, salt, preservatives. Pure sea salt, not highly-refined salt with anti-caking additives and stripped of trace minerals.

Let’s start in the pantry. Because I like to cook my pantry has a lot of basic ingredients –nuts & seeds, various grains and beans, flour, cocoa, honey, oils, vinegars. Not too much in the way of prepared foods but a few things. If you are like me, there are products you grew up with, that your mom trusted to feed you and that you buy for your family. A certain peanut butter, specific saltines, a particular soup brand. Maybe you buy it just because of its history in your family, maybe you tried some other brands and they never lived up to the one. Even so, chances are the formulation of that tried-and-true brand is not the same as it was when you were 10. I know I have been disappointed when returning to an old favorite only to find it was very changed, or my tastes had outgrown it. Well, products can change and your tastes change too. So let’s look at what you have. Does the peanut butter contain palm or peanut oil? Sugar? Why? Don’t peanuts produce oil; is there a need to add oil? Why would sugar be added – to feed our addiction to sweet? Heck, you’re gonna put jelly on the sandwich anyway. (Just kidding, of course!) Look for a brand that is made from peanuts, maybe with salt. Personally I prefer it unsalted, but if you are more accustomed to salt in your peanut butter, go ahead and get that one. You can always ease into unsalted peanut butter. How about the salsa? (Yes, I know fresh, homemade is better, but it’s not always tomato season.) Is there sugar added to the salsa? Again, why? Isn’t salsa supposed to be spicy? The tomatoes have naturally occurring sugar; adding sugar just feeds the craving for sweet things, and increases the sugar load in your day. I just noticed the tomato soup I have in my pantry has added sugar! Had not looked at the list carefully, but guess I’ll re-think this brand in the future. At least it doesn’t have: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Potassium Chloride, Flavoring, or Monopotassium Phosphate like a common national brand. Do you buy canned tuna or salmon? Hopefully you buy it packed in water not oil. Fish has its own oil, doesn’t need vegetable oil for flavor or stability. Again, I like it without added salt but that can be hard to find. Do you make your own pasta? No? Neither do I! What’s in the packaged pasta you buy? More than the durum wheat or grain it’s made from, and water? That’s really all pasta needs. I grew up with what I think is an iconic saltine cracker – crumbled in tomato soup, buttered with chili, smeared with peanut butter. That brand at least has unbleached flour although it is enriched, meaning the wheat is stripped of the bran and germ so has to have nutrients added. Yet they use soybean oil (GMO?) and cottonseed oil. I never buy products using cottonseed oil as it is not a food crop so who knows what it was sprayed with? Have chips? Some are better than others as far as being clean; taste obviously is too subjective for me to make any claims on it. But if the chips you buy are made from corn or contain soy or canola, even as oil (“… and/or vegetable oil”), be sure they are organic chips to avoid genetically engineered ingredients. Whole grains or potatoes, oil, salt and maybe sugar – all that’s needed for tasty chips. Obviously your pantry may have more items than these few, but hopefully you get the idea of what to watch for. So take an hour or so to review what you have and which may need swapping for a better choice.

Turning to the refrigerator, what’s hiding in there? Mine is packed pretty full but I keep a pretty good mental inventory. Mostly right now, a few days after market day, it’s got a lot of produce. This I have to monitor carefully so it doesn’t spoil on me.  What’s the rest? Condiments, almond milk, soy creamer, white wine, and some jelly, among other things. What am I looking for in these products? For starters, I avoid carrageenan, which is prevalent in non-dairy products like plant milks and creamers. I don’t understand the need for sugar in most condiments, but confess that the ketchup and the barbeque sauce I have both have sugar added. I recall not finding a single offering of ketchup without sugar when I last looked, and do not feel like making my own! I do skip those that still use high fructose corn syrup, and would always stay away from any with artificial sweeteners.  See ‘Sweet Addictions’ for more on why. Currently there are no pickles in our fridge because I am on a quest for good tasting, well-made pickles with basic pickle ingredients – cucumbers, vinegar, spices. Some brands have so many preservatives, which is what I thought the process of pickling did – preserve foods. Why add chemical preservatives? If you buy cheese, be sure to get real cheese and not “processed cheese food”; if you buy non-dairy varieties watch for carrageenan and non-organic soy and corn (starch).

Last thing to think about, in both pantry and fridge, is the containers foods come in or that you use to store foods. Use glass bowls or jars to store extras or leftovers, or use stainless steel. Avoid canned foods unless the can is labeled ‘BPA-free’. Some companies have moved away from BPA linings in canned foods, which were put in to protect the food from corrosion on the metal can and extend its shelf life. While some claim there is little or no risk to humans from BPA, many studies point to it being an endocrine disruptor and possible cause of cancer. Not worth the risk when there are products without the risk. Avoid buying foods in plastic containers, especially numbers 3, 6, and 7. Avoid re-using plastic water bottles – invest in a stainless steel bottle you can refill as needed. Throw out your old plastic bowls that melted in the microwave and are flaking, and don’t heat food in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave. Also be careful of storing or cooking food in aluminum foil. I know, I know, we’ve all done it. But it can leach aluminum into the food, especially acidic foods or those cooked at high temperatures, and too much aluminum in our bodies is considered a health risk.

I am not telling you to throw away what you currently have on hand, but as you need replacements, keep this in mind. It could mean having raw ingredients on hand to make your own spaghetti sauce for instance, or being more discriminating when buying ready-made. Read the labels, and if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, look it up. You may need to move on to a different choice. Even if you aren’t doing a ‘cleanse’ of your food intake, cleaning up what you keep around the house will help you stay healthier.

Hydroponics, Aquaponics, Vertical farming. What are they? Can these methods of growing produce be deemed “organic”? The USDA’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) met recently and this was one question they considered but tabled for later review. I don’t know about you, but I have been confused by these terms and I’ve also read some claims about these methods and wondered what was true and what was marketing material. Are these methods of growing produce going to save the world from starvation? Is the produce really organic, as some producers claim? Are they really better for us and the earth than field farming? Is the vitamin and mineral content of plants grown without soil is as good as field grown crops? So I decided I needed to learn more about them. I’ll start with some definitions and then talk about pros and cons. Note that my research was focused on produce grown commercially, not home gardening.

  • Hydroponic growing is probably the best known to most of us. It’s been in commercial use for a long time, and you no doubt have eaten produce grown this way many times. (You know those tomatoes and strawberries you eat in January?) “Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Terrestrial plants may be grown with only their roots exposed to the mineral solution, or the roots may be supported by an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel.” [1]
  • Aquaponics is a newer method and from what I could find, not widely commercialized. It “is the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in.” [2]
  • Vertical farming is the newest method to get widespread attention although it has been around a while too. It “is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container. The modern ideas of vertical farming use indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where all environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases…) and fertigation.” [3] Vertical growing uses generally the same setup as hydroponics but in stacked trays.

Generally speaking, they are all based on the same principles. Provide a base for the seeds and seedlings, feed them nutrients, and provide light. They differ in the type of containers and different ways of providing nutrients and light, and even within the same category of method there may be differences in practice. These methods share some advantages over farming in dirt.

  • They use less water.
  • They are less likely to need pesticides.
  • It is possible to grow plants all year round, not just in warmer months.
  • Produce can be grown closer to the urban market, so less transportation costs, pollution, and time.
  • Plants grow faster and can be sold/delivered the same day as harvest.
  • Since all three methods can be operated indoors, production is less subject to weather events.
  • All these methods take less space than ground farming proportionate to yield.

But there are also negatives to these methods.

  • Primary is the high electrical usage to power grow lights, fans, pumps, and heating or cooling systems. To grow enough food using these methods to feed the populations adherents claim they can would take far more power than is generated today.
  • There’s a limit to what kinds of plants will grow in these setups; for instance root vegetables will not grow in these methods and producing large quantities of grain would require extremely large systems, so claims of being able to feed cities via these systems are overblown.
  • Hydroponics and vertical systems are not growing plants just in water; they need nutrient inputs which may not be organic and not better than synthetic fertilizers used on fields.
  • In aquaculture the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants but the fish still have to be fed, and most fish meal is made from ocean fish, which may have high levels of mercury or other contaminants.
  • The cost of produce grown this way puts it out of reach of many people it is intended to feed.
  • In hydroponic farming, periodic replacement of the solution results in large amounts of fertilizer-rich water to dispose of that can promote algal growth and be a threat to aquatic ecosystems.
  • Some people find that the flavor of crops raised without soil is watered down or less prominent than in soil grown crops.

Proponents of these methods claim their produce is organic because they don’t (usually) use pesticides. But that is not the only definition of “organic”. Cornucopia, staunch defenders of the organic label, state “Language in the Organic Foods Production Act and the current federal regulations clearly indicate that good soil stewardship is a prerequisite to qualify for organic certification. In 2010 the NOSB reinforced the soil prerequisite by passing recommendations that reiterated the prohibition of hydroponic certification. The National Organic Program never acted on these recommendations. Since then, an industry-friendly USDA has allowed some of the largest certifiers, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), to certify hydroponically produced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and berries at an alarming rate.” [4] This is very controversial, when one certifier would allow the label and another would not.

Vertical farming, or gardening as some refer to it, also gets a knock from opponents for its even more vast need of power for lights than the other methods. Since the trays of plants are stacked atop each other there is no chance of all the plants getting natural light even if the roof is clear and there are large windows, so all the plants need plenty of artificial life to grow. Is creating the amount of additional power that would be needed for large-scale operations the best thing for the environment? Some people claim solar or wind power could help, but the plants grown in these methods need continuous light so in areas where the sun or wind is inconsistent this would not help.

One of the arguments for soilless growing is that the world is running out of arable land. This is not quite true. Worldwide there is more than enough arable land to grow the crops needed to feed the world. But too much land has been devastated by poor management – overgrazing, too many chemicals, poor irrigation management, and modern agricultural practices. “(B)ecause agricultural land is often degraded and almost useless, producers keep on moving to more productive land. Globally, the land used and abandoned in the last 50 years may be equal to the amount of land used today.” [5] Another issue is confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), with thousands or tens of thousands of cattle or hogs confined to lots. These animals are fed grains which require vast acreage, dedicated to feeding animals which we will eat. If humans were to reduce meat consumption and not expect the price of meat at the grocery to be less than the price of tomatoes, land managers could restore all the land needed for growing food crops. The question of nutritional comparison is inconclusive – some studies find more nutrition in soil crops and some studies report more from soilless crops – there have been few objective studies done.

In conclusion, I do not think huge soilless operations are the answer to world hunger. Better management of what we already have is a more viable option, with soilless-grown produce supplementing field output. These methods also need continuous improvement to reduce the need for electricity and get prices to a level that less affluent people can afford. Finally, I could not consider these methods organic. I feel there is a symbiotic relationship between soil and plants that provides an overall better environment, and that is a big part of what “organic” means for me. How do you feel about this?

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroponics

[2] https://www.theaquaponicsource.com/what-is-aquaponics/?v=70f73ee5133f

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming

[4] https://www.cornucopia.org/2016/11/corporate-interests-nosb-wash-hands-organic-soil/?utm_source=eNews&utm_medium=email&utm_content=11.26.16&utm_campaign=HydroMORE

[5] Carey C., Oettli D. (2006) Determining links between agricultural crop expansion and deforestation. A report prepared for the WWF Forest Conversion Initiative.

Chances are you also struggle with some of the challenges I have been thinking about. We are told some basic ideas for eating well and taking care of ourselves, yet find that doing so may not be great for the planet’s health. What’s a health-conscious person with a conscience supposed to do?

Take eating fruits and vegetables, nine servings a day as recommended. We want to eat high quality, preferably organic, and in-season produce. But we live in North America and except for certain small areas like southern California, the growing seasons just don’t allow for much growing during a big part of the year. Sure, the grocery stores are full of every kind of produce all year long. But at what cost to the environment, not to mention to the quality of the produce? Most fruits and vegetables have to be picked long before they are really ready to be eaten, packed, shipped long distances, and distributed to trucks which take them even further, until they finally show up at your store. Of course this is true even when the produce grows in the USA and gets shipped across country, just maybe not picked as early and not shipped as far. This is why I prefer local produce – I feel it is fresher and I know it took less fossil fuel to arrive at the market. Yet I chafe at the lack of variety some months and cringe at the price of some items not easily grown here and wonder how I’d cook if I couldn’t get bell peppers all year long. Then I read about a group of women in a poor country who got helping starting a farm and they grow vegetables for the American market (because we are insatiable) and now they can send their children to school. How can I not want to help support them?!

The next challenge I think about is that of drinking water. The general opinion is we should drink 64 ounces a day or thereabout. It can seem difficult to consume that much water but it’s really not and the benefits are worth forming the habit. Of course we want that water to be clean and free of contaminants, and preferably come out of our home faucets like that. But many areas don’t trust their tap water or don’t care for the ‘taste’ (which probably means they are right to avoid it because water shouldn’t ‘taste’, should it?). If you don’t like or trust your tap water what do you do? There are various filtering options for the home, and there’s also home delivery of those big bottles. What about the times you are away from a ready source of good water, like hiking, biking, traveling, etc. and need to carry water with you? With so much controversy over BPA and phthalates leaching from plastics and being known hormone disrupters, we don’t want to use containers made from polycarbonate plastic or polyvinyl chloride (those have #1, #3, #6, or #7 stamped on). But glass won’t work for these activities. I have a stainless steel bottle, but it is not large so if I needed more water than it holds I’d have a problem. I encourage you to avoid purchased bottled water because it is a trash hazard, a waste of plastics, and due to news of some heavy-handed bottlers diverting water from towns and buying up water rights. Yet bottled water helps people in crisis situations have clean water, at least short-term.

The third challenge I have been pondering is eating fish. Not from a vegetarian or vegan point of view – that’s a subject for a different post. We omnivores are encouraged to eat fish several times a week for the omega-3 properties. I like fish so that’s not the problem. What is a problem are the warnings we get about mercury and other contaminants in many species. And another problem is the over-fishing that depletes the fish stocks, and the bad fishing practices that causes many fish to be caught and killed but not brought in for consumption. So how do we eat fish a few times a week if we can’t get fish that is safe to eat? I avoid farmed fish, fish from countries with poor food-safety regulations, and foods on the watch list from Monterey Bay Aquarium. Good info on their site – I recommend checking it out.

I can’t claim to have answers to these puzzles. There are many ways to solve them for you, in a way that works in your life. And there are many other challenges in the world of eating well – which ones are puzzling you these days? We can only do so much at one time, so pick the issues that bug you the most and work to do what you can do to relieve it.

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

20161011_meditationDo you find it disturbing when you hear someone nearly bragging about feeling exhausted and stressed out? And then realize he/she is the twentieth person you’ve heard talk like that just recently. And then realize that you empathize with them all, because you are in the same boat. We boast of our ability to multi-task. We try to out-do the other person’s list of to-dos. We carry our mini-computers, otherwise known as “smart phones”, and respond instantly to whatever chimes or chirps it makes, even at dinner with loved ones, while walking with our kids, while working out. We say “yes” to every request for fear of being labeled ‘weak’ or ‘can’t-handle-it’. Because it’s all so important.

I’m sure you’ve heard of mindfulness meditation by now. It’s a big thing, one more thing for your already too long task list, to fit into your day, to buy new clothes for, to seek out a guru, and don’t forget the cushion. It’s the thing to end your stress, calm your mind, settle the WWIII going on at home, help you get a good night’s rest. Or is it?

What is meditation? Meditation is a practice of training or focusing the mind in order to be present with Now, with what is before you in this moment. It brings clarity to an unfocused mind that jumps from thought to thought constantly – what is often called ‘monkey mind’. While meditation may be a hot topic currently, it has been practiced for centuries by many cultures and religions, and in various ways. Mindfulness meditation or “mindfulness” as a practice is really the same as plain old meditation, but maybe a more acceptable term for those who associate meditation with a specific religion. Mindfulness is the label popularized in the West by a program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where patients with severe medical problems learned to meditate to help alleviate some of those problems. It’s not just for those with stress or health problems, but is good for anyone looking for self-improvement.

One does not have to identify with a religion or movement to practice meditation. Benefits of a regular practice include more calmness, better clarity, reduced anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and more compassion and awareness of self and those around you. It takes time to build up a good practice and reap the benefits of it, and of course not everyone experiences meditation in the same way. But those who stick with it definitely find it worthwhile. Much research is being done to study and measure actual impacts of meditation on various physical and mental health issues.

There are many methods of meditation, and since I am not a trained instructor in the art of meditation but only a novice practitioner, I will not elaborate on those. Suffice to say no special equipment, clothing, or education is necessary. A dedicated time in a quiet space is all one really needs. There are many books, classes, audio programs, and online programs that help people learn to meditate, and much information on the web about what it is and is not. Some guides will strongly recommend you begin with a qualified teacher and other guides tell you to jump right in. I have read many books and online articles on how to meditate and listened to several guided meditations, but always return to the method I initially learned. It’s a simple practice – I start my day with 20-30 minutes to sit and follow my breath, not trying to not think but keeping focus on my breathing, in and out. I like mornings as that is when I am least interrupted or disturbed by activity or noise. Did I mention that I am a novice? Yes, my monkey mind is far from tamed but I do feel progress in being able to focus on what is right in front of me.

One caution I will state: if you are someone with deep emotional or mental disturbances, I absolutely recommend working with a trained instructor who can guide you, as sometimes looking deep within oneself can stir up deep memories that are painful or frightening.

Some of the books I have read and will suggest are those by Pema Chodron (How To Meditate), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are), and Thich Nhat Hanh. Wikipedia has good entries about ‘meditation’ and about ‘mindfulness’. As well, the web has thousands of entries on the subject, some with detailed instructions, some with guided meditations. Explore for yourself, and give meditation a try. You may find it is just what you need!

20160913_soySoy foods have proponents and opponents, supporters and detractors. Much controversy about soy, maybe even more than whether coffee/eggs/meat are good for you or not! Let’s examine some of the chatter.

Soy grows as beans in pods, like peas. Perhaps you’ve seen these beans and pods and know them as edamame. It is a species of legume yet is not classified as a pulse but as an oilseed plant, as it is grown more for its oil than for using the beans as food. Soybeans are a good source of fiber, protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, copper, manganese, and phosphorus, among other nutrients. Concerns include the amount of phytates and phytoestrogens, and that over 90% of US soybeans are said to be genetically engineered and heavily sprayed with pesticides.

First, I am not an opponent of soy, but I am an opponent of the extracts taken from soy, often using hexane and other chemicals, and used in many prepared foods and protein powders. Much of the disagreement over soy’s safety as a food stems from the beans being broken down into components, removed from the whole, and added to many foods. This may lead to consuming too much of one component of soy without its other components for balance. Not good for any food. I favor foods made from the whole bean, like tofu, miso, tempeh, and edamame.

Claims for the health benefits and the health detriments are often made by people who do not really understand the results of the studies and research or are simply regurgitating information they read. One needs to pay special attention to the date of an article, its source, how well the author seems to grasp the science, and was the study on animals or humans. Is the article from 1999 or 2015? A lot is learned over the years, and what was thought to be true in 1999 may have been corrected since. Is the source of the article a well-known soy opponent, like the Weston A. Price Foundation, or is it from a soy food manufacturer? Certainly these two may have different interpretations of the same studies. Is the author a scientist or a school psychologist with knowledge of personal finance (from an actual bio on one article)? How well does the latter understand the terms and measurements and conclusions being referenced? Finally, although many studies are performed on animals, human beings do not always metabolize nutrients the same as rats or guinea pigs and the studies often include amounts that are not feasible for a human diet. Both sides can be pretty convincing, and research for this post had my head spinning a bit!

One of the biggest concerns about eating soy foods is that of the isoflavones, which are sources of phytoestrogens in our diet. It was believed these phytoestrogens could cause cancerous tumors, especially breast cancer, to grow, the way estrogen in hormone replacement therapy did. The other concerns about the phytoestrogens in soy were around men’s and boys’ sexuality – that the effects would make boys grow breasts and men lose virility or fertility. However, phytoestrogens are not the same as the human estrogen hormone and do not have the same effects on our bodies. The association between soy and cancer growth is not supported by all of the research; in fact, there are indications that soy helps prevent certain cancers and most women who have had cancer are no longer told to avoid soy. And further studies on men’s health found that normal consumption of soy did not affect testosterone or estrogen (yes, men have some estrogen, just like women have some testosterone) levels, nor sperm and semen levels.

Phytates are another concern among those who avoid soy. Phytate is the salt form of phytic acid and occurs in edible seeds like nuts, grains, and legumes; also in some roots and tubers. People have read that phytates bind to certain minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium) and make those minerals unavailable to our bodies. However, this binding only occurs during the meal where the phytates are also being consumed and is not an ongoing stripping of minerals. Only people whose primary foods are grains and legumes need be concerned about possible mineral deficiency. As well, certain ways of preparing the food, like soaking or fermenting, reduce the phytate levels significantly. Therefore, unless one is eating only soy and other phytic acid foods for every meal and never soaking or fermenting those foods, the concern over phytates is way overblown.

A lot of health benefits have been attributed to soy foods also: reduced cardiovascular problems, weight loss, diabetes control, reduction of menopausal symptoms, and cancer prevention. Not all of these claims are borne out by actual studies, and of course results will vary from person to person. It is hard too to definitely state that soy is the savior or the blame, as we are individuals with many variables that affect outcomes.

All in all, I do not feel one should avoid all soy, all the time. Soy foods can be a part of a healthy diet. Strive for organic, whole soy foods as one part of a varied diet. Avoid non-organic soy due to concerns about genetic modification and pesticides. Also avoid isolated soybean derivatives found in highly processed foods and protein powders. In the USA we are able to vary our food choices to get a good mix, and soy can be a good part of that.

Image courtesy of SOMMAI at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

20160719_stop gmoWith the U.S. Senate voting on the subject of labeling for GMOs last week, the subject has been prominent in the news again. If you aren’t really sure what the hub-bub is about, “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism, which is achieved by altering the genes of an organism by use of genetic engineering (GE). The subject of genetic modification is broad and covers many areas, but the focus of this post, and most of the talk you have been hearing, is on genetically modified foods. Some people argue that genetically modifying foods has been done for centuries, claiming that hybrid varieties of apples or corn, or newer fruits like the pluot (plum-apricot), are genetically modified. Technically that is true, as all plants have been modified from their origins via natural selection and domestication as well as hybridization. But blending two different apple branches together, or pollen from one corn variety to pollinate another variety of corn, to get a better variety is not genetic engineering of the kind opponents want to stop or curtail. GE creates new organisms from one whose genes have been altered by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from a non-related organism. These new organisms are known as transgenic organisms. “When genetic material from a different species is added, the resulting DNA is called recombinant DNA and the organism is called a transgenic organism.” This modification could be insertion of bacterial genes to protect a plant from the effects of pesticides like glyphosates (Roundup®) and glufosinates. It could also be the insertion of a soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to make the plant produce its own insecticide for certain pests like corn borers. It could be inserting genes from a cold water fish into a tomato to make it freeze-resistant (not on the market).

The stated desire of GE is to make better food crops – better able to resist pests or disease, better nutrition, better weather tolerance, better yields. Sounds good, right? There are a lot of people in the world, many starving people – if this process helps feed us all it must be right and good. Certainly there is a lot of controversy, hype, name-calling, and confusion.  I do not claim to be an expert – even those who are can’t agree!  My intent is to point out some concerns that indicate caution and more objective research is needed, and why those who do oppose GE foods are not simply Luddites.

In my opinion, one of the most worrying elements of GE and GMO is the control and ownership of our food supplies by a few large corporate players. You may have heard of terminator seeds, where the seed left after harvest is sterile so the farmers have to buy the next year’s seed rather than saving seed for the next planting. Saving seed was the practice since humans first began to settle and plant crops. Biotech companies want to control the seed and the pesticides used on those crops and have a monopoly. “Buy our marvelous herbicide that will kill all the weeds in your fields. Oh, but you also will need our wonderful crop seeds that are resistant to the marvelous herbicide. And of course, next year we will be glad to sell you more of both.” GE crops accounted for 90 percent of all planted cotton acres, 93 percent of soybean acres, and 90 percent of corn acres in 2013. When Monsanto corn is 80% of the 90% GE corn acres in the US and Monsanto soy is 93% of the 93% GE soy acres in the US, it looks a lot like monopoly. According to a Food and Water Watch fact sheet, in 2014 Monsanto “now controls 60 percent of corn and 62.5 percent of soybean seeds and seed trait licenses in the United States.”

Are GE crops safe? That may depend on what is meant by “safe.” No people or animal have died within hours or days of eating GE foods, as they would if poison was ingested. And it’s likely we all have eaten some GMOs for many years and haven’t died. So to that extent GE crops are safe. But what if you extend the scope of “safe?” It’s the long-term safety and unknown effects on human, animal, and environmental health that have not really been studied. The FDA and USDA tell us these crops have been tested and no studies show correlation to disease, but most of the safety tests and studies were done by or commissioned by the manufacturers of the seeds and the pesticides that can be doused on them. Will these crops when converted to food ingredients and blended with other GMO ingredients cause unexpected allergic reactions? Will they alter the biology of the future offspring of animals who consume these crops as feed generation after generation? What about the effect of these crops on the environment? BT corn and other such crops are suspected in decline of bees and butterflies. Each species plays its role in the overall health of the planet. If some species are lost due to manipulation of crops genes, how are the roles of the species replaced? Does water run-off from the fields of these crops affect fish and other water life is some adverse way?

What about crop diversity? Winds carry the pollen of these plants to non-modified plants in the next field – and farmers of the non-modified crops have been sued by bio-companies for ending up with GMO crops in their fields, crops they certainly did not want. This contamination, combined with the heavy marketing of the alleged benefits of GE crops, eventually means fewer varieties planted. One cause of the terrible potato famine that caused the death or emigration of millions of Irish was lack of diversity of the potato varieties planted. In fact, while companies have been working on GE wheat for many years, it has never been approved for planting – yet GMO wheat was found growing in non-research fields in Oregon and in Montana. No word on how this happened.

But, you say, one of the promises of GMOs is less pesticide use. What about that? Well, actually pesticide use has increased, not decreased. This map shows the increases in the use of glyphosate in the US. In addition, it has become a widespread practice to use glyphosate and glufosinates on crops just before harvest to speed up the dry-down process. “Along with wheat and oats, glyphosate is used to desiccate a wide range of other crops including lentils, peas, non-GMO soybeans, corn, flax, rye, triticale, buckwheat, millet, canola, sugar beets and potatoes. Sunflowers may also be treated pre-harvest with glyphosate, according to the National Sunflower Association.” Due to super weeds – weeds resistant to glyphosate – some growers are returning to older, more harmful pesticides. As well, the USDA in September 2014 approved GE crops resistant to the combination of glyphosate and 2,4 D – Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo – and use of Enlist Duo was approved, approval was revoked, then it was granted again.

So what about claims of improved nutrition of the food and higher yields? So far, no GMO food with enhanced nutrition is on the market. Golden rice, engineered to include beta-carotene, is developed and available for planting but faces much opposition for many of the reasons laid out in this article; also being resisted because vitamin A deficiency is not the biggest problem in under-developed countries where getting enough of all necessary nutrients is impossible for many people. Fear of corporate ownership is somewhat allayed by free licensing but within limits imposed by Monsanto.  Other ideas for enhancing specific nutritional qualities of foods are in research or are theoretical. Whether or not GE cops have better yields or not is less clear. “In the absence of pests, commercially available GE seeds do not increase maximum crop yields. However, by protecting a plant from certain pests, GE crops can prevent yield losses to, allowing the plant to approach its yield potential. Bt crops are particularly effective at mitigating yield losses.  On the other hand, evidence on the impact of HT seeds on soybean, corn, and cotton yields is mixed. Some researchers found no significant difference between the yields of adopters and non-adopters of HT; others found that HT adopters had higher yields, while still others found that adopters had lower yields.”

These are the crops currently grown from genetically engineered seeds: soy, cotton, corn, canola, sugar beet, papaya, yellow squash, potato, and alfalfa (for animal feed). If you wish to avoid as many GE foods as you can, buy these organically grown or from a local farmer who can be asked if the seed is GE or not. You will also need to recognize when derivatives from these vegetables is present in processed foods you buy. Corn is made into so many products that go into our food. This is why there is a strong movement to get food labeled when it contains GE ingredients. We know when a product contains peanuts, or soy, or gluten – why not GMOs? Those who care about GMOs can skip the product, those who don’t care can ignore the label. If the things I point out in this article concern you, get informed. PBS has an interesting page on this topic http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/.

20160705_smoothieI’m back on a smoothie kick. It’s hot, I don’t feel as hungry, and these smoothies help me up my veggie and fruit intake. My aim is not weight loss or control, just a cool, refreshing, and nutritious item for breakfast or sometimes lunch. Here are some recent concoctions.

First, some general tips. I mainly make ‘green’ smoothies, or those with a ratio of 70:30% or 60:40% vegetables to fruit. Veggies include any type of leafy greens, cucumbers, carrots, fresh herbs, celery, ginger, turmeric, and avocado. Fruits are usually apples, pears, berries, lemon, and occasionally bananas, mangoes, or pineapple. Liquid is coconut water or milk, plain water, or plant milk. I sometimes add a 1/4 – 1/3 cup of aloe vera juice. Load in this order: liquid, greens, heavy items, lighter items. You only need to peel veggies or fruits with tough and inedible skins; cut large pieces into chunks your blender can handle.

Today I made a nice, bright-tasting refresher, perfect after a holiday weekend.

8 ounces coconut water

2 handfuls fresh spinach

3-4 fresh pineapple spears

1 Persian cucumber (or equivalent amount of another variety)

½ lemon, no peel

Blend together. Made 2 large glasses.

 

One I made last week got rave reviews from my spouse; of course it was fruity and not green!

Mango-Pineapple with Turmeric

3/4 cup good water

2/3 cup plant milk, yogurt, or buttermilk

2 cups frozen mango cubes (can use fresh but frozen cool the drink)

1 cup frozen pineapple (can use fresh but frozen cool the drink)

1/2 inch chunk peeled turmeric root or ½-1 t. ground turmeric

½-1 t. ground cinnamon

Blend together. Made 2 large glasses.

 

This next one is similar to but not quite the same as above, but I still had some mango left.

1 cup coconut milk

Juice from half a lime (or peel the half lime and add the fruit)

1/2 cup frozen mango

Few ice cubes

1/4 avocado

1/2 inch chunk peeled turmeric root or ½-1 t. ground turmeric

1/2 inch chunk peeled ginger root or ½ t. ground ginger

Blend together. Made 1+ large glass.

 

I love this next one, it has such a beautiful ruby-red color and wonderful flavor.

Beet, Pear, and Raspberry

1 cup almond or other plant milk, unsweetened

2 medium or 3 small red beets

1 ripe pear

1 cup frozen raspberries (can use fresh but frozen cool the drink)

The beet can be raw, and unpeeled if organic. Just cut into small chunks for blending.

Blend together. Made 2 glasses.

 

A variation on the above:

1 cup almond or other plant milk, unsweetened

2-3 small red beets

1-2 cups frozen strawberries (can use fresh but frozen cool the drink)

½-1 inch chunk peeled ginger root

The beet can be raw.  And unpeeled if organic. Just cut into small chunks for blending.

Blend together. Made 1+ glass.

 

I have not made this one but it is on my list.

Carrot Cake Smoothie

Adapted from LacyYoung.com

8-10 ounces almond or other plant milk, unsweetened

4 small carrots

1-2 bananas (can be frozen)

3 pitted dates, chopped (I will not add the dates, too sweet for me)

1/4 cup rolled oats

Slice of peeled ginger root or ½ t. ground ginger

1/2-1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 t. ground nutmeg

Blend together, makes about 2 glasses.

 

Hopefully you will enjoy drinking these or will find inspirations for your own concoctions! Of course there are thousands of recipes on the web using a wide variety of ingredients, and many variations.

If you try any, let me know how you like it/them!

20160621_oilsAs with most food-related topics, the subject of cooking oils is vast and often quite confusing. Should you cook with vegetable oils or animal fats or none at all? Should olive oil be used to cook food or only used in salad dressings or other cold applications? Is canola oil really a poison? What is a smoke point and why should one care about it? How many different oils does one need? Read on to help sort through some of the confusion.

First let’s dispel the myth of a fat-free life. We need some fats in our diets for good health. This post will not go into the details of saturated vs. mono-unsaturated vs. poly-unsaturated fats, or omega 3 to omega 6 ratios – there are many reputable articles on the web on these topics, and you will find that even the experts disagree on the recommendations, so I will not go there! But while fat-free is neither possible nor desirable, be smart about fats. Not too much, not too little, and be judicious about which to include.

What about cooking in oil? Should you deep-fry foods? Well, no, but more because of what the high heat and often re-used oil does to the food (creation of toxic substances, loss of nutrients) than because of resulting fat content. Should you sauté foods in oil? It is possible to make equally tasty dishes by water-sautéing rather than using any oil or fat. We certainly have many ways to get healthy fats into our diets in the proportion we each need, so no need to add oil or fat where it is not really needed.

Now, animal or vegetable? Certainly this is a subject with very vocal proponents in each camp. I tend to be in the middle. Some foods I cook just would not be the same without some animal fat – like using bacon fat for German-style potato salad, or butter for grilled cheese. Sure, we can do without those foods, and often do. If one is a vegetarian or vegan the choice is simple, and these are often the people most in favor of eliminating all animal fats. Also in this camp are those who feel that saturated fat intake affects heart health, along with those who believe that the produce from animals raised in feed lots is detrimental to human health. In the other camp are those who believe that all or almost all oils derived from plants or seeds are not traditional fats, are over-processed, come from contaminated plants, and/or have too much omega 6 fatty acids. This debate is huge, with way too many conflicting articles and opinions, often based on outdated information. My take – use moderation here, as in all things!

If, like me, you do use vegetable oils in cooking, let’s look at some commonly recommended oils. For all oils, buy the best you can find and afford. Look for organic versions first. (If not available or way outside your price range, at least be sure any corn or canola oil you buy is non-GMO.) Next always purchase only expeller pressed or cold pressed oils. If not specified on the label, avoid the product as it likely was extracted using high heat and/or chemicals. High heat destroys much of the nutrients, and chemicals – well, ‘nuff said.

Olive oil is the current ‘darling’ of vegetable oils. The popularity of the Mediterranean diet in part has boosted its usage. Olive oil provides many health benefits over some other types of fats. I see many, many recipes that call for sautéing or frying in olive oil, but we are also advised to buy the highest quality olive oil that can be afforded, so why ruin that lovely fruity taste and its healthful properties by heating it? There are many other oils more suited to the high heat for frying. I recommend saving your olive oil for salad dressings and for dipping artisanal breads. Although I do toss vegetables I am going to roast in olive oil…

Coconut oil has become the oil of choice for many, although not those in the anti-saturated fat camp! This oil is reputed to have a wide range of health benefits, both internal and external, but studies have not proven its good or its bad claims. It is high in saturated fat although its promoters contend that other elements of its structure outweigh, even negate, the saturated fat effect. When cool, coconut oil is fairly solid but don’t confuse this property with hydrogenation – it is due to the saturated fat content, not processing. In cooking, I find coconut oil adds a bit of coconut flavor, thus I don’t care for it in all uses. My experience with it as a sauté or pan fry oil has not been great – it allows too much sticking to the pan. It can be a good fat to use in some baking.

Grapeseed oil is extracted from the seeds of grapes, often from wine grapes. I like wine, so this seems perfect! Of course, the properties of grapes that make red wine a good choice don’t carry through to the seeds, but still. Anyway, this oil has found favor in some camps and it does have its good points. One benefit touted is also its biggest negative, depending on who you ask. Grapeseed oil is very high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which is good – except that it is one of the highest of common oils in omega 6 fatty acids. What’s wrong with that? Well, current thinking is that we Americans especially have skewed the ratio on omega 3 to omega 6 too far towards the omega 6 level, and this imbalance causes poor health, including internal inflammation. So while it is mostly flavorless and odorless and has some vitamin E and a high smoke point, it is less recommended. And, the brand I bought I realized too late does not specify its extraction method, so I have to suspect chemical extraction. Out it went.

Canola oil. Oh, the controversy over this oil. If you think disagreements over health benefits/harms related to saturated fats are confusing, try reading about canola! I will start by telling you – I am a fan of organic, expeller-pressed canola oil. I find its properties to be perfect for my non-olive-oil oil needs. Tasteless, odorless, and is second only to flaxseed oil in low omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (2:1). Some of the negatives you might read about include: it’s all genetically modified; it has too much erucic acid; it is toxic; it is used industrially; it has hexane residue. I only buy organic canola oil to avoid GMOs. The erucic acid claim stems from the rapeseed plant from which canola seed was bred, but canola does not have the level of erucic acid that rapeseed does, nor even as much as mustard seed oil. A report of hundreds dying in Spain in the 1980s from food grade canola was actually due to the oil being contaminated with an industrial solvent, and mislabeled as olive oil. Many plant-derived oils are used in industry – this does not mean all food grade oils are unsuitable as food. Again I buy organic, expeller-pressed canola oil which does not use chemicals to extract the oil, so no residue is present. Now, there are hundreds of articles whose authors will disagree with my defense of canola, so be sure to read up on the pros and the cons to decide for yourself. And check the dates on the information – there are some old, outdated studies still being referenced when it suits the writer’s opinion.

Of course there are many other vegetable oils – corn, safflower, sunflower, sesame, avocado, peanut, etc. All have their fans and detractors, their good points and bad. Most have been around for many years, and you are likely familiar with most. Blended vegetable oils are also common, but seldom inform us as to proportion of each oil used. One oil I absolutely recommend you avoid is cottonseed oil. Avoid products which use it and those that might use it (“contains corn, safflower and/or cottonseed oils”). Cotton is not grown as a food crop and is very heavily sprayed with insecticides not rated for food crops. Why, oh, why would we want to eat parts of it?

This topic is quite broad and too much to cover in one post. I hope this brief discussion helps you make decisions for your pantry, or points you to areas for further research. An informed cook is a better cook!