Thursday, May 29, 2008

What's In That Food? Part Three: Locally-grown Strawberries & Pesticides - Lots of Them!

By Marcie Barnes

Strawberry season is in full-swing across the nation, and if you're like me, you love going out to the strawberry fields to pick some of that sweet, juicy, healthy goodness from the plants. And of course, you can't help but eat a few yourself….if you're a kid, probably more than a few. But there's a dark side to the local strawberry patch. Most strawberries are grown
commercially. And that means they use nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides. Lots of pesticides.

This article gives lots of shocking tidbits, such as the fact that 371 pesticides are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use on strawberries. Recent data from shows that strawberries rank high on the list for produce found to have high levels of pesticides still on them once they arrive on the store shelf. Which makes me wonder how much they are washed. In any case, Dr. Green gives more scary detail on the types of pesticides found in this 'Report Card' on Pesticides in Strawberries. A little more research yielded another interesting factoid: a new hand lotion has been developed to protect workers picking in strawberry fields from absorbing pesticides into their skin "Arrangements were made to test urine samples of a small group of workers before, during and after picking strawberries in a field that had been sprayed with malathion 7-10 days earlier. Malathion is commonly used to control pests that can damage the fruit as it becomes ready for harvest."

Wikipedia states that "Malathion itself is not toxic; however, absorption or ingestion into the human body readily results in its metabolism to malaoxon, which is toxic in high amounts. Chronic exposure to low levels of malathion have been hypothesized to impair memory, but this is disputed. There is currently no reliable information on adverse health effects of chronic exposure to malathion". the list of pesticides found on strawberries here contains some additional really scary contenders in the pesticide arena. I want to know, what is being done to protect the consumers (mainly children) who go into these fields to pick and eat?

I don't think it's a huge deal that our son had quite a few of these likely pesticide-laden berries in the field, because he is very healthy, but I was sure to take the rest of our bounty home and wash them very thoroughly. Even then, because we do not peel strawberries, I bet there was a lot of residue left. I'm off to try and find a local, organic source for my produce. Unfortunately, as this article points out, the Farmer's Market probably is full of commercial growers as well…I guess I'll be growing my own garden and joining an organic CSA in the fall, because in addition to all this, "organic strawberries ripen more leisurely, with more time to soak up nutrients from sun and soil." This statement has been backed up (**finally**) by solid research showing that organic produce is indeed healthier for you.


End of the series, for now. Would you like to see this as a regular feature? Leave a comment!

Photo credit goes to: me! That's our son holding a basket of likely pesticide-laden strawberries. They were yummy :) :P

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What's In That Food? Part Two: Green Tea With More Sugar and Chemicals Than You Should Care For.

By Marcie Barnes

Borrowing again from a slide
out of a gallery published by AOL, I wanted to alert you to something that bothers me - the new Green Tea product from Lipton. I saw a billboard for it recently that said something like "citrus + green tea antioxidants = yummy" - and I couldn't help but wonder how much corn syrup was going in along with that. Take a look at the ingredients, of course, HFCS is the second ingredient, after water:

Water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, green tea, sodium hexametaphosphate, ascorbic acid, honey, natural flavors, phosphoric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, calcium disodium edta, caramel color, tallow 5, blue1.

Then, I heard someone make the claim that there was more sugar in this product than in a can of coke - so I decided to find out for myself. I had to do a little math because, of course, Coca-Cola claims the serving size on a 12 oz. can is actually 8 oz., as if you will drink 2/3 and stop. So, there are 27g of sugar in an 8 oz. serving which would equal 36g in a full can. The Lipton Green Tea has 21g of sugar in an 8oz serving which would equal 28g in a full can, so not exactly a true claim, however, I suppose if you drank a full 20 oz. bottle (I haven't seen many cans of this stuff around) you'd be closer to the range of a coke.

In any case, I applaud Lipton for getting more green tea antioxidants out there, but I have to wonder if the HFCS cancels out the benefits. In any case, what about all these other additives?
Sodium hexametaphosphate, but it carries a scary warning in the Wikipedia entry: "Some individuals may experience an allergic reaction to the ingestion of sodium hexametaphosphate that may produce mild chest pain. One case of this allergic reaction was reported to have been due to trace amounts of sodium hexametaphosphate found in bottled water." - Eeek. And then we have phosphoric acid (also found in Coke) which is commonly used to remove rust. As with the lye in Cool Whip, I say no thanks!

And the list goes on, Wikipedia also says that sodium benzoate, when combined with ascorbic acid, "may form benzene, a known carcinogen" and also cites studies that link this chemical to ADHD. Next, we have
calcium disodium EDTA - more scary stuff to read here - "EDTA has been found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental effects."

And - oh no - tallow? That normally comes from beef and was the ingredient that got McDonald's sued over saying their french fries were vegetarian. Just another sneaky ingredient - I wonder how many vegetarians out there are drinking this?

And finally, Blue #1 - "It has previously been banned
in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland among others but has been certified as a safe food additive in the EU and is today unbanned in most of the countries. In the United States production exceeds 1 million pounds annually, and daily consumption is around 16 mg per person. It has the capacity for inducing an allergic reaction. It is one of the colorants that the Hyperactive Children's Support Group and the Feingold Association recommend to be eliminated from the diet of children."

I understand these chemicals are probably added in very small quantities, but I think they should be completely avoided by children, pregnant women, and other people with sicknesses and the elderly. And just in case, I stay away from them too.

There are some kudos to Lipton (Unilever)
, for pledging "to transform the tea industry by making it sustainable, changing the lives of the workers for the better along the way..
.to have all of its Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips bags sold in Western Europe certified by 2010, and all Lipton tea bags sold globally certified by 2015."

All said, I say brew your own green tea and add your own sweetener. If you are trying to get off of soda (or other bottled/canned drinks) brewing your own tea is a great way to wean yourself off. Simply make a batch to your taste and each time reduce the amount of sweetener. Adding a squeeze of lemon helps improve the taste. You can easily move yourself to just drinking plain water or tea with this method. Eating out? Ask for 1/2 sweet & 1/2 unsweet to start. Green tea is associated with lots of health benefits to include weight loss, so don't pick up the bottle full of corn syrup. You can do it!

Up Next: What's in those yummy in-season strawberries?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What's In That Food? Part One: Cool Whip: Transfat, Corn Syrup & Lye, Oh My!

By Marcie Barnes

I was recently reading one of my favorite blogs,, and came across this reference to a gallery published by their parent company, AOL. I have issues with a few things about this gallery, but let's start with slide #6 - Cool Whip -"it includes questionable ingredients like hydrogenated vegetable oil a known trans fat --and high fructose corn syrup…" says the AOL piece. Indeed, a lot of scary ingredients in this. However, telling people to opt for the "fat-free" version isn't really the best advice.

There is still hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fat) in the "fat-free" version, they probably just add only enough to get away with calling it "free" under government guidelines. Even then, I'm skeptical - because the ingredients listed on all three kinds - "free", "lite" and "regular" are virtually identical, with the exception of the use of sodium hydroxide in the "free" version - which, my friends, is lye. I see that there are some food applications for lye, but I prefer to stay away from ingredients also used to unclog drains...I don't know about you.

I would recommend buying a regular old can of whipped cream, organic would be better because it would not have corn syrup, and don't feel too bad about it - especially if you're putting it on fresh organic fruit. :)

I found another blogger who has also discovered the stark similarities in ingredients between all three versions of cool-whip. As usual, it's the job of those marketing people to make you feel like you are making an "informed" purchase by putting a bunch of (often misleading) information on the front label. Spend more time reading the back - and save yourself a lot of time by shopping organic products, because they don't contain chemical additives, preservatives or hormones.

Another ingredient found in all three varieties is sorbitan monostearate. I had to do a lot of research to try and figure out exactly what this is, and basically, it's an artificial wax. I say always air on the side of caution when ingesting anything artificial. In addition, I was a bit disturbed by research I kept finding (done in the 60s) where this substance was found to speed tumors in the skin of hamsters (if someone with a scientific background wants to read this and spell it out in layman's terms, that would be great). This page says it also "may increase the absorption of fat-soluble substances".

Again, a great substitute for cool whip would be to go out and buy some organic whipping cream, add a little stevia to sweeten it, and whip it yourself! It's easy, and homemade whipped cream is impressive to friends and family. :)

Up next: Green Tea that's bad for you.

Image Credit goes to:
lowjumpingfrog on flickr, who aptly named the photo "Death by Variety".

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Have You Heard of Hypermiling?

By Marcie Barnes

I hear a lot of people complaining about high gas prices. A lot. Although I feel for people who are forced to make choices say, between food and gas to get to work, I am also glad to see the issue become top of mind for most Americans because quite frankly, the higher cost of gas is (finally) forcing us to start talking about long and short-term solutions to the issue. We've got to stop putting so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I was just reading this article, Major Arctic sea ice melt is expected this summer about how the South Pole is beginning to melt along with the North Pole. Scary stuff, in my book.

So, in thinking about ways I can personally try to reduce the amount of emissions I produce, I stumbled upon a phenomenon called hypermiling, which sounds like some kind of phenomenon found at a Hannah Montana concert, right? Not exactly, hypermiling is the practice of doing things such as over-inflating tires, keeping the vehicle properly maintained, changing driving habits, and coasting in order to maximize fuel efficiency. I have read that some also use the racecar technique of "drafting" - but at least in my state - that's called tailgating and it's against the law. To be used by professional drivers only, please. Here is a little more detail on some of the legal techniques with my suggestions added:

Maintenance: Your Tires and Your Engine

As mentioned, high tire pressure means that less energy is required to move the vehicle. However, it will also cause your tires to wear faster. I think the best advice is to keep them properly inflated, maybe a little over. And if you want to feel like a racecar driver, ditch the drafting and get your tires filled with nitrogen. Nitrogen does not expand or contract like regular air, so it offers a consistent air pressure and a "smoother and safer ride". Apparently, under-inflated tires can lower fuel efficiency by approximately 1.4 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires, so you definitely want to keep those tires properly inflated. Of course keeping your engine in proper working order is a priority. Hypermilers often recommend synthetic oil because it lubricates the engine better. Keeping your air filter clean also helps engine performance greatly.

Get the Junk out of the Trunk

Drivers can also increase fuel economy by driving a lighter-weight vehicle and getting rid of unnecessary weight. This does not include passengers, of course, as long as you are preventing another vehicle from being on the road by riding together.

Efficient Speeds and Less Braking

You get your best fuel efficiency while "cruising" with your foot off of the pedal (and with the transmission in the highest gear). I am lucky that I have a car with a built-in display for MPG, so I can see in real time what kind of mileage I am getting. This has helped me re-train my behavior in driving. Instead of the typical "get from point A from point B in the fastest manner possible" behavior, I now drive as if my brakes are about to go out. The more braking you are doing is directly correlated to how much gassing you are doing. This is where coasting comes in. I find myself deliberately looking ahead for brake lights, red lights, yellow lights, etc. and if I see a slow down coming up down the road, I immediately take my foot off of the gas and try to make it to the stopping point using as little brake power as possible. Saves gas, saves brake pads. This article from CNN says you can save 30% by driving this way. That's like getting a $1 discount per gallon with today's gas prices!

Fuel type

"If the engine is designed for high octane then higher octane fuel will result in higher performance (with full-open throttle), but not necessarily fuel cost savings, since the high-octane is only needed with the throttle fully open" (from - ok, so I've been putting Premium in my car all this time, but apparently if I vow not to put the pedal to the medal, it sounds like I will be fine with a mid-grade. Maybe not. I talked to a few people in the know and the consensus is that higher octane fuel is analogous to putting Teflon in your gas to protect your engine:

Its like trying to cook an egg on a hot, greasy pan vs. a warm sticky surface. One is quick an easy and leaves no mess.....the other leaves a mess, deprives you of eating some of your egg, and takes longer." (anonymous source)

My car actually requires an octane rating in between premium and mid-grade, so I am going to start pumping half of each to save a little. It'll take extra time, but such is the life of a proper hypermiler :) In the end, it helps save money for me and the environment at the same time.

...I understand this driving style may be a bit - emasculating - for some of you - ahem - racecar driver types out there, but get over it, or stop complaining about gas prices. Our planet needs your help.

Image credit goes to slightclutter on flickr.