Monday, May 17, 2010

Dangers of pesticides (again)

I was about to reference my older posts where I discussed pesticides, but then I realized how many there were. I've talked about this a lot, and it's really obvious to some extent, but I am still amazing how many people have no real concern about pesticides. Few people remotely consider this when popping huge juicy conventionally grown strawberries in their mouth (one of the most heavily sprayed crops out there).

Now a new study that made the front page of today discusses the link between pesticides and ADHD. While scientists cannot exactly find a cause and effect connection, studies are showing that higher amounts of pesticide by-products in children essentially doubles their risk of ADHD. As studies consistently show and as I have consistently written here, everything is worse the smaller you are. When you give something unhealthy to an adult (pesticides, chemicals, etc.) to a child or god forbid an infant, the effects are dramatically worse. It is clear from studies that children who consume conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have far higher levels of pesticide and chemical residue in their systems. We are only figuring out all the harms these cause.

All you can do is to try and eat organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible, wash your fruits and vegetables fully regardless, and to the extent you can eat some but not all organic, prioritize your purchases as I've previously written about here. And if you have growing children, their consumption is far more of a concern than yours. Additionally, farmers markets are already opening across the country. You can ask the farmers about their pesticide use. Some are organic, others are essentially organic but not certified as such, others use limited pesticides on some products, and others are really no different than any other conventional farmer. In Chicago, the french market in the train station downtown offers organic fruits and vegetables that you can buy in bulk and take back to your office.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Local Food + Beer

Anyone in Chicago who likes to eat local and is a fan of good beer should check out the Locavore Dinner at Hopleaf this Monday, May 17. It's a bit pricey ($75/head) but should be worth it. I'm trying to make it. I'd also love to make it to their beer pairing dinner two days later on Wednesday, May 19th but I'll be out of town (please no one rob me now that I've made this known). That one's $50/head. All beers are from Half Acre Brewery, which is local to Chicago. Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark (way north almost at Evanston). If anyone does make it to either/both I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ethical wording

I have previously discussed here the problems I see with companies who love to tell you how many servings of a certain vitamin they have in their cereal, or how their bottled drink provides multiple services of fruits and vegetables (V8 is probably the worst at this). (And while not a matter of wording so to speak, a related issue is serving size -- which I always find fascinating going from a traditional grocery store, where I seem to eat 4 servings of everything possible, to a Whole Foods or similar, where I seem to actually eat 1 serving of most things. So serving size is also purposely misleading. You want to see how much that fat is in that individual size frozen pizza to find that it has 117 calories per serving but then see that there are 3.5 servings per container. You're standing in the grocery store holding the freezer door open -- are you about to do the math or just decide based on something else? And I know I already ranted about that here.)

In any event, not everyone is in the wrong here. I picked up an Izzie the other day and noticed that it said it provided nearly 3 servings of fruit -- but suggested right there that the USDA suggests eating whole fruits, so be sure to eat your fruits too. V8 practically comes right out and tells Americans who don't know any better that they can just drink a couple V8s a day and they don't have to worry one lick about eating fruits and vegetables. But Izzie take a more responsible approach. I was just buying rolling papers (long story, and entirely unrelated to my last post) from an online discount store and right on the front page in bold all caps it says:


Not many businesses in this country would agree with that statement. (My much repeated outrageous and liberal theory that government should be watching our health -- and environment and safety and on and on -- to counteract business' single-minded motive: profit at all costs, would apply nicely here.) This has become a bit of a rant, but I wanted to do a shout out to Izzy, and and all the businesses that realistically show serving sizes so we aren't misled by how many calories or how much fat is actually in something, and to all the other businesses that do one thing they don't actually have to do by regulation or law, and don't actually choose to do based on a desire for more sales, more profits. If anyone has more I'd love to continue the shout out. Feel free to comment.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Rx Weed

Not many educated people I come in contact with in my rough age group oppose the legalization of marijuana. Its use for medical purposes is currently permitted in 14 states and there is a decent chance it will be legalized for the same limited purposes in Illinois within the year (the bill passed in the Illinois Senate a few weeks ago and now need only pass in the House to take effect -- currently only THC pills and injections are permitted). I'm also surprised at how many conservatives support its legalization (for medical purposes at the very least) when you ask them.

There are really two issues: medical use and general legalization. General legalization is something I firmly believe makes sense but that is a recreational activity I won't discuss here. More importantly to the purview of this blog is its medical use. Pot is of substantial benefit to a huge list of diseases and ailments. It has been found to help of course with nausea and loss of appetite associated with cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's, arthritis, Crohn's, epilepsy, glaucoma, migraines, MS, tourette's and a variety of other terminal illnesses and symptoms including chronic pain. It is, quite literally, a natural medicine. Rather than a pill that is developed in a laboratory, made of synthetic materials, tested on mice, apes, and human test groups, approved by questionably independent governmental agencies, guarded by BigPharma for patent value, sometimes dangerous when we have had a chance to actually view its long-term effects, and not infrequently having such bad side effects it trades one problem for another, here you have a natural product that has withstood the test of time.

Cannabis is a natural medicine. Just as aloe has distinct medicinal properties, so does cannabis. Adderall, pain killers, muscle relaxers and other prescription drugs are widely abused. Yet Adderall and similar drugs are being prescribed at record rates every year. The fact that weed it is not utilized and encouraged for medical purposes is a shame. It further emphasizes that this country's priorities are not proper. We do not effectively value nature and we do not appropriately distrust human intervention in nature. Weed is the tea and prescription drugs are the red bull.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Behind Every Great Fortune Lies a Great Crime

Mighty Monsanto recently indicated declining profits, primarily due to prices falling for its Roundup herbicide (Monsanto invented the weed killer but its patent expired a decade ago). Since then Monsanto has been focusing on seeds. It developed genetically engineered crops to resist its own toxic product (so called "Roundup Ready" plants), that allowed farmers to spray liberally and only kill what they want to kill (never mind that the underlying chemicals, called glyphosate, have been found throughout freshwater bodies, in ground water, etc. -- with non-Monsanto sponsored studies showing that even low concentrations on glyphosate have drastic health implications for pregnant women, among others). This started with soy but has expanded to include corn, cotton and a variety of others. Many more are in development.

This is the future for Big Agra: seeds. Indeed, Monsanto has indicated taht herbicides such as Roundup no longer play a pivotal role in the company's future growth. R&D investments are now focused instead on its "seeds-trait business to develop next-generation corn, soy and wheat crops that can withstand droughts, pests and herbicides, as well as provide greater yields." Today Monsanto is the largest seed supplier in the world. But its profitability thus far and its future profitability, relies on highly questionable practices. For instance, Monsanto acquired the companies developing seeds with gene use restriction technology -- the "terminator gene". These are seeds that are genetically modified so that any seeds in the crops are sterile. Great news for the world's largest seed company as a farmer would then be required to buy seeds every year. Luckily, outrage from farmers and some third-world governments have thus far kept terminator seeds from being sold, and India and Brazil have banned the technology. However, a company like Monsanto is perfect poised to get them adopted in countries throughout the world. Never mind the risk of cross-pollination with non-terminator plants (resulting in further sterilized seeds), the risk of starvation as farmers and families in third-world countries can no longer be self-sufficient, and so on.

The sad thing is that the U.S. government was essentially responsible for the development of this technology. Monsanto is in bed with the U.S. government more so than any other company. It now controls the technology. It is the largest seed manufacturer and distributor in the world. And it needs new ways to remain highly profitable. This is something we as a society need to continue monitoring to ensure that it remains in the lab.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Coconut water

I see more and more about coconut water lately and I felt compelled to write about it. A coconut (not a nut) is the world's largest seed. Hundreds of people die each year from falling coconuts. But on the flip side, a coconut is one of the most amazing foods. Coconut water has similar properties to human blood and has been used for plasma transfusions on the battle field as it is nearly identical in property. It has been gaining popularity because it is a natural electrolyte-dense liquid. After a workout it is about the best thing you can drink. Its levels of sugars, salts and vitamins, potassium make it just about the perfect liquid.

Brands like Vita Coco, Zico, O.N.E. Coconut Water, etc. Vita Coco alone sold $20 million in coconut water last year. But let's be clear -- you need to drink coconut water from a coconut. The moment that coconut water is exposed to air, it quickly begins to lose its nutritional benefits. Even worse, most companies pasteurize their products to improve shelf-life -- which amounts to heating the products to high degrees and can also significantly reduce health benefits. Some companies now use a cold sterilization process, but this only helps with the problems of pasteurization, and not with oxygenation.

People are very intimated to try and access coconut water through a coconut. It is not all that tough and the benefits are worth the trouble. Look for the white coconuts in grocery stores. These are called Thai coconuts or young coconuts, and will have a cone shape, somewhat soft to the touch. Avoid the hard, brown, totally round coconuts. Young cocunuts should cost in the neighborhood of $1.50/$2.00 each. They will keep for a bit in the fridge but I find that they don't last all that long. It takes a decent amount of force to penetrate the inner shell of the coconut. Once you do this once or twice it will be easy but it is intimidating and potentially dangerous.

I open coconuts pretty much the old fashioned way -- I place it on the counter, flat side down, put my left arm far away from the coconut (or a good way to do this is to put your left arm behind your back), take the largest, thickest knife I own and use it like a hatchet using the force of the knife swinging down to break through. You won't see anything happen exactly, but turn the coconut so that when you do this a few times you connect the lines from your knife around the top of the coconut. You can do this fairly high up on the cone. Then, carefully, stick the corner of your knife into one of the cuts you made and try to pierce through (if this doesn't work on that cut try another as some will be deeper than others). Then continue to wedge the knife in as you lever it up to pop open the coconut. You can then insert a straw or pour it into a glass.

There are other ways people open coconuts that are safer, and more creative (such as using a screwdriver and a hammer), but I find this old fashioned way pretty easy once you get it once. Just be sure to keep your other hand way out of the way. If you hold the coconut when you do this, for instance, you are asking to lose a finger.

There is a small amount of meat inside the coconut. This effortlessly scrapes off with a spoon -- you don't need to open it any more to access the meat. Enjoy, and be careful!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prarie Fire & Taxim (Eating Well in Chicago)

In the past I've tried to spotlight places that serve grassfed beef or go out of their way to focus on local produce and pastured meat (such as Burrito Beach's Tallgrass beef burrito and DMK Burger Bar). I've neglected to write about one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago (Taxim) and a pretty new restaurant near downtown (Prairie Fire).

Taxim is a (gourmet) Greek restaurant in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area of Chicago. It is on Milwaukee right by the North/Milwaukee/Damen ("Six Corners") intersection. Everything at Taxim is homemade. They make their own pita bread for their homemade chickpea and eggplant dips, their own phyllo dough for their version of spanakopita (it's made with leeks and dill instead of spinach and it's quite literally amazing), and so on. They source their vegetables locally as well as their meat -- local farm-raised chicken, lamb from Mint Creek, and so forth. The menu also features plenty of vegetarian and seafood dishes (without question the best octopus dish I've ever had in my life). They also feature a 100% Greek wine list. I have been there many times and consistently love it. Numerous people I've taken there have said it is among the best meals they've had in Chicago. They also feature different size courses (small, medium and large) so if you're in the mood to try a bunch of different things they're already set up for that. Definitely check it out! (And invite me!)

Newly opened Prairie Fire is the sister restaurant to Praire Grass in Northbrook. The West Loop restaurant near Clinton and Lake focuses on comfort food but uses only local, seasonal ingredients. They feature dishes using Bill Kurtis' Tallgrass beef, Mint Creek's lamb, etc. (I'm a big fan of both and have previously written about Tallgrass here, here, here and here, and Mint Creek here and here.) Vegetables are from local farms and taste like it. I've been a couple times. The first time I had the "#1 Sirloin Burger" which had a thick amish blue cheese crust on top of a good size grassfed beef patty with no bun. It was good. The second time I split two dishes: the moussaka with Mint Creek Farms lamb and the phyllo strudel with spinach and feta. I thought the moussaka was just OK and the phyllo strudel didn't do it for me at all. Then again I had a cold so perhaps my taste buds were less than perfect. I can say their desserts all look amazing. I've had their homemade cookies with homemade ice cream and it is hard to eat either anywhere again as nothing compares. They also have a small but interesting cocktail list using local liquors and other very interesting ingredients (I have yet to try any though). But regardless of some of my hesitations, many people I've talked to who have dined here really like it and I commend them for what they are trying to do. Maybe they haven't quite got it all right yet, but I think they're on their way. (Right now they are also participating in Chef's Week.)

If anyone has tried any new restaurants that make an effort to feature local produce or animal products, I'd love to hear about them here. Please leave a comment or get in touch with me and write a guest post!

Monday, March 22, 2010

We are fat

It is no secret that obesity in America is a huge problem. It should still be less of a secret though. We talk about terrorism constantly, people who die from car accidents, cancer, etc. But obesity kills well over 100,000 Americans every year. This happens through coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other health risks. Obesity also drastically complicates recovery from medical procedures, dramatically increases overall health-care costs and has all sorts of quality of life issues.

According to figures from the CDC, 25 years ago, 8 states had obesity levels between 10 and 14 percent (the highest reported). Five years later the majority of the country hit that level (still the highest levels reported in any state). By 1995, the CDC had added a new category for states that had obese populations between 15-19 percent -- and half the country met that higher threshold. In just 5 more years (now 2000), the CDC had added yet another category for states where obesity levels were over 20 percent of the population. By then only one state in the entire country had less than 15 percent obesity. Another 8 years later (now 2008 -- the last year statistics were gathered), TWO more categories had to be added to reflect states where obesity now affected between 25 to 29 percent of the population and for states with over 30 percent obesity. The vast majority of states, five years ago, had obesity rates between 20 and 29 percent. Reports today put about 1 in 3 people as obese, though the CDC reports that the rate of obesity may finally be slowing. In summary, in the past 30 years, obesity has more than doubled in the United States.

Obesity is more likely to affect lower income people and minorities. Blacks are most likely to be obese, followed by Hispanics, followed by whites. People are more likely to be obese in the South and Midwest than the West or Northeast. Over 40 percent of blacks are obese in at least 5 states. Compared to whites, blacks have a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity and Hispanics have a 21 percent higher prevalence.

Obesity is also a major concern for our youth. About 1/5th of America's children and adolescents is obese. Business Week recently reported that about 7.3 percent of boys and 5.5 percent of girls are classified as extremely obese in California -- as state with below average obesity. A 10-20 year lifespan reduction is expected for these children, helping contribute to the risk that the next generation may be the first in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

While obesity can be dramatically impacted by genetics, metabolism, environment and culture, there must be some reason our country has seen the trends it saw in the last 30 years. Food consumption and exercise are certainly two large issues. But what does bother me is the emphasis of exercise as the government and food companies continue to make the problem one of personal choice. That is really a separate discussion but I for one believe that diet is far more to blame than less exercise.

What could have changed? For one thing we work more. Americans have consistently worked longer hours and moved towards a two-income household over the decades. For another we eat worse. Much worse. Papers in Phoenix show that readers consistently rank the best Italian restaurant as the Olive Garden, the best Chinese restaurant as P.F. Chang's and the best French restaurant as La Madeline. Really? Every day, about 1/4 of adult Americans will eat fast food. Over the period we saw obesity rates skyrocket, so did the availability of fast food. 40 years ago there were about 30,000 fast food restaurants in the U.S. Today there are about 250,000. About 15 percent of our schools have fast food chain outlets. Studies in California show a higher likelihood of obesity if a fast food restaurant is located within close walking distance of a school. At the same time we have seen a dramatic increase of so called fast casual restaurants and low-priced full service restaurants (some of which our friends in Phoenix so adore). The problem is that these types of places make their offerings appear healthy when they can contain more calories and fat than a typical fast food meal.

Of course access to fresh fruits and vegetables is also a large issue as I have written about before in this blog. Initiatives are underway to continue to incentivize grocery stores to enter lower income markets. Unfortunately, we still face a situation where calories about about 2x more expensive for produce than processed foods.

The solution is very complicated because it must be workable for low income and minority individuals. It must also be workable for our youth who are bombarded with advertisements for a largely impulse driven industry. But at the end of the day the solution will rest in increasing access to healthy foods, reducing availability of fast food options, decreasing consumption of soda, and emphasizing the need to be active. Just as credit card companies must now show you how long it will take to payoff your balance with minimum payments, I'd love to see a world where people understand just how much it will take to work off that Big Mac combo meal (1300 calories and 55 g of fat). (It's about 3 hours on a stairmaster.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Pepsi recently announced a plan to remove sugery drinks from schools. This follows the 2006 adoption of guidelines for the same purpose, that have so far seen little progress from my understanding. Of course, this is only one element of the problem as intense marketing to children is a huge factor in addition to access at school. It will be interesting to see where this goes, if anywhere but in the PR mill.

Everyone knows soda is bad for them. It's no secret. But just how bad for you is it? A can or regular soda has approx. 9 teaspoons of sugar -- so that 24 ouncer from the drive-thru has a full 18 teaspoons. This isn't natural sugar but usually high fructose corn syrup -- a byproduct of corn. Of course, regular soda can also make a big impact in your daily calories. Diet soda has neither of these vices -- its sugar is artificial and it contains very few calories. This leads many people to believe that diet soda isn't really bad for you. I used to have a boss that drank about 9 cans a day. Coke has started to advertise this way -- two cans of Diet Coke = a two hour meeting. (This phenomenon is seen everywhere with "diet" foods -- people eat substantially more of them when they believe they are lower in fat, calories, etc.)

It is hard to take a strong stance against artificial sweetners. Americans consume more than people in any other country (we're also the fattest and have the highest levels of degenerative diseases). And scientific research is unclear. What worries me first off are the historical problems with artificial sweetners. We keep realizing that certain ones aren't so good for you, come out with new ones, and then trust that they are safe when the message comes from the exact same people who said it before. (Food companies' influence has dramatically increased over the decades -- not the other way around.) Aspartame alone is considered safe, but it is 180x sweeter than sugar, and high consumption of sweeteners have been linked to brain tumors and other cancer in rodents. Certain side effects of aspartame are well documented: dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, memory loss, and mood swings.

But let's look at some of the studies that suggest artificial sweetners aren't so harmless. Studies of people drinking regular and diet soda have shown that risk of obesity increases with diet soda. One study of 1500 people, for instance, found that the risk of obesity increased 41% for every can of diet soda consumed in a day. It is unclear exactly why this happens, but likely that artificial sugars confuse the brain and alter the body's normal satiety triggers, causing people to then eat more. So much more, apparently, to make up for all the calories and sugar in regular soda and then some. (This alone says a lot as your average regular soda drinker would lose a pound a week on average if he gave it up.)

Both diet and regular soda have ingredients that deprive the body of nutrients such as high sodium levels and phsophoric acid -- which leaches calcium from the body and can alter pH balances to an unhealthy level. I have never tried this but apparently soda will eat away at metal in a surprisingly short period of time. Pretty scary thought. Some holistic practitioners believe that diet soda has a corrosive impact on the GI tract when consumed in excess. Like almost everything unhealthy I have ever mentioned on this site, the same applies here -- it is particularly damaging to growing children. Another problem is what we're really getting from soda. Does it really quench your thirst? Soda contains high levels of sodium which makes us thirsty and caffeine that acts as a diuretic.

So where do you go? Well natural alternatives are there and more are coming our or becoming more widely available all the time. Some contain xylitol, others stevia, etc. (xylitol comes from trees and stevia from plants). Tea contains caffeine that may otherwise be missed, and also contains antioxidants and a variety of other benefits (depending on green or black).

Soda companies also recently experimented with their "throw back" products that contained all natural sugar -- a decent step forward. But these were mostly temporary promotional products. I'll be very interested to see how much soda actually leaves schools.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Missouri residents win suit against hog farm

As you may know if you read this, as unsurprising as it is, I am very much against so called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. These are large scale industrialized farming operations that facilitate the breeding, raising and slaughtering of large numbers of animals in the cheapest way possible for the company. And I say "the company" because it is well known that CAFOs are quite costly, just that most of that cost is externalized. We pay for it with our health, with our environment, with our tax dollars, and so on. Few CAFOs are not directly or indirectly linked to Big Agra, which has its hands so deep in the pockets of all levels of government in farm states that it is difficult to even notice anymore. That influence has helped the building of more and more CAFOs in states across this country for all sorts of animals, reduced power of local governments to impact locations based on zoning restrictions or otherwise, and made it pretty much guaranteed that no elected official will take a stand against them.

Thankfully, we have a taken one step forward against CAFOs. A group of 15 Missouri residents recently filed a lawsuit againt the owners of a hog-based CAFO in Berlin, Missouri, owned by Premium Standard Farms. The CAFO produces about 200,000 hogs annually. The stench from the CAFO was too much for local residents to handle. Unlike any remotely sustainable agricultural practice where manure is used to fertilize fields and crops, as part of a natural cycle, CAFOs accumulate massive amounts of manure in an unnatural density, that tends to sit on the floor of the CAFO and is ultimately channeled to a nearby area essentially creating a pond or lake of manure. Yesterday, a jury of other Missouri residents awarded the plaintiffs $11 million. A previous lawsuit brought in 1999 by all but 1 of those plaintiffs yielded $1.4 million against Premium Standard Farms.

Suits such as this are not unprecedented. A couple in another area of Missouri filed a suit last year against another hog farm and won a $1.1 million settlement. The attorney who represented the couple claims to have filed about 350 similar cases against CAFOs throughout Missouri.

What is interesting here is that the CAFO was technically in compliance with state environmental laws, but was found to violate other standards required when dealing with neighbors through their rights of enjoyment over their own properties. But we already see signs of Big Agra trying to exact its influence. Premium Standard Farms did not hide its message when it said that the verdict gave the company "serious concerns" about making any future investments in Missouri. On top of that, I would only be surprised tohear that Big Agra is NOT already taking steps to change laws in every farm state to prevent any such future suits from prevailing anywhere. All it takes is for a little exception to be carved out for CAFOs.

Premium Standard Farms is owned by Smithfield Foods (of Virginia). Smithfield operates under that name (known mostly for spiral sliced hams) as well as Butterball (turkey, etc.), Farmland (hickory smoked bacon), John Morell (cocktail weiners), Carroll's Foods (turkey), Amrour, Curly's, Patrick Cudahy, Cook's Ham, North Side Foods and Stafano Foods (as well as numerous international only brand names). In addition to Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield operates domestic CAFOs under the name Murphy-Brown LLC and international CAFOs in Poland, Romania and Mexico under the names AgriPlus, Smithfield Ferme, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, and Norson.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Natural products

My co-worker, Pamela, was asking me about natural cleaning products the other day and suggested I write about them. I've mentioned some of these ideas before but the basic premise I go by is that we live in a world full of toxins, from pollution to chemical cleaners, to fire retardant chemicals in your chairs, mattresses and airplanes, to fluoride in your toothpaste (yes, it is a toxin), to pesticides in and on your produce, to growth hormones in your meat, and on and on. I live in Chicago, I sleep on a regular mattress (though I plan to buy a chemical-free one soon), I fly on a lot of airplanes. I'm exposed to a massive amount of toxins. So I try and limit what I can. In my home, I don't use anything unnatural. From what is used to clean my floors, bathrooms, dishes, laundry and windows, to what I use in the shower, on my toothbrush and in my hair -- it's all natural. This is better for me and it's better for the environment. It also all works essentially just as well. Yes, it is more expensive, but to me it is worth it.

Another very important reason to do this: my pets. Cats and dogs lick their feet and put toys in their mouth that have been washed or been on the ground or fell in the toilet (gross, but it happens). They tend to be much smaller than us, and therefore their tolerance for chemicals is much less. If you use chemicals to clean your carpet or your wood floor, your cat or dog is literally ingesting those. (Yes, I also feed my cats $5/day organic, human-grade food, but that's a different story.)

Babies are of course a similar issue. They crawl on the ground, touch everything, then stick their hands in their mouth. Look at what your baby may actually be sticking in his/her mouth. A lot of traditional cleaners are extremely toxic. If you swallow any you need to go to a poison control center. My natural cleaners just suggest you drink a glass of water. That makes me a lot more comfortable if I had a little bugger crawling around.

Now what to buy and where to buy it.... This is of course a personal thing, but I'll be presumptuous enough to share my thoughts. Whole Foods has everything you need in this department. But it is expensive and the variety may be limited. Though now many of the larger Whole Foods have a decent selection of 2-3 brands of anything you need and they have their store brand. I've had pretty good experience with the store brand and it's relatively cheap. Your regular grocery store will have some items. Clorox now sells a line called Green Works. I have never used it and would prefer not to give my money to a company that is a main purveyor of toxins generally, but it is available. Target sells Method. I have had decent experiences with this brand. They also are one of the few to offer a natural air fresheners like a Glade Plugin but with essential oil. I always have one plugged in by my litter box. But my favorite place to buy natural products is They have one of the widest selection of natural products I have ever seen, all at prices that match or beat what I've seen elsewhere. If you spend $50 shipping is free (and that's pretty easy to do), you get 5% cashback towards future purchases and if you go through the United or American Airlines online "malls" you can rack up the miles. From recycled napkins and trash bags to natural cleaners, hand soap, toothpaste and sunscreen to multivitamins, I buy all my natural products there.

People have asked me what products I like best. My personal view is that Mrs. Meyers is one of the worst. Seventh Generation is usually pretty good. I really like Earth Friendly Products, Ecover, Jason, Kiss My Face, Avalon Organics, Dr. Bronners, and a few others. If you don't know whether you'll like the smell of certain products or you don't want to mix scents, almost every natural brand has unscented products -- that's what I always use. Below I've listed what I actually use in a bunch of categories for those who care :)

Dryer/fabric softener sheet: Seventh Generation (free & clear)
Laundry detergent: Seventh Generation (free & clear) / Earth Friendly Procuts ECOS
Dishwasher rinse aid: Earth Friendly Products WaveJet
Dishwasher detergent: Ecover Ecological Dishwasher Tablets
Kitchen trash bags: Glad 65% recyled (all fully natural brands leak)
All purpose cleaner: Bi-O-Kleen Super Concentrated All Purpose Cleaner
Toiler cleaner: Ecover Ecological Toilet Bowl Cleaner
Counter-top cleaner: varies but de-luxe all-purpose spray
Glass cleaner: Better Life Window Cleaner
Air freshener: Methood Aroma Pill (Sweet Water)

Shaving cream: Avalon Organics (Aloe, unscented)
Aftershave: Origins Fire Fighter
Hand lotion: Burt's Bees shea butter hand repair creme
Hand soap: Jason Natural Cosmetics Satin Soap (Tea Tree Oil)
Bath soap: Dr. Bronner's All-One Hemp Pure-Castile bar soap (peppermint)
Shampoo / Conditioner: de-luxe
Deoderant: Kiss My Face Liquid Rock (fragrance free)
Hair gel: Modern Organic Produts orange peel modling cream
Toothpaste: Jason Natural Cosmetics Powersmile, All-Natural Whitening (peppermint)
Toner: Kiss My Face Balancing Act
Face lotion: Zia Skin Basics (with spf)
Body lotion: Kiss My Face Olive & Aloe Mosturizer (fragrance free)
Face wash: Origins Mint Wash
Travel face wash: Frownies Complexion Wash
Acne: Kiss My Face Break Out, Botanical Acne Gel
Sunscreen: Kiss My Face Face Factor / Kiss My Face Sunspray Lotion

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Peanut butter

I think it's interesting how people who watch what they eat and care about their health sometimes just assume some things are healthy -- basically things they've eaten their whole lives and never thought otherwise. Like peanut butter. Peanut butter and jelly is a comfort food to a lot of people (Americans eat 800 million pounds of peanut butter a year). It's basic, and most people would say it's either healthy or at least not unhealthy. Anyone who pays attention to food should at least be aware of natural peanut butter today considering it's available at literally any grocery store. Unless you buy your peanut butter exclusively at Walgreens you're passing over it to hit up the original stuff. And a lot of people are grossed out by the oil sitting on the top of the peanut butter. Pretty gross looking, I have to admit.

But there's a reason of course that natural peanut butter's oil separates and unnatural peanut butter's does't. The difference is hydrogenated oil. Most of us are familiar with "partially hydrogenated oil" -- that's used here though not uncommon is the use of fully hydrogenated oil. If added to the peanut mixture during the grinding process, it prevents oil separation when the product is at room temperature. The problem is that this is an unnatural substance and our body really doesn't know what to do with it. It is undisputed that partially and fully hydrogenated oils are partly or fully to blame for many leading health risks.

Natural peanut butter needs some marketing help. When Silk wanted to make its soy milk appear as a true milk alternative rather than a health food, it changed the placement of it's cartons from the shelves to the refridgeration aisle -- right next to the milk. While natural peanut butter does "separate" at room temerature, it looks just like unnatural peanut butter when refridgerated (anyone who buys it knows they need to take it home, stir it like a maniac and then pop it in the fridge from then on). What amazes me is that no one sells natural peanut butter refridgerated. Either move it to the refridgerated aisle, or find some way to have a refridgerator in the peanut butter aisle. People just need to start thinking of peanut butter as a refridgerated food.

Or there's the new trend that I am undecided on: natural no stir peanut butter. Jif Natural is one example. It has nothing but peanuts, sugar, palm oil, salt and molasses. This leaves out the fully hydrogenated vegetable oils and the mono and diglycerides. What is Jif's secret to creating peanut butter that doesn't have any stabilizers but also doesn't separate at room temperature? Well I've never actually tried this but to my comfort, reviewers have noted that it does need to be stirred and that it will continue to separate at room temperature -- though not as much.

If you actually want peanut butter and don't understand why a company needs to add sugar and extra oil to it, check out any other natural brand or even Smucker's version of natural peanut butter where you find nothing more than peanuts and salt. (PS. Smuckers owns Jif.....)

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Budweiser bull

Watching the Superbowl yesterday, one of my favorite commercials was definitely Budweiser's commercial portraying a friendship between a Clydesdale horse and a bull. The Clydesdale and the bull apparently run next to each other when the bull is very young, then again 3 years later -- this time the bull has grown substantially, has huge horns (appears to be a longhorn) and plows through the fence (which does not appear to bother the horses). People around me also liked it and I saw on the news this morning that it was perhaps the most well liked commercial by the public in general.

But I couldn't help also feel as I watched the commercial, and even more after seeing the general public's response, how sad it was. We read these books as children about cows roaming around pastures with roses all around and are inundated with similar images all the time -- I saw the pilot of This American Life from Showtime the other day and it included a story about a bull who napped in the son on the front lawn of his owner's house all day -- or how about the California cheese commercials where we get the image of these happy cows roaming the pastures in beautiful sunny California weather and we're told that better cheese comes from happier cows. On the other hand reliable evidence indicates that literally 99 PERCENT of all animals on farms in the United States are confined in so called factory farming system where they receive no natural light or access to pasture for the vast majority of their life -- and I could go on and on but is it really necessary?

Obviously bulls do not usually become friends with Clydesdales, and so we know this is fiction, but that's the extent most people will write off as silly in their head. To me, far sillier is the notion that bulls or any cow or other animal used in the production of edible meat lives in humane conditions. We know this is not true. It is overwhelmingly well documented and accepted. It seems to be one thing to just keep from thinking about how these animals are treated, but it's completely another to make little plays about how their lives are the opposite of reality and then to sit around and chuckle at them. Maybe one day we'll wise up and revise our flawed system enough so I can watch that commercial and not feel guilty

Friday, February 5, 2010

New books

There are a few new books out about food I am hoping to get to soon but thought I'd mention them here now. One is by someone I've written about so much people probably could call it a crush: Michael Pollan. He recently came out with Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (actually came out the end of last year -- check it out on Amazon here). The books is very brief and goes through 64 principles of good eating rather than the style of his more in depth works (like The Omnivore's Dilemma) . Reviews have praised it for providing great guidance on shopping and eating habits. There is just something about Michael Pollan that makes you believe and trust him. It is hard wading through the thick crap of advice and mixed messages we get on food, shopping, general nutrition, etc. Pollan provides some trustworthy guidance from someone who is not himself a scientist of any kind, but just a great researcher, digester of material, finder of truths under many layers of b.s. and a trustworthy conveyor of those messages in a clear format.

Another recent book I'm excited to check out is Jonathon Safran Foer's Eating Animals (this came out in November -- check it out on Amazon here). Safran Foer is the amazing and very young author of Everything is Illuminated (since made into a movie starring Elijiah Wood) and to me the even more impressive Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Eating Animals is his first non-fiction book, and as I understand it is as much a memoir as anything else -- or at least goes through his own personal investigations into the subject. I recently saw a few people reading this poolside in Miami. I have a feeling it will bring the discussion to groups who will read anything by Safran Foer but otherwise might never approach the subject. But we'll see. Guys like Peter Singer may be brilliant and more informed, but it probably takes someone in their 20s or early 30s with a pen perhaps one day worthy of a Pulitzer to get the messages across to our generation and those below. Here's an article he wrote for the NYT Magazine shortly before the book was published: The Fruits of Family Trees.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Starting over again

This has been a sad long gap in my blogging and I wouldn't be surprised if no one even comes to this site anymore as a full month has passed without me adding anything at all. I also began that month-long gap on a negative note, last discussing how I've fallen off the path I set out for myself (eating worse and worse, gaining more and more weight, feeling more and more fatigued). (And I'm aware that I started writing more about myself and less about food.) But though it may be trite, I am happy to say with a new year can come positive changes, and I'm focused on making some of those in my life.

When I left the rigid rules of my makeshift pesca-veganism (absent a few slips while traveling, I was fully vegan in diet but would eat any type of seafood), the slippery slope began and raw cheese turned into any non-processed cheese turned into any cheese I felt like eating. Eating a bit of grass fed or pastured meat once a week I bought at the farmers market from researched farmers and cooked myself turned into eating anything I deemed ethical as often as once a day turned into that plus me eating other meat when I was in the mood. Where I was slipping, was back towards the so called Standard American Diet. But I finally woke up and I'm actively seeking the middle yet again. Being vegan is not for me anymore. I want to consume some animal products because I believe I feel better when I eat that way and I no longer buy the logic of veganism. But there is no question that fruits, vegetables and grains should make up the fast majority of the human diet unless your geographic of personal health limitations dictate otherwise.

So I now start over again. Trying to limit the intake of animal products has the tough but welcomed result of literally forcing me to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains. There are ways to do this without eating anything fresh of course. I can eat my organic instant oatmeal for breakfast, a Chipotle veggie burrito for lunch, and an Amy's cheeseless pizza for dinner. But with just a bit more advance planning and effort I can incorporate more and more living foods. The easiest for me was always breakfast -- to start the day with anything but a piece of fruit is silly. Fruit is best eaten alone anyway. When I'm hungry I can down a grapefuit, orange and banana throughout the morning without the slightest sense of guilt.

Lunch and dinner are harder, but my goal, as I set out to get my diet right again, is to make just one of those meals vegetarian and not processed. I consider the Chipotle burrito processed (the flour tortilla, the canned beans, the guacomole that never turns brown). The Amy's pizza is certainly processed -- though you could easily find worse. But one would be fine -- each day. Today I'm being ambitiout (after all I just started) so I had a blood orange for breakfast, a salad I made myself for lunch and dinner will be self-made miso soup with mushrooms and asian stirfried spinach, kale and broccoli.

My energy levels are currently terrible, so that's high on my radar to watch. My weight is something I'll just be patient with for now and see what happens. I think I've already lost about two pounds but we'll see if that really amounts to weight loss.

Thank you to everyone who has read this and continues to pay attention to their diet. I am finally back to eating and thinking about food the way I want to be eating and thinking. I've got a lot of food-related movies I've been meaning to watch, piles of food related books I'd love to get into again, and lists of blogs that I've fallen behind on. My mild obessession with food through these avenues and this blog, if nothing else, helps remind me how important food is and how dangerous one's diet can be. And helps keep me focused on just how easy it can be to eat well (particularly at a time in my life when I have no financial constraints).

Monday, December 7, 2009

The bigger picture

Anyone who knows me well knows I'm fairly obsessed with chemicals in general -- yes, in my food for sure, but also in my home (where I can also control them to an extent). I accept that we are exposed to a large amount of chemicals in the world that are mostly out of our control. You could avoid planes where the seats and interior is packed with fire retardant chemicals, or you could never eat or drink from plastic containers, but these become both impractical and somewhat pointless. Impractical because I live in a large city, work full time, and can't spend all my time trying to avoid every possible chemical. Somewhat pointless for two reasons: (1) most people agree that the actual chemicals we are exposed to are far less relevant that the amount and duration of exposure -- thus why it may make more sense to focus on where you really can reduce exposure, and (2) because you really can't avoid them regardless -- the best example is the polar bear. Polar bears have no real predators besides asshole humans, and they obviously live in some of the remotest areas of the world -- far from civilization, tourism, etc. Yet many chemicals have been found in polar bears from fire retardants to PCBs to pesticides. All of human origin.

As a recent NYT article a friend passed along points out, over 80,000 new chemicals have been developed since World War II. We are developing them far faster than we can test and fully appreciate their impact. What works is often not worth the cost. We are now realizing that these chemicals don't go away, they simply build up and up and up. Some never leave the body and others never leave the soil. Very smart people have come up with some pretty terrible solutions. Heroin was a pretty bad solution to cocain addiction.

What I try to do, just to throw it out there, is avoid chemicals in my home whenever possible. From floor cleaners to counter cleaners to bathroom cleaners to soap, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, hair gel, dishwasher tablets, laundry products to air fresheners and on and on there are now excellent alternatives to virtually every home product. If you have a growing child or a pet, it is infinitely more important. I'm always amazed when I hear people talk about a pet having health problems or tumors and they never seem to consider that pets walk around on floors and counters and lick their paws. So do infants with their hands and feet.

The same NYT article discusses how 200 years ago girls started their period at 17 on average -- it's now 12. Most companies and government agencies would say there is no problem and no risk. But do we want to wait another 200 years and see our daughters begin menstrating at 8? Not only are chemicals insufficiently tested as to their impact on children, but they are far too often tested in isolation. Again, amount and duration of exposure is everything. The safety of a fire retardant in our mattress is irrelevant without factoring that many of us spend enough time on planes to throw those studies off considerably.

And we're realizing more often that what we do with something might matter. Most plastics are fairly safe, but some are less safe and almost all plastics become more dangerous when heated (microwave, dishwasher, etc.). Non-stick coatings are pretty safe, but when they start to get old or chipped they are not so safe at all.

The least we can do is control it in what we eat and in our homes. I find that has a great selection of natural products. Its one of the largest out there, and its reasonably priced. If you buy a decent amount shipping is free and you get money applied to your next order. There are a lot of new natural products out there. I've tried a ton that I love and a lot that I hate. Happy to recommend anything at all if asked.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Being vegan was tough, but it created some pretty strict rules that I just couldn't break. I could adjust the rules -- such as when I added seafood into my diet -- but the rules were equally strict, they just changed. When I started eating some meat (and writing this blog) I tried to keep those rules strict and just adjust them the same way I did with seafood, but once I could eat any kind of meat, etc. under the proper conditions, it becomes so much more fluid and subjective. It has partly depended on my own judgment, somewhat unclear information, and largely my own discipline. And that just hasn't worked as well as I hoped. It has resulted in me occasionally eating pretty much anything I want: regular burgers (though never fast food), ribs or steak at restaurants, ice cream and cheese that I know nothing about, etc. (It is worst with cheese.) And this has also lead me towards eating much more meat and animal products. Where I started out with the intention of adding some meat to my diet (such as a couple times a week), it is not infrequent that I eat some form of meat daily and it wouldn't be that rare for me to eat it twice a day. This is exactly what I should not be doing and what I hoped I never would fall into.

There are far too many variables out there to know the truth, but I can say that as I've fallen down this worse path of eating I have continually gained weight, I have less energy, and I certainly feel unhealthy. Gone are the days when I diligently made my own salad with my own dressing every single day, or made large batches of soups and stews over the weekend to chip away at all week or pull from the freezer anytime I wanted. Now my freezer is filled with Amy's frozen foods and hemp milk ice cream, and my my cabinets are filled with cans of soup and pasta sauce. I managed to eat fruit for breakfast every weekday and even had my homemade dried fruit to take on the plan when I traveled. My intake of fresh fruits and vegetables has fallen to dismally low levels. I have bags upon bags of all sorts of varieties of whole grains, lentils, etc. that go completely untouched for seemingly seasons. This all sounds a bit dramatic and as though I am perhaps too hard on myself. I've always described food and eating as a journey as we discover what works and doesn't work well with our bodies, how we value ethics and other factors in our food products, and so forth.

For me I have certainly taken a turn down the wrong road. I think where I really fall flat is when I'm longing for comfort food like the orange chicken I used to love or the amazing knife and fork ribs I haven't had for so many years. But it consistently leaves me feeling worse -- guilty for my lack of willpower, disgusted by my lack of health, embarrassed that I spend so much time reading, thinking and talking about these topics but can't even follow my own logic. Hopefully this is just a stray path and I'll find my way back soon enough. That is my new goal. I'm confident I can make it back but will do so through a minefield of temptations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Burrito Beach!

As a continuation of my last post, namely the idea of affordable grass fed beef, I have another happy announcement. Walking through the O'Hare airport last night, something caught my eye at Burrito Beach in the foodcourt where the H and K concourses split off. Burrito Beach, a local Chicago (healthier) fast food joint with a mere 7 locations, has teamed up with Bill Kurtis to offer his grass fed Tallgrass beef in one of its burritos: the Barbacoa Burrito, featuring only Tallgrass Beef. In addition, the company will donate a portion of the sales from each Barbacoa Burrito to the Green City Market in Chicago's Lincoln Park. And the price of all this? $6.79. Burrito Beach is partly advertising this as the next step in healthier options, emphasizing, for instance, that grass fed beef has as many as 100 fewer calories as the same portion of traditionally raised beef and lower saturated fat and cholesterol. I didn't happen to have one but hope to on one flight soon. (But note that Burrito Beach has only committed to carrying the Barbacoa Burrito through the end of the year -- so it may ultimately only be sold for about 2 1/2 months).

UPDATE: OK, today I finally got my hands on one of these and while I don't want to discourage people supporting grass fed beef, I don't want anyone to get their hopes up without reason either. The burrito was very mediocre. Worth a try if you have nothing better to eat.....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Amazing grass fed burgers on Chicago's northside

I've been bad about posting lately. Thanks to those who haven't given up on this blog and continue to check it. I do have a lot of new thoughts on some issues I just need to get them down in writing.

For now I wanted to mention a great new place I went to last night called DMK Burger Bar. It's owned by Michael Kornick of MK and David Morton of Pompei. I happened to go on its opening night due to a helpful hint from a "friend" and I have to report it was great. As the name suggests, it is essentially entirely a burger joint. But it's no ordinary burger. All of the beef is grass fed (there are about 9 different beef burgers but a few aren't available yet). Then there's turkey burgers, lamb burgers, etc. All from entirely naturally raised turkey, lamb, and perhaps something else on four legs I'm forgetting. They also have homemade veggie burgers that are self-proclaimed as the best in the city (I have yet to try them but plan to soon and will report). All of the cheese is "artisan" according to the menu -- which to me would mean that it's not from large food companies and likely as minimally processed as possible. No word on the eggs you can (and I did) add to any burger, but with their approach to other food I'd find it hard to imagine they just buy eggs from any old supplier. They also have about 5 kinds of fries (we had the amazing sweet potato ones).

While I didn't get a chance to try any of the mixed drinks, I was incredibly impressed that they used local products whenever possible. Half the specialty mixed drinks on the menu used one liquor from North Shore Distillery, which is a local Chicago distillery that makes a few hand crafted, small-batch spirits. Their products are certainly more expensive then your traditional large-batch premium stuff yet DMK's prices don't really reflect that. Can't wait to try some of them. (Last night the nice size and pretty good selection beer list had my eyes).

I also want to just discuss the prices for a second. They are incredibly reasonable: $8 for any burger that might come with natural bacon, artisan cheddar cheese, homemade sauce, etc. This at a sit down restaurant in a fairly expensive area. So how can they do it? It seems clear that grass fed meat does not need to be reserved for the affluent who shop at Whole Foods or have the leisure time to wander through farmers markets often reserved for areas like Lincoln Park or Andersonville. Instead, DMK is showing that grass fed meat can taste amazing (many out there still wonder) and that it can be affordable. I was thoroughly impressed and I went on a hectic night when they were still figuring things out.

Oh, and my "friend" had a salad (there's only one meal sized salad) filled with fennel, hearts of palm, and other goodies.

I'll be back VERY soon.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eat This, Not That!

My old boss used to mention this handy little book he got called "Eat This, Not That!" -- by now a bit more hyped up and well known. It helped him make manageable changes. For instance, he wasn't going to avoid Chipotle, but he could handle getting the salad that left out the tortilla and rice (which have 290 and 130 calories, respectively). That's exactly the original point. It was developed by Men's Health to help guys make some healthier choices without going on a diet so to speak. I've stumbled upon their website since then and I have to say I really love it. I have not really looked into their methodology yet, but regardless, this is a feast of helpful information and it is incredibly comprehensive.

The site is a great resource for the Eating in the Dark mentality. Take lunch for instance. Lately I've been eating out almost daily (unhealthy, I know). It's tough to really know what is in different foods, and whether Cosi is the same as Au Bon Pain or if one is substantially healthier -- or more personally for my choices, Chipotle vs. Baja Fresh. You can easily see how they compare off the "Restaurants" tab on the website. Cosi gets an overall B grade while Au Bon Pain overall gets an A-. Chipotle gets a C- and Baja Fresh gets a D-. Feel like diving deeper? The description on each indicates that the authors really don't have a problem with Chiptle outside of the rice and the tortilla, whereas they pretty clearly recommend entirely avoiding Baja Fresh. Additionally, every item gets a separate grade, calorie count, etc. The bad news is you actually have to add it up if you want a truly accurate count (salsa, cheese, meat, etc.) but the good news is you can easily get a ballpark (a steak fajita burrito has 900 calories before the salsa, cheese, sour cream, etc.). I know plenty of people who will eat something like a Chipotle chicken burrito at least once a week. Knowing what you stuff in your face 52x a year might be useful information.

Other tabs show individual grocery items (click on Dannon's All Natural Lowfat Vanilla yogurt to see that it gets a C+ because it reportedly has as much sugar as a Kit Kat bar -- but Stonyfield's whole milk plain has even more), tips and advice, kids foods/menus, and more.

So I must have something critical to say, right? My overall complaint is that the focus is largely on calories, fat and sugar. But if you dig deeper you get more facts and you can decide for yourself. For instance, at Jimmy Johns, the whole grain bun has about 130 more calories than the french roll. Is it worth 130 more calories to avoid refined flour? Sounds like they are adding sugar, and the like to the whole grain. But now you know a bit more and can decide. So I'm a huge fan of this site, and more information is ALWAYS better so long as it is not overly misleading and this certainly is not. The site is really focused on what to avoid, and I doubt anyone will be worse off for following their advice or making up their own mind with some added facts.

PS. there is actually a pretty cool application for the iphone/ipod touch from these guys that costs but would be very worth the money if utilized....