Sunday, June 26, 2011

My first 50.

To celebrate my 50th post, I compiled this list, which has a permanent link and short description of each post from oldest to most recent. Looking ahead, I'd really like to know what you guys want to hear about. Global food issues have come up before. It's a huge topic, though, so my research has been slow going. Any other food, lifestyle, or sustainability questions? If so, leave me a comment here or on the Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

My first 50 posts:

The first step. A short post introducing my blog.
They’re really more like guidelines. The guiding principles of my ethical food lifestyle.
Farm fresh, no guilt. My first trip to the farmers market - ethical meat and eggs!
Oh right, nutrition. The motivation behind my first nutritional experiment.
Eat at Steve’s. Is Chipotle really an ethical option? Mostly, yah.
1800 calories of Yum. Results of my first nutritional experiment.
False alarm. A short update on the nutrition results.
Problems with produce. Sourcing local, organic produce – important, but not always easy.
User-defined content. A more detailed look at local and organic, based on reader comments.
Pesky pesticides. The top 10 foods you should buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure.
Know thy dinner; know thyself. The importance of cooking, and tips on fitting cooking into a busy life.
Vegetarian chili over baked potato. A recipe that always gets rave reviews.
On the Border; Off the charts. Eating out means eating worse than I could have ever imagined.
The incredible, ethical egg. Why I am so vigilant about my egg sources, and how to find the truly ethical ones.
A char(me)d life. The awesomeness of chard, and a recipe for chard chips.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” A book report on In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.
Piglet would approve. Slow Food and ethical sourcing of pork.
A+. A (glowing) review of the Animal Welfare Approved certification program.
Pasta Perry. A veggie-heavy pasta recipe with veggies from J.E. Perry Farms.
22 Square Feet Farms. My first backyard garden.
The Baron of Meat. More sources of ethical meat and the advantages of a local butcher shop.
We are what we eat. What a week of food looks like, and its associated cost.
Football for foodies. NFL player, Tony Gonzales, only eats ethical meat!
To organic and beyond! What does an organic certification really mean?
Organic II: Things that make you go eww. Human waste water, and it’s use in growing food.
From farm to Fremont. Investigating community-supported agriculture programs.
Vote early; vote often. Changing the food system requires political action, not just a change in eating habits.
Turkey with a side of gratitude. Approaching Thanksgiving, I reflect on the changes to my food lifestyle.
Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. Part One. The Food Movements Unite panel discussion.
Part Two. A panel discussion on sourcing and supplying ethical meat.
Part Three. Q & A with Michael Pollan.
Consider me stimulated. My vision for a food movements website.
Fifteen-minute fish. A recipe for baked fish, fish tacos with coleslaw, and rice and beans.
Commercial break. Domino’s Pizza sourcing website sends me into a frenzy!
Community supported awesome. A review of my CSA – Eatwell Farm.
Salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, and faith-based farming (Part One) Joel Salatin’s lecture on the farming practices at Polyface.
A wiggly way to wipe out waste. My first worm bin!
Very veggie cassoulet. A not-very French version of a classic stew.
Salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, and faith-based farming (Part Two). How faith guides Joel Salatin’s farming philosophy.
Super Squash, For the Win! How to deal with a ridiculously large winter squash, and a recipe for Smoky Squash Soup.
Give me a home where the buffalo roam. The unfortunate ills of the bison industry.
Do you feel hungry, punk? A review of graffEats, a guerilla dining experience.
Hearty black bean stew. An easy recipe for black bean and vegetable stew.
Tobacco subsidies, up in smoke. The history and current status of US tobacco subsidies.
Eat by numbers. New scoring systems for food may help people make healthier choices.
How sweet it is. Research into alternative diets suggests that sugar is our biggest enemy.
Organic food, only a click away. Organic home delivery options make it easy to eat better.
Make it so. Cool food-related resources from the Maker Faire.
Almonds, a nutty industry. Some surprising facts about US almond production.
An apple a day. A nutritional work-up of my mostly-veggie lifestyle.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An apple a day.

We all know that to be healthy, we should eat our vegetables. But how many veggies do we really need to get the essential vitamins and minerals we need for our bodies to function properly? Am I getting everything I need from my food? These questions struck me as I was putting together my weekly meal plan, so I decided to do a little experiment.

Over the past five years, I’ve been slowly transitioning from a typical pizza-and-soda lifestyle to a veggie-centric, low-meat diet. More recently, after years of digestive issues*, I have completely stopped consuming any dairy products and reduced my intake of grains. Giving up these (often fortified) foods means I rely heavily on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes for nutrients. In a day of prolific vegetable-eating, can I get the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of all my nutrients?

For my experiment, I decided to eat a large salad for lunch and pasta with shrimp, tomato sauce, and extra veggies for dinner. (Pasta is a rarity for me, and frankly, my stomach did not appreciate it!) I aimed for lots of greens and lots of variety, especially in the salad. I also ditched the traditional salad bowl and made a huge plate instead. These are the ingredients I used:

Super salad (5-6 servings):
  • ~8 cups of green leaf lettuce
  • 3 carrots
  • 3 zucchini
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 5 cups broccoli florets
  • Topped with 1/2 cup steamed lentils (pre-cooked from Trader Joe’s), ~10 blackberries from my porch, 1 avocado, and ~1 tsp balsamic vinegar per serving

Shrimp pasta with extra veggies (6 servings):
  • 8 cups chard, chopped
  • 4 cups kale, chopped
  • 3 zucchini
  • 4 carrots
  • 1 jar TJs Organic Tomato Basil Marinara sauce
  • 1 pkg TJs Vegetable Radiatore pasta
  • 1 lb large cooked shrimp (frozen from TJs)

I cleaned and chopped everything at once, and stored the salad in a huge airtight container in the fridge to eat throughout the week. It took less than an hour to clean, chop, mix, and store everything. And I was all set to make a quick and easy dinner.

Getting the stats.

Because I eat mostly whole foods, it was pretty easy to find out the nutritional content of my meals. Nutrition labels on packaged foods don’t usually report the quantities of micronutrients, such as vitamin B-12 or vitamin D, although some fortified foods, like cereal, tend to supply more information. I found three websites that were helpful in determining the nutritional value of my foods:

(1) Fit Day – Similar to Daily Plate (via Livestrong), Fit Day is a tracking system that allows you to add foods to a food log and automatically computes the nutritional load. Whole, unprocessed foods like apples or chard have all the micronutrients listed. Fit Day also offers weight tracking, mood journals, and other health and wellness tools. The charts I will show later all come from Fit Day’s food log tool.

(2) The USDA National Nutrient Database – This site allows users to search for foods and supplies nutrient information. The site looks dated and uninspiring, but it’s easy to use. I checked some of the values from Fit Day against these numbers, and they are the same. If you have a specific food you want to check out, this is a good place to go.

(3) Nutrition Data (by Self Magazine) – Somewhat surprisingly, this site was one of the best I have seen for accessing and interpreting information on individual foods. In addition to the standard nutrition label and tables of micronutrients, the site also displays several graphics to help users understand how the numbers relate to overall healthfulness. The site also appears to have tracking capabilities though I have not tried them out. There is certainly much more to explore here!

And now, the moment of truth.

Given my massive quantities of veggies, certainly I consumed everything my body could possibly need, right? Well, almost. Below, I have pasted in two charts from Fit Day showing the nutrients I consumed in my salad, pasta dinner, and the apple and 1.5 Tbsp of almond butter I had for breakfast. I had a few lentil chips too, but since they are processed, I have no way of getting their nutrient load and thus didn’t bother adding them in. I had the same problem with the pasta and pasta sauce (although I did include the nutrient info from the labels), so I may have gotten slightly more nutrients than the graphs show. Unless they are fortified, processed foods tend to have lower nutrient loads than whole foods, so this is likely a small effect.

As you can see in the table and chart, I did fairly well. I achieved at least 90% of the RDAs of most nutrients, and had way more than I needed of vitamins A, C, and B6 and the minerals copper and manganese. I also got plenty of fiber. However, several of my other B-vitamins, (such as niacin and thiamin) were rather low. I was also low in Calcium (44%), vitamin D (42%), and somewhat low in iron (78%). At only 16% of the RDA, my B12 level was most alarming. Most people get calcium and vitamin D from dairy, B-vitamins from fortified cereal, and iron from red meat. In my low-meat, low-wheat, no-dairy diet, perhaps these deficiencies are to be expected.

Isn’t it iron-ic?

According to the CDC, plant sources of iron are harder for the body to absorb than animal sources. That means my low iron level may be even more problematic given that most of my iron is coming from plant sources. I got nearly 20% from a half cup of lentils versus only 7% from the shrimp, my only animal-based food that day. Consuming iron with calcium can reduce absorption whereas vitamin C aids absorption.

Interestingly, even though our population typically consumes quite a lot of meat, the CDC names iron as the most common deficiency in the U.S. population. Eating meat isn’t necessarily a silver bullet, so we all need to be cognizant of our iron intake. People on diets low in animal products may need more iron than they realize due to the absorption issues.

The Bs have it.

Vitamin B12 is even more troublesome for people who do not eat animal products. According to the National Institutes of Health, B12 is important for proper nervous system, blood, and cellular functions. It is only found in animal-based foods, fortified foods, or as a supplement. Lack of B12 in adults can cause anemia, fatigue, numbness, and a host of other problems (see the fact sheet for a comprehensive list). Lack of B12 during pregnancy can be especially harmful to the developing fetus.

Apparently, a lot of B12 gets stored in the liver. Several vegetarian and vegan websites suggested that stored B12 can get a person through many years without consuming animal products or supplementary B12. I was able to confirm this via the Mayo Clinic. However, I was unable to find recommendations of how often a person should eat animal products to maintain B12 levels over the long term. People who have never eaten much meat may want to consider a supplement. And again, pregnant women need to be especially careful because a fetus has no liver stores to draw upon.

Folic acid (or folate) is an essential B-vitamin used in many cellular processes. We all need enough folic acid in order for our bodies to function properly, but here too, pregnant women need to be extra careful. According to the CDC, folic acid deficiencies lead to really awful birth defects such as spina bifida (malformation of the spine), cleft palate, and brain defects. Not something you want to mess around with!

FitDay doesn’t track folic acid, so I had to rely on the other sites to determine my intake. The half cup of lentils I had on my salad gave me 45% (!!) of my RDA. One medium zucchini gave me another 14%, one cup of broccoli florets offered 13%, and the other veggies each had 1-5%. In total, I had about 90% of my folic acid RDA from these foods.

Boning up on veggies.

I was low in bone-building nutrients, vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D is notoriously difficult to get from food, but quite easy to get from sun exposure. Of course, lots of time in the sun has its own risks. Getting the RDA of calcium is also hard without consuming dairy or fortified foods. The Paleo Diet community has spent a great deal of time on this point because dairy is not considered Paleo (read more here and here). They argue that we don’t need as much calcium as the RDA suggests as long as we are consuming the proper foods. On a Paleo Diet, they claim, your body absorbs much more calcium than on a standard Western diet, so you don’t need to consume as much. While a sensible argument, I’m not sure I’m willing to bet my health on it.

Supplemental information.

This experiment has taught me that, as long as I plan to eat a low-meat, low-wheat, no-dairy diet, I would gain some peace of mind by adding supplements. I will be adding a calcium/vitamin D supplement as well as an iron supplement (to be taken separately to aid absorption!). Before I invest in a B12 supplement, I want to check with my doctor. I want to understand how often I need to eat animal products in order to keep my B12 at a healthy level even on days when I don’t have any animal products. In the meantime, I’ll order more ethical eggs from the Eatwell Farms CSA to make sure I’m getting more B12, more often. Lastly, I am going to supplement my folic acid intake. Some people are poor absorbers when it comes to folic acid, and I happen to be one of them! Even though I get nearly the entire folic acid RDA from food, it may not be enough for my body.

I have also learned that I probably eat too few calories. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner accounted for only 1100 calories. Adding in nuts and fruit as snacks, and some more legumes, would help me get more calories and more nutrients. Beans and lentils are especially high in iron – as much iron as meat in many cases – and also contain calcium.

Finally, this experiment really made me wonder how I survived on my old diet, and how the rest of the population does so. I used to hear “eat more vegetables” and respond by adding more tomato sauce to my pasta or eating a few extra potatoes. It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to be eating several cups of leafy greens a day or that vegetables should play the starring role in all my meals. I wonder if the migraines, heartburn, and dizzy spells that I considered normal just a few years ago were my body’s way of telling me that it was sorely deprived. It’s amazing to me that we can eat so many calories and yet consume so few nutrients.

Even with all the changes I have made over the years, this experiment included more vegetables than I usually eat. It wasn’t hard, and actually, I really enjoyed having a giant salad for lunch. I think this experiment has helped me turn a corner. Understanding my nutritional needs based on my particular eating habits makes me feel more secure and allows me to be a healthy and well-functioning human. I hope that reading this inspires you to do a similar experiment. If you are eating a lot of processed foods, then getting micronutrient information may be tricky, but it’s worth the effort.

A healthy diet isn’t about weight loss or fads – it’s about living up to your potential and feeling confident in the choices you make. If you find that you are low in a lot of these nutrients, check with your doctor to make sure the information I have gathered is right for you. And remember to eat more vegetables – a LOT more vegetables!

For tips on getting more fruits & veggies and healthy eating even on a budget, check out:
Fruits and Veggies Matter (CDC)
Choose My Plate (USDA)

* If you have any GI issues at all, I strongly recommend a full-stop on dairy and/or grains for two weeks. If you are intolerant, as I am, eliminating these foods will make you feel better than you can even imagine right now! Complete elimination is tricky. It takes a lot of label-reading and care. It really is worth it, though, to feel truly healthy and normal.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Almonds, a nutty industry.

I love peanut butter. I mean, LOVE. Especially smeared on a toasted English muffin or on sliced apple – amazing! And there is nothing better than following each tasty bite with some piping hot coffee. It totally makes my morning.

Despite my infatuation with peanut butter, I’ve been trying to change things up. Having exactly the same foods every day means that I am getting the same nutrition every day – and missing out on the same nutrients. Also, peanuts are technically legumes. The Paleo diet recommends nuts rather than legumes, which contain anti-nutrients.

As I began my quest for a nut butter as awesome as my peanut butter, the first thing I noticed is that, unlike peanut butter, organic nut butters are basically non-existent. Apparently, organic nuts are rare and expensive. Despite the few options, I was able to find Kettle Brand Almond Butter (yup, the same guys who make the chips), Silk Almond Milk, and Pacific Natural Foods Organic Almond Milk (yay, organic!). I also picked up squeeze packs of Justin’s Almond Butter; sadly, stores near me don’t sell the jars. Later, I sat down with a glass of almond milk and started reading about almond production. What I found kinda made me not want to drink it anymore.

In 2004, there were two relatively small salmonella outbreaks that were linked back to almonds. Without any real pressure from consumers or the government, the Almond Board of California – the trade organization for US almonds - recommended to the USDA that all almonds be pasteurized to eliminate contamination. As of 2007, all domestic almonds must be pasteurized before they can be sold.

Quoting the Almond Board of California (ABC) website, the following are allowed methods of pasteurization:

  • Oil roasting, dry roasting, and blanching: These traditional processes provide the necessary reduction in harmful bacteria while providing consumers with the same product they have come to know and love.

  • Steam processing: These treatments are surface treatments only. Multiple proprietary steam treatments are currently being utilized by the industry which meets USDA Organic Program standards. The short bursts of steam do not impact the nutritional integrity of the almond. These treatments do not “cook” proteins or destroy vitamins and minerals. The nutritional and sensory characteristics of the almonds remain unchanged when treated with steam.

  • Propylene Oxide (PPO) treatment: PPO is also a surface treatment which has been approved for use on foods since 1958, and is widely used for a variety of foods such as other nuts, cocoa powder and spices. PPO is very effective at reducing harmful bacteria on almonds and poses no risk to consumers. In fact, PPO residue dissipates after treatment. The effectiveness and safety of this process was revalidated in July 2006, when PPO underwent a stringent re-registration process with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA confirmed that PPO poses no health risk. The treatment does not affect the nutritional and sensory characteristics of almonds.

Despite the ABC claims that PPO is perfectly safe, the European Union has banned PPO on both domestic and imported almonds*. It is also considered a “probable carcinogen” and has many harmful side effects. Supposedly, the PPO dissipates and should not reach harmful levels in almonds. It is still an unsettling thought that this toxic chemical is in my food. I’d certainly prefer to avoid it if possible, but that’s harder than you might think.

Because steam processing and PPO treatments are surface treatments, almonds treated in these fashions can still be labeled as raw. That means, when you purchase almonds, almond butter, or almond milk, there is no way to know how the almonds were processed.

Pasteurization increases the cost involved with producing almonds. Using the steam method, the only method allowed for organic almonds, is apparently more expensive than the PPO treatment. Perhaps that explains why so few organic almonds are produced compared to peanuts; it’s simply too expensive. In addition, imported almonds are not required to undergo any treatments whatsoever, making them more competitive with domestically produced almonds.

The pasteurization requirement came after salmonella contamination sickened people. How do almonds get salmonella in the first place? Animals carry the bacteria that can sicken people; almonds don’t. According to the agricultural extension of Rutgers University, “possible sources of contamination in the field or packinghouse could include use of contaminated irrigation or wash water (from a bacterially contaminated well or pond), use of improperly composted manure in the field, or handling of the produce by sick field or packinghouse workers.”

Basically, if we were more careful with our produce, salmonella contamination simply wouldn’t be an issue. In our pursuit of a cheaper product, we allow (and in effect, force) growers and producers to cut corners. And for some reason, an acceptable solution to this problem is to add more chemicals to make up for poor production practices. As consumers, we now have very few choices. We can pay the nearly $20 per pound for organic almonds or accept the risk of PPO.

As for almond butter, there are few options, all of them considerably more expensive than organic peanut butter. Strangely, despite the fact that peanuts were linked to a much worse salmonella outbreak than has ever been caused by almonds, I found no indication that pasteurization is required for peanuts.

I found a few retailers who sell organic almond butter:
Quail Oaks Ranch
Once Again Nut Butter

In addition, Justin’s Nut Butters only uses steam-treated almonds. I know this because Justin’s website contains sourcing information on every ingredient in every product they sell. From farm locations to food miles, Justin’s is clearly committed to using sustainable ingredients and practices AND making that information available to the public. Justin even held a sustainable squeeze packet summit in an effort to find a greener alternative to his single-serving nut butter packets. You can follow his progress on his blog. Justin’s almond butter comes in 16 oz. jars for just under $10. Other products include peanut and almond butters either plain, with honey, or with chocolate, maple almond butter, chocolate hazelnut butter, and ORGANIC PEANUT BUTTER CUPS! You can purchase some products online or do a retailer search.

I will definitely be more careful of what almond products I buy in the future. I prefer to avoid PPO, and I would always rather support smaller organic farms that employ more sustainable practices. Hence, I’ll be sticking with organic almond products or buying from companies like Justin’s that are choosing steam instead. Either way, my morning coffee and nut butter ritual is here to stay!

* - I was unable to confirm via the EUs website that PPO-treated almonds have been banned. However, the ban was mentioned in virtually every article I read on the subject of PPO use in almond production.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Make it so.

For the past few years, my (geek) husband has read every issue of Make Magazine cover-to-cover. For the uninitiated, Make is a do-it-yourself (DIY) magazine that provides instructions for building gadgets like a camera that can be flown on a kite or a credit card reader. They also offer reader challenges such as the best way to tie one’s shoes. The sister magazine, Craft, offers similar DIY advice on everything from shelving units to pillows to clothing and jewelry. Both magazines enable people to tinker and create in ways we didn’t know we could or have simply stopped doing in the “age of convenience”.

In addition to slick magazines and websites chock full of even more project ideas, tips, and forums, the magazines have spawned the Maker Faire. Several times a year, in cities across the US, self-proclaimed “makers” meet up to share ideas and techniques, peddle their wares, and contribute to a community of people who like to do-it-themselves.

My local Maker Faire took place in San Mateo on May 21st and 22nd (yup, same day as the apocalypse). I attended the first day with my husband and several friends. There is so much to see and do at a Maker Faire! This year, though, I was most excited for the Hometown Village – an area devoted to DIY food, farming, and homesteading. Seeing people take such pleasure in activities we often think of as chores, and coming up with creative innovative ideas, was inspiring. Here are a few booths/groups that really caught my attention.

I am 100% Homegrown.

Created by the non-profit organization, Food Aid, is building a social network around food cultivation, preservation, and enjoyment. Like all social networking sites, members create profiles, connect with friends, upload photos, and post status messages. Groups and discussions add value to the site by allowing people to access information about when to plant a certain vegetable or the best way to raise backyard chickens. They also have an easy way of connecting people with their real-life communities. Produce swaps and dinner clubs are examples of the community-building potential of

Homegrown also enables bloggers to add their posts to their profiles and aggregates all members’ posts on their blog page. What a great way to connect readers and bloggers! I am already hooked on Dissertation to Dirt, a blog by a young married couple trying to start their own organic farm.

At the Maker Faire, Homegrown distributed fun and colorful info cards (found here). One had recipe for kale pesto, another had instructions on how to save tomato seeds, and the third explained how to build a self-watering container. They also had free pins and stickers!

I’m a fun guy.

It turns out that great coffee doesn’t just perk us up. It also perks up mushrooms. That’s right – used coffee grounds can be reused as soil to grow gourmet oyster mushrooms. I know this because Nikhil Arora, co-founder of Back to the Roots, explained it to me at his Maker Faire booth.

Along with his business partner, Alejandro Velez, these two UC-Berkeley students (Go, Bears!) have created a thriving business in which they collect used coffee grounds from participating Peet’s Coffee establishments and use them to grow mushrooms that are sold in various Whole Foods stores. They also sell mushroom growing boxes that contain enough used coffee to grow at least two batches of mushrooms in your own home. The best part is that mushroom growing enriches the coffee grounds so they can be added to the soil used in other plants. Rather than sending tons of coffee grounds to a landfill, Back to the Roots enables people to turn that coffee into delicious mushrooms and great fertilizer.

I picked up a Grow Your Own Mushroom Garden from the Maker Faire booth. Nikhil explained that it would take about 10 days for my mushrooms to grow once I started them. Hopefully, I will soon have cool pictures of my mushroom farm to share with all of you! You can pick up your own mushroom garden from the Back to the Roots website for $19.99 plus shipping. There is also a blog with many mushroom recipes. (You can read more about Nikhil and Alejandro in a post over at Civil Eats.)

I am a very-veggie partly-paleo dairy-intolerant ethical omnivore.

I’ve talked a lot recently about shopping because healthy eating begins with what foods you choose to bring into your home. The NuVal scoring system and Whole Food’s ANDI scores are intended to help people make better food choices once they get to the grocery store. While useful, these systems only reflect one idea of healthy and are not available in all areas.

Shopwell is an interactive customizable scoring system you can access online. Added sugars and foods with low nutritional content perform poorly, just as in the other systems, but Shopwell allows you to alter the scores based on your preferences. Scores can be augmented to account for various food intolerances, target specific health problems such as diabetes or high cholesterol, or to avoid certain nutrients like sodium. There are positive alteration options, too, such as athletic training or getting more fiber.

Shopwell allows you to build your grocery list and then gives you the option to “trade-up”. Based on your preferences – and the standard scoring system – Shopwell recommends similar foods that score higher than the brand or food that you would normally purchase. Little changes can go a long way, and it may be easier than you think to make better choices.

I’m a Maker.

The Maker Faire was exciting, and not just because I got to have my picture taken with R2D2. It’s because people are finding fulfillment in the simple process of creating. And a lot of their creations are making a sustainable, healthful, ethical food system closer to a reality. I am proud to be a part of this community – a maker of worm bins, tomatoes, and in my small way, a whole food revolution.