Organic? Natural? Confused!

What is organic food versus non-GMO? What does the word ‘natural’ mean on a food product?  I would wager that every person who has been to a grocery store has been confused by the labels on the sea of products on the shelves. It’s important to always read the ingredients label and to really consider what is printed on a product — from beef, to orange juice, to chips. Remember, food manufacturers are businesses.  The logo, pictures on the box, recipes on the back of the package, and words like “healthy” are all ways to try to sell their product and make a profit.  We should be knowledgeable about the food we buy and what the following labels mean:

USDA Organic

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using an official USDA Organic seal on food that is certified organic. For a food to display the official seal, the farmers raising the crop/animal have to follow strict guidelines issued by the FDA to meet the requirements. It’s not just a matter of withholding pesticides — there are other criteria that organic food products must meet. According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

When you buy organic food, you know that not only was is grown without toxic chemicals, but it also promotes sustainable organic labelenvironmental practices, and if it’s an organic animal it wasn’t raised in a restrictive tiny cage.

Be sure to look for the organic logo on products noting that it is officially recognized as meeting these requirements.  Although, sometimes you may come across a food item with the word ‘organic’ on it which not display the USDA seal. This does not necessarily mean that the product is not organic. Some smaller manufacturers, farms and farms markets don’t turn enough profit to meet the requirements to apply for certification and do not consistently use the label. Whenever there is any rule or regulation, there are some rule-breakers so it is possible to come across foods claiming to be organic when in fact, it is not.  However, the USDA is strict about enforcing the term and violators can be fined several thousand dollars for non-compliance.

Non-GMO

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button topic in the U.S. and globally.  Advocates say GMOs are a crucial way to feed the world’s growing population and combat hunger in third-world countries. Opponents argue that genetically modifying products all along our food change will have a definite negative effect on our health. Delve into some more research of your own to decide where you stand on the matter. However, when it comes to food labeling, know this. For a food to be labeled organic, as mentioned above, one of the criteria it needs to meet is being non-GMO. However, a food can be non-GMO but not organic. Food producers who can’t or don’t want to meet all the criteria for organic certification but who don’t use GMO crops in their production can still tout the non-GMO on their label.

Natural & Other Claims

You have probably seen terms on many food items like: All-Natural, Raised Naturally, Made with Natural Ingredients/Flavors. Currently, there is very limited regulation on food products labeled ‘Natural.’  The exception is meat/poultry which can calim it’s natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.   However, because the regulation is not air-tight, food manufacturers can take advantage of the context of wording.  According to the USDA, “For example, claims indicating that a product is  natural food, e.g., “Natural chili” or “chili – a natural product” would be unacceptable for a product containing beet powder which artificially colors the finished product.  However, “all natural ingredients” might be an acceptable claim for such a product.”  Consumer Reports did some really interesting research on the topic, showing 7 foods labeled as natural but revealing the very unnatural added ingredients.

 

On your next trip to the grocery store, take a closer look at the food packaging.  On any given product, you will often see an important-looking statement like “made with all-natural oats”, “X grams of whole grain”, or “100% Whole Wheat”.   A statement about one thing like whole grain or protein content, can be a distraction and it is often used as a marketing ploy.  You will focus on how much protein it has but not turn the box over to read how much sodium it contains, or that the top five ingredients include sugar AND malt syrup AND invert sugar.  Don’t rely on the bold statements on the front of the package, but instead on the legally required information on the back which will allow you to draw your own conclusion about the product.
wheat thins full

The more you get into the practice of reading food ingredients, the less confusing it will be when you do your shopping.  You will start to pick up on the marketing tricks of food manufacturers.  There is a lot that needs to be done in the area of improving regulations, and that requires us as consumers putting pressure on the food product industry.  But the most useful resources that we have right now are our hands and eyes.  Don’t just put food into your shopping cart.  Turn it over and read!

 

Share your comments or questions!  What labeling do you look for when you buy food?

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Bag It Up

How many plastic bags do you use in an average week?  It may be more than you realize.  Think about buying green beans or apples at the grocery store — what do you put that loose produce in?  How do you bag your groceries when you leave the store?  And if you bring grapes or crackers to work, what do you put those in?  It’s so easy to use lots of plastic bags for food without noticing it.  But cutting back on that excess plastic is completely doable with reusable alternatives.  

Let’s start with the source — produce at the grocery store.  Hopefully you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables (they should be taking up half your plate at every meal!).  For a while, I was going to the grocery store and farmers’ markets and feeling really good about the large variety of vegetables IMG_4872and fruits I’d bought for the week, yet feeling badly that everything I bought was in lots of separate plastic bags.  What a waste!  I did try to reuse them as much as possible, but they often got wet or sticky or tore apart.  Reusable produce bags are a game-changer.  These sheer mesh bags hold all the produce that I buy, and I never have to worry about throwing them out and creating waste.  When they get dirty,  just throw them into throw washing machine with the laundry.  You can buy sets of them online at retailers like Amazon.com.

For grocery bags, recyclable paper bags are certainly preferable over non-biodegradable plastic bags.  But even better are reusable tote bags.  It’s pretty easy to accumulate these.  They’re given out at special events all the time, or you can buy them from grocery stores.  The tough thing is remembering to use them.  Try to keep them by your front door, or in the trunk of the car where they are easily accessible when you’re going on a grocery run.  After a few times of remembering them, it will come ingrained in your memory to bring them into the store.

I’m also a big proponent of bringing lunch and snacks to work.  It saves so many dollars and calories compared to buying over-proportioned and over-priced meals out.  But after munching on those carrot sticks or trail mix, the zip-locked baggies get immediately tossed in the trash.  What a waste of plastic to use something for a few hours and then send it on to a landfill!  Luckily, there are a lot of companies that now make reusable snack bags.  My favorites are Lunchskins and Itzy Ritzy.  And lots of Etsy stores sell these reusable bags.  I wash these in the laundry or dishwasher after each use.

So try cutting back on plastic with reusable bags.  It will keep heaps of plastic out of landfills, and will save you money in the long run!

Culture Shock & Awe

I just recently returned from an incredible trip to Africa with one of my best friends.  I would love to share every single detail of the camel-riding, souks-shopping, safari-camping experience, but alas I know this is not a travel blog.  However, I did observe something that relates to non-toxic living that I wanted to share: lots and lots of trash.

Our travels took us through Morocco, Tanzania, and Zanzibar and it’s difficult to share just one aspect of the trip, especially one like trash which is such a downer compared to every other amazing thing we experienced: flavorful foods, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating people.  But perhaps it is because of all the wonders I saw that I was so shocked and saddened by the endless litter scattered around streets and homes in the places we visited.

Now, America is by no means litter-free, especially in cities like DC.  But visiting countries that are still developing is really eye-opening to just how much an organized trash collection system makes a difference in people’s lives.  And going from the U.S. to Morocco and then onto Tanzania was very interesting because it allowed us to see various levels of development in the world.  

The Moroccan cities we visited had buildings, paved roads, and lots of restaurants and stores.  Garbage was noticeable on many of the busier city streets, and in the medinas (old, walled parts of the cities).  We saw some dumpsters in alleyways as a means of trash collection but they were often overflowing and crawling with dozens of stray cats.  

 

Then on our first day in Tanzania, we drove through the small city of Arusha.  It was the middle of the day and there were people crowding the streets on foot, on motorbikes, and with wagons full of goods to sell.  One of the many sights that struck me as we drove through the city was how much trash there was ALL over the place.  Plastic, metal, glass.  It was on the streets, and in the bushes, and floating in shallow streams. People of all ages were walking around in it barefoot.  I saw people eat food and then just toss the wrapper right on the ground in front of them.  There was no trash disposal system, at least not on the outskirts of town and out in the countryside.  No public garbage cans let alone recycling bins.  It was mind-blowing to see that kind of poverty and so much trash, especially because just a few miles away were the most beautiful and pristine national parks, full of lush grasslands and exotic wildlife.

 

At the end of our visit to Tanzania, we had a very heartening experience when we visited Shanga, an open-air workshop in Arusha that employs people with physical disabilities to create beautiful products out of recycled material.  I was incredibly humbled to see such a positive and productive operation.  People who are deaf, or missing limbs from childhood polio would otherwise have no means to make a living for themselves in Arusha.  But here they were part of a supportive community where they could create beautiful art, things like blown glass vases, woven blankets, and beaded jewelry.  To add to the wonder of this place, most of the materials were recycled, like old wine bottles melted to created new glass pieces, and my favorite — a rock tumbler made from a salvaged bicycle tire and an old motor.

My culture-shock coming back to the U.S. was almost as deep as it was arriving in Africa.  I struggled internally with meshing the beauty and luxury I had seen with the destitution and pollution.  I could donate all of my material goods and do volunteer trash collection for the rest of my life and even that wouldn’t make a dent.  What I’m starting to realize is that there are things I can realistically do in my everyday life back here in the U.S. to be impactful.  The first is to continue to cut back on material items that I really don’t need like plastic bags from pharmacies to hold a pack of gum or plastic utensils with a carry-out meal.  Just because I’m lucky enough to live in a place with regular trash pick-up, doesn’t mean I should try to make more trash!  Secondly, I can make a more concerted effort to reuse bottles, boxes, wrapping — anything that can be upcycled (thanks Shanga for the inspiration!).  And thirdly, I can support great organizations like Shanga that make a difference for humanity and for the planet.  If you are interested to learn more or donate, here’s their foundation’s website: www.shanga.org/shangafoundation.  You can also order their beautiful products online!

If ever you have the opportunity to travel abroad, I hope you take it.  It puts so much into perspective.  And the more I see of this world, the more I want to care for it so that future generations can see it too.

Water Bottle Woes

Humans are supposed to drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day to stay healthy and hydrated.  And in the past decade, more people actually are reaching for water as their daily thirst-quenching drink rather than soda — a great step towards better health!  But because so many of us are on-the-go, we are much more likely to drink water from bottles in our cars than from glasses sitting at a dining room table.  However, disposable plastic bottles have a huge impact on the environment.water bottle fact text

Most empty water bottles are tossed into a garbage can rather than a recycling bin and end up in a landfill or incinerator.  And by most, I mean billions of them every year.  With billions more to come the next year. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that, “Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”

Plastic water bottles also require a huge amount of oil in the process of getting into our hands.  Yes, the trucks and ships that transport pallets of water bottles around the world daily require energy, and don’t forget about the bottles themselves!  Plastic is a petroleum product and water bottle manufacturing in the U.S. alone requires millions of barrels of oil.  Not to mention, when you buy a whole case of water the whole thing comes shrink wrapped in plastic as well.

You can choose help diminish the environmental impact from plastic water bottles with a few simple actions:

  1. Avoid plastic water bottles.  Instead use a water filtration system at work and at home, and use glasses and/or reusable water bottles.  My favorite is the glass Camelbak Eddy
  2. When you must use plastic water bottles, always recycle them.  Even if it’s not convenient and it means carrying around your empty bottle for a while until you spot a recycling container.
  3. Encourage recycling in your community.  If your neighborhood streets and parks have trash bins but no recycling bins, petition your local government.

Also, this quick video does a great job of showing how water bottles are marketed, manufactured and disposed of — with shocking truths all the way through the process…

Buying Eggs: Cage-Free to Pasture-Raised and Everything In Between

When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade egg optionsA Extra Large, brown or white.  Those were basically the only choices.  Now with consumers being more concerned with how their meat and dairy products were raised, there are many more options in the dairy aisle.  Have you ever wondered what the actual difference between pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free eggs are or even assumed they are the same thing?  Or have you ever felt kind of guilty about buying the regular eggs when the free-range eggs are right next to them but $2 more expensive?  I definitely have, so I did some research.  Here’s a quick guide:

Battery cages
Battery cages are what most chickens produced in the U.S. are kept in.  It’s basically like spending your whole life in an chickens-battery-cagesovercrowded jail cell where nobody ever changes out the latrine bucket.  Ick.   According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, for many chickens raised in these conditions, “their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death.”  If you buy eggs that aren’t labeled pasture-raised/cage-free/free-range or buy any breakfast sandwich from a fast food place, you’re almost sure to be eating eggs raised in this environment.

Cage-Free
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds.  However, cage-free really cage-free-chickensjust means the chickens just have the ability to roam around a larger enclosed structure like a giant warehouse that holds thousands of birds.  At least then they can literally spread their wings, make nests, etc.  But see the light of day during their lifetime? Not so much…  This looks like a red-line Metro platform during a rush-hour delay!

Free-Range
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry.  If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking Free-Range-Hens-Overcrowdedaround a wide open field each day and Farmer Frank gently guiding her back into the coop at night, you’re about to have your bubble burst.  In order for a poultry product to be labeled Free-Range,  the UDSA only requires that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  Often this still means a HUGE warehouse of thousands of chickens, with one little access door, or a high-up strip of windows.  But since they are overcrowded chickens, and not National Geographic explorers, they’re not likely find the outside access door especially if it’s not near their food and water source.

Pasture-raised/Organic
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way.  This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier. Pasture-raised chickens.  Image courtesy of Honeyhillorganicfarm.com People say that eggs from this environment taste better, and while I’m not an egg connoisseur I would probably agree with this.  After all, are you more likely to turn in a fantastic report to your boss if you’re extremely stressed or relaxed and enjoying life?  It’s probably the same for chickens and the product they make.  Not to mention I don’t want to feel badly that a chicken led a wretched life just so I could have my omelette. However, it can be really difficult to find pasture-raised or organic eggs in conventional grocery stores.  Also just because eggs are labeled organic, doesn’t mean they are pasture-raised.  They could have been stuffed into a “free-range” warehouse and just given organic feed.

So with all that being said, it’s really not my intention to scare you into being a vegan.  I actually really like eating eggs.  My suggestion is just to be more conscious of egg labels and where your eggs come from. Know what you are comfortable buying and eating.  If you want pasture-raised, organic or free-range eggs and don’t see them available, take 2 minutes out of your week and talk to your grocery store manager.  Tell them that you’d like to see more of those products on their shelves.  Same thing with restaurant menus.  Retailers listen to their customers — that’s how we’ve gotten this far from those days in the 80’s with 2 kinds of eggs.

If you want to learn more about this, here are some good resources:

Poultry labeling terms: www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chickopedia/
Where and how to buy organic chickens: www.localharvest.org/organic-chicken.jsp
Facts about pasture-raised poultry: www.apppa.org/getting-started-in-pastured-poultry

P.S. — If you do some google image searching on this subject, be prepared for horrifying visuals.  I tried to only include PG pictures.

Vegan Food Diary

I thought that going vegan one day a month during Lent would be a breeze because meat is not an everyday must for me.  But the sacrifice made me realize how much I rely on non-meat animal products for protein in my diet.  I often add cheese or hard boiled eggs to a salad, or make veggie quesadillas or pasta salads with cheese. Without being able to rely on those ingredients each Monday, I had to more thoughtfully plan my meals every week.  Here’s the lowdown on what I ate each Monday for 6 weeks:

Monday #1

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Breakfast – Ezekiel bread toasted with peanut butter and blood orange slices; Lunch – Roasted Brussels sprouts and lentil soup; Dinner – Roasted tomatoes and barley risotto with broccolini and mushrooms; Snack & Dessert – Tortilla chips with guacamole, salsa and black bean dip, white wine and vegan brownies

To prepare for these vegan Mondays, I pored over recipes for a few days and put together a list of foods I could eat over the next few weeks.  However, I quickly learned that choosing Mondays as my day of the week to eat vegan was an extra challenge because with my weekends being so busy, I often lacked the time on a Sunday evening to prepare the next day’s meal.  Case in point was the first Monday, when I did not have time to prepare a lunch, so I had to grab something from the deli near my office.  I guess I can’t be 100% sure that no animal products (like butter) were used in these, but I tried my absolute best.  After dinner, I went to my friend’s apartment to watch The Bachelor (don’t judge).  My kind friend knew about my Lenten goal and bought a bunch of vegan snacks for us.

Monday #2

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Breakfast – Breakfast “cookies” with jam and a peanut butter drizzle; Lunch – Quinoa tabbouleh; Dinner – Veggie burger, sweet potato fries, and kale salad with pecans, cranberries, & homemade vinaigrette dressing

I came across the recipe for these breakfast cookies on Pinterest and they are filling with just a few ingredients like banana, oats, flaxseed and jam.  The sweet and tart plum jam I used was perfect.  I also came across this refreshing tabbouleh recipe online — it was touted as Jennifer Aniston’s favorite.  No idea if it’s true, but if I can look like her in 15 years by eating this salad, bring it on!  For the veggie burger, I had to read the package carefully because some veggies burgers contain egg.  I give this one an unenthusiastic 5 out of 10.  Like most store-bought veggie burgers, it was underwhelming.  I’d like to make my own in the future especially because I could leave out the soy.

Monday #3

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Breakfast – Lemon-Blueberry oatmeal with almond milk and toasted pecans; Snack – Homemade chex mix, Lunch – Kale salad with apples, walnuts and homemade balsamic vinaigrette, and hummus with bell pepper strips; Dinner – Coconut curried lentils over brown rice; Dessert – Coconut milk ice cream

I was more prepared for the second week and prepared a delicious oatmeal recipe for breakfast.  The real recipe includes a dollop of mascarpone cheese which I left out on Monday but added the rest of the week.  I have to say the mascarpone made it bomb dot com, but I guess that’s what made my vegan Mondays a sacrifice.  Salads are easy for a lunch at the office and the walnuts added some protein.  The coconut curried lentils were delicious and creamy and didn’t really contain actual curry so check out the recipe even if you aren’t a curry person.  Coconut milk ice cream is a wonderful non-dairy alternative and the So Delicious brand has a wide flavor selection at most grocery stores.

 Monday #4

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Breakfast – Ezekiel toast with apricot jam, and apple slices with peanut butter; Snack – Pamela’s cranberry almond bar, Lunch – “Niçoise” salad with chickpeas, golden beets, olives, potatoes and green beans; Dinner – Udon noodle and veggie lo mein; Dessert – Apricot jam tart

Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted grains and is actually a great source of protein which you might not expect from bread.  It’s not the most delicious bread ever but I never eat naked bread anyway so once I spoon on the jam or nut butter it’s as good as regular wheat toast.  I love niçoise salads and the hard-boiled egg and the tuna/salmon is usually the best part.  but I got creative with chickpeas and veggies and it made a very hearty, filling salad.  Many noodles contain egg, but udon noodles are just wheat and water, while remaining a normal and delicious consistency, so the lo mein was yummy.  Here’s the recipe.  I made the rustic tart with a bit of dough leftover from a pie I’d made for Pi Day.  Throw any kind of jam into some pie dough and you have a delicious dessert.

Monday #5

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Breakfast – Ezekiel bread toast with avocados, tomatoes and balsamic reduction; Snacks – Cherry fruit leather; Lunch – Mixed greens salad with artichoke hearts and hummus with sliced cucumbers; Dinner – Cuban black beans and rice; Dessert – Coconut milk ice cream bar

Toast with avocados and tomatoes may not seam like breakfast food, but I’m all about savory food in the morning.  It was hearty and filling and the sprouted grain bread provided protein.  It was a busy day so lunch was basic.   For dinner, the beans and rice was delicious and also one of the cheapest and healthiest meals you can prepare.  Check out the recipe I used.  The brand So Delicious makes the ice cream bars and they are so good — they pretty much taste like the real thing you bought from the ice cream man as a kid.

Monday #6

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Breakfast – Handful of raisins and a banana; Lunch – Tabbouleh salad; Dinner – (not pictured) Salad of mixed lettuces and roasted tomatoes with vinaigrette dressing, tomato stuffed with quinoa and nuts; Dessert – Mandarin orange and peach confit with coconut shavings

This was a weird day for me because I was traveling for work.  Because I was nervous for work, some raisins and an airport banana were all I needed for breakfast.  Lunch was at a small bistro in Houston and to my delight, they had tabbouleh on the menu.  I double-checked with the cashier that it was vegan and after looking at me like I had two heads, he had to go in the back and check with the chef.  It was vegan and it was delicious.  Dinner was a catered event that I attended for work, so I couldn’t take pictures of my meal because it would be unprofessional and creepy.  The kitchen did a fairly good job with an alternative menu, although they added a chocolate straw to my dessert, making me question whether they knew the difference between vegan and vegetarian…

 

Overall, I was pretty happy with my vegan trial.  It made me aware of the amount of cheese, eggs, and butter I eat on a regular basis. And cheese is the #1 source of saturated fat in the American diet! (Read more here).  Echoing my original post on the subject, I am going to continue to make small sacrifices when I can to eliminate animal products in some meals.  I feel that it is doing my part to help with the environmental cost of raising livestock for food.  It also makes me more aware of the foods I do put into my body — not just the end-product meal but the ingredients that go into it.  The next time you reach for some cheese crumbles for your salad, consider nuts or beans instead.  It can help your body and your planet!

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.

Speak up!

On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s to stock up on nuts, dried fruit, and frozen foods, I was very happy to come across organic teas at a low price. Cha-ching!  I bought a few boxes of chamomile and ginger-pear.  When I got home and opened the first box I was TJs teadisappointed to find that each tea bag was individually wrapped in clear plastic.  I went from feeling good about the prospect of drinking tea whose leaves had not been sprayed with pesticide, to feeling guilty that each time I made a cup of tea, I was dumping plastic into a landfill. Maybe one tea bag wrapper doesn’t seem so bad, or even the 20 wrappers that come in each box. But picture every plastic wrapper from every tea bag from every box of TJ’s organic tea sold around the country, all piled up together.  I’m guessing that would be an enormous amount of plastic.  Why couldn’t Joe wrap his tea in a more eco friendly package?  Especially given the likelihood that people who are interested in organic tea are also concerned with the environment.

I figured it couldn’t hurt to write to the company to see what they had to say.  I remember my resourceful grandmom often did this, and with online feedback forms now it’s easier than ever.  I was thrilled to hear back from Trader Joe’s customer support a few weeks later noting that they are I am Only 1 text-piclooking into the issue with their supplier.   We’ll see if the next box of TJ’s tea that I buy will be any different.  If not, I’ll have to find a new favorite.  But I hope my little story helps to show that you shouldn’t feel silly or shy about asking your retailers about packaging or sourcing.  It is your prerogative as a customer.  And the more they hear about it, the more likely they are to change their products for the better!

40 Days of Meatless Mondays

Fat Tuesday has come and gone, and now the season of Lent is here for the next 40 days.  As a product of many years of Catholic school, I was immersed in the tradition growing up and it has caught on in my adult years.  I like a healthy challenge and the idea of making a conscious effort over 6 weeks to make a personal sacrifice.  It’s like a new year’s resolution but a much shorter commitment and at the end you get Cadbury eggs and sweet religious greeting cards from elderly relatives.  This year, I’ve decided to do a version of Meatless Mondays during Lent.  Yes, it’s only one day a week over the forty days, but I’m going to eliminate all animal products on those days instead of just meat so I figure the extra sacrifice sort of evens out.  I thought that eating vegan would be a breeze for me, because I’m not a huge meat eater.  Don’t get me wrong, I could never be fully vegetarian in my real life — I love cheeseburgers and bacon and prosciutto too much. But I can easily eat more than half my meals in a week without meat without and not bat an eye by sticking to my normal routine of salads with nuts and cheese, soups and tacos with beans, and rice and pasta dishes with vegetables.  But committing to one day of complete vegan-eating each week makes me realize how many animal products I actually rely on  for my food: deviled eggs for a pre-workout snack, cheese on vegetarian tacos and on salads, yogurt for breakfast or in dressings and sauces, even some pasta is made with eggs and my half-Italian self will never give that up completely.  So while my vegan days won’t be impossible, they will certainly require a conscious effort.

People go vegan for many reasons ranging from issues with animal cruelty to lower-cholesterol diets to food allergies to Vegan Mondays pictextsustainability.  For me, it’s the sustainability factor that convinced me to give it a try.  Even if we aren’t eating huge slabs of meat for every meal, non-meat dairy products take a toll on the environment too.  Take cheese.  Seems completely harmless, right?  No animal had to die to make your brie en croute, true.  But the cow that produced the milk to make that cheese had to be fed, and was most likely given corn and soybean meal — most cows grown in the U.S. for milk are given this kind of feed rather than being grass-fed, as cows would do left to their own devices.  Well, that corn and soy had to be grown, probably on another farm which required a lot of land and water, and then had to be harvested and trucked over to the dairy cow farm.  The cows had to be given a lot of water (think hundreds of gallons) only to produce a relatively small amount of milk.  Then after the cow was milked, the milk had to be shipped in a refrigerated truck maybe as far as 7 states away.  If that doesn’t sound so bad, think of this process for every jug of milk, container of yogurt, slice of cheese, pint of ice cream all 320 million Americans eat in a week.

Livevegan.org suggests that “switching just two meals per week from animal products to vegan products reduces greenhouse gases more than buying all locally-sourced food.”  This speaks to the heart of my little test.  Will I give up all meat and dairy forever?  No.  But having just a couple more meals centered around whole grains, vegetables, beans or nuts rather than meat and eggs and cheese could make a small impact on the water usage, pollution and other problems that come with raising animals for food.

I’ll post at the end of my Vegan Monday Lenten journey, but I’m predicting a lot of whole grains and veggies in my future over the next month or so.  Stay tuned…

 

The end result: My Vegan Food Diary

Cleaning House

A dear friend of mine gave me a really thoughtful gift the other week — a book called The Naturally Clean Home.  It’sHomemade non-toxic cleaning text-pic a neat little book containing basic homemade recipes for easy concoctions to clean anything in your home from wood furniture to bathtub tile to carpet.

I already liked the idea of homemade, natural cleaners because conventional cleaning products often contain harsh and toxic chemicals.  The smell of bleach makes me dry-heave.  But so far I had only tried a vinegar and baking soda mix to clean pans with burnt-on food (which works well!).  This little book has many variations of cleaners, but it seems that castile soap, vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice are the main stars.  Surprised that so many cooking ingredients can be used for cleaning?  Vinegar and lemon juice have antibacterial properties.  And baking soda is a great alternative to toxic chemicals in household cleaning scrubs.  The other benefit of these homemade cleaning formulas is that they are very economical.  You can buy huge containers of white vinegar and baking soda from Costco and use those for several different cleaners rather than separately spending $9 on bathroom cleaner, $8 for counter spray, $7 for wood cleaner, and so on.  Check out this great little book or do some online research about homemade non-toxic cleaners.

In the meantime, here’s a little recipe of my own that works well to clean things around the house that can get grimy, like an electric facial cleanser brush head, razor handle or make-up brushes.

Hilary’s Cleaning Concoction

Fill a glass with two teaspoons of baking soda, ½ cup of white vinegar, and ½ cup warm water.  Sink the item into the glass — it may float, so to keep it immersed in the cleaning fluid you can hold it in place with a clean butter knife or something similar.  Keep it submerged for a few hours or overnight.  For makeup brushes, rinse with cold water and lay out on a clean washcloth to dry.  For plastic or rubber items, you may need to lightly scrub with a clean toothbrush to remove grime or mildew before rinsing and drying.