Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of 2009: Revisiting "The Burger That Shattered Her Life"

The second half of the blog I started to repost yesterday:

More on "The Burger That Shattered Her Life"
(October 6, 2009)

Judging from The New York Times article about Stephanie Smith I discussed yesterday, it’s pretty obvious that Cargill could care less about our health.

If Cargill won’t answer questions from The New York Times, do you think the company will be responsive to questions from regular people like us? Shouldn’t we be protecting ourselves and demanding something better?

Let’s think about it another way: We know the name of our doctor, yoga instructor, kids’ teachers and plumber. Why don't we know the name of the people who grow our food?

One solution is to buy food from small-scale producers. I buy a lot of my food from farmers’ markets, where I’ve had the opportunity to develop relationships with the people making and growing what I am eating. They are responsible citizens who I can address fact-to-face, not a multinational which, even after I listen carefully because the menu options have changed, still won’t answer my basic questions about their products.

I understand that everyone doesn’t have access to farmers’ markets and the grass-fed ground beef pictured above. (The farmer who sold it to me knew the name of the steer it came from.) But better quality products are becoming more available in neighborhood supermarkets.

And if your store doesn’t carry meat and dairy products devoid of hormones and antibiotics? Start demanding it does, and get your friends to do likewise. If only one person a week asks, the store owner will turn a deaf ear. If 20 people a day ask (and leave the store without spending any money), the store owner will be purchasing better-quality products very, very quickly.

Too time-consuming? Think about Stephanie Smith’s fate and how ten minutes of work and an extra dollar or two may prevent the same nightmare from repeating itself.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best of 2009: Revisiting "The Burger That Shattered Her Life"

In case you missed it, here is an October blog post about a story that should concern us all:

"The Burger That Shattered Her Life":
The Tragedy of Our Modern Food Supply

(October 5, 2009)

For those of us who think we don’t have time to worry about the safet
y of our food, there was a shocking exposé in yesterday's New York Times that illuminated the minefields that exist within our modern system of commercial food production.

“The Burger That Shattered Her Life” tells the story of Stephanie Smith, a then-healthy young adult who became paralyzed in 2007 after eating a hamburger—made by the American food giant Cargill—that was tainted with E. coli.

The article makes clear that while Smith’s “reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme,” the process of making seemingly harmless hamburgers is a crapshoot. “Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.”

There is insufficient government oversight of the suppliers, slaughterhouses and producers, many of which are self-policed. This leads to many situations that can have toxic consequences.

It is wishful thinking to believe that the hamburger Smith ate was just ground meat from a cow from a local ranch. Unfortunately, our industrial food system is much more complicated and unsafe than that.

According to the article:

"The hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria."
Even more disturbing is one of the reasons why:
"In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat."
What a shame.

(Part 2 will be reposted tomorrow.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of 2009: Revisiting Helpful Shopping Strategies

Another blog post from 2009 that readers thought to be informative and helpful:

Helpful Shopping Strategies
(July 20, 2009)

An essential part of eating well is knowing how to shop, especially if you are try
ing to avoid the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other synthetic additives that are so rampant in our food supply. But even if you know what you are looking for, the issue of cost can factor into your decisions.

Personally, I try to eat fruits and vegetables when they are in season. For exampl
e, I am now in the six-week span when I eat cherries. Literally, in about two weeks, I’ll stop buying cherries and won’t eat them again for 46 weeks.

Cherries, though, are seventh on the Environmental Working Group’s list of fruits and vegetables of which we should be eating organic versions. Luckily, organic cherries aren’t that much more expensive than conventional ones grown with the use of pesticides. In the two markets (Fairway and Whole Foods) where I regularly shop, organic cherries are $3.99 per pound, versus $2.99 per pound for conventional. In this case, choosing organic is a no-brainer for me. However, I won’t be buying organic red, yellow or orange peppers anytime soon, even though they are third on the list.

Why? They cost $7 per pound. Since one average-size organic pepper costs more than $3, I pass.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t purchase peppers. Instead, I buy peppers grown hydroponically in a greenhouse in Canada. Equally enticing are the facts that no dangerous sprays are used in the growing process and that a package of four peppers (weighing more than a pound) costs $2.99, in-line with the price of the conventional peppers we should be avoiding.

Remember, food does not have to be organic to be healthy and safe. And if you buy seasonally, chances are even organic produce won't be cost prohibitive.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Best of 2009: Revisiting Peanut Butter

This week I’ll be reposting blogs from 2009 that my clients felt were informative and helpful in their quest to shop and eat better.

What's In Peanut Butter? Skippy vs. Smucker's
(May 6, 2009)

Peanut butter is a great snack for adults, plus a go-to food for parents feedin
g their kids. Unfortunately, many of the commercial peanut butters sold in stores contain—unnecessarily—more than just peanuts.

The ingredients in Skippy creamy peanut butter are roasted peanuts, sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed) and salt. The added sugar and salt are not good for our health and, just as important, work to corrupt our taste buds.

However, the far greater danger lies in the hydrogenated oils, which are chemically altered oils. These oils contain unsaturated fats that have had hydrogen atoms added to their structure, making them more solid and turning them into trans fats.

Why are these hydrogenated oils added to many packaged and processed snack foods, including cookies, cakes and crackers? The change in chemical composition allows the oils to be better used in baking and also helps prevent spoilage, thereby prolonging food items’ shelf life.

But trans
fats pose severe health risks, with the most serious being a link to heart disease, stemming from trans fats’ negative effects on the ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol in the body. Connections to obesity and diabetes also exist.

So, what t
o look for when buying peanut butter? Peanuts. Nothing more, nothing less. Many supermarkets and progressive food stores grind their own peanut butter. Failing that, Smucker’s makes a creamy peanut butter that “contains 100% peanuts,” with “no added salt, sugar, stabilizers or preservatives.”

The cost? At my local supermarket, a 12-ounce jar of the
Smucker’s is $2.49, compared to $2.79 for a 12-ounce jar of Skippy. Go figure.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

The Delicious Truth will return on Monday.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Are We Really in Control of What We Order?

How much are our food-ordering decisions at restaurants influenced by how the menu is constructed?

Read more in an interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times food section.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Grow Parsley Indoors in the Winter

I’ve grown herbs in pots during the warmer months, but I’ve never tried growing anything during the winter until my recent parsley experiment.

About a month ago, before the first frost, I dug out a part of the parsley plant that was growing in my garden patch. Making sure to keep some of the root system intact, I transplanted it to a small pot with soil from the patch.

After an initial transplant shock, the parsley is flourishing (photo, above). I didn’t think it would be so healthy so quickly.

Parsley is a hearty grower, which helps when I occasionally put the plant outside for a couple minutes to get some (true) direct sunlight, even when the temperature is in the 30’s and 40’s. At other times, indirect sunlight seems to be doing the trick. I also make sure to water at least every other day.

Unfortunately I can’t cut too much at once, but a little parsley—especially at the end of December—goes a long way.

And, yes, that’s snow from the recent storm on the ledge.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Cooking Demo at the Farmers' Market

I recently gave a two-hour cooking demonstration at a farmers’ market in Manhattan. Here is a quick video recap of the day:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Atul Gawande - "Testing, Testing"

Regardless of which side of the health care debate you are on, surgeon and The New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande thinks we may all have it wrong by picking a definitive position.

Instead, Gawande believes we should take a lesson from the dynamic changes that were introduced into farming one hundred years ago. At the time, agriculture—like the health care industry today—was an “indispensable but unmanageably costly sector [that] was strangling the country.”

Gawande argues that America only became great when it learned how to farm more efficiently, which decreased the cost of food and the amount of labor that went into its production. In turn, this freed up money and manpower to “support economic growth and development” in other economic sectors.

“We were . . . still a poor nation,” Gawande writes. “Only by improving the productivity of farming could we raise our standard of living and emerge as an industrial power.”

But the road to better food production was not a choice between left and right. Instead, experimenting and learning on the go—plus the dissemination of this information—led to a transformation that would not have been possible had partisan politics been at play.

Click here to read Gawande’s fascinating account of our agricultural revolution (with a side of health care talk thrown in).

Friday, December 18, 2009

More About the Pesticide Action Network's Fight

As I discussed yesterday, individuals can make a difference in shaping public policy. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN), an organization dedicated to eliminating the use of hazardous pesticides, relies on us to help get its message heard.

If you believe that e-mails and phone calls to government officials don’t add up and don’t make a difference, witness how the groundswell of almost 100,000 e-mails has held up the appointment of Islam Siddiqui as our Chief Agricultural Negotiator. (Siddiqui is currently a vice president at CropLife America, the pesticide industry’s lobbying arm.)

Another current action supported by PAN is a campaign encouraging Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to not approve the use of methyl iodide on California farms. (I phoned the other day; unfortunately my request to speak directly with the Governor was rebuffed.)

According to PAN, methyl iodide has been “linked to severe health concerns, including miscarriages and cancer.” A California rejection of methyl iodide would give the Environmental Protection Agency reason to reassess the chemical’s widespread usage.

Isn’t our collective health (and our children’s and grandchildren’s) enough to warrant an e-mail or phone call?

As I wrote yesterday, to show my commitment to the cause, I will personally match the $35 membership fee of the first 15 people who join PAN. Click here to join.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Join the Pesticide Action Network and Make a Difference

Regular readers of The Delicious Truth know how seriously I take the issue of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial colors and other synthetic additives and their link to the explosion of chronic diseases, especially in children.

To show my commitment to the cause, I will personally match the $35 membership fee of the first 15 people who join the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), an organization that is doing important policy work on our behalf. Simply click here to become a member and help limit the harmful farming practices that affect us all.

Last week I met with Kathryn Gilje, PAN’s Executive Director, and Bev Becker, Director of Donor Relations, who articulated PAN’s goals, which center on protecting our health from pesticide exposure.

A major PAN focus is on “winnable” battles against persistent pesticides, chemicals that remain in the environment for generations, according to Gilje.

“There are very few persistent pesticides left in the United States,” Gilje said. “One is endosulfan, which we hope will be banned in the next three months.”

(Click here to read more about endosulfan.)

Gilje sees openings for PAN’s agenda, especially since Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been a receptive listener to PAN and other like-minded groups.

But public action—by regular people like you and me—is essential. PAN regularly creates simple on-line petitions that are electronically forwarded to the appropriate elected officials.

“Each e-mail is important,” Gilje said. “The EPA needs to see the public willingness and the political support for these changes.”

(Tomorrow: More on PAN's work.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to Make Hot Chocolate

Making your own hot chocolate with quality cocoa powder (I use Green & Black’s) takes about the same amount of time and isn’t that much more expensive than using packaged hot chocolate mixes that contain refined sugars and synthetic ingredients. Plus, the difference in flavor is startling.

Watch how:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Environmental Working Group Asks, "What's In Your Water?"

The New York Times has been running a series of articles over the past several months titled “Toxic Waters,” which paints a frightening picture of “worsening pollution in American waters and regulators’ responses.”

Articles have focused on how sewage, power plants, agricultural runoff, industrial waste and herbicides affect our water supply.

A great resource to help us learn more about what is in our water is the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database.
Test results from water utilities throughout the country (47,667 to be exact) are available; simply enter your zip code, identify your water company and see what’s in your water.

According to the EWG, “testing by water utilities has found 316 pollutants in the tap water Americans drink . . . More than half of the chemicals detected are not subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount.”

After you’ve had the bejesus scared out of you, visit the site’s water filter buying guide, which will help you “pick a filter that will reduce your exposure to those chemicals.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

The (Late) End of the Growing Season

It took a while, but the really cold weather finally came to the neighborhood:

And the greens that were doing so well until just recently finally met their maker:

Friday, December 11, 2009

More About Smjör Butter and Icelandic Farming Policy

As promised Wednesday, I did a little research and found out more about Icelandic husbandry policy, which affects the nutritional properties of Smjör butter.

The Icelandic Consulate in New York City confirmed that the use of hormones and antibiotics is banned in Iceland, which makes Smjör safer to eat than most American butters, which use milk from cows administered hormones and antibiotics.

In addition, Iceland’s climate and relative lack of pollution lead to healthier grass, on which the cows graze in the summer. During the harsher winter months, the cows are kept indoors and are fed a diet of hay (dried grass), silage (fermented grass and other field crops) and protein supplements. As I have written previously, grass-fed food products are much healthier for us than products from corn-fed animals.

Some information I found online stated that the combination of Iceland’s climate and pristine environment obviated the need for the use of pesticides and other chemical sprays. While this makes sense, I could not verify this with a government source. (An e-mail I sent to Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture has yet to be answered.)

Finally, the Icelandic Consulate sent me a link to a Web page—in English!—describing MS Iceland Dairies, the producer of Smjör products:

“MS Iceland Dairies (Mjólkursamsalan) is a cooperative organisation that includes over 700 of Iceland’s family-run dairy farms and other milk producers across the country.”
And for those worried about the environmental impact of eating butter shipped from Iceland:
“All our products are made using only 100% carbon-free electricity. This advantage exceeds the environmental counterbalance for the methane output inherent in local ruminant agriculture.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How to Clean Out a Mackerel's Insides

I bought three whole mackerel at the farmers’ market yesterday. The mackerel, a great source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, needed to be cleaned, though. It’s actually easier than you think:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Smjör Butter from Iceland - A Great Find

I have a new favorite butter that I am incorporating into my butter-buying rotation: Smjör, from Iceland.

I saw it for the first time the other day (in a Whole Foods) and was immediately captured by its kelly green wrapper and the fact that it is from Iceland.

As regular Delicious Truth readers are aware, I am a vociferous advocate of reading labels to find out exactly what is in the food we are eating. The wrapper said “no additives,” but that’s not really what got me.

Truth be told, I fell for one of the great marketing lines of all time: “Sustainable Iceland Since 874 AD.” It’s absolutely brilliant and it won my $2.99.

That being said, I’m still not 100 percent sure what is or isn’t (i.e. hormones, antibiotics, type of feed) in the butter, since the package didn't say and the website offered on the wrapper is in Icelandic.

(This would probably be an opportune time to see if Siggy Valtysson—the only person I know from Iceland, but who I haven’t spoken to in almost 20 years—is on Facebook.)

However, the deep yellow color and grassy flavor of the butter, plus Iceland’s rich pastoral tradition, lead me to believe that the Smjör cows eat grass and aren’t administered hormones and antibiotics. One of my other favorites, Anchor Butter from New Zealand, has a similar pedigree.

So we’ll all be able to sleep better, I’ll call Whole Foods and find out the Smjör story for sure.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll friend Siggy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Suburban Seagull and the Inuit Hunters of Greenland

Last week I saw a seagull eating a banana peel and wondered how I could work that sighting into a blog post.

But writing that humans aren’t the only animals eating things they shouldn’t be eating wouldn’t have been that revelatory.

Then I viewed a slide show on The New York Times website about Inuit hunters in Greenland and re
alized I had come across the polar opposite of the seagull that had completely adapted to its surroundings.

The Inuit hunters are continuing a tradition that spans thousands of years, while it's a pretty safe bet that our seagull's great grandparents weren't eating Dole or Chiquita products.

In addition, the presentation's first photo (left) is miraculous and offers such a contrast to the suburban concrete parking lot where our banana peel-eating seagull was enjoying his lunch.

Click here to view the entire “The Hunters of Greenland” slide show.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nicholas Kristof: "Cancer From the Kitchen?"

I’m glad to see that the subject matter—the link between synthetic chemicals and chronic diseases—I discussed in my posts last Tuesday and Wednesday was an important enough topic for New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to cover in his Sunday column.

Kristof’s piece—“Cancer From the Kitchen?”—was the Times' website’s most e-mailed article yesterday, which will undoubtedly raise awareness of the subject.

One topic Kristof mentioned that I was going to address this week was the past success of public policy in almost eliminating a dangerous toxin from our lives:
“[T]here’s a remarkable precedent for a public health effort against a toxic substance. The removal of lead from gasoline resulted in an 80 percent decline in lead levels in our blood since 1976—along with a six-point gain in children’s I.Q.’s.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Opening a Scallop = Manual Labor

Much effort is needed for every scallop consumed:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Scallop In Its Shell - It's Alive!

I was lucky enough to buy live scallops—still in their shells!—yesterday at the farmers’ market.

A photo of one is on the right; make sure to click to enlarge.

The middle white part is the muscle we are accustomed to buying in stores and eating in restaurants. The orange substance on the right is the roe. And, yes, that is a small fish on the left.

Even a scallop needs to eat!

Watch the video below for proof that the scallop is alive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Endocrine Disruptors and Childhood Diseases

More from the lecture I attended on Monday, which focused on the tandem increase of synthetic chemicals and childhood diseases:

Over the last decade, endocrine disruptors and their effect on our health have become better understood.

“Ten years ago, endocrine disruptors were a fringe concept,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, Director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC). “Now, their importance is accepted.”

Landrigan went on to give a quasi-official definition of endocrine disruptors that even he admitted was incomprehensible. Instead, he offered this simplified description:
“Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals in the environment that get into the human body and disrupt the signaling of one cell to another. If this endocrine signaling is disrupted, disease can result.”
Landrigan and his team are studying the effects of Bisphenol-A (BPA) (found in aluminum cans and plastics), phthalates (plastics), pesticides (food) and perchlorate (many industrial uses, found in drinking and ground water).

The use of these synthetic chemicals has mushroomed since World War II and our kids have become sicker and sicker over that time period. Some facts from the CEHC web site:

  • Asthma rates have nearly tripled in the past three decades.
  • One of every six American children has a development disorder (ADHD, dyslexia, mental retardation).
  • One in every 150 American children is now diagnosed with autism.
  • Cancer, after accidents, is the leading cause of death among children in the United States.
  • Primary brain cancer increased by nearly 40% and leukemia increased by over 60% among children 14 years and younger from 1975 to 2004.
  • Childhood obesity has quadrupled in the past 10 years.
According to Landrigan, there is some good news, though.

"Unlike genetic diseases," he said, "environmental disease can be prevented.”

Don’t we owe it to our kids to become more familiar with these issues? Click here to visit the Children’s Environmental Health Center’s web site.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Link Between Environmental Exposures and Disease

I attended a lecture yesterday sponsored by the Children’s Environmental Health Center, a part of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan.

Specifically, the talk dealt with breast cancer, endocrine disruptors and early puberty, and how environmental influences are making all three increasingly widespread.

Generally—through both research and anecdotal evidence—doctors are becoming convinced that the effects of pesticides, plastics and other environmental exposures are an increasingly important factor in the rising rates of chronic disease among adults and children.

Children are highly susceptible to these toxins, and, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, the Chairman of Mount Sinai’s Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, there is a “relationship between pediatric exposures and disease in adult life.”

The dots are there, and the medical community is beginning to connect them. Increased toxins in our food, water, air and everyday products have been linked to the skyrocketing increases in birth defects, leukemia, cancers, and developmental disabilities (autism, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, mental retardation, etc.).

The talk was sobering (to say the least) but there are simple ways to decrease our families' toxin intake.

Eating only organic food isn’t financially feasible for most of us, but everyone should be able to buy fragrance-free products (soap bars, dishwasher and laundry detergent, etc.) at no extra cost. In addition, replacing plastic food containers with glass and stainless steel is an easy way to eliminate Bisphenol-A and phthalates, two major endocrine-disrupting toxins.

I’ll discuss endocrine disruptors and other aspects of the lecture tomorrow.