What You Don’t Know: Label Reading

  • August 30, 2011 10:07 am

Most cleaning product labels are a very quick read because they usually contain very little information. If you’re lucky you might learn what the product is, how to use it, safety information, and any storage and disposal guidelines.  What you won’t find is a list of ingredients.  Why?  Oddly cleaning product formulas are currently considered government-protected trade secrets. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their contents to consumers. So they don’t.

While there are organizations working hard for label disclosure as well as chemical reform , at the moment it’s really up to consumers to self educate and seek out cleaning products from companies that willingly disclose ingredients (and use natural ones). Alternately you can make your own from safe household staples with ingredient lists.

In Planet Home, I explain how best to read cleaning product labels when there is no ingredient list. Here’s an excerpt:

LABEL LITERACY 101

1. Look for warnings. Avoid any product that has the words “danger,” “poison,” “toxic,” “hazardous,” or “flammable” printed on the label.  They are dead giveaways that there are harmful chemicals inside.  Be sure to check the front and back labels, including the fine print.

2. Check the listed ingredients. Avoid anything with no ingredients listed or that lists chemicals with known or probable chronic or acute toxicity.

3. Check to see if the product is fragranced. Stay away from synthetic fragrances, which may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.  Most products claiming to have the “fresh scent” of “morning air” contain synthetic Fragrances.  Fragranced products (including perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and candles) can also release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home environment.  Many VOCs from cleaning products, such as formaldehyde, are known to be hazardous air pollutants and can have short- and long-term health effects.  Look for labels that read “VOC-free” or “free from dyes and fragrances.”  If you want a fragrance, seek out products that are scented naturally with essential oils.

4. Think about what the performance claims are telling you. These are the selling points clearly stated on the front label.  Products claiming to “whiten” likely contain bleach, and products claiming to “brighten” usually contain optical brighteners.  Use the Ingredients Guide to see what you’re really getting with that “streak-free shine,” and to learn why an ingredient is or is not hazardous.

5. Do a sustainability check. Choose products in packaging made with the highest PCR (post-consumer recycled) content and that can be recycled or reused.  As for the products themselves, buy ones that are biodegradable or compostable and claim to be “petro-chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” or “septic-safe.”

6. Go to SeventhGeneration.com and download the Label Reading Guide. It will help you better understand the ingredients in cleaning products and their risks.

Q&A: Dishwashers Vs. Washing By Hand

  • August 25, 2011 8:06 pm

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

What is your take on washing by hand and using a dishwasher??

Thanks, Meika

THE ANSWER:

Meika,

Thanks for your question.  The pros and cons of dishwashers have been debated down to the very last droplets of water, but at the end of the day they are more environmentally friendly than washing by hand, even if you factor in the energy used to manufacture and run the machine.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home re the eco-friendliest way to wash dishes:

Running a dishwasher filled with scraped–not rinsed–dishes using eco-friendly detergent free of chlorine and phosphates is preferable to washing by hand, especially if the machine has a good Energy Star rating and you don’t use the energy-draining heated dry option.  Only run the dishwasher when it is totally full (although be sure you’re not blocking the water or aeration methods with any dishes, or they won’t get clean).  Face everything inward.  Enzymes in detergent are there to eat off scum.  If you have over-rinsed your dishes, they will have nothing to work on and will therefore dull the surfaces.  Get to know your dishwasher: Does it have a heater or a fan?  Does it have a grinder?  Operate accordingly.  Don’t put everything under the sun in a dishwasher.  Opening the door a crack after the washing cycle is complete will help the dishes air-dry more completely, but it will also increase indoor air pollution.  Fragrances and chemicals (including chlorine) in traditional auto-dishwashing products get turned into vapors when the machine heats up, and so do the pollutants (possibly chlorine or chloroform, maybe radon) in municipal water.  We breathe these vapors as they vent out of the machine during the washing cycle, making dishwashers a major source of indoor air pollution.  Minimize the danger by using a natural (chlorine bleach-free) detergent and by not opening that door until the machine has had a chance to cool off.  Giving the racks a shake will help get the residual droplets off the dishes.  Keep in mind that your municipal water supply will likely provide your machine with chlorine anyway.  A whole house water filter will reduce some of the worst vapors, as will keeping your kitchen well-ventilated.  If your dishes aren’t getting as clean as you’d like them, try using less detergent if you have soft water and adding a natural rinse aid if you have hard water.  This keep minerals in the water from redepositing on your dishes.  You can buy a natural version, or simply use white vinegar.  If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, consider stainless steel interiors, which retain heat and reduce noise.  They also don’t off-gas (i.e., release fumes from the plastic) when heated to very high temperatures.

Hope this helps!

Best,

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Cotton

  • August 23, 2011 9:05 pm

Can you believe it’s back to school/work/life season already?  Ugh. As cooler temperatures and new wardrobes (for some people, anyway) are on the horizon, it’s time to pause for a moment and think about what clothes are made of and what it entails to manufacture them. I found and continue to find the following facts about conventionally grown cotton shocking. They’re enough to send anyone straight to vintage/consignment/thrift shops. Second hand clothes are obviously a great way to reduce/reuse/recycle, but you’ll also likely be surprised by the gems you can find.  It might take some digging, but you’ll be rewarded with unique items and you’ll save money, too.

When buying new clothing, organic cotton is solid choice. Here are a few motivating facts excerpted from Planet Home about the cotton industry:

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

That said, organic isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion–not by a long shot. I explain further in this article I wrote recently about sustainable denim for The New York Times.

Meanwhile I’m personally just avoiding this whole change-your-wardrobe moment. My daughter could use a few items for school as she’s growing up up up, so I’ll fill her wardrobe in with hand-me-downs and maybe a few new things. I prefer to hold on to summer by avoiding wearing long sleeves for as long as possible, and to “shop my closet” when the weather forces me to. Amazing how much I’ve bought over the years that can be resurrected!

Recipe: Blueberry Ice Cream!

  • August 20, 2011 10:42 am

Glenny here!  Alexandra has been on vacation all week (I’m VERY jealous), so this week’s Saturday post is directly from me.  I decided to post a recipe, so got to thinking about do-it-yourself projects.  And about the shorter days and how the cicadas’ chirping announces autumn.  Although summer is waning, we can’t fret yet: the temperatures still merit an icy treat for dessert.  I ADORE ice cream and frankly, I believe that it can be enjoyed all year long.  There are so many variations that you simply can never be bored.  I was delighted with my birthday present from my father last year (a Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker), and have furiously been making concoctions ever since.  No more of that store-bought stuff for me, no siree.

Summer IS coming to an end, but its fruit is still going strong.  Here is a very easy and wonderful recipe for blueberry ice cream to celebrate the season.  (Many thanks to the NYTimes article last summer about egg-free ice creams.  It got me hooked on the lighter, more fruit-forward and refreshing version of a household favorite!).

Blueberries and Cream Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups blueberries

1/2 lemon

2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, as needed

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons vodka

1. Mash the blueberries with a fork or a potato masher until slightly chunky.  Try not to leave too many berries whole, when frozen they can be a little difficult to eat.  Drizzle with the juice of 1/2 a lemon and mix thoroughly.  Set aside.

2. Bring cream and sugar to a simmer in a medium saucepan.  Taste berries and if too tart, add 2 extra tablespoons sugar to the cream.  Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved.  Transfer to a bowl and add salt and vodka.  Place in the refrigerator or an ice bath to chill.

3. When cold, pour into your ice cream machine.  Add your mashed blueberries and churn for about 15 minutes, or until starting to thicken.  Make sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for your specific machine. Transfer to a container and freeze until solid, about 2 hours.   Let your ice cream sit at room temperature for a few minutes before serving.

This is the most simple form of this recipe, but try adding your own spin.  Perhaps a dash of cinnamon or a few sprigs of mint?  The more the you play, the happier you’ll be!


Q&A: Watery Egg Whites

  • August 18, 2011 9:52 am

THE QUESTION:

(This question came to me over Twitter, hence its brevity.)

What’s up with watery egg whites? I read real fresh eggs or old hen I only get eggs at the farm mrkt – think it’s the farm?

THE ANSWER

There is a lot of conflicting ideas out there about why some eggs have a watery or runny consistency.  Is it from a lack of protein in the hen’s feed?  Or maybe these eggs aren’t fresh?  After wading through a lot of online forums, which were not providing straight answers, I found BackyardChickens.com to be particularly informative. Keep in mind that I’m no chicken farmer!

I didn’t find a definitive answer for watery whites, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the freshness of the eggs or how the chicken was raised.  Here are six conclusions from BackyardChickens.com:

1. Occasional eggs with spreading (runny) whites are observed originating from apparently normal flocks.
2. The runny eggs tend to be laid by the same hens.
3. The existence of runny eggs has nothing to do with freshness; it can be observed in newly laid eggs.
4. The albumen height and Haugh unit rating is not different between runny and normal eggs.
5. There are differences in biochemical composition between normal and runny eggs.
6. There appears to be a genetic effect on the incidence of runny eggs, suggesting that selection might
reduce the incidence.

Now all of that makes me kind of dizzy, truth be told (Haugh unit??). I kind of understand what it all means, but not really. If I had an egg with watery whites or yolks or anything that gave me pause, I’d just ask my farmer. It’s really the best option, and one I take advantage of as much as possible. It can only be done when you know the person who grew your veggies, raised your chickens, and harvested your eggs. My farmers offer explanations and advice as only they’re equipped to do. And I find them all very reassuring. If these eggs came from a farmers’ market, march right on over to the farmer and ask him or her what’s up. I have a feeling you’ll be glad you did. If they didn’t come from a market, you might prefer buying eggs from someone you can talk to and query when you want to.

Any egg-o-philes out there have a different take on this question? Speak up!

What You Don’t Know: Toilets

  • August 16, 2011 9:37 am

The toilet is one of the few absolutely necessary household appliances, even for the most ardent environmentalists. Argue with me all you want in comments, family cloth-ers (!), I stand by these words.

The rub is it’s also one of the largest household consumers of water, especially if it gets a lot of use–i.e. you have a large family or live in, say, a frat house. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to ensure that your toilet is as eco-friendly as possible, which I explain in Planet Home, excerpted here:

Older toilets may have 3.5-gallon or even 5-gallon tanks, whereas toilets made in the United States for home use after 1994 are required to consume 1.6 gallons of less per flush.  Environmentalists flush them as little as possible, but even extremists should try to flush at least once daily (especially if said toilet has multiple users).  One can go longer without causing any harm, of course, but the odor isn’t great, and concentrated urine can stain.  People who let yellow mellow may also find themselves battling clogs from time to time if too much of their 100 percent recycled, non-chlorine bleached toilet paper has accumulated.  Keep an eye on the levels and flush before you reach a problematic clump.  If you’ve got a clog, plunge it.  Then clean your plunger by rotating it vigorously in a recently cleaned and flushed toilet.  Store it where it can dry so it won’t grow mold.

RETROFITTING YOUR TOILET

Another way to conserve water is to retrofit your toilet so it uses less water per flush.  There are several ways of doing this, from the very DIY (put a brick or a water-filled half gallon plastic jug of water with its cap closed in the tank to physically reduce the amount of water being used) to more high-tech solutions (there are dual-flush toilet retrofitters you can purchase for less that $100 – this gives you the option for a small flush for liquid waste or a full flush for solid).  If you buy a dual-flush kit, follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.  If you’re going the DIY route, be careful not to reduce the water level too much or the toilet won’t work well and you might wind up flushing several times in a row to get the job done, defeating the purpose.  If this happens to you, it’s simple to fix: just use a smaller jug – like a one-liter soda bottle – or a brick.  A little trial and error will get you what you need; this isn’t an exact science, and much depends on the size of your tank.

Recently, my editorial assistant, Glenny, had some toilet issues of her own. Read on for her tragic experience (thanks for sharing Glenny):

“I’ve been living in my apartment for a year now, and never had any problems with my toilet until the past few months.  To say that it had a “weak” flush would be a drastic understatement.  More like pathetic, sad, and downright feeble.  Often I would have to flush two or three times to clean the bowl, a very frustrating and pretty gross process.  Convinced that the problem was getting worse, I contacted my landlord, who happily trekked to the fourth floor to investigate.  Within 5 minutes my flush was back to normal: strong and efficient.  The issue?  The tub in the back wasn’t filling with enough water (exactly like what Alexandra describes above), but it wasn’t because of a DIY project gone array.  Instead the pressure gauge was set too low.  With a couple of quick adjustments and a few trial flushes, the back tub was filling to the correct water mark and producing a forceful flush.  Phew, a clean bowl using less water!  Problem solved.”

A good reminder to keep our bowls in working order and using the least amount of water possible. Now enough about toilets.

The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat On Civil Eats

  • August 14, 2011 8:50 pm

Many thanks to Civil Eats and Tri-City Herald for the wonderful mentions of The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat!  Here is an excerpt from the Civil Eats article, but to read the entire posts, click here and here.

“Trials and tribulations aside, this book is mostly a lot of fun. Inquisitive home cooks will love the copious diagrams and charts that dissect all aspects of meat animals and meat cooking. The Applestones make a point of encouraging whole-animal cooking, which means they explain how to cook every cut, especially the lesser-known cuts that require slow, low heat methods.”

Recipe: DIY Yogurt

  • August 13, 2011 10:20 am

What is more fun than a new DIY project?  And what is more tasty with summer berries and homemade granola than your own yogurt?  It’s very easy to make, you need neither a yogurt-maker nor a special culture.  Although the final product might be a touch thinner than commercial yogurt, the satisfaction of making it yourself is totally rewarding.  Think beyond breakfast too – what about homemade smoothies or chilled cucumber yogurt soups?  Perfect summer fare! I also love love love that making your own means avoiding plastic containers–big or small. You can store yours in endlessly reusable glass jars if you please.

Here is a recipe from from Sally Fallon’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions she let me reprint in The Conscious Kitchen. Fallon is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Makes 1 quart

1/2 cup good-quality commercial plain yogurt, or 1/2 cup yogurt from previous batch

1 quart pasteurized whole milk, nonhomogenized

a candy thermometer

Gently heat the milk to 180 F and allow to cool to about 110 F.  Stir in the yogurt, and pour the mixture into a shallow glass, enamel, or stainless steel container.  Cover the container and place in a warm oven (about 150 F, or a gas oven with a pilot light) overnight.  In the morning, transfer to the refrigerator.  Throughout the day, use a clean kitchen towel to mop up any whey that exudes from the yogurt.  Keeps for a couple of weeks.

*Note: Although Fallon recommends leaving the yogurt in a warm oven overnight, Glenny, my fantabulous editorial assistant, says you can also leave it covered in a warm corner of your apartment. I’ve never done that, but she has. She also says it will take longer to reach yogurt consistency, maybe two days, but will save on energy usage, especially in the heat of summer. Enjoy.

What You Don’t Know: Beer

  • August 10, 2011 12:41 pm

I’m a wine drinker through and through. But I must admit that come August with the summer heat far from abating, an ice cold white beer is a welcome evening beverage.  (My apologies to my summer sidekick, Glass Of Rose.) Before popping that bottle cap, take a few minutes to make sure that what you’re going to be drinking is the best brew for the environment and your health.  Ok, ok, I know some people will say there’s no such thing as a healthy beer, but it will be better for you without pesticide residue.

As always, buying organic and local is the number one choice, not only to avoid unwanted additives (check out Food Democracy’s post on this), but also to reduce the carbon footprint of your happy hour.  Unfortunately, buying completely organic and local beer is a challenge, as I explain in The Conscious Kitchen:

Even if you could find beer’s ingredients – water, yeast, malt, and hops – in your area (and that’s a huge if), if doesn’t mean they’re processed locally.  In fact, according to Max Oswald, director of sales and marketing at the Otter Creak Brewing Company in Middlebury, Vermont, the grain used for the malt in their Wolaver’s organic beer must be shipped to the Midwest to be processed.  Why?  Because that is where malt processing is done in this country.  “It’s a conundrum.  We do the best we can,” says Oswald.

HOPS

Organic hops tend to be grown in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, and New Zealand.  Vermont-based Wolaver’s uses New Zealand organic hops and works with a contract grower in Oregon.  The goal is to rely solely on Oregon.  This is as local as it will get.  The Northeast used to produce tons of hops, but the crops were wiped out by fungus.  Other organic brewers are also taking this route of contracting small organic farmers.  Meanwhile, the USDA, in response to a hops shortage in 2008, has put hops on their exemption list, meaning beer made with nonorganic hops but that is otherwise organic can still be labeled USDA organic – music to Big Beer’s ears, and not exactly motivating to any farmers attempting to grow the vines the way they should be grown.  (The amount of hops in any beer, it should be noted, is pretty minimal.  But still.)

AT THE BREWERY

Though it is difficult for any brewer to source all-organic, all-local ingredients, there are other environmentally friendly steps they can take with their brewery.  Otter Creek, according to Oswald, has redone their lighting, runs a boiler system on biodiesel, tries to reuse heat and water, and recycles their grain by giving it to farmers for feed…This is an expensive and lofty goal for the smallish brewery -  in 2008 they were doing about thirty-three thousand barrels, one-third of which was organic – but it will make quite a difference.  Many other breweries are also working to reduce their energy consumption.  Some have green roofs, others are using solar power.  Still others make sure their used equipment is made only in the United States.

Here are a few solid organic (or eco-friendly) brewers:

Peak Organic is very committed to local purveyors.

Brooklyn Brewery isn’t all organic, but is the first company in New York City to be run by entirely by wind power!

Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s trucks are all run on vegetable oil and they promote their closed loop recycling system. Everything that would be considered waste is reused at the brewery or in the surrounding community.

Otter Creek Brewery (Wolaver’s) Wolavers is 100% organic hops and malt–the nation’s first organic brewers.

Cheers!

Thank You Jeffrey Hollender

  • August 8, 2011 11:00 am

Loving this blog Jeffrey Hollender posted today: If I Wanted Someone To Talk About My Brand It Would Be Alexandra Zissu.

A few highlights:

“If I wanted someone to talk about my brand–especially to moms who own a lion’s share of purchasing power and who vote for change with their wallets (and actions)–it would be Alexandra Zissu.

Alexandra is the author and green living expert par excellence who helped me write Planet Home: Conscious Choices For Cleaning and Greening The World You Care About Most….

Alexandra she has a knack for translating hard to understand sustainability issues and environmental health science into easy, pithy consumer English. She’s passionate about giving people the education and tools to make conscious decisions as they go about their daily routines—and especially about the collective impact this can have. She knows what parents and other eco-interested consumers really want to hear and what they don’t want to hear–drawing on her experience with her own active group of followers via books, articles, blogs, social media, talks, and demonstrations. She also has a deep understanding of the full spectrum of green—from people just getting started to the diehard lifers.

Don’t think that anyone’s going to pull the wool over Alexandra’s eyes. I’ve found her a tough critique of Seventh Generation’s as well as almost every product we reviewed for Planet Home. But that’s exactly what you want. Trust comes from transparency, a balanced perspective on the great, and the not so great. That’s what the best brand ambassador is uniquely able to do. She won’t read from a script, she’ll visit your lab, talk to other customers, do a little bit of her own testing and research, maybe even tell you quietly a few things you might not be so eager to hear….A better brand ambassador you won’t find!”

Read it in full  here.