What’s Lurking in Your Canned Goods? Probably BPA.

can with non BPA label

Curious to know what’s lurking in your pantry?

Probably some BPA.

Bisphenol A (BPA) has been used for decades to make plastics and resins, and it’s commonly used in the manufacturing process of canned goods, primarily to prevent bacterial contamination and metal corrosion. Just scratch your fingernail or a fork against the inside surface of most empty canned goods and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The trouble is that BPA acts a bit like synthetic estrogen, which poses concerns around reproductive and developmental health. In fact, many states are beginning to set limits on BPA use, especially for infant formulas and baby bottles.

In 2010, an article published by the National Workgroup for Safe Markets found high levels of BPA in a large percentage of canned goods. Around the same time, the FDA announced “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children” (FDA 2010). Even so, a ban was never pursued. Instead, the industry was asked to look for alternatives. (You can read the FDA’s official perspective of BPA in Food Contact Applications here, but basically they’re still looking into it.)

My Take

To me, there are some pretty convincing reasons to choose BPA-free products – not just for canned goods, but for all products. (Receipt paper contains BPA, for example.) That said, I’m not planning to toss out the items in my pantry that aren’t BPA-free. I don’t use canned goods every single day, but do like having them around for when I’m in a pinch for time and in case of emergencies.

So how can we avoid BPA?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), the group that also publishes The Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and vegetables that contain high levels of pesticides, recently compiled a database of 16,000 processed foods that may contain BPA. They’ve also posted a list of brands that are BPA-free: Muir Glen, Annie’s Homegrown, Sprouts Farmers Market, among others. I took a quick peek at some of the canned goods in my own pantry, and noticed a “non BPA” label prominently displayed on the front of a can of Simple Truth Organic tomato sauce, as well as a can of Rotel. But the label was missing from a can of Kroger Brand whole beets and an S&W can of diced tomatoes.

And there’s another alternative: Glass. Are you wondering about the lids? Yep, the lids on many products do contain BPA, but there’s less contact with the food itself compared to metal cans. And if you happen to be a home-canning pro, you’ll be happy to know that Ball and Kerr (the two most popular brands), are now manufacturing BPA-free lids as well.

Designing an eating style that focuses more on whole foods and less on packaged foods is an even simpler solution. Food choices are personal, and as a consumer I like knowing what’s in my food.

Despite the controversies, people who frequently consume canned foods have diets that are more nutrient-dense, especially for 17 essential nutrients including the shortfall nutrients (potassium, calcium and fiber), compared to those who don’t eat canned foods.

What are your thoughts on BPA? Please share in the comments below.

Wild vs Farmed Fish: Which is Better?

healthy salmon salad

 

The wild vs farmed fish debate continues, and quite honestly I doubt we’ll ever reach a definitive conclusion. Why? Because there are risks and benefits associated with both options.

The better question is: which is right for you?

Wild vs Farmed

Those in the “wild” camp argue that there are more health benefits associated with fish that are allowed to roam freely in the ocean, feeding on native plankton (a significant source of omega-3’s) as opposed to farmed fish, which are confined to a specific area and are fed processed feed. The concern is that many of these feeds are genetically modified, something that also raises eyebrows.

Those in the “farmed” camp, on the other hand, argue that wild-caught fish pose serious health risks in the form of heavy metal contamination. Large fish often feed on smaller fish that may be exposed to mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other toxins. And no matter where a fish happens to be “caught,” there is no way of knowing where it may have wandered (or fed) in the vast ocean. Those in this camp see the risks associated with GMO feeds as less risky than heavy metal toxicity, and some also have concerns with unethical fishing practices.

Omega-3’s and Health

Before we go much further, it’s important to first point out the health benefits of omega-3’s.

Fish, especially those that thrive in cold waters, contain essential omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, mackeral, and tuna, in particular, are rich in two of the three types of omega 3’s: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These acids have been shown to reduce inflammation, our body’s normal physiological response to stress. Persistently high levels of inflammation, however, can lead to cardiovascular abnormalities.

Omega-3’s have been found to reduce triglycerides and blood pressure, but they’ve also been found to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), especially when the fatty acids are consumed in the form of supplements. Likewise, there is a risk of increased bleeding associated with large amounts of fish oil (3 grams or more daily), though this is usually only a concern with supplemental forms rather than fish itself. This is something of particular concern if you also take blood-thinning medications. (Always talk with your doctor about the supplements you are taking.)

How Much Fish?

So how much fish should you include in your diet? The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat a 3.5-ounce portion (4 ounces raw) of fish twice a week.

High-risk groups, such as children and pregnant women, are encouraged to limit fish to 12 ounces per week, and choose fish varieties that are known to be at lower risk for mercury toxicity, such as canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

So…

Which is better: wild or farmed?

Ultimately, the decision is something that each of us must make for ourselves. That’s what self-care is all about–making decisions that we feel is right for us after we’ve weighed the risks and benefits. Which risks we are willing to accept depends on our core beliefs.

Essentially, we’re face with three options: wild fish, farmed fish, or no fish.

If you don’t like fish, or have decided that the risks with both wild and farmed are equally unacceptable, then you may opt for supplements to meet your requirements instead. If that is the case, make sure you choose a product that contains a combination of EPA and DHA. Also know that supplements are still widely unregulated, meaning they could contain mercury or other contaminants, depending on the kind of fish that were sourced to manufacture them.

My take

Personally, I choose wild-caught fish when I can, though I’m not opposed to eating farm-raised fish if the alternative is no fish at all.

Whatever you choose, nourish yourself well.

The Illusion of Othorexia

Orthorexia a term used to describe those who are obsessed or preoccupied with healthy eating. You know the type. They have a long list of foods they can’t eat, they read labels meticulously and can immediately identify “bad” foods or ingredients, and they often judge or criticize the food choices of others.

You may be reading this thinking that I just described you. In that case, you should probably read on.

While orthorexia isn’t yet recognized as a clinical eating disorder, it is felt by some therapists in the field to be an area of increasing concern. In 1997, Steven Bratman introduced the concept to describe individuals who are obsessed with eating to perfection. The word ortho, derived from the Greek language, means “right” or “correct.”

I’m not talking about people who are simply trying to improve their eating habits or manage a serious medical condition here. I’m talking about folks who vigilantly select and exclude foods based on a cumbersome set of self-imposed eating rules.

The following behaviors are examples of possible signs of orthorexia:

1. Increasing reliance on supplements to achieve optimal nutrition.

2. Avoiding a large number of foods without input from a health professional.

3. Feeling guilty or anxious when deviating from safe foods.

4. Judging others for not adhering to a similar eating style.

5. Avoiding food prepared by others and avoiding going out to eat.

This idea of eating to perfection is not only impossible, but it can also lead to malnutrition and emotional health issues. Eliminating a large number of foods limits dietary nutrient density, and banning so-called “bad” foods can lead to excluding even some of the healthiest foods over time. This kind of careful selection also requires a great deal of time and energy – and that can add stress.

Perhaps you are realizing that you may be struggling with orthorexic tendencies. How has that impacted your life? If you identified with the examples above, consider talking with your doctor or mental health professional about how to shift to a more positive eating style.

A healthier alternative eating style is to focus on real food. It’s much simpler – and some of the healthiest cultures across the globe have been doing it successfully for generations. Sometimes this best solution is the simplest.

Despite our endless pursuits of perfection in many areas of our lives, it is an illusion. Once we learn to embrace our imperfections and put life into perspective, we allow ourselves to experience much more happiness.

 

What’s Your Definition Of Processed Food?

Processed food has a bad rap. But if you consider what the term processed actually means, you’d probably agree with me that not all processed foods are necessarily unhealthy.

Several years ago, I asked a handful of people from various backgrounds and professions how they defined “processed” food. Here were their responses:

Altered from its natural state.” – Sustainable Food Center Community Relations Director

Any food that has additives in it.” – Teacher 

Food that has been handled, cooked, added to, preservatives added.” – CPA 

If it has an ingredient on the label that I don’t have in my pantry.” – Registered Dietitian 

Artificial, Chemicals, No nutrients, Preservatives, Refined, Fat” – Technology Product Manager

Anything that is not grown from the earth.” – Nursing Home Administrator

Something that is already mostly prepared…something you just heat up and eat or just eat out of a bag…usually something unhealthy.” – Pharmacist 

They grind things up, put fillers/by-products into it to give it bulk, and then reshape it into something they think looks appetizing.” – Realtor

I would describe a ‘processed food’ as one that has had many of the natural nutrients stripped away, and many unnecessary ingredients added (e.g. dyes, sugar, salt, soy lecithin, etc.).” – Registered Dietitian

A food that has been altered in some way – could have been simply canned, frozen, or man-made…changed in some way from the whole, raw food.” Registered Dietitian 

And perhaps my favorite: “Shitty.” – Entrepreneur 

Simple and to the point, don’t you think?

Now compare these real people definitions to the industry’s regulatory guideline:

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321] defined processed food as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.”

By that definition, if you cut corn off the cob and freeze it you’ve processed it. If you can tomato juice on your stove-top using tomatoes from your garden, it’s technically processed. If you smoke salmon in your backyard smoker, it also becomes a processed food. All of these foods possess health-promoting properties, and yet they are considered processed. Do you see the conundrum?

The practice of preserving food is not new. Throughout history, methods like smoking, salt-curing, freezing, fermenting, sun drying, pickling and canning have been used to ensure that food was available during times of scarcity – like through winter or when growing conditions were poor. Any method used to preserve food is a form of processing.

I’ve often wondered why we have such an aversion to the word processed. After all, it’s a universal practice among all cultures across the globe. What is it about processing exactly that has us so upset?

It becomes more clear when you think about modern food preservation practices compared to the ones of earlier generations. Large-scale manufacturing operations as far back as the Chicago meat-packing industry times have quite a different agenda than our grandmothers. Their objectives go beyond preserving nutrients and toward the extension of shelf-life and profit margins. The problem with that is making products more shelf-stable requires them to be broken down into unrecognizable substances, stripped of components that tend to spoil quickly, and then reassembled (often with fillers, colorings, preservatives, and sometimes synthetic nutrients) into new products. These real food doppelgangers are ubiquitous on our grocery shelves today.

One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever read about our modern food supply came from Joel Salatin: “…If we removed all the food items in a supermarket that would not have been available before 1900, the shelves would be bare.”

Wow.

While they probably wouldn’t be completely bare, where has all the real food gone? And why are we so fascinated with look-alike food products instead of real food? I’m constantly amazed by the number of new dazzling products that appear regularly on supermarket shelves. Why have they become so much more appealing to us? Has the line become so blurred that we’re not even able to identify real food from processed food anymore?

What is your definition of processed food?

What is Real Food?

bright leafy greens

Let’s be honest. Shifting to a real food eating style is like trying to spread cold butter on toast. It’s tricky until you warm up to it.

While we inherently know that real food is better for us, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the sources of our food and more reliant on convenience foods. With so many fad diets and marketing campaigns to sift through, it’s hard to even identify real food.

After studying nutrition for more than two decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that eating is personal, and that there are many approaches to eating well. We all have different philosophies and opinions when it comes to food. That’s because our food choices are driven by many factors including our religious beliefs, social views, cultural influences, regional availability of food and flavor preferences. Some people enjoy broccoli; some don’t. Some believe eggs are healthy; some don’t. Some choose to eat meat; some don’t. My family raised and butchered hogs so eating pork seems normal to me, but I know that it’s not something everyone chooses to eat. Likewise, I grew up with Jif peanut butter and I still eat it today. I’m well aware that it contains hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers, but I like it. Being a real food supporter is not about eating perfectly, it’s about understanding and owning your choices and giving thought to what you eat.

Imagine for a moment that there was a real food revival in this country. As Americans, we begin choosing real food over convenience foods more often, we prepare more meals at home, and maybe we even grow some of our own food. It’s exciting to consider how empowering it would feel to take ownership of our food again. I really don’t think I’m being overly optimistic here either. Starting a real food movement will require challenging some deeply entrenched norms for sure, but Americans are smart and fully capable of rising to meaningful challenges.

Are you still with me? Okay then, let’s define real food!

Words like clean, whole, unprocessed, organic, local, natural, unrefined, raw and fresh are often used to describe real food, but some real foods just don’t fit neatly within those narrow categories. Grandma’s home-canned green beans, for example, are technically considered processed. Likewise, homemade applesauce isn’t raw after it’s heated. And garlic isn’t exactly whole after you chop it. Then what exactly is real food? Here are a few guidelines to consider:

Real foods are ingredients. Think of real foods as individual ingredients. As a general rule, if you can visualize each of the ingredients listed on a food label, it’s probably real. And if it doesn’t require a label, that’s even better!

Real food is beautiful. Real food doesn’t need artificial coloring to make it pretty; it’s comfortable in its own imperfect skin.

Real food is authentic. Real food doesn’t need to look like something it isn’t, which means it doesn’t have a label displaying a nonsensical list of preservatives and additives. It speaks for itself. What you see is what you get.

Real food teaches us gratitude. It takes time to prepare food. Planning a menu, shopping, cooking and cleaning up all require careful attention and organization. Sharing a meal that was prepared with love is hard to replicate in a commercial setting. Giving thanks for our meals – both for the food itself and to the person that prepared it – teaches us how to express gratitude and connect with others.

Real food is compostable. Real food has the ability to break down and feed other living things. That’s the circle of life at its best. As living things return to the earth, they replenish the fragile soil with nutrients that are vital for plants that will eventually become food as well. Choosing real food keeps landfills from growing because we let the earth recycle our leftovers rather than tossing them in the garbage.

Real food is nutritious. No matter where you stand on this issue, I think we can all agree that real food is full of powerful nutrients and phytochemicals – many of which we still don’t fully understand. These mysterious synergies cannot be replicated, synthesized or manufactured in a laboratory.

My quick definition of real food is this: Nourishing plant and animal ingredients as close to their natural form as possible. 

I know what you’re probably thinking. A few guidelines are nice, but not all that practical. I agree. Try out the Menu Upp! Meal Planning Toolkit that I developed to plan my own weekly menus. This keeps me focused on the foods I want to include rather than those I wish to avoid. (The latter just feels like a time drain to me.) Make a list of your favorite healthy foods and the process will be even easier. The important thing is that you feel inspired to eat real food!

Are you a real food supporter? What does your real food eating style look like?

Keeping Vegetables Fresh

fresh vegetable storage

No one likes to throw away produce, least of all me since I spend so much time and energy selecting fresh ingredients. I don’t routinely write product reviews, but this is one product that I simply must share.

Tupperware’s FRIDGESMART© series is the most effective way that I’ve found to store fruits and vegetables. They’ve since changed the design, so I can only speak to the performance of the older set that I’ve now owned for more than 10 years, but it has more than paid for itself.

Veggies stay crisp and vibrant for over a week, which is more than I can say about other methods that I’ve tried. On the occasion that I use other storage container brands or hurriedly place items in my crisper drawer, I regret it sooner than later. While my chickens gladly reap the benefits of spoiled produce, my wallet isn’t amused.

I prefer to do my grocery shopping weekly, but an alternative to using storage containers like this would be to shop more frequently or use produce more quickly. I know that some plastic produce bags claim to reduce spoilage by removing ethylene, but I’ve yet to find a way to re-purpose the bags and I don’t like tossing them in the trash.

With FRIDGESMART©, there are no more mushy cucumbers or floppy celery stalks. Vents along the side regulate the amount of oxygen that is allowed into the container thereby extending freshness. Plus, the storage settings are conveniently listed on the side of each container so you don’t have to rely on your memory – one less thing to take up space in the old noggin!

Please share your tips! What other methods do you use to keep fresh foods fresh?