Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.

Not So Pretty in Pink

In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.

Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.

For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):

IMG_1618 Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.

Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.

Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)

Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.

Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:

flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.

So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle! 

2) Parabens

Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.

Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.

3) Lead or Lead acetate

Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.

In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.

Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.

4) Formaldehyde and toluene

Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.

5) Coal tar

Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.

7) Triclosan

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.

8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)

These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.

9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.

10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)

Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.

11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.

Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)

Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).

Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!

toxic-docBecause of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.

Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.

Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!

Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.

Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.

IMG_1569Other posts you may like:

 

Dragonbreath Pickles: Homemade Spicy Cucumber Quick-Pickled Goodness

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Here be dragons, as the old maps used to say. You have been warned: these pickles do not mess around. They are perfect for situations such as the long, intimate family gathering I just attended, particularly if others do not care for them, as they are a natural distancing mechanism.

Pickling is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Pickled foods are essential parts of most traditional food cultures, and help repopulate the microcosms of bacteria in the intestines, which it now seems is important for health. Check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the Times recently (which is essentially the last chapter of Cooked, his latest tome), and then take a gander at The American Gut Project, which will analyze your own intestinal output for a small fee and benchmark it against the general population’s microbiome.

More appetizingly, pickling is easy and fun. The below pickled cucumbers produce satisfying amounts of mouth excitement, and the jars belch clouds of sulfurous gas when opened. What could be better?

IMG_1199Like traditional kosher dills, these use salt brine rather than vinegar, and then rely on the natural bacterial process to kick off the ferment. The advantage of salt brined, or “lacto-fermented” pickles, as they are sometimes called, are far higher levels of beneficial microbes. These pickles can be made with many kinds of vegetables, including cucumbers, squash, garlic, carrots, green tomatoes, radishes, asparagus, and just about any other vegetable you can name. Should you be more naturally sociable than me, which is a low bar indeed, and thereby want them less dragon-y, just adjust spices to taste.

IMG_0853Be sure to keep the level of the pickles below the surface of the brine by leaving sufficient headspace and then topping it off with more brine. You can also use this handy tool I recently found for sealing, the Pickle-Pro Vegetable Fermenting Lid, for one jar at a time. When they are cloudish and bubbly, you can halt the fermentation activity by popping them into the fridge. They end up sour, fizzy, tangy, and hot. Delicious, basically.

IMG_0854On jars, be aware that most lids have BPA in them, which is another recent to leave headspace. As I wrote in my recent post on greening your kitchen, Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely. (I did these on vacation, so please excuse the hodge-podge of BPA-laden lids!)

The below directions are adapted with gratitude from this Cultures for Health Lacto-fermented Kosher dill recipe, but mine were sliced pickles, and I used many, many more spices per pickle.

IMG_0852What you’ll need:

  • 2.5 tablespoons Celtic sea salt or Kosher salt per quart of water to be used.
  • Chlorine-free water to fill your jars.
  • 4 to 6 grape, oak, mesquite or horseradish leaves (I used 2 oak leaves per small jar; one for the side and another below the lid).
  • 5 to 6 cloves of peeled garlic per small jar.
  • Several pieces of fresh dill per jar (with berries after bolting, if you have them, which is perfect for right now).
  • Ample spices for each jar of (use organic spices if you have them, of course): black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, herbes de provence, dried dill, and cumin seeds (or dried cumin in a pinch).
  • Enough pickling cucumbers to fill each jar, freshly picked (best within 24 hours) and sliced.

pickle prepMaking the pickles:

  1. Measure the amount of water you will need by filling your jars and make a brine with 2.5 Tbls of Celtic sea salt per quart of chlorine-free water. If it is over 85 degrees in your kitchen, use one extra tablespoon of salt. Mix well, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature. This brine can be kept for days before using.
  2. In each of the small jars you are using, add one of the tannin-containing leaves, 3 or so cloves of garlic, the cuttings of dill, and generous helpings of each of the spices you plan to use.
  3. Pack half of your sliced cucumbers tightly on top of these spices. Repeat another layer of garlic, and spices. Add another tightly packed layer of cucumbers.
  4. Pour the brine over the pickles, leaving 1 to 2 inches of headspace. Place another tannin-containing leaf on top of the pickles as a cover between the pickles and the surface of the brine and push the whole thing into the jar with your fingers. Be sure the leaf and pickles are below the surface of the brine. You can also weight them with the lid I mentioned above, or with a clean, small stone or plate, as it will fit.
  5. Tightly cap the jar and place in a safe place at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. Alternatively, place in a root cellar or cool basement for up to two weeks. The warmer the fermenting temperature, the shorter the fermentation time, though a cooler fermentation temperature is desirable to keep the pickles crispy (less than 80°F). Put something under them to catch any bubbling brew, and burp them by lifting the lid and letting gas escape as needed. Be sure to let your toddler (or anyone young at heart) smell the burp.

You will know your pickles have fermented when the brine is cloudy and bubbling, the pickles have a fizzy sourness, and you can breathe fire after eating a few.

Eat immediately, or store in a refrigerator or basement and enjoy them for months, if you can stop yourself from eating them all right away.

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Other links you may like:

Greener Gift Review: A (Delish) Fungus Among Us

IMG_5976When my brother (aka, “the brotherman,” as he likes to say) delivered a mushroom farm as a Christmas gift, I was suitably intrigued. It’s a completely easy winter gardening project for the kitchen counter, and Maya was fascinated. It practically grows while you watch! Best of all, the results are delicious.

It’s also a fairly eco-friendly gift and uses recycled coffee grounds, although some plastic is involved. The bag for the mycelium is plastic, there is a plastic “humidity tent,” and they include a handy small plastic spray bottle, which could be used to mist plants around the house when the toadstools are all gone. It would not really be difficult to imagine a paper-based version of both the bag and tent, at least.

IMG_5876Specifically, the kit grew elm oyster mushrooms, and was from the whimsically named 100th Monkey Mushroom farm, sold at an Austin farmer’s market (they promise their on-line store is coming soon). They are also available from a number of other places, such as these for portabellos and pearl oysters (those are also sold here). Prices are in the low 20-dollar range per “farm.”

The process is simple. You cut a plus sign into the bag, and keep it misted under the humidity tent for 7-10 days.

We made a mushroom risotto, which, we later decided, was not the best use of such delicately flavored ivory shrooms. Portabellos, which I’ve used often, would be instead the stand-by choice for that sort of heavier dish.

I made a basic risotto with thyme and oregano, and added a generous splash of vodka to the base in lieu of wine. A trick learned long ago is to pay real attention to the quality of the stock and to keep it simmering nearby on the stove, so it’s at temperature when added. For even more wholesome fare, you might want to try Marc Bittman’s recently published brown rice risotto recipe.

IMG_5986 IMG_5989 IMG_5997Because I can’t get enough of fungiculture (a real word), now I’m trying for a second “flush” of mushrooms, by drying and then soaking the bag. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have risotto recipes or others that would work well for the second batch of elm oysters, please let me know!

 

Simple, Delicious Maple Apple Crisp (Optional: Gluten-Free)

Apple crisp

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a wonderfully simple and tasty apple crisp. We’re fully gluten-free at home these days, so we used a flour substitute, but regular flour would work just as well, of course.

If you are also gluten-free, be sure to use both vanilla extract and oats marked as gluten-free as well. Bob’s Red Mill makes some of the oats, though, disappointingly, they are not organic.

Overall, this desert is easy and comforting winter food, and is relatively healthy on that scale. The apples get a wonderful gooey-ness to them, and the oat crisp is just enough texture to keep things interesting. I’ll say that I was initially skeptical of the lemon-maple-vanilla flavor pile-on experiment I cooked up, but it works as well. I’ve made this twice now, and would venture to say that you can’t really mess it up. And you’ll want some ice cream for over top — we used a ginger-flavored local ice cream last night, which was out of this world.

I think I’ll go and eat some of the leftovers from last night right now!

IMG_5651Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 4-5 cups organic apples (no need to peel; and you really want organic as apples have the highest levels of pesticide residues out there)
  • 1/2 cup (organic, unsulphured) raisins (or cranberries)
  • 1/4 cup (organic) maple syrup
  • juice from 1/2 of a fresh (organic) lemon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg or 8 scrapes of a fresh nutmeg (far more potent!)
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (check to be sure it’s gluten-free if so desired)

IMG_5665Topping:

  • 1 cup (organic, or gluten-free) oats
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional, but nice)
  • 1/3 cup (organic) flour or gluten-free substitute (we used gluten-free pancake mix, which worked well)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 2-3 Tbsp. melted (organic, grassfed) butter, as you prefer

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large baking dish, toss the apple slices with the ingredients for the filling.

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Prepare the topping by mixing the dry ingredients together, and adding the melted butter. Spread over the apples and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the apples are soft.

IMG_5670Top with ice cream or whipped cream. Serve to delighted young (and old!) fans.

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A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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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!

Channa Masala (Simple Chickpea Tomato Curry)

Chickpeas or (less elegantly) garbanzo beans, rock. They are high in folate (which is key during pregnancy, as we all know), zinc and protein. For protein-lovers like my family, chickpeas are satisfying enough to make a complete meal, especially when accompanied by this rich mix of spices.

So if you love chickpeas and want to look beyond the ubiquitous hummus, you might give this wonderful, savory dish of India a try. (Bemusing side-note: an oldish, peevish David Brooks column actually called wielding hummus a telltale sign of “hipster” parenting. Um, how can a substance present at every single party I’ve attended since 1992 be the least bit hip? David, dear, haven’t you ever been to a gathering of the humans?)

A few notes:

One) If you don’t have all the spices listed below on hand, just do what ya’ can.

Two) The Weston A. Price folks don’t like pressure cookers, which I think is loopy. Pressure cooking tends to retain the nutrients and texture of food better than slow cooking does, and makes it possible to cook beans on a far more regular basis, which has got to be good for health.

Whether it’s my beloved Moroccan tagine or the Indian-style dishes we make in the pressure cooker, steam cooking has been a major part of these and other traditional cuisines for a long time (the tagine, at least, goes back hundreds of years). And the limited liquid you add becomes a flavorful part of the dish, so if the nutrients end up there, you get all that goodness included.

Just be sure your cooker is stainless steel, and not aluminum, to reduce exposure to aluminum where you can, particularly if cooking for children.

Ingredients

2 cups (when dried) soaked (organic) chickpeas (we favor soaking them for 24 hours in salty water and find them far more toothsome than canned ones area; if you are using canned, try Eden brand for their BPA-free-ness)

Spices galore: Cayenne pepper, Turmeric, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Cinnamon, Thyme, Coriander Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Ground Cardamom, Garam Marsala (I just put a good shake of each, except I was more stinting on the Cayenne), plus salt and pepper to taste

Fresh (organic) tomatoes (found these heirloomy ones at the farmer’s market — what great flavor!)

4 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1/2 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 chopped (organic) onion (I love how noble this one looks)

3 Tbl Olive oil, grassfed butter, or ghee (what I used)

Directions:

Warm up the pan and add the oil, butter or ghee. When heated, saute the garlic and onion over low to medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the spices and stir.

After a few minutes, add the tomatoes and stir.

Finally, drain and add the chickpeas and give it a good stir, then add fresh water up to 2/3 of the cooker.

Bring the cooker up to 15 psi, and then slightly lower the heat. (Follow directions for your pressure cooker on the time allotted for cooking chickpeas, likely around 20 minutes or so.)

Serve over brown (organic) rice or wholewheat (organic) couscous. Also lovely with a little plain yogurt. Serves 4.

Slightly Sprouted Green Lentil Salad

Moong (or mung) beans are eaten far more in Indian cuisine than American, but they shouldn’t be. For a dose of health, you can’t do much better than these. The small, oval dark green lentils known as “moong dal” or “green gram” are high in protein, and Vitamin C, and also contain magnesium, phosphorus and potassium in smaller amounts.

More importantly, they are delicious, and especially when sprouted, very digestible for both adults and toddlers. The flavor is slightly nutty, and they are filling and comforting food.

Mung bean sprouts are very common in grocery stores, but since I prefer them more like beans and less like gangly sprouts, I sprout them at home and eat them just when they are barely ready to slip off their small green skins. (I’m also skeptical of store-bought sprouts, which are a far-too-frequent trigger for e coli and similar food poisoning incidents.)

The recipe below takes 3 days and 30 minutes, but don’t let the advance prep fool you — all you have to do for the first few days is change the water twice a day, morning and night. The hard part, once you become as fond of them as we are, is waiting for the days to pass…

Ingredients

2 cups whole green moong dal

1 rough-chopped (organic) tomato

1 chopped (organic) cucumber and/or raw zucchini

1 chopped (organic) yellow onion

3 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1 finely chopped small green chili

2 Tbls coriander seeds or powder

1 1/2 Tbl cumin seeds or powder

2 Tbls brown mustard seeds

3 Tbls chopped fresh cilantro

Juice from 2 freshly squeezed limes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Optional:  3 Tbls toor (yellow) dal, split

Optional: Grated (organic) carrot

Directions

Place the beans in a vessel with some room in it for expansion and cover with water for 3 days. Twice every day, rinse and replace the water — once at morning and once at night.

On the third day, the beans will be bubbly and look like these (Maya loved the bubbles, and kept poking them):

On the third day, you’re ready! Over low to medium heat in a deep saucepan, saute the onions, garlic and spices. Drain and add the beans to the pan, stirring in the spices and salt and pepper, and warm them through. Remove from the heat.

Optional addition: roast the toor dal in a small amount of oil in a separate pan and set it aside. This adds texture and crunch, but is not completely necessary.

Add the tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini, carrots, and last the fresh cilantro and fresh lime juice and combine. Top with another shake of salt and pepper. Serve while still slightly warm.

20 Healthy, Easy Toddler & Adult Breakfasts (That Are Not Cheerios)

This is a picture of Yogurt Burst Cheerios tha...

Unlike most of America (if we are to believe the staggering number of options in the grocery store), I’m not a big cereal person. It never has the get-up-and-go I actually need in the morning to jump-start my confrontation with living.

I’ll do a post later on my views on toddler nutrition, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about wheat, and in particular, about highly refined wheat products. (See, for example, this exploration by a critic of The China Study of the raw data from counties in China on wheat consumption and its relationship to obesity, heart disease and a host of other ills.) As a fascinating side-note: people who eat a lot of flour are considered, in my husband’s native India, to be just a little bit dumber than other people, which I find interesting, if not at all scientific.

The “Nourishing Traditions” folks are also critical of seeds and grains as hard to digest due to the phytic acid (and of expeller-pressed grains as particularly bad), and point out that people who are healthier around the world generally soak their grains before cooking them. So while I’m not quite ready to join the anti-gluten crowd, I do look for ways to keep things wholegrain, and try to avoid the pancake/waffle/breakfast strudel temptation. I do love the chia seed pudding below, but it soaks all night in milk…

(Distracting side-note: While I appreciate their back-to-basics approach to whole and farm-fresh foods, I also feel compelled to say in my persnickety way that I do not agree with everything about the dietary recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). For example, I do not think raw milk should be given to children, because it is risks their health and even their lives — in addition to e coli, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are also a threat, as you can read from a milk producer’s comments here to a WAPF blogger’s post full of dangerously poor advice on this particular question. For those interested in this debate, a more serious and balanced discussion of the health and political issues with raw milk is here.)

But back to breakfast. On its own, the refined sugar in most cereals is worth avoiding, especially in cereals marketed to children. And just to ensure we’re all a bit underwhelmed by the latest ad campaign for Fruity-Loop Cinnamon Crunchios, Marion Nestle’s food tome, What to Eat, has a long chapter on the suspect politics behind the cereal aisle and the fakey marketing claims of heart-healthiness stamped on virtually every box. So I think it’s important to think beyond the box for breakfast, and hopefully in the direction of nourishing, low-sugar, healthy and nutrient-rich meals.

I try to make a warm breakfast most mornings, if time allows. Cooking is a pleasant way to get over the fact that Maya has rousted me from bed far earlier than seems humanly possible, and she often takes great pleasure in climbing up on a chair and playing at sous chef.

Eggs, in particular, are a favorite, as they are healthy, full of vitamins and minerals, and a complete food. I do think it’s important to cook them thoroughly, as rates for salmonella poisoning are too high and many farm conditions for eggs are atrocious. We like organic, pastured eggs from small farms for this reason, and because they are also higher in vitamins and minerals from the chicken’s more natural diet of grubs and seeds. (Just a “free range” label is misleading; it often means that the chicken never went outside.) As you’ll see from the suggestions below, there’s a reason why Maya’s favorite things to make in her own small wooden kitchen are eggs!

Below are more than 20 half-decent ideas for a fairly easy and delicious breakfast, with a bonus: most, if not all, would appeal to adults, and also are good candidates for a busy toddler’s begrudging consideration:

  1. Simple french toast, with dense wholegrain, good quality bread. To pasture-raised organic eggs, I add whole, grass-fed organic milk, vanilla and cinnamon, soak the bread and cook it in organic, grass-fed butter, which provides plenty of flavor even without maple syrup or other sugars; if you need something sweet on top, pan roasting fresh orange slices for half a minute can do the trick, and fresh berries are also delicious in this role;
  2. An even easier variation on the above is an Egg-in-the-Hole: pinch a hole in the bread, fry the bread in some butter, and drop an egg into the open space;
  3. Hard-boiled eggs on buttered wholegrain toast (with specifics as above in 1); 7-8 minutes of boiling will cook eggs thoroughly; add pepper and a touch of salt;
  4. Egg scrambles, which are a great way to bring veggies to the breakfast menu. Just add butter to the pan, and cook the vegetables until the moisture is mostly gone. Favorite combinations include: 1) feta, tomato, spinach; 2) peppers, cheddar and green onion; 3) caramelized onion and swiss; 4) cauliflower with a touch of mild curry and cilantro.
  5. Frittatas, like this one with cauliflower, spinach and asparagus (boiled or steamed potatoes, peas, or julienned zucchini, are also good options; sausage can be added as well);
  6. Fritters: I don’t used canned veggies, so I take 1/2 cup of frozen vegetables (like corn and peas, and cook in water in the microwave for 2 minutes in a small glass bowl, then drain). Mix the vegetables with an egg, pinch of salt and about a tablespoon of flour and cook in melted butter or oil (I use medium-heat organic coconut oil) to make fritters. Variations to try: add grated carrot, grated coconut, fresh mild herbs like basil, mint, or cilantro. Serve with plain yogurt for dipping.
  7. Egg salad: Everyone has their own recipe, I’m sure. I use hard-boiled eggs, a small dice of (organic) apples, onions and celery, with a dollop of (organic) mayonnaise, a dash of salt, pepper and cumin, and chopped slivered almonds, and serve on buttered toast;
  8. Channeling the wonderful Julia Child, a one or two-egg omelet — when I’m feeling bold, I add a streak of pesto, a smear of (organic) ricotta cheese, and diced tomatoes just before attempting to fold it neatly in half like our hero;
  9. Easy herb popovers, which I serve with smoked (wild-caught) salmon or scrambled eggs with spinach (these do use flour, but are mostly eggs, and are so worth it anyway);
  10. Fried slabs of polenta with melted cheese and fried eggs (to avoid the plastic packaging of ready-made, here’s a dead-easy way to make your own rosemary polenta);
  11. Oatmeal (here are directions for soaking it overnight to make it super-nourishing); I add flaked, unsulphured organic coconut; organic flax and chia seeds, whole milk for cooking and on top, unsulphured, organic raisins or other dried fruit, cinnamon and a small amount of blackstrap molasses, which is high in iron, and then add fresh berries when cooked (this sounds like a lot of ingredients to have on hand, but Maya likes this so much that I just buy the stuff and keep it together in the cupboard); I’ll note that oatmeal is also considered a very supportive food for pregnant and nursing moms, and assists with lactation, as do coconut and flax;
  12. Coconut Raisin-Nut Cous-Cous, as I describe here (in addition to what’s in the recipe at the link, I’ll note that walnuts, which can be chopped small, are high in Omega 3s);
  13. Brown rice pudding: in a similar turn, just take last night’s cooked brown (organic) rice, cook with milk at a level that almost submerges the rice, add cinnamon, raisins, grated coconut, a touch of vanilla and cashews, and boil gently until soft;
  14. Brown rice, coconut and green lentils, cooked with coconut milk: (Soak the rice for as long as you can — an hour is best if you have the time, but even 20 minutes is better than nothing.) Add 2 cups rice and 1 cup split green lentils (also called moong dal) to the (stainless steel) rice cooker, with 6 1/2 cups water and 1 can of (BPA-free Native Forest brand organic) coconut milk. Cook as normal. Variations: add grated coconut, grated carrots, fresh or frozen peas, cinnamon or grated nutmeg.
  15. Thick wholegrain toast spread with ricotta and sliced dried or fresh figs (if using dried, moisten first and microwave for 15 seconds before slicing), warmed slightly in the toaster or regular oven, or toast with sliced bananas and cashew or peanut butter;
  16. Grilled cheese sandwich (it had to be in here somewhere!): I add black bean hummus spread and thin slices of tomatoes to the sandwich, and have been known to slip in fancy gruyere or other nice cheeses that Maya will only eat melted;
  17. Sweet potatoes, cooked in the microwave, contents scooped out and mashed with cashew or peanut butter and a little milk until smooth and creamy;
  18. Wholewheat quesadillas: with roasted red peppers and cheddar; or mushrooms and swiss cheese, with plain yogurt for dipping;
  19. Simple huevos rancheros: chop tomatoes and garlic and saute, add can of (BPA-free Eden brand organic) black beans, serve with scrambled or fried eggs,  avocado slices and warmed tortillas, salsa or diced tomatoes optional;
  20. A make-ahead option: Wholewheat or rice flour carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread or muffins with cream cheese or ricotta cheese (I’ll add raisins, flax seeds and nuts to anything);
  21. A bonus no-cook, make-ahead option: Chia seed pudding: combine 2/3 cups (organic) chia seeds, 2 cups whole organic milk, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, a touch of sugar and a Tbl of shredded coconut (optional) and leave overnight in the refrigerator for a delicious, omega-3 rich pudding. Serve with fresh blackberries if you have ’em. (Note: chia seeds, due to uncertainty about their properties, are not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, or people with high triglycerides);
  22. A bonus no-cook option for really hot days: fruit salad with mint and grated coconut — just use whatever fruit is in the house, and serve it up with plain yogurt for dipping or drop it all into a (glass) blender for a smoothie. To avoid having to use ice and diluting it, try frozen (organic) fruit instead. When they’re not looking, you can even sneak in some avocado and get away with it, most days.

Update:

Here’s three more we like recently that are super-fast for on-the-go mornings:

  1. Raisins and seeds: Maya loves raisins (I use unsulphured organic ones given the high levels of pesticides on grapes), mixed with organic chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds and other squirrely seeds from the bulk foods aisle. I’ll also throw in some grated coconut.
  2. Low-sugar flavored yogurt with granola, ’nuff said.
  3. Rice or spelt cakes with peanut/almond/cashew butter, raisins optional. (I’m using more rice alternatives given the issues with arsenic in rice, opt for brown organic rice cakes, which have less arsenic, with minimal or no additives.)

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If you like this post, you may want to check out an old, still-functioning grist mill my parents discovered for freshly milled flour, grits, polenta and oats, which are amazing (though not organic). They can be mail-ordered by the pound unless you happen to live near Oak Ridge, NC, in which case you should really just go pick up some of these tasty grits.

You might also like:

I hope this adds a few ideas to your early-morning arsenal!

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!