Health Implications of Non-Foods

Last week I wrote about food and why we might want to eat organic to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals, However, food isn’t our only point of exposure to toxins. Our other daily choices are equally significant—personal care products we put on our bodies, chemicals we use to clean our homes, and furnishings in those homes. These pollutants are right around us and we absorb them daily through our skin and lungs.

But really, is this an issue?

You might wonder if we really absorb ingredients that are in our shampoo, toothpaste, household cleaners, and water bottles. Canadian environmental activists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie also wondered. And they decided to investigate by experimenting on themselves.

For two days, they lived in an apartment where they exposed themselves to seven major toxins in foods, personal care products, and household items. All these consumer products were readily available and widely used.

Smith and Lourie had their blood levels monitored before and after, and it was shocking to see the increase in levels of chemicals in their bodies from only two days’ exposure. Here’s their summary of the experience.

So, there is an issue. Who’s responsible?

Typically we think that pollution comes mainly from industrial plants and toxic waste dumps. Significant as those are, the real issue is our private spaces—our homes, where we spend most of our time.

The good news is that we are in charge. We make the choices about what to buy and bring home. With some basic information, we can steer clear of a lot of problematic products.

 

Lightening the toxic load

Slow Death by Rubber Duck is the book that Smith and Lourie wrote. Before we talk about non-toxic alternatives, here is a brief description of the seven chemicals they tested.

  • Fragrance (phthalates)  Watch for phthalates in body products, air fresheners, and soft plastics often used in shower curtains and toys (including the rubber duck for which their book is named).
  • Non-stick products (PFCs – perfluorochemicals)  You’ll find PFCs applied to frypans, carpets, and upholstered furniture, as well as in windshield washer fluid and lipstick. You might recognize them by the brand names Teflon, Gore-Tex, and Scotchgard. You will also find PFCs in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave-able popcorn bags.
  • Flame retardants (PBDEs – polybrominated diphenyl ethers)  Flame retardants are used in highly flammable synthetic materials. PBDEs are typically found in electronics, and in foam used in furniture and carpet underlay.
  • Mercury  Mercury is found in some fish (especially tuna), certain dental fillings (amalgams), and products such as batteries, thermometers, compact fluorescent lights, and fluorescent tubes. Dispose of mercury-containing products mindfully. If you decide to have amalgam fillings replaced, be sure your dentist knows the protocols for safe removal.
  • Antibacterial/antimicrobial products (Triclosan)  Triclosan may be found in hand sanitizers, body products of many kinds, toothpaste, household cleaning supplies, and some clothing (socks, sandals, and underwear). Watch for this it on products like cutting boards, J Cloths, knives and even aprons under the brand name Microban. Other brand names include Irgasan DP 300 and Lexol 300, as well as the chemical name 5-chloro-2-(2.4-dichlorophenoxy) phenol.
  • Pesticides  Pesticide is a general term for chemical preparations that destroy plant, fungal, or animal pests. You may also encounter the specific terms herbicide (for plants), fungicide (for fungi), and insecticide (for insects). Washing fruits and vegetables is a good general practice, but be aware that it does not remove all pesticides because some are absorbed internally as the plant grows. Grow a chemical-free lawn and garden. If you have to use a chemical for a specific reason, choose the least-toxic one possible.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA)  BPA is a plasticizer widely used in the production of consumer goods, particularly food containers. Never microwave foods in plastic containers or wrap. Hot foods leach plasticizers from the plastic and you end up eating them. Although Health Canada issued this warning years ago, many people still don’t know about it. Instead, microwave foods in glass or china containers. If they need to be covered, place a plate on top to act as a lid. It does the job, keeps you from eating plastic chemicals, and is better for the environment because the plate is reusable.

Check out the products you use…

The best strategy is to avoid these chemicals as much as possible, which involves initial work to find out what your favourite products are made from. For me, the fine print on labels makes this challenging. One of my favourite tricks is to look up products on their website. There’s usually an ingredients list that I can enlarge enough to be readable.

Or you can check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) cosmetics database of 70,425 products. and their healthy cleaning database of 2500. I looked up a fabric softener I have used and it came back with enough information to make me glad I stopped using it. (The rating was D in a scale that goes from A-F.) It also referred me to the page where I could check out which products got higher scores. Very helpful for making better choices.

Phone apps make it even easier…

Phone apps are convenient because you can scan the UPC code and get information in the store before you choose to buy an item. Scanning uses the camera, so you will asked to allow the camera to be activated and transmit data from the bar code. Here are some apps you might want to play with. All are free.

  • Think Dirty checks cosmetics and personal care products. Offers you a chance to try it before setting up an account.
  • GoodGuide has more than 75,000 items in the categories of personal care, food, household, and children’s products.
  • The Non GMO Project Shopping Guide has an up-to-date list of products that have been verified through the Non-GMO Project’s Verification Program. There are several reasons for avoiding genetically modified foods. One is that some have been modified to survive heavy spraying with herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup is a common brand). This leaves the plants with high levels of residue which we consume.

If you don’t like what you find out, make your own.

Making at least some of your own cleaning and personal care products is the easiest way to avoid toxic exposure. Household cleaners use various combinations of vinegar, baking soda, borax, salt, and hydrogen peroxide. Personal care products include moisturizing oils such as coconut, olive, and avocado: essential oils for their healing and antibacterial properties; and baking soda or arrowroot starch for absorption of odour. From there, you can branch out to include cocoa butter, shea butter, and various tropical oils that are highly nourishing. If you buy organic ingredients, you’ve covered all bases.

There are lots of recipes online. One source I’ve used is Wellness Mama. Katie is the mother of six kids under the age of ten. She posts real food recipes, natural living and cleaning tutorials, beauty recipes and health hacks with natural ingredients—all well-researched and practical. You’ll find an example at the link below the photo.

And here’s a simple weed killer recipe, recommended by a friend who has a large yard and refuses to use glyphosate. Combine 1 gallon white vinegar, 1 cup salt, and 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap. Spray onto weeds at the sunniest time of day for best results. The vinegar and salt draw moisture out of the leaves and the soap makes sure the liquid sticks to the leaf surface. Hot sun accelerates the process.

A product I love…

I decided against making laundry and dishwasher detergent, though I did find DIY recipes. Instead, I looked up reviews of natural products I could buy. A dishwasher detergent made by the Canadian company Bio-Vert does an awesome job in the hard water where I live. It’s far better than anything else I’ve tried, and has only four simple ingredients.

I’m mentioning this product because it didn’t show up in the app or the database. That’s one of their downsides—with so many products out there, they don’t yet include everything.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are one of our best resources when researching products. If you have non-toxic discoveries to share, please leave them in the  comment box so everyone else will know too.

Reference chapter: “The Complexity of Health and Safety” from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life

Organic food. Worth the bother?

Where will you live?

Is organic food better? The short answer is yes. On several fronts.

Better for you

Widespread use of pesticides is a major issue in conventional fruit and vegetable production.These chemicals are absorbed by the plant as it grows, and cannot be removed simply by washing. Organic foods are grown without pesticides, so you don’t consume toxic residues when you eat organics.

Issues with meat production relate to what the animals are fed. Conventionally raised animals are typically fed grass and hay that has been sprayed with pesticides. Those residues end up in the meat, and eventually in your body if you eat that meat.

Even more troubling, though, is the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy animals—not because they are sick, but to promote growth or prevent disease. This is resulting in drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and that means common antibiotics will no longer work in treating human illness. Organic animals, in contrast, are raised on plants grown without chemicals, and their daily feed does not contain antibiotics.

Better for workers

If pesticides pose a health risk for those of us eating them, imagine the health implications for workers who must apply the pesticides and then work in those fields day after day. This is especially concerning in developing countries, where there are few safety regulations to protect workers. When we buy products produced under these conditions, we contribute to harming to the workers. When we buy organic, we know that the workers have not been subjected to chemical exposure.

Better for the environment

Pesticides pollute the air and ground water wherever they are used. And they are persistent, accumulating over time because they don’t degrade and disappear quickly.

The earth in our hands

We used to think they went “somewhere” and weren’t a problem for us. Now we know better. We know that air and surface water circulate around the globe. As pollutants disperse into the air and water, they become part of that circulation. Eventually they reach everyone. What we do affects others. What they do ultimately affects us.

The issues of cost, price, and value

The consumer culture promotes a narrow view of value, focusing mainly on price. And although it may seem that going for the lowest price saves you money, that isn’t necessarily so. If you buy food with chemicals that cause your health to deteriorate, you might make  a short-term saving but will pay for it in the long run. It’s all in how we look at it.

Basing our decisions solely on price is like wearing blinders. We don’t see the long-term consequences because we are focused on the low price of what we are buying right now. We overlook the fact that we are spending a lot on supplements to make up for the deficiencies in our food. We forget that we haven’t been feeling great for the last couple of years but the doctor hasn’t found a reason.We ignore the little inner voice saying that maybe we should eat better food.

From the viewpoint of a conscious consumer, value encompasses many other factors—including healthy bodies, healthy farm workers, healthy environment, better taste, and leaving a better world for those who come after us.

Managing the cost of eating organic

It’s true that organic foods usually cost more, and there are several reasons for this. Production is more labour-intensive, certification is expensive, and businesses are small so there are no economies of scale.

Grow some food…

One way to get organic foods and keep your cost down by growing your own. You’ll know exactly what went into growing it, and will have free food to put away for winter.

You don’t have to live in the country to grow food. There is a huge movement of city-dwellers starting backyard gardens or growing edibles on balconies, in window-boxes, and at community garden plots.   There are also innovative ways that unused backyard space is being used to grow food. To explore possibilities, google “urban farming” or “urban gardening” for lots of examples of what people are doing.

Garden produce

Photo of some of her awesome organic produce by Teresa van Bryce

Buy real food in season…

For those who aren’t up for a gardening adventure, let’s look at some principles of managing food cost. This is good advice whether you’re buying organic or not.

  • Buy food that is as close to its original state as possible. Avoid processed and pre-prepared foods, which are expensive because of the extra work that’s gone into making them. If you buy a ready-made hummus or apple pie, it will cost you more than if you made it yourself. So buy real food.
  • Buy produce that is in season. Imported produce is costly, whether it’s organic or not. Buying local products in season is better for the environment because less fuel is used to transport it. And seasonal food tastes better because it comes from a short distance and can be left to ripen longer before picking.
  • Meat is generally expensive, and organic meat more so. Eat small portions and purchase less-expensive cuts such as ground lamb and beef instead of chops and steaks. Liver is economical and very nutritious…if you will eat it.

Make exceptions judiciously…

Free range turkey is about half the price of organic turkey. My feeling is that producers using free range practices are generally conscientious about how they raise the animals, so I choose the more economical option.

I apply the same logic to buying vegetables. Since the organic certification process is time-consuming and expensive for growers, I know that some opt for using good practices but not going through the formal certification process. If the sign says “pesticide free” and I trust the grower, I buy the produce.

Some fruits and vegetables are more contaminated  than others. Useful information about this comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which publishes a yearly shopper’s guide reporting on pesticide residues in produce. They identify the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” based on USDA data.

The 2017 Dirty Dozen list singled out, in order, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. These are foods you would be wise to buy organic. The Clean Fifteen are the ones where you could make exceptions with fewer health consequences.

Other guidelines to consider…

  • If you have children, pay the extra cost of organic for the things they consume most.
  • Chemicals are stored in fat. So you may want to make sure fatty foods you buy are organic. This would include oils, meat, butter, milk, and other dairy products.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re eating out and don’t know if the food is organic or not, don’t worry about it. You won’t die from eating non-organic food now and then.

Worth the bother? All in all, I’d say that eating organic as much as reasonable and possible will be worthwhile in the long term and one of those things you’ll likely be glad you did. Your thoughts?

Survival Guide for Holiday Hospitality

Regular readers will recognize this post from last year around this time. I’m bringing it back for new readers…and for those who wish they had bookmarked it last year!

First, a quick primer…

There are so many people with dietary restrictions these days, it can be mind-boggling to figure out who eats what.

  • Vegans eat plants only. Nothing produced by animals (cheese, milk, cream, butter, eggs, honey) and of course no meat, fish, or poultry.
  • Vegetarians eat plants plus food produced by animals (dairy products and eggs). No meat or poultry. Some eat fish, though most don’t.
  • Gluten-free means eliminating wheat, rye, barley, and oats (unless the oats it is labeled gluten-free). This also translates into beverages made from these grains—think  beer and rye whisky, for example. Someone who is celiac has a severe gut reaction to gluten and can be in agony from eating even a very small amount. Some people experience non-celiac gluten sensitivity, though this diagnosis is not yet accepted by mainstream doctors. People affected by gluten eat non-gluten grains—e.g. rice and quinoa.
  • Grain-free means no grain of any kind—wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice, quinoa and corn being the main examples. The issue isn’t gluten, it’s carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar. This is sometimes referred to as a low-carb diet. In practical terms, it means avoiding corn chips, crackers and breads, along with sweets, juices, and most alcoholic beverages (alcohol acts like sugar in the body).
  • Paleo is a broad category describing what is sometimes called ancestral eating. The idea is to mimic the dietary proportions and unprocessed nature of food that was eaten by our long-ago ancestors. There is considerable variation, but these are a few of the common practices: No grains or refined sugar. Moderate amounts of animal protein. Plenty of healthy fats. Emphasis on real food rather than processed. Lots of vegetables.
  • Allergies and sensitivities mean the person’s body over-reacts when a particular food or food category is eaten. Common allergies are dairy, nuts, peanuts, wheat  and shellfish. Mild allergic reactions are uncomfortable to varying degrees. But allergies can be life-threatening if a person goes into anaphylactic shock. A lot of children have this sort of reaction to peanuts these days, which is why peanut products are not allowed in schools any more.

Coping when you’re the host…

Think: Does this need to be a sit-down meal?  It’s much easier to accommodate variations if you have an open house with a buffet of snacky foods and beverages. Some suggestions and good recipes follow. But buffets don’t always work and you might find yourself organizing a sit-down dinner despite the complications.

Guests have a responsibility to give the host a heads-up. “Thanks so much; I’d love to be there. A lot has changed since we last saw each other and it’ll be good to catch up. I’ve become a vegan recently so I only eat plants. I’m perfectly happy eating just the veggies, so don’t feel you need to make anything special for me.” The guest can have a protein shake at home before leaving, and all dietary bases will be covered. Another option is to ask, “Can I contribute my favourite casserole or salad to the menu?”

The host can ask. Sometimes guests don’t mention their food preferences because they mistakenly think they’ll sound rude. As the host, ask directly when issuing the invitation. “Anyone have allergies or preferences I should know about?” This opens the door for the guest to say something, and avoids any awkward surprises at the event.

The Host’s Survival Guide…

The rest of this post is a guide to drama-free ways to accommodate health-conscious guests. Some key principles:

  1. Serve good food that you can present to anyone without explanation or apology. Gone are the 1960s when the granola crowd served some concoctions that were just plain weird. I admit to making some of them myself! But today there’s an abundance of very good recipes for real food, and I’ve included links to several of my favourites.
  2. Put out foods in their whole form as much as possible. This makes it easy for people with sensitivities to choose what works for them without having to find you and ask what’s in everything. In this spirit, you might decide to put cheese on a board rather than incorporating it into several dishes.
  3. Alert guests to ingredients they might not expect to find.  For example, almond flour is not a usual ingredient in crackers. So someone with a nut allergy could inadvertently eat them and have a reaction. From another perspective, a wheat-sensitive person might pass by the Rosemary Crackers (below) without realizing they are grain-free and perfectly suitable. A simple strategy is to make small tent cards. Those in the photos were easily made by folding business cards in half.

Go here for specifics—scroll down the page for more ideas and recipes.

Preparing for the 2018 Holidays

None of us wants to feel like this woman, but many would admit that we do, at least to some degree. That’s what makes an effective parody—we recognize elements of truth in an exaggerated scenario.

I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ended up in a situation thinking:  Right. Now I remember why I decided never to do this again!  Of course, by then I’m in the midst of it… and the cycle perpetuates.

The holidays intensify things that aren’t working in our lives, and it’s distressing at the time. But it also provides teachable moments if we are paying attention.

Breaking the cycle…

It’s so easy to be propelled along by expectations and circumstances—especially at holiday time. By now, one week into December, the momentum has likely reached a point where things will play out as usual. Enjoy every moment of this month, if you can. If not… Continue reading

Why I don’t care about the interest rate on my credit card.

For me, credit card interest rate is a non-issue. I use my card as a convenience and for the cash-back feature. I never use it as a means of living on borrowed money.

The paradox of credit cards…

Credit Card Paradox

Why you can’t win when you pay interest on a credit card…

As long as there’s a balance on your credit card, you are in debt. The lender requires you to pay interest for the use of that money. Credit card companies are happiest when you pay the bare minimum, because that extends the time you are making payments. The longer the time you are paying, the more interest they get from you. The table below illustrates the effect of time using two different credit card balances. In each case, we see that the higher the monthly payment, the shorter the time to repay the loan. Continue reading

The Big Reveal – Credit Card Interest

The consumer culture has become a complicated and complex place to live. Dealing with money is no longer simple and straightforward, and it’s easy to make financial mistakes that haunt us for years. Despite the focus on finances during Financial Literacy Month in Canada, insights to help us navigate through the system are fragmented and inconsistent.

Credit Card

For many years I taught a college course in consumer issues and economics. Early on, I discovered that most students thought if they made the minimum monthly payment on their credit card, they weren’t in debt. They used their credit cards freely and paid the required minimum each month. They thought they were doing the smart and adult thing. Sadly, they weren’t. Continue reading

It’s Financial Literacy Month

This week I’m sending out an extra post in case you aren’t on social media and haven’t seen this. I’d love to have you participate in my 1-question survey.

Credit Card

 

November is financial literacy month in Canada. I just read something that got my attention. Now I’m curious—and am doing a one-question survey. I’d love to know what you think. Go to bit.ly/2zu7pyR to record your answer.

Here’s the scenario: Chris has returned from a fabulous 27th birthday vacation. The entire trip was paid for with a credit card intended for that purpose only. The vacation cost $4268 and the card will never be used to buy anything else. Chris has vowed to make the minimum payment each month, without fail. The first payment is $43 and the annual interest rate is 20%. How old do you think Chris will be when the last payment is made? 35, 40 or 49 years old?

You’ll be entered in a draw for an autographed copy of my book Conscious Spending, Conscious Life. And if you’d like to share this blog-post with people you know, that would be awesome!

Unprocessed.

Last week I introduced Michael Pollan’s concept of establishing personal policies about what we eat. Today I want to explore the idea of a personal policy that eliminates processed foods.

Why pick on processed foods?

As one nutritionist aptly put it, start with the “big rocks.” Removing them first leads to visible progress in short order. Processed food, junk food, and fast food are big rocks. It has become clear that the Standard American Diet (SAD) creates poor health in people eating it. If you have any doubt, remember Morgan Spurlock’s experiment in his documentary Super Size Me.

Big and small rocks

Removing processed food cannot help but make a difference. Without doubt, you will be eating better if you eliminate packaged and processed items from your food choices. And there are many other benefits to you and your community when you choose fresh, real food instead.

But really, is it possible?

Continue reading

Simplify and Civilize Your Food Shopping

Last week I wrote about dealing with too much information when researching health issues online. Unfortunately, for those of us living in a consumer-oriented culture, the Internet is not the only place where we have to deal with too much to choose from. Think supermarkets. Finding good food and not being distracted by everything else is challenging.

Overconsumption is not an accident… 

Overconsumption is built into the consumer culture, where the story is based on beliefs that “big is better” and “more is best.” Many people buy into that viewpoint with no discernment as to whether it’s in alignment with their values.

Overconsumption, literally, is a major concern with regard to our eating habits. Eating too much and eating the wrong things can cause chronic complex conditions that are debilitating for the person and a major cost to the health care system.

Being aware of our tendencies and habits is useful in helping us manage ourselves, our spending, and our appetite. Self-awareness is a huge asset, and one worth cultivating. to counterbalance  the mindless consumption encouraged by the consumer culture and most  players in it. Continue reading

Cutting Through TMI

For a long time, consumer educators believed that people make the best choices when they have plenty of information. Consumer education programs taught us how to locate information so we had enough to make good decisions.

That was before the Internet.

These days, the challenge is not in finding information. It’s in learning how to manage an over-abundance of it. There are two issues here:

  1. Discerning what has integrity in a medium without gatekeepers, one in which anyone can say and publish whatever they want to.
  2. Coping with the volume so that we don’t shut down from information overload.

A previous post featured Dr. Barry Schwartz speaking about the paradox of choice. His research discovered that people actually make worse decisions when overloaded with information and choices. Continue reading