Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

IMG_0387

Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

###

Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

Related posts:

Asking Safeway: Who Will Mind the Store?

Yesterday, I gladly joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign to ask retailers to do a far better job of screening their products for hazardous chemicals. The group has developed a list of 100 plus chemicals identified by scientists or regulators as hazardous, including such substances as triclosan, which was featured in the recent Dateline piece, and parabens.

Before work, I ventured out with my friend, Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force, who writes about our visit eloquently here, to check out products and deliver a letter to the local Silver Spring Safeway store manager, to make the case that people in their own community care about getting rid of toxics. When we got to the store, we perused the aisles, looking at labels with their tiny print, and trying to figure what, exactly, was in what.

We had a hard time with many product categories — cleaning products, for example, don’t actually have to say what’s in them. For example, here’s one that is clear as mud:

mystery cleanerYet all the overwhelming smells of the fragrances and perfumes (that could be harmful pthalates, as Dateline explained) in that aisle actually made me a bit dizzy.

We did find some products with triclosan, clearly labeled, including the Hello Kitty hand soap Dateline identified — which is particularly upsetting given its cutesy child-appeal marketing — as well Dial Complete, another cleanser, which (dubiously) promises a “Healthier You.”

HK front

HK showing triclosan Dial complete triclosanIn addition, through careful scouring, we were able to spot some products with parabens in them, including this antacid called “DiGel:”

Digel frontdigel backIt was difficult, even with a list of chemicals, to decipher everything. Molly put it well in her great post:

We felt lost in a thicket of chemical names, tiny fonts on tiny labels, and terms we didn’t understand.

And we were aware that we weren’t able at all to figure out packaging concerns like the Bisphenol-A (a chemical which acts like hormones in the body and has been linked to numerous damaging health impacts) that is in most can linings and on receipts.

After wandering the aisles for half an hour with our brows deeply furrowed, Molly and I approached the store manager to present a letter asking Safeway to do this kind of work on behalf of consumers. The letter was an invitation for retailers to get ahead of the consumer wave that I truly believe is coming — which will demand that products we use in our everyday lives not damage our health.

Retailers — who have everything to lose when customers vote with their feet — also have tremendous power over what they sell. They could be major drivers for change, if they saw it as part of their job. So our job is to make them see the appeal of changes that would drive their supply chains to do better — not just for products with niche appeal to organo-Moms like me, but for all the millions of Moms, Dads and others who don’t compulsively read labels on everything they buy and really shouldn’t have to.

David, the store manager, was welcoming about our message and received our letter and the list of 100+ hazards with warmth, promising to pass it along. He even let us take a picture, which spoke volumes for the people managing retail stores like Safeway, who want an authentic connection to their communities and customers. There would truly be nothing better than if a retailer like Safeway were to take this letter seriously and work through its supply chain to remove these toxic chemicals from its stores.

Me and DavidThis action was fun, easy and made me happier all day long. Even if you don’t have a great partner like Molly, it’s easier than you think to speak a little truth to power while you are shopping. So go to the campaign Website and register, then empower yourself to be bold, friendly and clear about your priorities next time you go to pick up groceries — it only takes two minutes to let the store manager know where you stand and what matters to you.

And let us know how the conversation goes with tweets and posts! I’ve been very inspired by the other mom bloggers and activists who’ve joined in the campaign:

See you out there!

A Bodacious Valentine’s Day

Be still my heart
 (Photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage)

Yesterday, in honor of V-day, I had the pleasure of attending a ground-breaking panel on boobies. Because this is 2013, when the subject of breasts arises, so to speak, the topic of breast cancer isn’t far behind.

The purpose of the gathering was to announce publication of an important new report that — really for the first time — sets out an agenda for prevention of breast cancer and points to the significance of environmental factors like chemicals, instead of focusing almost exclusively on treatment. The 200+ page report was the result of two years of work by a group of academics, advocates and government scientists called the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee. (Oddly, the link to the report is not working on the government Website. The New York Times coverage is here. Update: Link fixed!)

In 2012, more than 200,000 women and 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,00 women will die from it. A large majority of breast cancer cases — some 85 percent — occur in women with no family history of breast cancer. We know that some environmentally widespread chemicals — including PFOAs, dioxin, the pesticide Atrazine, DDT, flame retardants, and hormone disruptors like Bisphenol-A (BPA) — are linked to breast cancer.

We also know — most recently from shocking and sad reporting by the Center for Public Interest (CPI) of a published, peer reviewed study of plastics auto suppliers and other workers in Ontario that there is very strong evidence linking acute exposures to plastics and chemicals to cancer rates: women working in the auto supplier and canning jobs had cancer rates of 5 times the control group.

Here’s CPI’s summary of the report’s list of chemical exposures related to breasts:

At least 216 chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting substances like bisphenol A, have been associated with mammary gland tumors in animals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are used to make plastics and pesticides and found in products such as furniture, metal food cans and cosmetics.

Ergo, it would nothing short of dunderheaded to talk about preventing cancer without looking at environmental factors in the mix, alongside genetic, diet and other risk factors. We badly need the kind of paradigm shift the report tees up, as well as the focused attention on environmental risks from regulators and researchers that it recommends.

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small ...

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small cancerous lesion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In honor of the holiday, let’s get back to knockers for a sec. On the panel, author and reporter Florence Williams returned our attention to the physical facts by pointing out a number of novel features that uniquely describe the twin wonders on a woman’s chest.

She pointed out that breasts are among the fattiest organs in the body and that many chemicals are drawn (like men) to these fatty tissues, that breasts are filled with hormone receptors, and that they change over the course of women’s lives as biologically needed. Williams called them, rightly, a “sentinel organ,” noting that what happens to our breasts is an early signal for our overall environment and health. (I picked up a copy of Williams’ book, “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” and am excited to read it because she tests the level of flame retardants in her own breast milk, among other unpleasant but informative discoveries.)

Jeanne Rizzo, head of the Breast Cancer Fund, spoke next and highlighted the fact that we know that there are critical stages — called windows of susceptibility — that impact life-time risk for breast cancer, beginning in utero, and that due to the emerging science of epi-genetics, it’s now clear that genes and the environment interact throughout our lives in a complex dance of possibilities. Her wonderful op-ed is also well worth a read. (It’s for this reason that I do think a focus on reducing environmental risks for pregnant women and young children is important, and that consumers need help in this area.)

Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Toxicology Program (NTP) was also powerful. I was particularly struck by her description of an ongoing “sister study” pairing women who are diagnosed with breast cancer with their sisters who have not been.

As she pointed out, we may have been over-emphasizing genetic factors when we see diseases linked in families, because although it’s true that they share genes, siblings also tend to share environmental influences. This study will attempt to distinguish genetic factors from the other shared conditions, including chemical exposure levels, thus helpfully sorting out what we can fix, given sufficient political will, from what we really can’t.

This got me thinking about obesity as another confounding factor in the research. We all know — and it was reiterated by panelists — that obesity is major risk factor for breast cancer, heart disease, and basically every other major health problem. Yet we also know that mice exposed to a teensy amount of BPA get much fatter than other mice. As Nicholas Kristof noted:

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel.

They’re everywhere, in other words. Yet the national report on obesity a big government panel issued last year barely mentioned the issue, instead focusing its major recommendations entirely on nutrition and exercise. Ditto with the President’s “Let’s Move” action plan.

Now, I’m not disputing that healthy foods and regular activity likely play an important role in obesity. But, as Jeanne Rizzo said the founder of the Breast Fund Center asked about breast cancer, I would still ask why we are so much fatter now than we used to be, and why Americans, who have far more chemicals in their diet and environment, are so much heavier than Europeans, when we eat basically the same types of foods.

The staggering rate of increase in obesity should be another indicator. A recent report found that adult obesity rates could exceed 60 percent in 13 states by 2030, and that:

If states’ obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension, and arthritis could increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020—and double again by 2030.

Then there’s the stunning increase in childhood incidence of Type 2 diabetes. From a September 2012 article in the Times:

Before the 1990s, this form of diabetes was hardly ever seen in children….There were about 3,600 new cases a year from 2002 to 2005, the latest years for which data is available.

What has changed from before the 1990s until now? As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I can tell you: our diets were no paragon of health. We ate junk food, nutrient-poor school lunches, and canned green beans, white rice and pork chops for dinner. We binged on Halloween candy while playing Atari for hours. But this disease was for the full decade of my adolescent decadence still virtually unknown in kids. In fact, we know a lot more about healthy eating and healthier foods are much more widely available today, yet we’re still in deep trouble.

Researchers are basically at a loss to explain the obesity increase, as in this comically uninformative paper where they more or less throw in the towel. Could it be, instead, that the ubiquitous chemicals, drugs and fillers in food and industrial agriculture, along with the plastics that package virtually all of our foods, are at least in part to blame? That cheap calories from a degraded and ever-more industrialized food supply — eaten by people across the socioeconomic spectrum — come at a very high cost? What are those fat mice trying to tell us?

As in the breast cancer sister study, when we treat obesity as an inert risk factor — “don’t get fat, you!” — we are missing an opportunity to shift the paradigm to environmental health factors and instead substituting a far less helpful blame-the-victim mentality.

We should not fail to acknowledge obesogens may be a confounding factor in the data — that the same people who are obese are more likely to get breast cancer because the cause of both conditions could be related to the same chemical exposures (or chemical-epigenetic interactions that reflect a sensitivity to environmental influences). If it turns out this is right, and chemicals are a major factor in all of these kinds of health conditions, then the solutions are also shared, and the public health costs of inaction virtually incalculable.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I care deeply about preventing breast cancer, having seen its terrible toll on close family friends. And I am so excited for the publication of this major report that talks clearly and for the first time about the impact of chemicals on cancer rates, though I wish there was a least a small section on consumer can-dos, to counteract the doom and gloom.

But we also must be uncompromising as we outline the possible damage from toxins, and push this powerful new paradigm to its logical conclusions. To meaningfully address a host of public health threats, we will need one day soon to take the full measure of what our ongoing, uncontrolled experimentation with biology-altering chemicals has actually accomplished, in both our bodies and our brave, sentinel breasts.

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Un-Canny: What’s the “Instead of” for BPA?

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup I, 1968.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup I, 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looks like I’m not the only one wondering exactly what food packaging suppliers are using in cans and bottle lids if they are NOT using BPA.

The good people over at Healthy Child, Healthy World are also all over the issue, running a great social media campaign focusing on the iconic Campbell’s company. Andy Warhol would be most proud. Or not. He could be a little catty, so I suppose it’s hard to say.

Anyhoo, back to the issue of what’s in our food. As they say, some of the alternatives are no better, and could even be worse, than Bisphenol-A (BPA) for can linings:

There are a few alternatives to BPA that aren’t any better for our health. BPS, a “chemical cousin” of BPA is not a safer alternative…

The notoriously bad plastic PVC is an FDA-approved alternative for BPA in can linings, despite the fact that vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen.

 
There’s that vinyl again. As I noted in my recipe for coconut couscous, I remain concerned that Native Forestbrand has not responded to my emails asking them what is the BPA substitute they are using for can linings. If it’s vinyl, it could be worse than BPA. I’ll be very keen to get their response, as we like cooking with coconut milk.
 
What to do about all this? Raising consumer awareness is the first big step towards change and accountability. Here’s the social media suggestions from Healthy Child, Healthy World:
 
 
Here are sample tweets you can use on Twitter or Facebook. And be sure to look at the Healthy Child Healthy World Facebook page for updates! Please share this action with your friends and family!
 
 
And here’s a link to Campbell’s Facebook page, which would be a great place to post similar messages!
 

The Safest Sippy Cups, Ever…

To sip, to sup, to drink from a cup…

One of our issues with transitioning from a bottle has been our extended search for a sippy cup that doesn’t raise environmental health concerns. As you can see, we’ve collected a shocking number of options, a few of which were inherited.

Yet none, really, are perfect. The ideal sippy cup would be: 1) totally safe to drink liquids from after being washed repeatedly in the dishwasher; 2) durable; 3) comfortable for a young toddler to use; 4) an aid in teaching a child how to drink from a cup. This is harder to find than you might think, given that we, as a society, evidently saw the need to make this other ridiculous thing first.

So ok, generally, it may be that we are not supposed to use sippy cups for our kids. Whatev. I don’t know a family that skips ’em entirely, given the propensity of small children to spill anything even remotely liquid-like (all over their brand-new jumper from Grandma, just before leaving the house). But if you’re one of those rare, and admittedly far superior, families, then you can just hang out calmly in your unnatural Zen-like environment while you await my upcoming post on greener ways to store food at home.

In the meantime, while I’ve hardly found the best sippy cups, “ever,” I think I’ve spotted some of the good, the bad and the dubious. I scored the sippy cups I’m reviewing below on three major areas, worth a total of 5 points each: 1) environmental health; 2) transparency; and 3) durability and use. (I’ll put the scoring system at the bottom of the post, for those who regularly indulge their inner nerd and are just dying to see how I made the call on points.)

The winning types (based on my not-at-all-scientific and freshly invented scoring system) are basically the ones mostly made of stainless steel. From the top —

First Tier

  • Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles: Pura bottles come with a silicone nipple and all stainless steel components, and come in two sizes (5 and 11 ounces) and in colors as well as plain stainless steel. (There are also adult bottles with a stainless steel cap in the interior of the bottle.) While stainless steel can leach as explained below, the company claims this product has no leaching of heavy metals in tests. There are also new silicone covers that slip onto the outside, to address parents’ complaints that the bottles got too cold in the fridge, presumably. The nipple that comes with it is very much like a bottle nipple with a slightly adjusted shape, but has basically no flow control and is fast and open to spills (see the picture at the top for the shape). The ring and size do also accommodate a wide range of other nipples on the market for baby bottles. There were consumer complaints on Amazon due to sharp edges on the ring, but ours has no such issue, so I wonder if this has been addressed by a company re-design. In addition, there were stories of paint chipping off the colored ones (which seems to be consistent problem with enameled stainless products), so we got the plain silver. I also liked the completeness of the company’s information on its Website on the environmental health issues. We hand-wash the nipple, but put the ring and bottle in the dishwasher. Overall, while it has some use and convenience issues, this product is as close as it gets to good in this marketplace. Score: Environmental health: 5; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 1 = 11 out of 15.
  • Klean Kanteen toddler bottles: This product does have some plastic on the sippy part. But the company is highly transparent, putting the type of plastic on its Web site, and identifying it as polypropylene (number 5), which is generally considered a safer and non-leaching plastic. And KK is waging a “I love boobies” campaign, which you just gotta like. (For adult bottles, I’ll note that they also have an entirely stainless steel option for caps.) The flow rate here is fast, and some of the bottles are a bit too big around for younger toddlers to hold properly. Consumers on Amazon raised two main issues: that the plastic ring can crack if dropped, and that the bottle leaks and is too cold from the fridge. There are replacement rings for sale, but that is understandably a pain, and the other issues could be a problem if you are inclined to let the child nurse a sippy cup over the day or store it in the fridge. Since we give Maya a drink and monitor the situation to remove it from her mischievous grasp the minute she seems ready to paint the floor with liquid, the leaking is not as much an issue for us, though I do wish there was a cover of some kind for putting it in the diaper bag. We handwash the plastic parts, but put the bottle in the dishwasher. The company notes that it recommends plain silver for families with toddlers who chew on things, although the acrylic paint is, they claim, safe (consumers also note a chipping problem here). Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 3 = 11 out of 15.

Second tier

  • Lifefactory 4-ounce and 9-ounce glass bottles: These glass bottles of borosilicate glass (which is less breakable) with silicone sleeves are now made in Poland, France and the U.S., depending on the components. We use ours with a bottle nipple, but parents evidently love these smaller ones for babies. For some reason, Amazon’s listing for the sippy caps as a stand-alone product drew complaints that they break, that the valves are difficult to use, and that they leak. In terms of what plastic is used for the sippy caps, strangely, the Lifefactory Web site doesn’t say, although it provides a lot of other good information, and does indicate that the baby products are “bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalate, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) free.” In response to my email, the company let me know the sippy caps are polypropylene, a safer form of plastic. Obviously, glass is a safe container for liquids, so long as it does not break, and in our experience, the silicone sleeve would be protective against all but the most ticked-off child who deliberately throws the bottle into a brick wall. We put our bottle in the dishwasher, but have removed the sleeve even though the company indicates that you don’t need to do so. If we had a lot of these, we’d have to rethink this step, because getting the sleeve back on is a chore. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Crocodile Creek Drinking Bottles: These are really for older kids (rated 3 plus years), so a friend, not us, owns this type. They are a 10-ounce stainless steel bottle with cute exterior painted designs, a plastic lid and a pull-up spout. The company’s Web site indicates that: “our drinking bottles are made of high-quality stainless steel #304. The lid is HDPE#2 and the cap is PP#5. All materials are completely recyclable and are lead-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free and PVC-free.” According to consumer reviews, they cannot go into the dishwasher, have been know to dent and leak, and to have badly chipping paint after limited use. In addition, one reviewer talked about a metallic taste with acidic juices after some hours in the bottle. Still, at least the interior (unlike the Sigg bottles I’ll discuss below) is stainless steel and not aluminum with a interior plastic overlay. So while they look similar to Sigg bottles, they are the better type of this product. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 4; Durability/use: 2 = 9 out of 15.

  • Thermos Foogo Phases Leak Proof Stainless Steel Sippy Cup: This 7-ounce cup (the blue and yellow one in the picture) has an acceptable flow, fits nicely in a toddler’s hands, and has a stainless steel body with a plastic top. It is insulated, and allegedly is safe for hot and cold beverages and will maintain temperature for house. About the plastics, the company’s materials say: “these containers are made from FDA-approved materials, and all of their plastic components are BPA-free.” Upon my email request, they told me that the plastics are “polypropylene which is BPA and PVC free,” and this listing of the product by MightyNest says that they are  pthalate-free (though made in China). Maya likes this cup, though she also likes to push the spout through all the way, spilling its contents everywhere. On Amazon, a few consumers reported leaks, many said the insulation didn’t really work, and one reported that the spout had become black, moldy, “sticky and brittle.” We handwash this cup generally, but occasionally have put the bottle base only through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Kid Basix Safe Sippy 2: (This is the green and orange one above.) This sippy comes with a conversion to a straw set-up and is a nice shape and size, with an acceptable flow rate for toddlers and a cap for travel. There are a set of complicated valves that come with it that I’ve never bothered to use. While the Website has some information on the plastics used, which are pthalate- and BPA-free, I had to write them a note to get more information on the plastics, and here’s what they said: “There is no PVC in the cup or any of its parts. The Cap, Lid, Spout and Handles are made of #5 Polypropylene. The Straw is made of LDPE #4.” (These are generally considered safer plastics; more info about these plastics by number and their safety is below.) We handwash this cup and have had no issues, really, outside of that small inconvenience. However, consumer complaints on Amazon indicate frustration about missing all the small pieces and parts, and a number of them raise an issue about a persistent, gross milk smell that seems related to bacteria trapped between the plastic cover and bottle, and that is not resolved by repeated trips through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/Use: 2 = 8 out of 15.
  • Green Sprouts Stainless Steel Bottle: This is a basic stainless steel water bottle (the exclusively green one, above) with a plastic rubbery-spout. The spout is hard for Maya to use, as it requires considerable suction. The Green Sprouts company claims the product has “no BPA, PVC, Lead, or Phthalates,” which is nice, but does not identify the plastic (after an email, the customer service identified the plastic as PVC-free polypropylene and the spout as silicone). There is no information about the grade of stainless steel used in the cup, which feels thinner than the other cups. It can go in the dishwasher once the plastic top is removed, though a plastic ring remains. Most critically, when we first got this cup, Maya immediately plucked the inner part of the spout out of the middle with two fingers, and put it in her mouth. It’s a terrible shape and choking hazard, and easy to remove for a child, so it raises a serious safety concern, as reflected by other parent reviews on Amazon as well. Score: Environmental Health: 3 (unknown); Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 0 = 6 out of 15 but with a serious safety issue for young children.

Off my list entirely:

  • Sigg Aluminum bottles: Despite the really cute designs, these are aluminum bottles covered with a interior coating that Sigg refuses to identify, except to say as follows: “The new EcoCare liner by SIGG is comprised of many ingredients. The primary compounds utilized are a special combination of ultra-thin layer forming co-polyesters, many of which are commonly found in different variations across a variety of well-known food and beverage brand products. The materials used in producing the liner are BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free, as well as being free of any VOCs (volatile organic compounds).” Note PVC is not on this list of excluded plastics. Aluminum itself is not the safest ingredient, so you might also worry about scratches or erosion that uncover the metal. Moreover, Sigg basically deceived consumers a few years back about whether its bottles contained BPA in the lining, which they did prior to August 2008. Boo. (And Gaiam’s aluminum bottles were far worse on the BPA front, so they’re out too, in my mind.)
  • Think Baby and Green to Grow “better” plastic bottles: We’ve also now decided, down the road a bit, that the troubling 2011 study showing that endocrine disruptors (like BPA) leach from most plastic products (even ones labeled BPA-free) mean that we’re leaving plastic behind whenever we can. We handwashed and babied these, but now I wish I’d never gotten them in the first place. Still, if you want to go the plastic route, Think Baby in particular does seem like a better option than other plastic cups.

Does stainless steel leach?

Yes. A teensy amount of nickel and chromium (or at least cookware does when heated or scratched or both). While this is not likely a health issue so long as you do not have a nickel allergy, it’s not a great idea to store hot or warm items, or highly acidic items, in stainless steel. (This applies to cookware as well, obviously.)

What’s the problem with plastic?

After going to the grocery store tonight, I started thinking about how almost all our food is stored in plastic, so really, what’s the big deal? While it’s certainly not ideal that virtually all food is stored that way, the main issue with something like a sippy cup is that we repeatedly use it and will wash or put it in the dishwasher, exposing it to heat and wear that will cause it to leach chemicals if made of plastic.

Most of the plastic containers for food — i.e., yogurt, milk (yes, there’s polyethylene on the inside of cardboard milk containers, as a Horizon representative told me on the phone last week), etc, are marked 1, 2, or 5, as I’ve noticed through my odd habit of squinting at the bottom of random containers. These are generally considered safer plastics, but none are robust enough for repeated use.

Instead, the plastic that is sold for re-usable applications has generally been number 7, or polycarbonate, plastic, which can contain BPA. And even bottles and cups labeled “BPA-free” can leach endocrine disrupting chemicals. In addition, some manufacturers appear to have replaced BPA with something just as bad. Anyway, sippy cups are a durable item we can actually easily do something about, unlike almost everything else at the store. (Want to rid yourself of all that store-bought plastic too? Here’s a blogger who’s admirably trying.)

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density...

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density polyethylene (HDPE) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a quick summary of the safety and recycling of plastics-by-number (found in a small triangle on the bottom of bottles and other containers):

1) PETE, aka PET (polyethylene terephthalate): Used for most transparent bottles, such as water, soda, cooking oil, and medicine bottles. Generally safe to use (not reuse); generally recycled.

2) HDPE (high density polyethylene): Sturdy, rigid plastic found in reusable food storage containers, milk and detergent bottles. Generally safe; generally recycled.

3) PVC (polyvinyl chloride): Used for plastic wrap, and detergent and cooking oil bottles. Also used for water systems in households. Additives in PVC can increase the risk of birth defects and hormone- related cancers. Its production is hazardous to workers and the environment. Generally not safe; not recycled.

4) LDPE (low density polyethylene): Flexible plastic used for bags or wraps, such as produce bags and baby bottle liners. Most number 4 plastics are not designed for reuse. Generally safe; generally not recycled.

5) PPE, aka PP (polypropolene): Pliable plastic found in squeeze bottles, reusable food containers, and yogurt and margarine tubs. Generally safe; generally recycled.

6) PS (polystyrene): Used in rigid take out containers and foam meat trays. Can leach styrene when heated, a possible endocrine disrupter and human carcinogen. Not safe when heated; generally not recycled.

7) Other most often refers to PC (polycarbonate): This plastic is most commonly used for baby bottles, five gallon water jugs, and reusable sports water bottles. It can leach out the hormone disrupter bisphenol A, especially when heated. Because this group can include various other plastics, it has limited recycling potential.

Other Issues with Sippy Cups

Some dentists and speech pathologists do raise issues with sippy cups and speech development. Teaching children to drink from a straw is supposed to help, particularly if you are grappling with speech delays.

In addition, it’s best to stay on top of where the cups land if you don’t want your toddler rediscovering it a few days later and drinking its well-mellowed contents! And monitoring may pay off: a new study shows there are a substantial number of injuries from toddlers tripping while walking around with sippy cups and bottles and taking it in the teeth.

The other major issue I feel obliged to flag, given my recent post on bottle feeding and obesity, is what goes in the cup. We stay away almost entirely from refined or extra sugar in Maya’s diet, including juice. Instead, she drinks water and milk and has never yet been made aware that beverages can be full of what she always calls (with an almost mystical look of bliss on her face) “suuugar.”

Sippy cups, to the extent that they are highly convenient sugar-delivery devices, are likely problematic mostly for this reason, so (if it’s not too late), you may want to attempt the cruel but effective total denial strategy we’ve used, which has worked fairly well.

My rating system for a score of 0 to 15:

Environmental Health:

  • 5 = no chemicals of concern and no plastic
  • 4 = no chemicals of concern / plastics considered safer & outside areas of use
  • 3 = no chemicals of concern / some safer plastics in areas for use
  • 2 = some chemicals of concern near areas of accessibility and use
  • 1 = serious chemicals of concern in accessible area
  • 0 = outright hazard to health

Transparency:

  • 5 = information about components and plastics fully presented on company Web site
  • 4 = information about components and plastics partially presented on company Web site
  • 3 = information not on Web site, but fully answered upon email inquiry
  • 2 = information not on Web site, and only partially answered by email inquiry
  • 1 = response to email, limited or no information provided
  • 0 = no email response

Durability and Use:

  • 5 = No consumer complaints on durability, safety or ease of use
  • 4 = Few or insignificant consumer complaints on durability or ease of use
  • 3 = Some consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 2 = Significant consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 1 = Consumer complaints raising safety risks
  • 0 = Alarming information showing lack of safety of product

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I hope this is helpful to you!

Anyone looking for information on baby bottles and feeding issues should check out this useful summary of tips from the Environmental Working Group. And here’s another sippy cup review from MightyNest, which sells many of these options.

I’d love feedback on this new rating system, which I hope to use with other products as well, and if you had a different experience with these cups, do tell.

Also, please do feel free to add your own ratings of sippy cups you’ve used with a brief explanation in the comments. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the options out there, and folks will be very interested in your experience and views, as this question comes up a lot!

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Coconut Couscous with Raisins and Nuts (Breakfast or Dinner)

Making very simple food more nourishing is a wonderful trick, when you can figure it out. This is an incredibly easy way to upgrade couscous into something entirely better.

I give it to Maya for breakfast with milk on top, as in the picture, or sometimes serve it under a savory dish from the tagine, like this one. The recipe makes enough you can even do both, over a couple of days. We had this couscous under a fairly basic beef stew from the tagine tonight, and it added the creamy richness the stew needed as a backnote.

For an easy peasy and warmly comforting breakfast, this can’t be beat. Though not pictured, fresh berries are also nice on top.

Ingredients:

2 cups Wholewheat (organic) couscous

1/2 cup Shredded (organic, un-sulphured) coconut

1 (organic) can of coconut milk (Note: Native Forest brand is supposed to be BPA-free; though I’ve asked, I have still not gotten confirmation from them about what they use to line the cans instead and will update if/when I do)

1/2 cup (organic, un-sulphured) raisins; you could also use currents, cranberries or other dried fruits, like diced apricots

1/2 cup (organic) unsalted nuts — cashews are nice, as are slivered almonds

Generous sprinkle of cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla extract, or even, better, fresh scrapings from a vanilla bean

Optional: a small amount of sweetener (you can also wait to add it at the end to your breakfast dish if you’d like to use the couscous as a base for a more savory meal later) — I used maple syrup, but honey, molasses or sugar would work fine

Directions:

Heat the coconut milk in a pot, plus enough water to make the can come up to an even 2 cups of liquid (conversion reminder: 8 ounces to a cup).

Add cinnamon and vanilla, then dried fruit and nuts. When almost boiling, take off the heat, stir in 2 cups couscous and cover.

Fluff with a fork and serve with milk for a delicious, easy breakfast!

Does Extended Bottle-Feeding Really Cause Obesity?

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

At 21 months, Maya still really likes hitting the bottle. It’s a ritual — the first bottle of the morning — and a request as soon as I get home from work. She sits on my lap, we cuddle, and she relaxes a bit, her body getting softer and less tense. In the evenings, I don’t give her much milk because it will ruin her dinner. We both know it’s just the pose that matters, and the snuggles that are part of that nice, quiet pause.

So of course I was immediately concerned and even a bit perturbed when my pediatrician rather abruptly told me at our last visit to stop using bottles “cold turkey” because their use is linked to obesity. Her less-than-insightful suggestion was to just get rid of all our bottles at once, and thereby make it physically impossible for Maya to keep using one. At the time, I should have asked her if she wanted to come visit for that little period of self-inflicted hell, even if just to explain to my daughter that we are only depriving her of this small comfort in order to make sure she won’t eventually become overweight.

Regardless of her apparent cluelessness about the importance of easing children into changes in their lives, I had to take seriously the problem she raised about bottles. So I went and read what I could about the study linking bottle usage to obesity (the actual text of the study is $31, and IMHO, not such a good investment).

The study, from the Journal of Pediatrics in May of last year, made headlines at the time that carried its message, including articles titled like this one: “To Avoid Adult Obesity Stop Bottle-Feeding at 18 Months,” from Medical News Today, which intoned darkly:

If you want to reduce your baby’s chances of becoming an obese adult you should not continue bottle-feeding him/her beyond 12 to 18 months.

Who wants a fat kid, really? Or this one, from U.S. News, “Prolonged Bottle Feeding Boosts Kids’ Obesity Risk,” which begins:

Nearly one-quarter of 2-year-old bottle feeders were obese at age 5, researchers say.

Well, I suppose that’s clear enough. But what did the research really say? Here’s more detail from the abstract:

Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort were analyzed for 6750 US children born in 2001. The outcome was obesity (body mass index ≥95th percentile) at 5.5 years, and the exposure was parental report of the child using a bottle at 24 months. The prevalence of obesity at 5.5 years was 17.6%, and 22.3% of children were using a bottle at 24 months. The prevalence of obesity at 5.5 years was 22.9% (95% CI, 19.4% to 26.4%) in children who at 24 months were using a bottle and was 16.1% (95% CI, 14.9% to 17.3%) in children who were not.

Prolonged bottle use was associated with an increased risk of obesity at 5.5 years (OR, 1.33; 95% CI, 1.05 to 1.68) after controlling for potential confounding variables (sociodemographic characteristics, maternal obesity, maternal smoking, breastfeeding, age of introduction of solid foods, screen-viewing time, and the child’s weight status at birth and at 9 months of age). [Emphasis added.]

I’m struck by several things right off the bat. First, although nearly 23 percent of bottle-feeders were obese at the age of 5 1/2, 16 percent of the rest of the population (i.e., not bottle users) also were, which is only a 7 point difference (though it’s true that the association appears to hold at this level of the analysis).

Second, the sample size is on the small side in terms of who’s left — i.e., 22 percent of the sample used a bottle, 23 percent of whom ended up overweight. That’s a total of 341 kids. If we subtract out the 16 percent that is the general rate of obesity in the remaining population, we’re down to 55 kids whose habits and body weight are driving the conclusions (because they make up that 7-percent spread). The authors say that is a statistically significant number, though, so let’s look at their assumptions more closely.

They used a data set with limited inputs, to be sure. The first glaring omission is that the study did not account for what was in the bottles. Apple juice, for example, does not fill the stomach the way that milk does, and it creates a taste for sugary drinks in children, making it easy to consume to excess. It also contains a significant number of calories (117 per cup).

Whole milk, on the other hand, may be higher in calories, but offers a host of essential fats, vitamins and calcium. It is harder (though certainly not impossible) to over-consume because it is both filling and satisfying. Water, obviously, has no calories.

Formula, much of which is loaded with sugars that stimulate appetite, unsurprisingly is also linked in previous studies to obesity. Researchers here indicate they controlled for breastfeeding as a variable. But the formula versus breastfeeding research is complicated by studies that show bottle-fed infants gain more weight even if the bottles contain breastmilk, meaning that merely controlling for breastfeeding may not be enough.

Given that children are frequently given juices (or even worse beverages like Kool-Aid) to drink, and the small number of families whose habits are driving the conclusions, this seems like an important caveat to the findings, and one that was notably missing from the official conclusion or from the reported coverage of the study.

Instead, the authors publicly suggest the opposite, as here, where one of them claims that the study accounted for “feeding practices during infancy.” Um, I don’t think so. The two variables “age of introduction of solid foods,” and “breastfeeding” are certainly tangentially related to overall infant feeding habits (and perhaps, health), but when a study is attempting to measure the impact of bottle-feeding, controlling for the contents of that bottle strike me, at least, as one of the more important variables to be included in the equation. After all, what a child is actually consuming has just got to be more important than whether it’s being delivered by bottle or cup.

In USA Today’s piece on the article, another expert is quoted on the need to cease bottle use:

“Drinking your calories may not be as filling as eating them,” says Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and the editor of HealthyChildren.org, a consumer website of the pediatrics academy. “That’s where the obesity problem comes in. It’s so easy to drink the calories, but people often are still going to eat the same amount of food.”

This argument seemed reasonable to me at first glance, but actually doesn’t really hold up. Certainly, the regular visits I made to Jamba Juice during law school likely explain why my exercise regimen at the time yielded disappointingly paltry results. Yet I don’t observe that Maya eats the same amount of food if she is full from a bottle — in fact, I worry that milk will displace other calories because she won’t be hungry, and so we limit the amounts she can drink around meals.

And all this likely misses the point. Above, Shu appears to suggest that children will, in a sense, over-drink (or over-eat because they drank too much). But so long as what children are drinking is good for them, and they are drinking and eating solid foods in the right balance, it seems to me that we wouldn’t want them to drink less. In other words, if the issue is amount, what should it matter if the drink comes from a bottle or cup? Again, parental monitoring of what is consumed, and how much, should matter far more.

Two mice; the mouse on the left has more fat s...

Two mice; the mouse on the left has more fat stores than the mouse on the right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Second, the study variables omit consideration of the kind of bottle being used, whether glass or plastic. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep-end on this one, consider that studies have shown that Bisphenol-A (BPA) likely plays a significant role in obesity, both by making our bodies produce insulin as though we are consuming twice the calories we actually are, and by helping to flip a genetic switch that predisposes us to be fat.

The study’s data-set spans from 2001 to 2006, a period in which most parents were unaware of the pernicious BPA-in-baby-bottles issue and most bottles still had BPA in them, and in which plastic bottles were the norm, as they still are today. It would need far more study, of course, but in my view it’s at least possible that this is yet another instance of a simplistic analysis of behavioral factors that leaves the possibility of harmful chemical influences utterly undiagnosed.

Third, the authors’ recommendations fail to account for countervailing values in child development that may lead some families and children to benefit from extended bottle use, at least as part of their repertoire. Here’s how one of them breezily put it in an article on the study:

Rachel Gooze [] notes that weaning children from the bottle by the time they are 1 year of age is unlikely to cause harm and may prevent obesity. The authors suggest that pediatricians and other health professionals work with parents to find acceptable solutions for stopping bottle use at the child’s first birthday.

Yet research unequivocally shows that strong bonding with caregivers and relaxation (i.e., low anxiety) is essential to healthy brain development, particularly in young children ages 0 to 3 years. While extended use of a bottle is certainly not an essential part of creating these bonds and a relaxing atmosphere, the act of feeding a child is intrinsically a nurturing moment, and so it may not be irrelevant either. The researchers should have at least considered the possible downsides here.

For our family, Maya never breastfed (which is another story entirely), and so our bonding over a bottle has replaced a rather fundamental missing piece. I’m not eager to let this go based on one study showing she could, maybe, have a slightly greater chance of being obese four years from now, especially given the care and intention I take with her overall diet and the monitoring we do generally of her health, including her weight.

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

For example, back on what goes into the bottle (and the baby), Maya almost never has juice, or really concentrated sugar of any kind, including the supposedly “kid-friendly” (non)foods: fruit leather, sweetened yogurt or those mushy fruit slurries in suck-down containers. (I’ll write a post on the re-joined debate over sugar and it’s impact on the body soon.)

If continuing to use a bottle appeared to be causing cavities or hampering her speech development, that would be another issue entirely, and is a legitimate concern raised by dentists (those sugary beverages again) and speech pathologists. In Maya’s case, she now has (I would guess) about 300 words and more every day. She’s also never been very interested in a pacifier or thumb-sucking, either of which can also be a speech development blocker. Moreover, she eats a wide variety of fruits, proteins and vegetables, uses both sippy cups and regular cups, and is learning to use a straw, pursuant to the advice of speech experts.

The bottle is merely a respite from these other ways for her to drink, and I assume will drop away sometime when she’s moved beyond the need for that to be our daily form of checking in. If not, we’ll ease it out of use and replace it with another important bonding ritual we can invent.

In the end, I’m unconvinced by this study, and disappointed that both my pediatrician and the mainstream press appear to have taken its limited data and recommendations as gospel. Clinical advice from most doctors rarely seems to take account of the havoc that would be wreaked on families’ emotional lives by following their rigid approach. And the discourse around the obesity issue has reached such a fever pitch that, as parents, it seems we’re now in a position, essentially, to be bossed around by experts on “slim” evidence indeed.

I hope that parents think through the issue for themselves before feeling guilted into suddenly dropping the bottle, at least based only on this latest — and in my view rather dubious — pronouncement.

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How does your family come down on this issue? Am I just making up excuses because I don’t want to face the music (or really, screaming)?

Did I miss something important about the study or its implications? Or do you agree with me that this is just another in a too-long line of simplistic anti-obesity messages that fail to grapple with the real issues?