9/21/2007

avoiding bisphenol A

in light of ongoing criticism of BPA in food packaging, i conducted a little online snooping around to find out more about which products are likely to contain BPA in the first place. i found a couple of informative articles, including the Green Guide's coverage of BPA in can liners, even organic ones ("The Bisphenol-A Debate: A Suspect Chemical in Plastic Bottles and Cans"), which covers how low doses of the chemical may actually be more harmful as a hormone disruptor than high ones, especially in fetuses and newborns. the article follows up with some tips to minimize BPA exposure, though unfortunately, simply trying to avoid canned goods altogether may not be practical for many of us.

OrganicConsumers.org has reproduced an article from Terrain Magazine, which goes into more depth on the risk of BPA from canned goods, explaining how the polymer is commonly used in the epoxy which lines the insides of cans, in both organic and conventional products ("Consumer Alert: Toxic Hormone-Disrupting Chemical BPA is Leaching from Food Can Liners"). the problem is that acidic foods like tomatoes will cause steel cans to rust over time -- but at the same time, canned tomatoes are far superior to the pale, grainy tomatoes available in the market off-season. foods like beans are less of an issue since they don't require a lining, though some companies may use epoxy in those cans anyhow. This article also offers some useful suggestions for avoiding BPA, like using stainless steel reusable water bottles instead of polycarbonate, keeping #7 plastics out of the dishwasher and microwave (since heat may cause the BPA to leach more quickly), and learning to put up dried beans rather than use canned (i soak large quantities of beans at a time, then cook them and freeze whatever i'm not ready to use, with the added benefit that homemade frozen beans are much firmer and better-tasting than canned, and cost less, too). lastly, the article helpfully links to the full report from the Environmental Working Group (http://ewg.org/reports/bisphenola/execsumm.php).

finally, OrganicGrace.com has compiled a useful list of which organic food companies use BPA in their can liners, and which do not. notably, Trader Joe's is one of the few companies that offers organic canned foods that claims not to use BPA in their liners -- Muir Glen, Eden Foods, Amy's, Bionaturae and others all use BPA-containing epoxy in their cans of tomatoes (although Eden does not use BPA in their organic beans, and Bionaturae also sells excellent strained tomatoes in glass jars). i emailed Muir Glen last week to protest their use of BPA (the company is now owned by General Mills, and has an online contact form), but they were slow to respond. this week, i finally received an emailed response, but they largely overlooked the concerns i raised over growing scientific evidence against BPA, and claimed that the FDA still considers its use in can linings to be safe for food preservation. of course, it's worth noting that the FDA equally considers conventional produce with trace pesticides to be safe for consumption -- so by that logic, why offer an organic product at all? it seems contradictory to make claims about the benefits of organic while using a potentially unsafe chemical in food packaging.

cooking for revolution

the New York Times had a nice piece yesterday on Chez Panisse's Alice Waters and her new cookbook, which reportedly focuses on simplicity, and local, organic ingredients ("Lunch With Alice Waters, Food Revolutionary"). having recently rejoined a CSA in California, i've been thinking a lot myself about how i prefer to cook around good fresh ingredients than get caught up with complicated multi-step concoctions. since my first box of produce arrived last week, i've made a simple leek and cauliflower soup with vegetable stock (which i make in batches and keep on hand in the freezer), a very basic tomato and butter sauce with two pounds of perfect plum tomatoes (according to Marcella Hazan's recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook), a white bean soup showcasing my partner's homemade beef stock (and not much else, though it did take an afternoon to prepare, and a trip to Prather Ranch Meat Co. for their phenomenal organic, pasture raised beef), and this week, a tomato eggplant saute, with a little red wine and olives, ladled over semi-pearled farro. i'm sure i could invest time in more complicated recipes and serve more sophisticated meals, and when i invite company for dinner, maybe i'll plan something more involved. but the produce from our new CSA has been reminding us of why local and seasonal makes such a marked difference. the tomatoes have been deep red and nearly bursting, with intense, sweet flavor. the eggplant had a tenderness and delicate flavor that buoyed the saute it went into, the sweet peppers have been crisp and sweet and abundant, and the salad lettuces have been fresh and leafy and needed just a little olive oil and fleur-de-sel salt to become a lovely side dish. even the cauliflower tasted good.

anyhow, the article about Ms. Waters reiterates the increasingly visible connections between the food system, individual health, and the quality of what we eat everyday. it also touches on the Slow Food movement and the ideas behind "eco-gastronomy," though they haven't taken hold in the US as much as in Europe. the article also discusses shopping at a local Manhattan "greenmarket," and preparing a deceptively simple late summer lunch with locally procured ingredients. the menu is alluring, but in the end, the article trails off somewhat ineffectively, echoing its portrayal of Ms. Waters as an influential figure in a growing movement against the conventional food system whose methods are quaintly and sadly out of step with the times, and therefore doomed to make little lasting impact.

still, articles like this indicate a growing attention in the mainstream media to holistic concerns over food production and consumption, and how everyday shopping, cooking and eating habits cannot be disconnected from the broader system under which food is grown, processed and distributed. though as a fact this connection may seem obvious enough, the centralization of food production has largely cut most of us off from how and where our food is produced, so that for most of us, food comes from a supermarket, not a field. as a reminder, the US Farm Bill is up for renewal this fall (which, as Professor Kenneth Dahlberg notes, is really a food bill, not just a farm bill, "Proposed Farm Bill Falls Short on Food Security," Detroit Free Press, September 20, 2007). this, among other things, is that bill that determines farm subsidies, which have buoyed overproduction of corn for many years, depressing its market price and thereby inducing the food industry to create all kinds of products to act as vehicles for its cheap excesses of corn -- high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn-fed beef and chicken, etc. unfortunately, it may already be too late to contact your representatives to reform the farm bill, but it's an issue well worth following anyhow (for Californians, OrganicConsumers.org had a campaign for taking action).

and lastly, because this blog is about food from production to consumption, here's my recipe for a Proven├žal-influenced late summer tomato-eggplant saute:

Tomato Eggplant Saute Proven├žal

1 cup onions or shallots, diced fine
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, diced into small cubes
2 cups fresh or canned tomatoes, diced
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
red wine (about 1/2 cup)
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried tarragon
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried basil or a few tbsp fresh, rinsed and torn
10-12 pitted black olives such as kalamata, sliced lengthwise

In a large seasoned iron skillet or heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high and add the onions or shallots. Sprinkle with a little salt to release the juices, and stir frequently, or lower the heat and cover to sweat. When the onions are translucent (about five minutes), add the garlic, and saute until pale gold. Then add the eggplant and more oil if necessary, to coat. Add a little more salt, and cover, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant release their liquid and start to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and red wine, and increase the heat, bringing the pan to a rapid simmer. Add in the dried herbs, crumbling between thumb and forefinger as you do so. Cook uncovered for about five minutes, until the liquid has reduced, and then cover and simmer on lower heat another 5-10 minutes, until the eggplant are tender. Stir in the olives, and add salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Serve over pasta, farro or other whole grain, and top with grated parmesan.

9/13/2007

in the news -- plastic still bad; pastured poultry taking off

two recent articles in Salon.com track the dangers of plastics:

  • "Two words: Bad plastic
    Scientists now fear a chemical used in baby bottles and CDs, food cans and dental sealants, can disrupt fetal development and even lead to obesity.
    " -- Salon covers the ongoing controversy over the use and dangers of bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor found in polycarbonate plastics that just may be more dangerous at low levels of exposure, especially for developing fetuses. yet another reason to avoid plastic water bottles and other light, clear plastics (unfortunately, bisphenol A is also used in the plastic linings of canned goods).

  • "Plastic bags are killing us
    The most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, the lowly plastic bag is an environmental scourge like none other, sapping the life out of our oceans and thwarting our attempts to recycle it.
    " -- Salon reminds us that plastic bags just create permanent litter that won't biodegrade, and that tends to blow away into lakes and oceans, only to break down into smaller pieces of plastic that can re-enter the ecosystem when eaten by marine animals. very few plastic bags get recycled, and those that do aren't remade into more plastic bags, but into further products which can't be reclyced. the best solution is to bring your own bag when shopping (canvas bags are great for groceries, but i also have a small nylon bag that can be stuffed into an integral pouch and fits perfectly into my purse), and when you do take plastic, save the bags and return them to the store (most supermarkets will take plastic bags and recycle them, whereas most curbside recycling will not).

    of course, better consumer behavior alone can't change the habits of clerks that put your items into plastic bags by default -- i'd like more stores to provide bags only on request, since half the time, the cashier has already bagged my purchases by the time i remember that i really don't want yet another plastic bag. as usual, it would be nice if the bag-production industry would take more responsibility for the lifetime of their products, instead of relying on consumer concern alone to solve environmental crises.


  • in more upbeat news, the SF Chronicle reported last week about the growing demand for pastured chicken, as met by Soul Food Farm in Northern California:

  • "Raising poultry the new-old way" -- it's nice to read about chicken farmers using Joel Salatin's method of rotational grazing to maintain both land and animal health (a project Michael Pollan discusses at length in The Omnivore's Dilemma). the Chronicle appears to have started a regular series called "Food conscious" that looks promising overall.
  • 9/12/2007

    choosing dairy when all the labels look the same

    the surging popularity of organics has made it difficult in recent years to make good choices about organic and "free range" products based on supermarket labels. meat and dairy labeled "organic" used to suggest animal husbandry practices based on humane and sustainable principles -- such as giving animals enough space and comfort to live low-stress, healthy lives and thereby minimizing the need for things like antiobiotics. at the same time, organic produce indicated certification by an independent body (or local statute), and usually meant small-scale production free of pesticides or genetic modification. while the federal codification of the organic label has ensured that certain standards are maintained, plenty of industrial-scale production now masquerades as organic (meeting the basic federal requirements but otherwise operating on a conventional agribusiness model), while small farmers using sustainable methods often can't afford to get their products certified.

    as a result, many former advocates of organic food now emphasize local over organic, highlighting the importance of growing seasonal and heirloom varieties bred for flavor and nutrition rather than long-distance durability. for foodies in places like California, or summer in the Northeast, this can be an appealing (if pricey) trend. but no model of local, small-scale farming has yet to offer a practical vision of feeding a country of 300 million without resorting to industrial methods. local and organic food is still the privilege of the few with the time and budget to worry about the provenance of their meals.

    at the sime time, a profusion of new labels have appeared in the marketplace which might have some utility, but may also just cloud the situation more. "Fair trade" indicates certification of ethical and equitable trading practices by an independent, international labelling organization (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International; TransFair in the US), while "Certified Humane" ensures the approval of animal welfare groups like the Humane Society and the ASPCA. There's also "Free farmed," which indicates animal products raised in accordance with the American Humane Association's standards. On the other hand, many generic claims still carry little meaning or specificity, like "free range," "natural," "hormone free," "cage-free," and others, and even when these terms are defined by the USDA, they are often difficult to ensure or enforce (the Consumers Union publishes an excellent online label guide, at Eco-labels.org, that defines and evaluates a plethora of common labels).

    when it comes to dairy products, however, an advocacy organization called the Cornucopia Institute has done some of the investigation and research for you, surveying 68 organic dairy labels in the US, and evaluating their farming practices. unsurprisingly, companies like Horizon Organic fared poorly, given their reputation as an industrial-scale dairy outfit that has commandeered the "organic" label to profit from growing public concern over conventional agriculture, while very small-scale local dairies in places like Vermont and Wisconsin were rated highly. but that doesn't mean that the milk from these model farms is likely to be available in your local market, which just furthers the dilemma -- how can you buy and support good farming practices when the best products are so difficult to locate?

    the guide is worth reading over to see whether or not any of the dairies listed sell products in your area. i know from my own experience that Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, CA offers some of the best organic milk, yogurt, butter and ice cream i've ever tasted, and i buy their half-gallon glass jars of skim milk weekly (and then return the bottle for re-use). and i was glad to see a good rating for Stonyfield Farm, whose yogurt singles are among my favorites, not to mention their excellent organic frozen yogurt -- despite having been bought out by French company Danone. but i didn't know, for example, that Organic Valley is actually a cooperatively-owned company whose milk is produced by a pool of small-scale organic dairy farmers, and who maintain high standards in terms of animal health and access to pasture. Clover Storenetta also surprised me with a strong score, which i previously knew as a local California dairy that produces conventional milk alongside an organic line. i had assumed they were comparable to brands like Alta Dena, which i've seen in supermarkets and convenience stores in Southern California. but Clover Storenetta actually consists of four modestly sized family-owned farms, while Alta Dena is owned by Dean (like Horizon) and is largely comprised by giant industrial farms that have been minimally converted to organic standards.

    overall, private-label dairy products scored very low, largely because most chain markets refused to participate in the study (like Wild Oats, Trader Joe's and Wal-mart). Whole Foods' label 365 organic, however, did well, and claims to source their dairy products regionally from small family farmers rather than large industrial ones. most other store brands, however, refused to release information about the sources of their dairy products, so the Cornucopia Institute turned to industry sources and records, which suggest most of these labels procure their dairy from factory-farm "organic" operations. similarly, most large-scale organic brands were unwilling to provide any information on their farming practices, and most rely on factory-farm methods that often subvert the value of "organic," while edging out smaller farmers with lower prices. the scorecard recommends avoiding brands like Horizon, Aurora, Alta Dena, Back to Nature, Organic Cow, Stremicks, and Wholesome Valley (many of whom also supply the private-labels with factory-farmed dairy products).

    the Cornucopia scorecard is well worth reading through -- despite (or rather, due to) the popularity of organics, it's often a challenge to find reliable information behind food production practices, especially when product labels tell such alluring stories of open skies and green meadows, regardless of how the animals are actually raised. i also recommend their charts on who owns organic, which map out most major organic labels and show which are independent (very few) and which are owned by major food corporations. supporting small farms and independent brands is one more way to challenge the centralization of American food production, and demand more localized and sustainable practices.

    9/07/2007

    in the news -- honeybee virus found; food additives and kids

    "Virus Is Seen as Suspect in Death of Honeybees"
    • the Times today reported on the recent findings published in Science suggesting a link between the current bee epidemic of Colony Collapse Disorder, and a virus (Israeli acute paralysis virus). Colony Collapse Disorder has proved a disturbing and intractable trend among American honeybees, where entire hives disappear when the work bees die far from home and can't return. given the number of major crops pollinated by small populations of honeybees (who are often carted around from site to site to make up for the paucity of honeybees in many parts of the country), losing hives on such a large scale poses a significant threat to American food production. this latest breakthrough at least offers some hope of figuring out what's ailing them, so further research can hone in on possible solutions.
    "Some Food Additives Raise Hyperactivity, Study Finds"
    • on a less cheerful note, the Times also covered a study on the correlation between food additives, like colorings and the preservative sodium benzoate, and hyperactivity (including ADHD) in children, published in The Lancet. while it shouldn't come as a surprise that artificial additives in food aren't healthy, or that such effects might be amplified in children, i found chilling the conformist attitude of a pediatric pharmacologist at Mass General -- Dr. Spencer, in response to the study, was quoted as saying:

      “Is it powerful enough that you want to ostracize your kid? It is very socially impacting if children can’t eat the things that their friends do.”

      putting aside the awkward use of "socially impacting," i find it deeply disturbing to suggest that we should continue to allow children to eat foods with artificial colors and preservatives in foods that have been demonstrated to have a negative effect on their health and ability to learn, just because we don't want individual kids to feel singled out! of course, we could prevent ostracizing kids by simply not making such foods available, but i think the risk of being the health-food-kid is outweighed by the negative effects of processed foods. i find the attitude baffling that it would be better to conform to dominant, damaging food norms rather than challenge them and risk standing out because of those choices.