The Healing Power of Fresh OJ (& the Industrial Chemistry in Store-Bought Juice)

Sometimes it’s the simplest things. Early last week, Maya had a runny nose and a case of the sniffles. So we bought some fresh (organic) oranges, washed and juiced ’em on our cheap-o hand-levered metal thing-gummy, which works pretty well.

You need about 5 or 6 oranges and 5 spare minutes to fill a coffee mug with fresh, delicious juice. But it’s so worth it. Maya’s sniffles vanished within a day.

In fact, the juice was so tasty that it reminded me of a story I saw a year or so back about what, exactly, is in commercial orange juice.

Funny thing. Turns out that oranges aren’t actually hanging on the trees all year long, waiting to be juiced and put into a container lined with a thin layer of plastic known to leach from acidic liquids (yeah, there’s that too — sorry…).

Because oranges are not in season year-round, the OJ companies store their juice in tanks. To keep it from spoiling in the tanks, they also take all the oxygen out of it. This has the unpleasant side effect of removing all the flavor and making it taste basically like sugar water. So before they sell it, they add back in a “flavor packet” of orange-derived stuff and chemicals to make it taste “Florida-fresh.” Here’s more:

In fact, “not from concentrate,” a.k.a pasteurized orange juice, is not more expensive than “from concentrate” because it is closer to fresh squeezed. Rather, it is because storing full strength pasteurized orange juice is more costly and elaborate than storing the space saving concentrate from which “from concentrate” is made. The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year.

That’s why different brands of OJ taste different — they use a distinct signature “flavor packet” to distinguish themselves (as well as different mixes of orange varietals, as this explains):

For example, have you noticed that the OJ from MinuteMaid has a signature candy-orange flavor? In the US, manufacturers of these chemical packs emphasize high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor this because it’s a flavor they associate with fresh, juicy oranges.

Yes, well, we’re all fools, really, if we think that the stuff in a box tastes anything like what comes fresh out of a juicer. It’s amazing what a little whiff of an orange-like odor can do to deceive the senses.

The FDA, predictably, says all of this is cool, because the flavor packs use essences derived from oranges. But one obvious question seems to be: what happens to the Vitamin C and other nutritional content from this process?

The flavor of oranges contains a ton of very healthy elements, as well as vitamins. Marion Nestle, food guru, in her tome What to Eat (pp. 276-277), notes that “Vitamin C is the most fragile of the nutrients and the one likely to show losses.”

She doesn’t really talk about this processing issue, but she does compare the nutrients in “fresh orange juice” with “orange juice from concentrate” (which has been pasteurized, dehydrated and frozen), and there is a loss of Vitamin C, as you might expect. While a fresh orange has 51 milligrams of Vitamin C, fresh orange juice (1/3 cup) has 50 milligrams, and orange juice from concentrate (also 1/3 cup) has only 39 milligrams, or a loss of 20 percent of nutritional value. And that’s not even looking, really, at the question of what other health benefits are lost and not recaptured by “flavor packs.”

Of course, just eating a piece of fruit is the best way to go, because that retains the fiber (and avoids the industrial food labs). When we juice, Maya inevitably asks to munch on slices of oranges. So that’s another, no-duh benefit of slow(er) food, prepared by us, from real ingredients. She makes the connection between the fruit and juice, and pushes the lever herself sometimes (ok, this happened, like, once, but still, it’s a good precedent).

I know a lot of kids drink juice all the time, and sure, it’s better than soda. But that’s not saying much — so this is yet another area where, at our house, we’ve decided to channel Nancy Reagan and just say no.

Unless faced with an illness and it’s fresh from us, we generally avoid juice, as I don’t want Maya thinking beverages need to be sweet. She drinks water and milk only, and seems to like it just fine. There’s a ton of sugar in juice, and not enough fiber to make it balance out. (We do make juice, kefir or yogurt into popsicles on occasion, on the theory that it’s less sugary and junky than actual ice cream. And it makes a nice sciency activity. And its fun and tasty. Etc.)

Remembering this little bit of information about de-oxygenation is enough to put me off juice more or less permanently. While I haven’t seen it covered, I wonder if a similar process is used for apple and grape juice, etc. If you know about this, or care to research it, please enlighten all of us. And then there’s always the arsenic in apple juice to worry about…

It’s really enough to make you fruity. Sniff.

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Learn More:

Here’s the ABC News coverage of this issue, and here’s a book about OJ and its processing: Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, by Alissa Hamilton.

Read more about natural healing remedies this week on Healthy Child, Healthy World, which is doing a blog round-up just in time for flu season!

Three Days to a Brand-New BPA-Free You

happy faceWhen I was in junior high school, I distinctly and embarrassingly recall being a little obsessed with a certain cheesy teen novella called “8 Days to a Brand-New You” — a romantic and moving make-over tale in which our geeky, bespectacled heroine becomes a total babe in eight short days (or something like that). You can see the appeal.

My friends are accusing me of always being the bearer of bad news, and it’s certainly a fair charge. But I also still cling firmly to the belief that it’s possible to make small and easy changes that will transform your life. Or at least improve things a little bit.

In the bad hair-day backstage video I did for the ANDERSON show, I mention that you can quickly and immediately see results in efforts to decrease levels of Bisphenol-A (BPA), a potent endocrine disrupting chemical that behaves like a hormone in the body and has been linked to reproductive health damage and other serious concerns.

How do I know this? Last year, researchers set out to pilot new research methods by doing a small, short study of 20 people in five families in the Bay Area, co-sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization focused on prevention of breast cancer by identifying and eliminating links to toxins. The results were astonishing, as summarized here and below:

Participants ate their usual diet, followed by three days of fresh foods that were not canned or packaged in plastic, and then returned to their usual diet.

The researchers collected evening urine samples over eight days in January 2010 and categorized them as pre-intervention, intervention, or post-intervention samples.

Test results showed an average drop of 60 percent in BPA levels when study participants ate a diet that avoided contact with food packaging containing BPA, which is used to make polycarbonate plastics and in the lining of food cans.

Tests showed a 50 percent average drop in DEHP, a phthalate commonly added to some food containers and plastic wraps to increase flexibility.

People with the highest levels of BPA prior to the intervention dropped their levels of BPA by 76 percent, and for DEHP that gap dropped by a stunning 93 to 96 percent. Study participants were shocked by the dramatic results.

The key was to prepare fresh foods, and to reduce incidental use of plastic. Three days was all it took, because the body flushes BPA and DEHP quickly, and it stays out so long as we don’t reintroduce it.

Here are some simple tips to reduce these types of exposures:

1) Don’t eat from plastic where it can be avoided. For example, avoid plastic water bottles of all kinds, including baby bottles and sippy cups, plastic drip coffee makers (we use a stainless steel electric kettle and glass french press), and most canned foods, particularly for sweet, acidic, or fatty items (which, let’s face it, is basically everything).

2) Try to frequent restaurants where the food is fresh and to order items that are unlikely to have been frozen (because they’re often stored in plastic) or canned. Just ask what’s fresh — a decent waiter at a good restaurant will tell you, and it’s a good guide to what the chef is excited about anyway.

3) Don’t heat plastic in the microwave or dishwasher or use plastic utensils for cooking or eating.

4) Store food in glass and food-grade stainless steel (some options are identified here in the Kitchen Gear section, and in the comments here), and keep food well below the level of the lid to minimize contact, as they did in the study. Avoid plastic wrap, especially the cheap kind like they use at the deli counter, which is usually PVC, or, at home, use a bowl to keep it away from the food and check to make sure what you’re using is labeled “PVC-free.”

5) Avoid jarred baby food and ready-to-use formula for infants, as they likely have BPA or a potentially suspect BPA-substitute in the lid. Preparing fresh baby food and using dried formula powder from cans are safer choices whenever possible.

6) As this article from the Natural Resources Defense Council says “[d]on’t allow your children to have dental sealants made from BPA (or BADGE) applied to their teeth, and don’t have these sealants applied to your teeth while you are pregnant. Ask your dentist to provide BPA-free treatments.”

7) Refuse receipts whenever you can, and don’t let children handle them or paper money, which has BPA from receipts all over it.

8) Sadly, recycled paper products, like toilet paper and napkins, are also high in BPA, likely due to receipts in the recycling chain. I’m still wrestling with my conscience over this one, but for pregnant women in particular, avoiding all kinds of recycled paper is likely a good idea.

A few other thoughts:

1) While many sites recommend Tetra-paks, for the reasons I explain here, these just store food in a polyethylene layer of plastic, which poses basically the same level of risk as a water bottle (or even more risk for acidic foods given their tendency to leach chemicals from plastic). Confirming my hunch, some links to German studies demonstrating that Tetra-paks leach more estrogens than water bottles, as well as some additional facts about how they make these types of packages sterile that may contribute to this leaching process, are here.

2) There are some BPA-free canned foods on the market, including Eden brand beans (not tomatoes), Muir Glen canned tomatoes (not glass jars; the lids have BPA), and Native Forest coconut milk (this was on several Websites; for example, here, but is not on their site and is not labeled on the can, so I will confirm with the company and update this post; as a side issue, I just noticed that they do use fillers like guar gum, which may be hard to digest for some; you can also evidently make your own coconut milk from dried coconut).

3) In addition, a number of fish companies are reportedly using BPA-free cans, including Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish.

4) A depressingly large number of brands still use BPA, as this helpful local co-op page demonstrates. Another list is here, as well as comments pointing out that toothpaste tubes also have BPA! (I’ll look into this a bit and report what I find.)

5) Stonyfield Farm yogurts are probably in better packaging, as the company really put its plastic supplier through some paces. It’s just too bad that the sugar levels in their yogurt for babies, toddlers and kids are so darn high.

5) When you can’t use fresh, frozen organic foods are likely safer on this front, but do check the small print on the packaging, as many frozen brands are organic “made in China” or in other places in which organic certification is, IMHO, at least suspect (more on this in a future post). Also, salt is often added to frozen veggies, which may be undesirable if you’re cooking for a child.

6) The issue with all BPA-free canned foods is, of course, the question of what they are using instead. About this, companies are remarkably tight-lipped, as I explore here. One exception to this rule is Eden foods, which comes right out and says their substitute is oleoresin, a mixture of pine sap from trees.

For this reason, I’ll use the Eden canned beans in a pinch, though I still prefer the far more toothsome texture of soaked dried beans. (A tip: getting a decent pressure-cooker really helps to make cooking beans a bearable use of time. It’s a staple item in an Indian kitchen for dal and the like, so we have one and use it almost daily.)

See, don’t you feel more babe-like already? What BPA self-improvement tips do you have? Please let me know!

Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles

My short backstage video for the Anderson appearance this week highlighted how small changes can make a big difference, and that got me thinking about the serious problem of information overload.

The truth is, once you start taking the issue of chemicals and environmental health seriously, it can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, the thing I hear most from people is that they “don’t want to know” about toxics, because they fear it will drive them batty to have to think this hard about choices that should be simple.

This is completely understandable as a sanity-saving response to terrible news. Obviously, I think that the hard work of making sure products are safe is first and foremost a job for the government, and should not rest on the shoulders of individual consumers who, let’s face it, do have lives to lead. (Or so I’ve heard. I obviously wouldn’t know much about that.)

Nonetheless, as the tagline for my blog says, until the government gets on the stick, it certainly seems like it’s up to us. So here’s three principles that I’ve found useful in framing what I care most – and least – about:

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

I’ll do a much more detailed post on a comprehensive and protective approach to pregnancy very soon, but for these purposes, be certain that if you are adopting a careful, even “paranoid” approach to reducing exposure to chemicals while pregnant – and other environmental hazards, including “natural” elements such as mercury and lead that have been put into the environment at much greater levels by humans – that is all to the good.

In utero exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury, solvents, endocrine disruptors and persistent organic pollutants have been linked to autism, cancer, low birth weight, lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, you name it. (I will walk through the evidence on these in that future post; in the meantime, no one makes this case more eloquently than Sandra Steingraber‘s frightening and beautiful book, Having Faith.)

Pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should be incredibly careful in whatever ways that they can be, and should not let anyone talk them out of whatever measures and steps that they can take. Be fierce, my friends. And careful. Or fiercely careful. Carefully fierce? You get my point.

The good news – if there is any in this incredibly annoying situation that puts all the burden on women and none on the chemical companies to stop exposing us – is that once you make these changes, you will be far better prepared for a baby to join your home.

The three months following birth has been called the “fourth trimester” by child specialist Harvey Karp because so much development remains to be done in very young infants. A similar principle should be applied to newborns and chemicals. The skin of new babies is much thinner, and they, like all young children, breathe at a much faster rate than adults, meaning that anything in the air is inhaled at twice the rate or more. They also crawl around in the floor, in the dust, put everything in their mouths, and spend a lot of time indoors, at home.

In addition, we are just learning in recent years about epigenetics, i.e., how chemicals and environmental factors can turn genetic cues on and off, affecting an individual’s health, and it stands to reason that children, who have so much developing left to do, are uniquely vulnerable to these changes.

Then there’s their small size: exposures in an 8-pound, or even, 30-pound person are just larger in relative impact than in an adult, and the dose of many of these chemicals matters (though some, like BPA and similar chemicals, have effects even at tiny doses). Troublingly, most risk assessments on chemicals are modeled on their impacts on an adult over a lifetime of exposure, and are not appropriately adjusted to assess risks for children, meaning that the metrics we use even for the very few chemicals we do regulate are not protective enough for children.

Last, there’s the practical factor that children will have more time to be exposed, meaning that any delay in building up their inevitable future body burden of chemicals has got to be a good thing.

2)    Place:  Look Most Closely at What Goes In or On Your Body or In Your Home

I think of these in three circles. First, and most obvious, think about your food: organic is best, and grass-fed organic is even better. If you can’t afford this for everything, which is understandable, then just change up foods on the list of the Dirty Dozen with the highest levels of pesticides (plus peanut butter).

Second, focus on your personal care products. Going way back to basics makes this much easier: pick up a decent deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, a few cosmetics that you’ll use daily, shampoo, conditioner and soap, check them against the Skin Deep database, and call it enough. (Some truly helpful tips on how to do this are here.) For babies and children, a list of items we use is here.

Toss the fancy face creams full of unpronounceable ingredients that won’t make you look younger anyway and make give you cancer. (This was a hard one for me, as I used to like to believe a miracle in a jar… for fifty bucks and whatever was left of my limited dignity.)

Last, think about your household cleaners. Laundry detergent and dishwasher soap are most important, because you wear and eat them, respectively. Then pick up an all-purpose green cleaner, checkin it on Good Guide, or make one of vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Buy a HEPA filter vacuum for the chemical flame retardants in the dust.

As a final check, think through what you bring into your home. Leave shoes at the door, or better yet, in the garage. Do not use dryer sheets, smelly plug-ins or scented candles: open your windows instead. If you can swing it, to avoid perchloroethylene (a known carcinogen) use a green dry cleaner (but make sure they are really greener, and hang up your clothes as soon as you get home to reduce the bill, which is typically quite a bit higher).

Most difficult of all: if someone in your home works in an industrial setting, or a mechanics’ shop or similar place, or does, say, woodburning or tinkers with electronics as a hobby, ask them, as nicely as you can, to shower, wash and change clothes elsewhere if at all possible. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s sound advice in terms of reducing exposure to potent chemicals within a home.

3)   Opportunity:  Trade Risks Only for Experiences, and Not for Things

One of the consistent, if somewhat unfair, points-of-view expressed in readers’ comments to that New York Times piece went something like, “geez, it would stink to be her daughter. I bet she never lets her out to play.”

Of course, Maya has a full life despite my concerns about toxics. And I understand that I will have less and less control over what’s in her life as she starts school, and obtains far more of a social life than I will ever have again, etc.

That is one additional reason why I do what I can now: because I’m still (mostly) the boss ‘round here, and I like it that way. While she remains an impertinent minion of my realm, and has no other real option despite her protestations, I see no reason not to limit her toxic exposures as I can. But that doesn’t generally mean limiting her play or activities.

At least most of the time. On occasion, there are compromises and trade-offs. On vacation, there were no pans in the house we were renting without a non-stick coating. Too bad, so sad, we ate anyway, of course. (We did keep the heat lowered; here’s why.) The trade-off was that we had a vacation, and just letting go was more important.

In general, if I have a principle here, it’s that at times there will be trade-offs, and those trade-offs should be worth it. Parents do this all the time, as I suggested in this post.

In fact, we’re better at it generally than the government. We look at up-sides and down-sides, and make a call. And one benefit of being uptight, or careful – pick your word – about chemicals more generally is that it creates a bit of margin for these types of judgment calls.

For another example, most sports are at least a little dangerous, but the sociability, physicality and achievement are worth it. Swimming in chlorinated pools may be a small cancer risk, but I can’t imagine a summer without life at the pool. I want that for Maya as well. And it’s good exercise and fun. (I am intrigued, however, by the notion of non-chlorine solutions for pools. Where we can avoid risks, obviously, we should.)

In sum: where the up-side brings substantial value to your life, the trade-offs may be worth it. I don’t feel that way about almost any consumer product, despite the best efforts of companies to brand themselves as essential to our happiness. It basically only applies to experiences, and even then only the ones in which I’m in a decent position – meaning, where I have enough information – to weigh the trade-offs for myself.

As environmentalist Mark Sagoff put it in The Economy of the Earth: “There is an ethical difference between falling and being pushed — even if the risks and benefits are the same.”

I understand that sometimes we fall down, and so be it. Sometimes the risk of falling is worth it, and sometimes accepting and taking that risk is even a part of living. I’ll be happy to choose those for myself, and for Maya whenever she’ll let me.

I just don’t appreciate it very much when the chemicals companies try to push me, just as they try to push all of us around. It therefore seems to me that the best way to send them a message on this point is to sidestep their attempts whenever I possibly can.

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I hope that these three general principles are useful to you. If you’ve had your own environmental health conversations with people who don’t “want to hear about it,” tell me what you did in that situation… Did you give up? Persist? Politely tell them they are going to get cancer?

And if you have other ways that you think about risks, choices and environmental health trade-offs, I’d love to hear them.

Seeing Red: My Fruitless Search for a Chemical-Free Jar of Tomato Sauce

Tomato slices

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Baby’s got sauce, she’s got sauce, she’s got sauce. Your baby ain’t sweet like mine.

― G. Love and Special Sauce

About a month back, a commenter to the blog inquired about what we do for tomato sauce.  The answer then was: we use glass jars, not cans, and buy organic.

But that got me thinking. I knew that some baby food jars have or had Bisphenol-A (BPA) in the plastic lining under the lid, which is disturbing, to say the least. BPA has gained a real notoriety, of course, for acting like a hormone, or estrogen, in the body.

Yet substitutes for BPA in food packaging are also suspect, for at least two reasons: 1) Some of the substitutes are chemically similar and may even be more potent than BPA; and 2) because most types of plastic act like an estrogen, as a 2011 peer-reviewed study from Environmental Health Perspectives made clear in its startling conclusion:

Most plastic products release chemicals having EA [estrogenic activity].

They went on to explain that to properly test for EA, you have to use a wide range of solvents to mimic how liquids impact the materials:

Our data show that both more polar and less polar solvents should be used to extract chemicals from plastics because ….because plastic containers may hold either type of liquid or a liquid that is a mixture of more polar and less polar solvents (e.g., milk). When both…solvents are used, most newly purchased and unstressed plastic products release chemicals having reliably detectable EA, independent of the type of resin used in their manufacture, type of product, processing method, retail source, and whether the product had contents before testing.

Our data show that most monomers and additives that are used to make many commercially available plastic items exhibit EA. Even when a “barefoot” polymer (no additives) such as [polyethylene] PE or polyvinyl chloride does not exhibit EA, commercial resins and products from these polymers often release chemicals (almost certainly additives) having EA. [Emphasis added.]

Many factors, like exposure to heat and sunlight, impact the amount of estrogenic chemicals that leach into the food:

We found that exposure to one or more common-use stresses often increases the leaching of chemicals having EA. In fact, our data suggest that almost all commercially available plastic items would leach detectable amounts of chemicals having EA once such items are exposed to boiling water, sunlight (UV), and/or microwaving.

This is why, for example, when the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Food and Drug Administration over BPA in food packaging, they also asked FDA to evaluate any industry substitutes for safety. (As you likely know, this spring the FDA kicked the can down the road on that one, so to speak, deciding inexplicably to wait until we’re all totally hormonal before it will ban BPA from food packaging.)

I’ve also read that packaging tomatoes is evidently a challenge given their acidity, so that even companies that go BPA-free on some things haven’t solved the tomato challenge. For example, here’s a quoted letter from Eden brand, which actually does have BPA-free can linings, on their jar lid linings:

Currently, we are told, there is no known viable alternative to BPA based epoxy coatings that provides the same level of corrosion resistance and is as safe. We continually push our cap suppliers to develop BPA free constructed caps that will deliver required corrosion resistance, shelf life, and safety.

After this all occurred to me, I started putting circles of wax paper under the lids of the sauce jars when I opened them, despite the fact that this is pretty much after-the-fact. Most lids already have some gloppy red stuff on them by the time you open them up, so really, whatever’s on that lid is basically also in the sauce. Still:

My Pyrrhic Gesture

I cut around the lid and screw it on, but really? To actually address the issue, right off the bat, I had three main questions –

  1. Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?
  2. If not BPA, what are companies using? Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Fluorotelomers (PFOAs)?
  3. And what’s in Tetra paks, anyway (i.e., those square containers for some tomatoes, soup and the organic chicken stock we use)?

I also wanted to know, given its slippery properties and known use in fast food packaging, whether fluorotelemers (precursors to a biologically super-persistent chemical known as PFOAs; explained in this post about my abusive Teflon relationship) were being applied to keep it all slick-like.

On that last one, no one would say. No one would even reply to the question, which I found odd. (Someone with actual pull should look into this a little, IMHO.)

And the answers to the other questions, insofar as I was able to noodle them out, were unsettling, to say the least.

I wrote letters — at least twice — to every brand of organic jarred tomato sauce at my hyper-crunchy local market:

In addition, I wrote to Pomi, which is not organic but sold in Tetra-paks, and to Trader Joe’s (the specific questions I asked are at the bottom of the post).

Right away, it appeared that I was onto something, well, dicey. Typically when I ask a question, I get a response right away, but this time, the answers were few and far between. For a few companies, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement, which is just weird.

For example, I got crickets, despite multiple prompts, from: Trader Joe’s, Middle Earth Organics, and Pomi, and an auto-reply but no real answer from Walnut Acres. The rest of the responses, such as they are, are below.

1) Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?

The short answer is: they are NOT.  The lining contains BPA, though some companies did explain that the BPA is under several layers of other types of plastic.

For example, the owner of Organicville, who nicely wrote me back personally, ferreted out this eventual answer from her supplier:

Caps for pasta sauce:

We make every effort to source packaging materials that do not contain potentially harmful chemicals. However, sometimes it can be difficult to do given what is available in the marketplace. The inside of our pasta sauce caps have two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first coating does have BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, which isolates the first coating from contact with the food product in the jar.

In addition, BPA migration is reduced by the following three points. 1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, which isolates the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food. 2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum. 3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for other canned tomatoes for example.

Eden brand, which is one of the only brands that bothers to have non-BPA can linings, didn’t write me back at all, but has basically the same thing on its Web site:

Is the amber glass tomato jar lid BPA free?
A search for a lid for our glass jars again confirmed that ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect food package.’ Regardless, we found the best there is.
The inside of the twist caps has two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first applied coating has BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, isolating the first coating from contact with the jar’s contents.
Potential for migration of BPA is reduced by the following:

  1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, isolating the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food.
  2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum.
  3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for canned goods. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds like these two have the same supplier, which made me wonder how many companies make jars that size, anyway.

Amy’s brand, which is supposed to be so family-friendly, was happy to brag about their new BPA-free can linings, but utterly ignored my questions about jar linings:

I’m so sorry so much time has passed before responding. Your query was passed along to us at Fortune Public Relations. I’ve attached the press release about the Amy’s non-BPA liners. The glass jars are not made with BPA. Unfortunately, I don’t have any specifics in regard to your other questions. 
Thanks so much for your interest in Amy’s and your concerns about BPA liners. We’re thrilled that Amy’s has moved all of its canned products to non-BPA liners. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.

So, the glass jars lack BPA, which should be obvious, but nothing about the lids for the jars.

Note that Amy’s also ducked the question about what is being used as a substitute in the cans, which is also missing from their Website announcement:

We are pleased to announce that as of March 1, 2012, Amy’s has completely transitioned to cans using no BPA in the formulation of its liner. Even though BPA is omnipresent in the environment from a multitude of sources, testing levels on our canned products with the new liner are showing reduced BPA levels of less than 1 part per billion.

I wrote back to say that I was surprised that Amy’s would not tell me what was being used as a substitute in the cans. No response. A BPA-free can is likely good news. But I was as unimpressed by their approach to customer service as I am by their flavorless frozen hockey pucks “burritos.”

Muir Glen (owned by General Mills) also wouldn’t answer the questions, really. It actually took numerous deliberately annoying posts by me and my helpful pals to the company’s Facebook page, which is their only consumer contact point, on a sub-page they sent to digital Siberia, to get any answer at all. Here’s the saucy parts of that back-and-forth:

  • MG: Hi Laura – We recently completed our transition to a can liner made without BPA. The new liner is made of vinyl and does not contain phthalates. It is an approved liner and has been safely used in food products for years.
  • Me: Thanks so much for your answer. If it is vinyl, does it contain PVC or flourinated chemicals? Also, approved by whom please?
  • MG: To answer your questions, there are no harmful chemicals in the liner. The liner has been thoroughly tested and used as a food can lining for more than 20 years.
  • Me: Sorry, but that vague answer is not really responsive to my specific question. It’s not like the options for non-BPA lined cans are a secret — some companies use oleoresins, a more natural option, and other use layers of plastic. It’s strange to me that you wouldn’t be more forthcoming. Don’t you think that, as a consumer of your products, I deserve to know the details of the food I buy?
  • Others also helpfully chimed in: What is the name of the new chemical or chemicals you are now using in place of BPA?/ Interestingly, BPA had been thoroughly tested and has been used as a food can lining for decades as well. It is an interesting conundrum, wondering if the solution is better or worse than the problem. / Muir-Glen, can you be more specific and answer Laura’s question about the liner containing PVC and flourinated chemicals?
  • Me: Just learned Muir Glen is owned by General Mills. is that why they won’t answer my questions???
  • MG: Laura, The lining in our BPA-free cans has been safely used in food products for more than 20 years, and fully complies with U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements. It’s a non-epoxy can that does not contain phthalates or any unsafe or unproven components. For competitive reasons we don’t disclose our exact packaging formulations. We recognize your detailed questions above, and apologize that we can’t answer every one of them, but this is as much information as we can provide.
  • Me: Thanks, at last, for some response. I do appreciate that. However, you also appear to recognize the inadequacy of this information from a consumer perspective. Your mere assurance that something is not “unsafe” or that it meets legal requirements (which I would assume it does!) is not enough information for me to evaluate the validity of your claims on safety, given that federal law STILL allows BPA (and other endocrine disrupting chemicals) in food packaging, and I don’t believe there’s a rule on PFOAs or PVC at all. [Note: I was wrong on PVCs, as below.] Furthermore, I really don’t see how answering my questions on what chemicals are NOT in the lining and what TYPE of lining is used could possibly be a competitiveness issue, given that I haven’t asked for any detail on chemical formulations and presumably, your competitors could merely buy one of your cans and analyze the contents of the lining. Lastly, your answer only addressed can linings, and I was actually MORE interested in glass jar lid linings, as I’ve avoided cans for years due to these concerns.

A got a whole lot o’ nothin’ after that. (I gather from these slides by Pomi that Muir Glen/General Mills is actually one of the only companies to have cracked the problem of a BPA-free lining for canned tomatoes, which may explain why they were so dodgy.)

Field Day did provide some specific answers, peppered with both good and bad news. This is a fairly thorough reply, but notably, no information on the substitutes, if any, in packaging listed here as BPA-free:

Regarding BPA in Field Day cans: 
The cans do contain trace amounts of BPA.  All containers supplied for our products have an internal enamel system on the body and container’s ends.  The internal enamel serves a dual purpose where it protects the product from the container as well as the container from the product.  All enamel systems are safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for product contact. 
As much as we would like to turn the switch off for BPA we must also be assured that we are offering a safer alternative. We are working hard to source out BPA Free packaging in every category. There are great replacements in some categories and we do use BPA Free packing on the Field Day items listed:
  • Organic Applesauce-BPA Free cups
  • Eco Friendly Baby Wipes-BPA Free tubs and packages
  • Organic Balsamic Vinegar-BPA Free caps
  • Organic Fruit Cups-BPA Free cups
  • Organic Maple Syrups-BPA Free jugs
  • Organic Easy Spread Peanut Butters-BPA Free jars
  • Italian Sparkling Mineral Water-BPA Free bottle
However, there is no single alternative replacement for BPA in all can linings. Each food product formulation has its own set of demands. For example, acidic foods present particular challenges that differ from other types of foods. Once a BPA replacement is identified, its performance must be tested over the shelf life of the particular food product for its safety and regulatory approval before it can be used.
Given the growing evidence and consumer concern about BPA’s impact on human health and the environment, Field Day is working closely with its current product suppliers to adopt BPA-free packaging where ever possible while maintaining Field Day’s high nutrition and quality standards. Our suppliers are working hard to source alternatives that are proven safe, effective, and are regulated appropriately. In fact, our olives and beans are now being tested in BPA Free can alternatives, and if results are favorable we may have a substitute in 2012 or 2013! Again, due to olives having a long shelf life the tests for alternative packaging must run as long to support that.
Field Day will identity BPA-free packaging on its product labels and customer website either when they become available or when they are switched over to BPA Free packaging. Field Day will continue to foster the natural product industry’s discussion of BPA concerns and alternative packaging options.[Emphasis added.]
 
Latimore Valley Farms not only didn’t answer, but pretended I was asking about whether the sauce was actually prepared in the jars (duh), and reassured me that no sauce touches the lid (see the above pics for how true that is).

Hi Laura,  We do a marinara sauce, tomato soup, barbeque sauce that contain tomatoes.  All products are in glass jars not metal.  We cook the product to a high temp in steam kettles and then put it in the jars and leave about one quarter of an inch down so the food is not in contact with the lid.  We do not cook the product in the jar.

My response: Hi, Thanks so much for this response, but it really doesn’t address the questions I asked. In terms of the jars you use, is there BPA or other endocrine disruptors — or PVC or flourotelemers, in the lining under the lid? Are these chemicals are in the jar is the question. All best, Laura

Radio silence.

The rotten tomato for all of us:

I would assume that jar lids for everything – drinks, honey, peanut butter, tomato sauce, you name it – has BPA in it, and if you’re lucky it’s down (or up!) a layer or two. (And of course most cans do as well, including soda, juice and beer cans.)

Given that not a single company that levels with the public said that they were BPA-free with regard to jarred tomatoes, and that consumer awareness hasn’t really caught on with regard to BPA concerns in jar lid linings (as opposed to cans), I think companies are hoping that this word doesn’t get out.

(As some confirmation, this article about the European Union rule banning BPA in baby bottles (effective last year) essentially says that what the plastics folks are really worried about is “an escalation of action into other packaging areas, such as epoxy-based coatings for metal packaging.” Perhaps that’s why in the U.S., the chemical and plastics industries last fall actually asked regulators to ban BPA in baby bottles here as well, in an attempt to head off their PR problem.)

Back to tomatoes: I suppose it’s possible that some jar lids for less acidic foods than tomatoes don’t have BPA, but no one said so, even the companies with lots of products in addition to tomato sauce. To do this, companies would have to source BPA-free jars and non-BPA free jars for different foods, which would likely raise expenses.

I would bet, based on these answers, that most companies have not even bothered to try to obtain BPA-free lids for jars in the absence of any regulation or public information to the contrary.

2) If not BPA, what are companies using?

Since companies ARE still using BPA in jar lids, you’d think this one would be simple. But in asking these questions, I stumbled upon another problem: the layers of plastic that enclose BPA in the lid are likely to be made of vinyl, a known carcinogen. Here’s more on that from the refreshingly helpful, candid owner of Organicville:

Yes, part of the pasta cap is PVC-based, no phthalates are present though.

Yup, “PVC-based.” And the other suppliers I quoted above also ALL mention vinyl when we do get any detail about what’s in the lid. Actually, this article helpfully lays out the four current possibilities for BPA substitutes:

There are currently four generally recognized alternatives including vinyl, acrylic, polyester and oleoresins.

Gee, three of those sound like holdovers from a super-fly 1970s wardrobe of unbreathable fabrics. No wonder companies don’t want to say. Some polyester in your soup, anyone?

Oleoresin is the only one that doesn’t seem utterly revolting to have near food and appears to be relatively safe on my initial review. It must work decently well, because Eden says, as to cans, that’s their BPA substitute:

Since April of 1999, EDEN beans have featured a custom made can lined with an oleoresinous c-enamel that does not contain the endocrine disrupter BPA. Oleoresin is a mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir.

As vinyl is the other liner that was mentioned for jar lids by the companies, that’s what I looked into next. I was shocked to learn that vinyl chloride is actually authorized for use in food packaging by the oh-so-on-it FDA:

The FDA is responsible for regulating vinyl chloride as an indirect food additive. With regard to components of coatings, paper, and paperboard, the FDA states that when vinyl chloride is copolymerized with certain other substances, it is a safe food-contact surface.

In contrast, here’s what the government’s own toxicology report says about vinyl chloride:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), ranks vinyl chloride as a Class A carcinogen;
  • The American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists calls it a “confirmed human carcinogen;”
  • And “[v]inyl chloride is a known human carcinogen by the inhalation route of exposure, based on human epidemiological data, and by analogy the oral route because of positive animal bioassay data as well as pharmacokinetic data allowing dose extrapolation across routes. Vinyl chloride is also considered highly likely to be carcinogenic by the dermal route because it is well absorbed and acts systemically (EPA 1996).” [Emphasis added.]

My translation: Vinyl causes cancer if you eat it.

And this 2010 Report for the President’s Cancer Panel called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk” states that vinyl chloride has a “strong” causal link to liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.

Vinyl chloride has also been banned for use in aerosol pharmaceuticals:

Vinyl chloride: All aerosol drug products containing vinyl chloride. The inhalation of vinyl chloride is associated with acute toxicity manifested by dizziness, headache, disorientation, and unconsciousness.

So, in addition to BPA, we all may be eating from food packaged in vinyl or another plastic right above the sauce – some of which, unlike Organicville’s, could also have harmful pthalates (softeners, like DEHP) in it as well.

And vinyl (the PVC form, as here) is specifically flagged in the research way back up at the top of this post as generating estrogenic activity, so we may be covering up BPA with other estrogenic plastics.

PVC, or vinyl, is the same stuff we have been told by environmental groups to avoid in our shower curtains and liners, for example, and has that awful acrid smell when you open the package on those kinds of products. Mmm, that goes well with garlic.

The other rotten tomato for all of us:

Vinyl. In our food.

Most ironically, if companies are trading out BPA for a layer of vinyl, we may be worse off than we were before.

3) OMG. What about Tetra-paks? Will you take those from me too?

The good news is that it appears to be true that Tetra-paks are BPA-free.

The bad news on Tetra-paks is that, at least for tomatoes, I didn’t see an organic option.  And that, sorry to say, the packaging has aluminum, several layers in, and the inner layer is made of polyethylene plastic, according to this helpful presentation from Pomi’s Web site.

Dealing with the layers in turn: 1) Aluminum is certainly a suspect metal, particularly with higher levels of exposure, such as for workers, and in children. But it’s evidently not in contact with the food. 2) I asked Pomi about whether the polyethylene was treated with anything, and got no answer at all.

Polyethylene (PE or PET) is identified by a “1” and is typically considered one of the safer plastics: it’s what most water bottles are made of, for example.

Unfortunately, I did find several health concerns that have been identified – one recent review of many other studies finding endocrine disrupting effects from leaching in PET bottles, for example. The study found that the amount of leaching depended on whether the bottles were subjected to heat, for example, as well as their age.

It stands to reason that, if tomatoes are really that good at breaking down chemicals, there may be far more plastic-related chemicals in the sauce for those packages than there are for water, for example.

Side investigation: Are milk-boxes safe?

I also got curious about the smaller Tetra-paks that we very occasionally give Maya containing Horizon organic milk. (As a side note, it used to completely frost me that they market sugary milk, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors, as convenience food to children, who don’t need added sugar in anything. Most Starbucks don’t even stock the plain milk, which is so incredibly annoying when you’re out and about with a child you really don’t need to be any more hyper. But it’s actually far worse than that, as you’ll see.)

The Horizon rep, whom I spoke with on the phone, confirmed information similar to the above. Their Tetra-pak contains:

  • 70% paper;
  • 6% aluminum;
  • 24% polyethylene (the innermost layer; no additives).

She clarified that the aluminum does not contact the milk. Of course, the milk is basically encased in polyethylene, which, as noted in the quotes way up at the top, can leach estrogenic chemicals even without additives.

That got me thinking about regular milk cartons. After being prompted by a comment, I called Horizon back and learned that even their regular big milk cartons have a layer of polyethylene plastic on the inside, in contact with the milk. I guess it makes sense that it’s not going to work if it’s all cardboard, but I know I hadn’t focused on this issue at all until now.

So, even though its darn inconvenient and we have to pay a bottle deposit, we’ve now switched milks, once again, this time to the glass containers with organic, pasture-raised milk, which is only one brand sold by my local hyper-crunchy coop. It is delicious, and unlike most whole milk, which still has been centrifuged and has had fat removed, the cream and milk solids are still floating around in it. So that’s an upside, at least.

###

Conclusion:  In the Sauce, Indeed

As we all know too well, we’re swimming in plastic and so is our food.

Following this little adventure into food packaging, here’s what I know and don’t know:

  • Eden brand uses BPA-free linings in cans (oleoresin); not tomato cans; not jar lids (It’s labeled on the cans I’ve seen, which is great);
  • Muir Glen (General Mills) uses BPA-free linings in some cans, including tomatoes; not jar lids (not sure if it’s labeled or what the BPA substitute is);
  • Amy’s now uses BPA-free linings in cans; not jar lids (no information on the BPA substitute or labeling);
  • Field Day has some items in BPA-free packaging, as above (no infomation on substitutes; not sure what’s labeled);
  • Basically all jar lids still have BPA in them, though it may be under a layer of vinyl, raising separate concerns about both cancer and estrogenic activity;
  • Tetrapaks are another form of a plastic bottle, basically, and while they may be safer, they raise the same issues as any other plastic bottle, except for acidic foods like tomatoes there may be more leaching.

In sum, on the tomato sauce question, what I take from this is that it would be really hard to know without a specific comparison by a bio-chemist whether the small amount of BPA and exposed vinyl in jar lids from glass jars are more or less safe than non-organic tomatoes from a polyethylene-lined, aluminum-based Tetra-pak. And all of these linings are suspected of being estrogenic.

Basically, in the face of no good options at all, I am going to try to make my own fresh tomato sauce or pesto whenever I can. And to see if I can find some Weck jars without any plastic-y surface under the lid and maybe even try my hand at canning fresh ones.

Or in a pinch, I’ll buy the jarred stuff from Organicville, just because she was a human being and straight with me.

In the meantime, we should all talk up this issue of the need for JAR LIDS – and not just cans – that are BPA-free. The Pomi slides, and this industry analysis, both make clear that the major trade-offs for the food packaging and food companies for substitutes for BPA are two:

  1. Cost of the packaging (increased by between 3 cents and 13 cents per can);
  2. Shelf-life (lowered to 18 months).

These are really unbelievably petty concerns in the face of the hormonal onslaught their plastic containers are exposing us all to.

Beverage containers, cans and jars should all be free of BPA-type plastics AND vinyl, and the industry should be required to switch to oleoresins or find other safe, non-plastic options.

If this reduces shelf life, that really seems a small price to pay. We all have too much junk in our cupboards anyway.

And for companies like some of the baby-food ones, who have made a switch to BPA-free jars, we should make them tell us what they are using instead. If it’s acrylic or polyester, wouldn’t you like to know? I wouldn’t dress a baby in that, much less make her eat it…

Though why consumers have to, once again, do the job that should really be done by the FDA is beyond me. Only the government has the regulatory power to make companies do the right thing, and a decisive government rule would be far more fair — both to the marketplace, so that companies all face the same costs, and to consumers, so that we don’t need to become super-sleuths just to buy a stupid jar of tomatoes.

Remember what lead pipes did to the Romans? In point of fact, given our global economy, this is actually a species-level concern. Our food should be sold in safe containers. Really. If we can put people on the moon, I think we should be able to figure this one out.

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My persnickety questions to companies:

Greetings,

I am a blogger at www.Laurasrules.org – who writes on environmental health matters and I am doing a post on tomato sauce. I have a few questions for you – the answers will be evaluated for transparency for consumers and completeness.

1)     Do cans sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lining?

2)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

3)     Is such lining free of similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

4)     Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

5)     Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

6)     Do glass jars sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lid lining?

7)     If so, is it in contact with food or is there an intervening layer? If there is an intervening layer, what evidence is available about whether it leaches into the food?

8)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

9)     Generally, is such lining free of other similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

10)  Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

11)  Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

Thank you for your time. I hope to be able to make recommendations to consumers based on this information.

Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.

Pastoral or Pastiche? The Fictional Farm and a Philosophy of Food

“Many animals live on the farm. The cow and her calf live in the barn. The horse and the colt live in the stable. Mama hen and her chicks live in a coop.”

Maya’s books are full of lies. Chock full, you might say.

Even setting aside all the animals’ surprising gift of gab, book after dog-eared book has the pig running after the goose, consorting with the horse, and negotiating a game with the cow, all around a red-doored barn, sitting high on a grassy hill.

Contrast this heartening (if admittedly corny), picture with the chicken hellscape in Nicholas Kristof’s column about an investigation into an egg farm in today’s New York Times:

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added. Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.

Several states – and all of Europe – have banned the most confining types of cages for egg-laying hens. But due to a lack of national standards in the U.S., animal welfare laws on farms are generally spotty and weak.

In other news just from today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin a voluntary program to require prescriptions for antibiotic drugs for healthy farm animals. Since the drugs been used to spur growth rather than treat illness, risking super-bugs, this is a step in the right direction, albeit hampered inexplicably by its “voluntary” nature.

On the even ickier side, a small study of slaughtered chickens found (admittedly harmless) e coli fecal contamination in 48 percent of the samples tested. Mmm. Some poop with that hot wing?

Sadly, none of this is really news. If you have the stomach for it (and I don’t, most days), check out this This American Life episode for television (yes, TV), in which they visit a pig farm so removed from the barnyard that the Muppets’ segment “Pigs in Space” appears eerily prophetic.

The most heart-breaking part of the whole porcine show is when the farmer and his son visit their tiny group of rootin-in-the-dirt “outdoor” pigs and reminisce about the past in which pigs were pigs, and the push for production didn’t require farms to take on crippling debt to pay for expensive technologies that, quite literally, alienate the humans and animals involved.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, modern practices of mono-cultural farming takes animals off the land, thereby creating health and waste management problems for the animals (and us), and impoverishing the soil so that it requires fertilizers, which in turn pollutes the soil. Rinse, repeat.

And garbage in, garbage out. The food resulting from this system is nutritionally impoverished, because chickens are not eating the grubs and insects that add minerals to their eggs, and because the meat of grain (as opposed to grass) fed cows is lower in Omega-3s, which are critical to health, as Marion Nestle explains in her seminal guide to healthy food, What to Eat.

Cows in particular, because they are ruminants that are supposed to eat grass, become ill under feedlot conditions. The animals, to maintain a baseline in such an unnatural setting, are given drugs, including hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants, all of which ends up in our water and also likely in our food.

I am not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, it troubles me, as it obviously does Kristof, that animals do not live as animals in this industrialized conveyor belt of nutrition pellets. It seems obvious to me that animals are capable of fear, stress, and suffering, and that they deserve access to sunshine and some reasonable semblance of a life that suits their animal ways.

Humans also fare poorly in this system, whether as workers, as chronicled in the wandering but humane video novella, Fast Food Nation, or as consumers of an impoverished and polluted food supply.

It is also profoundly, even unethically, wasteful. As Pollan explained in an incredibly hopeful and worthwhile summary of his thesis on how food policy should change, from the sunnily naïve perspective of 2008:

When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. …[Instead,] crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

The truth is, when I look at Maya’s books, I think we know all this. The books are more than nostalgic markers for a pastoral imaginary that no longer, generally speaking, exists.

Both her natural obsession with animals and their many, many weird noises, and these books’ reflexive, fantastical depictions of the animal world, speak to a deep craving in children, and in all of us, to learn our place in the order of things.

We see who we are in how we treat animals, if we’ll only look. In this, the moral argument by animal rights’ activists is essentially correct. As John Berger observed in About Looking regarding a similar nostalgic assignment of place:

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe, to see them, is, in fact a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.

So we’re all up against impossibility. And nonetheless, as grandiose as it may sound, I source our meat and dairy with great care, mainly because I want to nurture sources for these with intentional respect.

I choose certified organic grass-fed meats and pastured eggs because those animals are in the right relationship with the environment, with the sun, and with the nutrients that are supposed to enrich that food. The food is better, the farming we support is better, and the concerns about toxic additions like pesticides and hormones simply go away.

It’s flippin’ expensive, and certainly a luxury in a world where people still struggle to eat at all. For our part, though, I’d rather buy less, and more of the best — meat, milk, butter, and eggs — than just read to Maya from another damn book with talking animals, playing another winsome, cutesy game of “let’s pretend.”

###

What we do:

  • I like certified organic, because, as Marion Nestle puts in What to Eat (at 45): “[I]f you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea.”
  • Organic certification provides an agreed-upon set of standards, and government enforcement. Organic certification also has some shortcomings, including costs that favor larger producers, and animal welfare conditions that may not be much better than conventional farms (though with fewer antibiotics and pesticides in the feed). If farmers at the market say they are better than organic, that’s all well and good, but I have to take their word for it. I tend to go for certified (and local) if I can, even though it’s far from a perfect system. Still, local close-to-organic (to keep carbon miles down) can be fine if you feel confident in the promises made about the product. Visiting a farm is also a nice way to see for yourself how animals are treated.
  • Going beyond organic, basically, is all about grass and sunshine. So, organic, grass-fed beef is best (grass-fed and grass-finished is even better), even though, frankly, the rules defining “grass-fed” on the label leave a lot unspecified. If you can ask questions at the farmer’s market, all the better.
  • For milk, we buy whole, organic, grass-fed milk (which is quite a shift from the watery milk-like substance I grew up with). For safety reasons, I don’t believe in giving raw milk to children (if adults want to risk their health for a marginal increase in enzymes, that’s up to them).
  • For eggs, we buy pastured (sometimes labeled pasture-raised) and organic. These are often hard to find (Trader Joe’s never has them, Whole Foods rarely). Our crunchy-as-hemp-granola local natural food Coop and farmer’s markets are the best sources I’ve come across. 
  • For butter, we buy grass-fed and organic (see the pattern?). Given that chemicals like pesticides accumulate in fats, the key for butter is organic.
  • For yogurt and cheese, I look for grass-fed and organic, but will settle in a pinch for “rbST-free,” which indicates it’s free of bovine growth hormones.
  • For chicken, I look for pastured chicken, raised sustainably. At Whole Foods, this is indicated by the 4 or higher animal welfare rating, which always seems to be sold out. I’ve been buying whole young chickens at our farmer’s market and sticking the whole thing in soup, or, failing that, hacking it up myself, which is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, given that I’m hardly out of the Cordon Bleu.
  • We make do with less meat, due to the significant increase in price. I tend to make stews, soups and other dishes that stretch flavors along for half a week or so.
  • It is far more expensive to eat this way. And pickier to source, by far.
  • Buying in bulk from a farm share (or “CSA”) sometimes helps with costs, and usually is fresher and better quality. It’s always nice to know the farm and farmer, and connect the dots.
  • When traveling or eating out, basically all bets are off. I try to find organic snacks, and pack Maya’s food and milk at least. And we eat out much less than we used to. Still, the dearth of sources for the best food is a problem. When we’re out and about, given the challenges, I let it go, and figure that most of what we eat at home is better, and that has to be good enough.

More Resources:

  • Eat Wild is a great resource for locating wilder foodstuffs, local farms, and for reading about the benefits of grass-fed and pastured foods.
  • You can look up your local CSA’s at Local Harvest. Or ask around at your local farmer’s market, since you already have the pick-up location figured out.
  • If you haven’t read it already, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a moveable feast for back-to-nature foodies.
  • I also generally follow anything the eminently smart and sensible Marion Nestle writes, but much of her focus is on the (utterly inadequate) regulation of food, and (frighteningly corrupt) politics of food. People who are not nearly as nerdy as I am may have more life-affirming preoccupations.

Losing My Beans Over BPA

As you likely know by now, last week, the Food and Drug Administration completely dropped the ball on getting a dangerous chemical, Bisphenol-A, out of our food supply. Instead, the agency announced they will keep studying the issue while the chemical companies continue their little experiment on the general public.

How dangerous is BPA? Check out this truly interesting interview with a leading scientist who sounded the alarm on the chemical, Frederick vom Saal, in a Yale University environmental journal, in which he talks about how the chemical companies were so alarmed by his findings that BPA acts like a hormone in the body, even at low doses, that they tried to bribe him not to publish his findings:

Then Dow Chemical sent somebody down and said, “Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome, where you don’t publish this paper?” — which had already been accepted. I got a call a few weeks later, from somebody who said, “I’m aware that the chemical manufacturers are gearing up for a multi-million-dollar campaign about how great BPA is for babies,” borrowing a page out of Dutch Boy Paints, where, knowing lead kills babies, they targeted it as making your baby happy.

This was in 1996. That is, Dow Chemical was nervous that the government might actually respond to these frightening scientific findings, um, 16 years ago. Did they overestimate the integrity of the government, or underestimate their own ability to obfuscate the issue, or both, I wonder.

It’s too bad all for us that they were wrong to worry in the first place. I first read about BPA in can linings when I was pregnant, just in time for a canned food drive by a local charity, so out they went. Since then, I’ve been mainly using dried beans, and storing them in this:

So imagine my dismay when, just this week, I checked the bottom of the container and found a small 7 inside a triangle, meaning that the container could be polycarbonate plastic, a BPA-containing form of plastic.

Humming Alanis Morrisette to myself, I wrote to Oxo, the maker of the container, to ask whether the plastic bin for my red beans was, in fact, a storage problem. The answer was no:

Name: Laura MacCleery
Product Name: Oxo food storage container

Message: I have used medium sized oxo storage containers for years, and just noticed they are marked with a 7 on the bottom. Is this plastic polycarbonate? Does it have BPA or other endocrine disrupting chemicals in it? Thanks so much, Laura

From: OXO Info
Subject: RE: Question about a Product
To: “Laura MacCleery”
Date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 10:28 AM

Dear Laura,

Thank you for contacting the OXO Consumer Care Center. Please be assured that our consumers’ safety is a top priority during the development of our products.  There have been many recent reports in the news/media regarding the safety of certain food storage containers.  These reports are originating out of concerns about the safety of the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) which is used in Polycarbonate (PC), one of the many types of plastics included under the recycling symbol #7.

This symbol is used to classify all plastic types that do not fall under categories 1-6 for recycling purposes, and although some plastics in category 7 do contain BPA, many others do not.  OXO’s POP Containers fall under recycling symbol 7 because they are made of SAN (Styrene-Acrylonitrile); however, SAN is not made with BPA, so OXO’s POP Containers are BPA-Free.  Please do not hesitate contacting us if we may be of any further assistance.

We are always happy to assist you.  Thank you for being a valued consumer!

 Thank you,

Brooke

OXO Consumer Care Center

www.oxo.comwww.facebook.com/oxowww.twitter.com/oxo

 ###

Ok, so far, so good, though I keep in mind that even BPA-free plastics have been tested as having BPA in them, so I’ll switch to glass when I see something serviceable.

Update: Having researched the considerable health risks of styrene a little more, I’ve tossed these and am going with glass for all food containers. Here’s a Greenpeace Webguide on plastics:

Acrylonitrile is highly toxic and readily absorbed by humans by inhalation and directly through the skin. Both the liquid and its vapor are highly toxic. Acrylonitrile is classified as a probable human carcinogen as are styrene and butadiene.

And while I was on a BPA-sleuthing tour of duty, I couldn’t stop myself from taking the next step and looking closely at the brand of canned goods we do use, Eden brand, which is labeled as BPA-free. The results were, mostly, reassuring:

Dear Eden,

Thank you very much for making cans without BPA in the linings. Please also let me know whether the lining that you do use, as described on your Web site, contains any estrogenic or endocrine disrupting chemicals or natural substances.

Thanks,
Laura

From: Sandy Baker
Sent: Friday, April 06, 2012 9:43 AM
To: Laura MacCleery
Subject: Re: Cans and endocrine disruptors

Dear Laura,

Thank you for contacting Eden Foods and your interest in Eden products.

Eden Organic Beans are packed in tin covered steel cans coated with a baked on oleoresinous (a natural mixture of an oil and a resin extracted from various plants, such as pine or balsam fir) c-enamel lining that does not contain bisphenol-A. These cans cost 14% more than the industry standard cans, which do contain bisphenol-A.

Eden Organic Tomatoes are packed in tin covered steel cans coated with a baked on r-enamel lining. Due to the acidity of tomatoes, the lining is epoxy based and may contain a minute amount of bisphenol-A, it is however in the ‘non detectable’ range according to independent laboratory Extraction Tests. These tests were based on a detection level at 5 ppb (parts per billion).

If you should have any further questions, please let us know.

Sincerely,

Sales Associate

Eden Foods, Inc.

###

Interestingly, although Eden clearly cares about doing things right in some ways, that little detail about the trace use in the tomato cans is not on their main Web site page about BPA, and it should be.

And the math is stunning to me. Even if the price of the cans is 20 cents out of the $3.00 or so I pay for Eden beans (which is likely a high estimate), then the cost of BPA-lined cans would be 14 percent less than that, or 17.2 cents, making the price difference between BPA cans and non-BPA cans around 3 cents per can. I can see why the industry cares about that price difference, but from a family budget perspective, it’s utterly negligible. This is what all the fuss is about?

For tomatoes, we already use Tetra-paks or jarred sauces (and sometimes, when I’m feeling really uptight about how much Maya eats tomato sauce, I even put a circle of wax paper under the jar lid to keep it from contacting the food, which works pretty well in terms of sticking to the lid. I have no data on how well, as a barrier, it performs.).

[Update: Tetra paks are lined with plastic, and most tomato sauces have either vinyl or BPA under the lid, as I explain in this later post: Seeing Red: My Fruitless Search for a Chemical-Free Jar of Tomato Sauce. One exception to this is Jovial Foods, whose jars have no BPA, as I confirmed with the company, and only a small amount of vinyl.]

But we still haven’t found BPA-free options for coconut milk. Any ideas?

Have you discovered BPA lurking in some hidden corner of your home? Do tell.

5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

Myth #1: There is a big laboratory in Washington which tests products for safety and bans unsafe stuff. After all, they wouldn’t be able to sell it if it wasn’t safe.

The sad, sad truth: There isn’t much oversight, really. A few government agencies (the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency) have responsibility over toys, food, and chemicals, respectively. But there are not many standards that apply before a product is sold.

Unlike for prescription drugs, where at least pharmaceutical companies have to make a showing that a drug works and is safe, for most things sold in the U.S. there is no pre-market obligation to show it’s safe and healthy to use.

On chemicals, the laws have not been updated since the 1970s, and were too weak to begin with. Laws like the Clean Water Act are showing their age – since, just for example, thanks to an enterprising high school student, we now know there are birth control pills, antibiotics and other trace pharmaceuticals in all of our water, and no real effort to get them out. Food oversight, as Obama remarked to hearty guffaws last year, is spread across a dizzying array of different agencies.

And the standards for what can be sold – much less what is considered safe – also vary widely. What with their lobbying and political power, and the revolving door, companies play the agencies like so many broken fiddles. And when Congress tries to step up, the industry swarms all over Capitol Hill like dollar bills over an investment banker.

In fact, the only place in across all of the law that imposes a general duty for manufacturers to care about what happens to consumers (called the “duty of care”) is when some injured family sues them for negligence. That’s why companies malign “trial lawyers” so much, and conservative courts and legislatures work to drastically curtail so-called “punitive” damages (that is, the amount of money the company should pay so that they won’t repeat the bad behavior, in addition to paying back the mere peanuts typically owed an injured person).

Other than taking them to court when you or someone you love has been hurt, which is, let’s face it, an important, though depressing and inadequate, after-the-fact way of paying medical bills following a human-caused tragedy, all we have are the government’s weak and inadequate rules. And there’s no laboratory in the sky there, believe me.

If you’re overwhelmed by this fact, be aware that both Europe and Canada have more protective rules on chemicals, and the European Union’s system does require a showing of safety for some chemicals, which is a major step in the right direction. (In fact, we now see companies selling stuff here in the U.S. that they can’t in Europe due to its stronger laws.) So there is a clear path forward, if we could only get our dunderheaded political system to unlock itself.

And small steps can make a huge difference. For some chemicals, Bisphenol-A, for example, we know that reducing exposure leads to a clear drop in the chemical’s presence in humans. So whenever we do take action, the effects will be immediate.

Myth #2: Pollution is out there, in the burning river. Or in the Superfund site, over in that other town.

Not true, and we should have asked Fido and Fluffy. The scope and intensity of indoor environmental pollution also has been a bit of a shock to researchers, who in 2008, for example, tested cats and dogs and found disturbing levels of flame retardants (23 times higher than people), teflon, and mercury.

So-called “body burden” studies of people measuring chemicals in their blood tell us that we have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals in our bodies today that our great-grandparents did not.

In fact, we now know that man-made environments are frequently toxic. Just stop and think for a moment about the number of highly engineered products in your home: the upholstered furniture, paint, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, processed foods, mattresses, your dry-cleaning hang in the closet, all of the plastic containers and bottles, the electronics doused in flame retardants and filled with heavy metals. Now think about how much of that was in a home a scant one hundred years ago.

When NASA designed vehicles in which to take people into space back in the 1970s, it had to commission an engineer to work on innovative strategies to de-toxify that closed space, to ensure it was habitable due to the off-gassing of the materials used to build the spacecraft. Now, it’s clear that we’re all on that spacecraft.

The truth is that we’re in the midst of a massive experiment in genetics and chemistry. We are largely guessing about the effects of many of these chemicals on humans, as the science to tell us what we are doing to ourselves is still under development, and we have very little idea of how the chemicals do and could interact with each other in the environment.

In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps we’d all do better to open our windows a little more, consume a little less of what we don’t really need, and look for simpler ingredients in every category of thing we buy. And be very careful while pregnant.

And, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s really not too much to ask that chemicals that are not proven to be safe be kept out of the food supply, out of other consumer goods, and away from our families.

Myth #3: Only big doses of toxic chemicals can hurt us.

One stalling tactic of chemical companies is to argue about something called the “dose-response relationship.” What they mean is that studies of rats taking really high doses of some chemical or other do not accurately predict what will happen to humans who may have far smaller amounts of that chemical in their bodies.

Unfortunately for their theories, the science is often more complicated than that defensive poo-poohing of our legitimate concerns. What researchers have discovered very recently is that tiny amounts of certain types of chemicals – in particular, the ones that act like hormones in the human body (called “endocrine disruptors”) – are strongly linked to particular effectsBisphenol-A is one of these kinds of chemicals, as are pthalates, which are in a lot of plastics and fragrances.

In addition, low doses may cause the body to act differently than high doses.  And to complicate matters even further, small exposures to a chemical during a crucial stage of development, such as pregnancy, or even infancy (think: an 8-pound baby), may have impacts that forever impact health.

When we just put chemicals, willy-nilly, into the environment, we can’t control how and when a pregnant woman may be exposed. So instead we ask whether a chemical will impact a developing person in the same way as a mouse. Sorry, um, I have an issue with that. And with the dubious ethics of continued exposure in face of evidence of harm.

Of course, we should also care about how higher doses of chemicals will impact workers, like those in factories and nail salons, or even the visibly pregnant cashier I spoke to last week at my neighborhood café about handling hundreds of receipts and dollar bills per day covered in unbound BPA. They took her off the register after my conversation with her (and now she smiles at me when I come in), but what about the woman with that same job in the next town?

Myth #4: The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

You might think that flame retardants in the foam and fabric of your sofa would stay put – that is, unless your 18-month old rips a big hole in your cheapo leather chair, as mine did last week. Still, like you, we have no plans to eat the upholstery.

But body burden testing and tests of indoor air pollution and household dust reveal that flame retardants and other chemicals disintegrate and migrate from the inside of things to the floor. Once on the floor, it gets into the dust, the air and on our clothes. And into the bodies of pregnant women, where it impacts their thyroid.

In California, which has absurd rules that require nearly everything under the West Coast sun to have chemically toxic flame retardants in it (a rule brought back every year from the brink of extinction by a shadowy frontgroup for the chemical manufacturers), Mexican-American children have 7 times the amount of flame retardants in their bodies than do children in Mexico. Really.

Is it because Californian children eat the upholstery alongside their tofu? Um, doubtful. Its more likely from skin, butter, air, breastmilk, hand-to-mouth contact, and er, being a child.

And how did BPA get in the urine of 93 percent of all of us, anyhow? Were we all chewing on can liners and clear plastic water bottles? Well… maybe sometimes. The FDA may be a little confused on this point, but the National Institutes for Health seem to know the answer, and really, the notion that we can just tell something to stay put and hope that it listens to us is a fiction all of us parents have to get over pretty quickly. It’s long past time the regulators did as well.

Myth #5: Our cupboards are full of organic flax seed and fair trade, shade-grown coffee. We’ll be fine.

I’m actually a big believer in voting with your dollars, as you can afford to, for better toys, cleaners, furniture, and food. Our farmer’s market is a regular destination, and I ask questions about everything from environmental health to safety (see the Letters tab for a selection of my persnickety questions). And choosing organic food makes a big difference in whether you’re eating pesticides, as I’ll cover in a future post.

But, as I told the New York Times, we can’t shop our way to a solution here. I’ll be posting about all my difficulties in trying to eliminate as many toxins as we can, and how some can’t be avoided altogether. Even then, these kinds of steps only protect the families of the folks who have the time and money to work this hard, and most people’s children would remain exposed. So there’s a major social class and environmental justice problem.

When the issues are this complex, and this ubiquitous, and the public health costs this serious, that’s when government should step in and do its job. So far, the results of our current standards are not promising in the U.S. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the Congress to demand action on chemicals and unsafe products.

As of today, Congress may be about to punt on chemical reform. Again.  And you’ve read this far. So call or write them and tell them that’s not ok with you.

Just to be helpful, here is a Handy-Dandy Summary of the Myths and my (twisted) Version of the Facts on Chemicals:

 

Myth

 

Fact

 

1)    They can’t sell it unless it’s safe.

 

 

Puh-lease, girl.

 

 

 2)    Pollution is “out there.”

 

 

Chemicals are here, and in us.

 

3)    Only big doses count.

 

 

Little exposures matter more than we knew.

 

4)    The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

 

 

Stuff moves around: in the air, in dust, and in our food.

 

5) You’re really scaring me, so grab the credit card, and let’s shop our way out of this. Where do I start?

 

Put that credit card down. Pick up the phone instead and call Congress to ask them to reform the chemical safety laws that should protect everyone.

Unholy Guacamole

While I was stewing unhappily over the massive fail by the Food and Drug Administration to ban the dangerous toxin, Bisphenol-A, from our food supply, Maya and I made up some super simple (and healthy) guacamole.

Unlike some of my attempts, this one was actually tasty. So I wrote it up:

3 (organic) ripe avocados

8 or so small (organic) cherry tomatoes, chopped into 1/8s

2 (organic) limes (we had one dry and one juicy lime, which was perfect, but be sure to taste)

Generous pinch sea salt

Fresh ground pepper

¼ green chili, sliced into strips and diced

¼ (organic) red onion, diced small

Couple good shakes of cumin powder

Only directions: Pretend it’s the FDA. Smash into a watery pulp using a large, BPA-free spoon.

***

Very easy, and the right balance of flavors. Maya liked it too.

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