Something Fishy

Fish is one of my favorite foods.  I like eating other kinds of meat, but am picky about having lean cuts.  With fish, I never have to worry about cutting off slabs of fat.  Fish is also a great source of protein without a lot of saturated fat like cheese, red meat and poultry have.  You’ve probably also heard that many fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which sort of sounds like a bad, gross thing but is actually good for your brain.  You may have also heard that some seafood is high in mercury. This is unfortunately true.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Mercury is emitted to the air by power plants, cement plants, certain chemical manufacturers and other industrial facilities. In addition, over the years, many companies have used mercury to manufacture a range of products including thermometers, thermostats and automotive light switches. These products can release mercury, particularly at the end of their useful life during waste handling and disposal. Mercury pollution released into the environment becomes a serious threat when it settles into oceans and waterways, where it builds up in fish that we eat. Children and women of childbearing age are most at risk…. During the first several years of life, a child’s brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities. Less frequent, high dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.  In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. “

The Simpsons puts a humurous spin on polluted water, but it's a serious matter.

The Simpsons puts a humorous spin on polluted water, but it’s a serious matter.

So what’s a girl to do when she wants to eat fish but also plan for a healthy pregnancy in the future?!  Luckily there is lots of delicious seafood that does not pose a risk in terms of mercury ingestion (like salmon, flounder, crab, shrimp, and canned light tuna).  It might take a few minutes of research before you dig in to your dinner, but it seems a good rule of thumb to avoid foods high in mercury if having a getting pregnant in the near future is a possibility.  Even if you’re not pregnant now, chemicals can stay in your body long after exposure.

I often find myself wanting to order fish when I’m out at a restaurant, but it’s hard to remember off hand which ones to avoid.  I got into the habit of referencing a guide that I bookmarked on my phone.  When I come across an unfamiliar fish on a menu, I can discreetly pull out my phone and quickly access the list without having to type and search.  Though there are several websites that list mercury levels in different kinds of fish, I’ve found the Eat Fish, Choose Wisely brochure produced by the NYC government to be the most helpful because it directly notes how often it’s safe to eat specific fish, ranging from several times a week to never.

It’s definitely a sacrifice to give up tuna, my favorite thing on a sushi menu.  Perhaps in my golden years I’ll treat myself to it once in a while.  But for now, I would rather know that I’m doing the best thing for my body and any future Hilary Jr.

Field Trip: “Food: Our Global Kitchen” Exhibit

For months, I’ve been seeing ads on Metro trains for an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC called “Food: Our Global Kitchen.”  The posters described it as a farm to table experience which really piqued my interest.  Learning more about non-toxic food ingredients has made me more interested in where my food comes from and how it is grown, and I try to be a locavore whenever possible.

I had a great experience at NatGeo (despite a handful of rambunctious kids running around wiping their germy hands on all the interactive buttons, ick).  I thought the layout of the exhibit was really clever.  The “farm to table” effect involved taking the museum-goer through the full experience of food, winding us through displays on history and development of agriculture, to facts about food production and trade, to global cooking techniques.

The exhibit was sponsored by Whole Foods so I was curious how topics like organic produce, raising of livestock, and GMOs would be presented.  I assumed that it might be very biased but while all of these issues were mentioned throughout the exhibit, but I never felt it was one-sided or forced.  Because they are all issues that affect food production and consumption, it is important they are mentioned. But the visitor was left to draw his/her own conclusions.  Some highlights of the exhibit were:

  • Learning about cassavas — who knew they were such a staple of the human diet, or that they could grow to be as large as a person!  I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten one, but now it’s on my to-do list
  • A scale of heat rankings for peppers — I’ve seen comparisons like this before, but it was interesting to see it in person and see all the kinds I’ve tried (my experience stopped at about the third from the bottom with the jalapeno.  No thank-you, ghost pepper!)
  • A model scene of a historical food market in South America — very cool to see a life size re-creation of a market and all the different types of animals and produce considered exotic to me, but normal to a person in that time and place
  • A display of cookbooks from around the world, in all different languages — really makes you think that food is one of the few things that all humans have in common as a need.  We’re not so different after all!

One theme reiterated throughout the exhibit is the fact that humans are using more food resources that ever, and growing the food to feed all of us has very real environmental and health consequences for us.  The main take-away is that it is so important for each of us to understand where our food is coming from, and what exactly is in it.  In most cases, ignorance is bliss but with food, increased knowledge of what we eat, how and where it was grown, and how it was prepared, makes it more enjoyable and healthful in the end.

The exhibit is open until February 22 and tickets are $11 — well worth the price.  Hope you can check it out!

My Chemical Reaction

My initial interest in toxic-free products and foods was fueled by my realization that there were so many potentially harmful chemicals in the foods and products I was consuming on a daily basis.  Have you noticed recently that some products you pick up have a label that say something like, “formulated without sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, artificial dyes and artificial fragrances”?  If you’re wondering what all of those are and why you should be glad your shampoo doesn’t contain them, you’re not alone.  Prior to learning more about this subject, I completely trusted the fact that we live in a first-world country with credible regulatory agencies like the FDA, so it would be impossible that toxic chemicals would be in my deodorant or toothpaste, right?…   Because there is currently a lack of scientific consensus about whether certain chemicals in cosmetics and bath products cause things like cancer and and developmental concerns, U.S. law allows companies to use these chemicals in these consumer products.  In researching this article, almost every credible resource outlines the health concerns these chemicals are believed to cause but also states that there has not yet been overwhelming data to prove it.  The Washington Post ran an interesting article recently with a line that sums it up well, “Should you worry about the chemicals in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap and shampoo? The answer is a clear maybe.”

Here’s a quick guide to some of these chemicals — what they are in and why they are controversial:

Two very common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).  They make products foamy and sudsy, and I’ve noticed it is included in lots of shampoos, toothpastes and soaps.  It is believed by some to cause skin irritation and nervous system disruption.  The National Institutes of Health gives the full scientific lowdown on SLS here.

Parabens (like Isopropylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben) are chemicals that are controversial because they are thought to cause endocrine disruption, hormone imbalance, breast cancer, and infertility issues, etc.  According to the FDA, parabens are used in cosmetic products at such low levels that there is no risk in exposure.  You can read the FDA’s full summary on parabens here.  What I found most compelling about the statement is this: “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes. In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”  So cosmetics companies have the freedom to use chemicals like parabens in their products because there is no law to answer to in the United States.  Comparatively, the European Union has placed a limitation on legal limits of some parabens in cosmetic products, and has prohibited others entirely.

Artificial Dyes
Many of us tend to think of artificial dyes as existing mostly in foods like candy, Jello or Kool-Aid.  But what about the salmon at the fish counter labeled “color-added”?  Or why is your dish soap such a neon blue?  “Chances are, if you take vitamins, use cough syrup, brush your teeth, wash your hands, shampoo your hair, launder your clothing and moisturize your lips on a daily basis — you come into contact with artificial dyes quite frequently,” says Forbes magazine.  Read the full article here for an eye-opening look at artificial coloring which some scientists link to cancer and ADHD.

Artificial fragrances
“The word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate.  Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system,” according to the Environmental Working Group.  So there is a good chance that your favorite designer perfume or scented lotion with citrus or floral notes isn’t actually derived from an actual lemon or lavender plant at all, but is instead is scented by chemicals created in a lab.

 I don’t want to run around claiming that the sky is falling; that using these chemicals on our bodies will be the demise of the human race. Perhaps the reason that the scientific community has yet to convincingly prove the extent of these chemical’s toxicity is because they are indeed harmless.  But I always come back to this basic thought.  There are already misfortunes in life over which we have no control, like disease and infertility.  If it ultimately it is proven true that these chemicals are harmful and can accelerate or exacerbate these conditions, and I could have prevented them by using shampoo or mascara that was $2 more expensive and I chose not to, I’m really going to kick myself later.  So taking an extra minute to read a label and spending a few extra bucks on toxic-free products is worth it to me in the long run.

If you are interested in learning more about chemicals in cosmetics products, here are a few helpful places to start: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics & Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

Also, there are several companies that produce high-quality products without toxic chemicals.  Check out some of these as alternatives to your current products: Tarte, 100% Pure, Honest, Burt’s Bees, and Acure.