Day 52–The Sweet Potato Experiment

Sometimes things that seem simple and straightforward are, upon further contemplation, the very things that rock my world. So today, rather than a didactic posting about how our food supply is corrupted on so many levels and how concerned I am about what we are putting into ourselves and our children, I thought I would share this video with you. On the surface, it is a cute science experiment conducted by a little girl and her grandmother. Dig deeper and it is really about what food is available to us in the grocery store, even those foods labeled “organic”.

The video isn’t long, so I hope you watch it. It really reinforced to me the importance of our family journey, and gave me some extra motivation to keep going!

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Day 44–Non-toxic Food Storage

Almost all the plastic ever produced still exists on earth. That totally creeps me out.

One of the jobs I have been meaning to tackle involves researching food storage safety, and finding out more about plastics and food safety. After reading many articles and several studies, my take on it is that no one really knows the full extent of plastic safety, and most scientists and health advocates recommend further study of plastics and food.

Most people are familiar with BPA (bisphenol-A) by now and many manufacturers (including Tupperware, Glad and Ziploc)  have worked hard to create BPA-free products. BPA is known to damage the reproduction systems of animals and its ability to mimic estrogen is thought to contribute to prostate and breast cancer. But really, is BPA the only thing to worry about? Food microwaved in BPA-free plastic still tastes weird, leading me (not a scientist by any stretch) to think that there is more to it than just BPA. Indeed, many plastics also leach phthalates. Banned in Europe, Japan, Mexico and Argentina. The U.S.? Nope.

Here is the crazy thing. Leaching petrochemicals and other potential toxins into your food is ALLOWED by the FDA if they are present in levels the FDA deems to be “safe”. Note that these materials have not been proven “safe,” they just haven’t been proven “unsafe.”

Considering the FDA’s lackadaisical record for food supply safety lately and combining that with the plastic industry’s heavy-handed lobby, I think I’m not feeling to trustworthy of their definition of “safe.”

But plastics are EVERYWHERE, even in the linings of your canned food and the linings of jar lids. How can you avoid them or at least reduce your risk to known and potential carcinogens? I’ve crossed checked several sources and put together a list of tips on how to reduce your family’s exposure to plastics. Ready? Here goes!

  1. Know your numbers–every plastic has a number on it (usually on the bottom of the container). Numbers 1,2,4, and 5 are thought to be safer (not SAFE, but SAFER) to use with food. Numbers 3,6 and 7 should be avoided, as these plastics are known to be unstable, especially if reused.
  2. Never serve or store hot foods in plastic. As plastics warm and soften, they can leach petrochemicals and other toxins into your food.
  3. Do not store high fat foods in plastic. For similar reasons as above, high fat foods interact with the plastic in such a way that transfer of chemicals and toxins are more likely.
  4. Never microwave food in plastic. Not only can toxins leach into your food due to warming, toxins present in the steam can be inhaled.
  5. Avoid using deli or plastic wrap. When shopping, you can ask your deli to use unbleached paper or unbleached waxed paper only. Or you can transfer your products into safer packaging when you get home.
  6. Store and reheat your leftovers in glass containers. Unlike many plastics, you can reuse jars as long as they are cleaned well.
  7. Buy pots and pans without Teflon or other non-stick coatings. If you use non-stick pans, run your kitchen ventilation system while you cook.

My weekend task was to clean out all of our plastic food storage and relegate those containers for camping equipment and craft supplies. We now have glass food containers in various sizes for our leftovers. Bed, Bath and Beyond has sets that are affordable ($19 for a set of 5–less if you have your coupon!) and Crate and Barrel also has some that look good, but are a bit pricier. I have to say, I feel a sense of relief knowing that we have made a small, but meaningful step toward reducing our household toxicity!

Day 20–What’s In Your Makeup Bag?

Lotion Bars

We seem to have an astonishing number of beauty products in our house. Between my pre-teen and I, we seem to have enough supplies to open our own Ulta store. Couple that with my husband’s amazing coupon savvy and we also have enough “almost free” deodorant and toothpaste to last the rest of our lives. I know enough to buy unscented products most of the time, but really, I am just now learning about the chemicals and other somewhat bizarre ingredients (placenta? formaldehyde?) that are allowed to be in our cleansers, moisturizers, soaps, shampoo and so on.

I recently heard a great piece on NPR’s “The People’s Pharmacy” about household and food toxins and the impact they have on people, especially children and pregnant women. I had no idea that neither the FDA nor the Consumer Products Safety Commission regulate what chemicals go into beauty products. The terms “natural,” “hypoallergenic,” and “organic” when it relates to beauty products can be used without any proof to substantiate those claims. This concerns me. Greatly. In addition, a recent study from Europe found that all women treated for breast cancer had parabens present in their breast tissue. Parabens are regularly present in such products as moisturizer, deodorant and shampoo.

I did find a great website (referenced in the above “People’s Pharmacy” segment) from the Environmental Working Group called Skin Deep that has tested and rated beauty and hygiene products. Each product has two ratings–one is a numerical rating 0-10 (0 being least toxic, 10=most toxic) based on ingredients and levels of potential toxicity. The other is a rating on the level of date available for the safety of that product (“robust” to “none”). Many products also have a narrative description of why they received that ranking. You can search by company name, by type of product and by ingredient. It’s a nice tool and very interesting, but they really need a phone app so you can take that information with you when shopping.

The website address is http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

Here is what we found:

  • Our deodorants had high toxicity levels for the chemicals and trace chemicals in them.
  • Our toothpaste didn’t fare much better, at medium levels of toxicity.
  • My Boots No. 7 facial moisturizer fared pretty well (better than my old Bobbi Brown products)
  • The Bath and Body Works lotion and body gel soap I received for Christmas are going bye-bye. They were at the highest levels of toxicity (probably due to their fragrance and levels of parabens).
  • Makeup fared so-so. Mascara, due to its petroleum product base tends to fare worse than, say, most lip gloss. Foundation, bronzers and blushes run a wide range from low to very high (glitter products were the worst).

So, what now? Here’s the plan:

  • The worst offenders go first. We will replace our deodorant and toothpaste this week. That’s an easy fix. Other offenders like the Bath & Body Works lotion and soap will go as well.
  • As we run out of our regular, unscented body lotion, we will replace them with lotion that is better. After looking at some prices of the best scoring products ($15 for a bottle of body lotion???), we may try to find other options.
  • Some items, like my Bobbi Brown concealer and foundation? That’s a harder call. I love them and they work so well, it will be hard to switch.

The Big Dilemma

So now that we will be getting rid of some of our old products, we have a dilemma. What to do about the stockpile of products (many unused) that we have now? We don’t want to put them in the landfill, but I feel guilty about giving them to charity when I know they aren’t good for you.

What would you do??

Day 19–The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

English: A sign warning about pesticide exposure.

“Action expresses priorities.”–Mohandas Gandhi

Our intent with our family journey toward a more sustainable, less toxic life, was to put our priorities (healthier lifestyle, support of local farmers, reducing environmental toxins, eating cleaner) into action and document the results. But sometimes there is a tension between intent and reality. Namely, that we can’t go broke buying groceries and we can’t always find what we want from an organic or locally produced source. And sometimes there are unintended consequences (see below) So, what’s a girl to do? Seek information and pick her battles, that’s what.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the most common produce sold in the U.S. and developed a list of the produce with the highest pesticide levels (The Dirty Dozen) and those with the lowest pesticide levels (The Clean 15). Pesticide levels were measured after washing the produce to simulate a typical home environment. They turned this information into a handy list anyone can use while shopping.

So, what about the unintended consequences?

The EWG developed this list after finding that residual pesticide levels in children have been increasing over time. Interestingly, this increase is seen at higher levels in middle class families with college educated parents. Why? Because those parents, who are responding to the obesity crisis in children and who have more discretionary income to spend on food, are more likely to forego chips and processed snacks for fresh fruit and vegetables. So an unintended consequence of well-meaning parents (like me) getting our children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables is that their children are showing higher levels of the pesticides used on those crops in their bodies. YIKES!

Realizing that many families don’t have the financial ability to purchase all of their produce organic, the EWG produced a list of the worst and the best, giving parents and other consumers a tool to use when making food choices.  I put this app on my phone so I can refer to it at the farmer’s market when I’m shopping (I know I won’t remember the piece of paper). While the EWG list is not comprehensive, it’s one more tool I can use to express my priorities through actions in a financially efficient way.

So, what’s on the list? You can download the list at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/ but here it is in summary:

Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines (Imported)
  • Grapes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale

The Clean 15

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn**
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (Domestic)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

**Because sweet corn is often genetically modified and the FDA does not require that GMO corn be labelled as such, the EWG recommends that anyone concerned about GMO products buy organic sweet corn.

What do you think about the list? Is this something you would use? How do you budget for greater health?

Next post: What’s in your makeup bag?

Day 4–The Coffee Question

Afrikaans: Geroosterde pitte van die koffiepla...

It all started with Splenda. I suggested to my truly wonderful (and remarkably vice-free) husband that eliminating toxins from our diets included the Splenda he used in his morning coffee. He thought about this. He did some research on his own. He agreed. And he very patiently–very carefully–suggested that maybe we needed to rethink the whole issue of coffee itself.

You would need to understand my coffee habits to understand the brave nature of this conversation. One of my worst vices is coffee. I drink lots of coffee. I could drink it all day. My morning coffee mug is a sturdy piece of NC pottery that could easily double as a vase. For reals.

But, if we are looking at improving our overall health and eating/drinking sustainably, everything should come up for discussion. Even coffee. While coffee does have some antioxidants and research indicates that small amounts of coffee can benefit the heart, I don’t think the patients in those studies were drinking out of small vases. And coffee, even fair trade coffee, does have a pretty big carbon footprint since the coffee we buy isn’t grown anywhere near here. So, my husband has decided to give up coffee altogether and I am working toward drinking one normal size cup of coffee AFTER drinking a glass of water in the morning. Maybe I’ll switch to organic green tea instead, but one step at a time.

In the meantime, I have two new vases with handles 🙂

What Does “Healthier” Mean?

We are a regular, suburban family living in Cary, North Carolina. This year, we are embarking on a journey to see if our family of 3 can eat, drink and live healthier for a year. Because that’s a pretty vague goal, we’re identifying “healthier” as:

  1. Eliminating (or at least dramatically reducing) the toxins and chemicals we use in our home. Seriously, have you read the ingredients in Pine-Sol? Or Diet Coke?
  2. Buying (and eating) locally produced vegetables and meat for at least 75% of our meals.
  3. Walking to destinations that are 1 mile or less from our home instead of driving. Biking when possible and safe.
  4. Not spending outside our food budget for high quality, locally produced food. This will be the most challenging, I think.

Along the way, I am sure we will make many mistakes and learn a lot about our culture and ourselves. Join us for the journey!

A Year of Healthier Living on a Budget. Is it possible?

We try to live a clean and sustainable life. Really. Well, not so really. We recycle, we try not to overconsume, my husband takes the bus to work, we belong to a CSA. But there’s a lot we’re not doing–getting rid of chemicals and toxins in our house, eating locally grown produce and meat all year, walking instead of driving, and eliminating severe toxins in our food supply (I’m talking to you, Mr. Diet Soda…).

So this is our year-long journey to see how a family of 3 (+dog +cat) can make a shift in living a healthier life without blowing our budget in one trip to Whole Foods. Because, let’s face it, our commerce system makes it challenging and expensive to live healthy.

Can we do it? It will be an interesting journey and I’ll share with you our triumphs and pitfalls along the way. Here is to ending 2012 feeling good, living healthy and with money in the bank. Let’s begin!