Q&A: Are candles safe to burn?

  • December 5, 2012 9:50 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

In the winter I love to burn candles. I think it creates a warm atmosphere at home. But I have been reading about how maybe they’re not safe. I saw something about chemicals in their scents that aren’t good for you. Do you become exposed to these when you burn candles?

-Annette

Answer:

Hi Annette,

Thanks for your question. It’s a good one. You’re certainly not alone, especially around the holidays. You can absolutely inhale chemicals in fragrance, some of which have been linked to hormone disruption, when you burn scented candles, among other pollutants. Here is an excerpt on candles from Planet Home, which I co-authored. I think it will help answer your question.

“Conventional candles made from petroleum emit plumes of soot and phthalate-containing scents. Their wicks can contain metals like zinc, tin, and even lead. If you really like fragrance, non-petroleum-based candles, like unscented beeswax or essential-oil-scented non-GM soy wax versions with cloth wicks, are far preferable to their conventional counterparts.”

I personally have given up on candles, besides the infrequent unscented beeswax one. Beeswax has its own lovely scent–warm and honey-ish. I’d suggest giving it a try.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Which Christmas Tree Is Greener? Real or Fake?

  • November 28, 2012 9:17 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

My family is just about to buy our Christmas tree for the holiday season and I just wanted to know if you buy a real or a fake tree?

Best,

Claire

Answer:

Hi Claire,

Thanks for writing. I commend your organization. I tend to be the last minute decorating (and shopping) type. Technically I’m not supposed to buy a tree at all–and not for eco-reasons! I’m Jewish. But growing up we always celebrated Christmas with a tree and all. Then when I was 10 my non-Jewish stepfather came into our lives, making our typical winter celebration, um, more kosher.

My family oddities aside, when it comes to trees–Jewish or not–holiday celebrators tend to get confused about which is better for the environment: real or fake. To which I add what I think is actually the greenest option: something potted you will keep alive indoors and then plant outdoors when the weather permits. Not interested or don’t have a spot to plant a tree? Let someone else it for you. Some places now rent out live trees.

But back to the more typical debate: real (cut) versus fake. Some people assume fake is best because it can be reused year after year. Unfortunately most faux trees are made of PVC (aka the poison plastic), last only a few years, and then wind up in a landfill. Not very green after all.

When it comes to real trees, millions of them do get cut down every holiday season. That said, more and more municipalities are offering ways to recycle or mulch these after the holidays. The website Earth911.com contends that about 93 percent of trees cut for Christmas are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs. So unless you’re willing to fake it creatively with, say, a cardboard cut out or follow the ideas in this amazing ApartmentTherapy.com post, I’d opt for a small cut tree that you recycle or mulch once Santa has come and gone.

You didn’t ask, but as long as we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about tree lights. Those sparkly strands look good but they suck up more energy than you’d think, and their PVC wires might contain lead. To avoid energy drain and lead dust, skip the lights. Or try a lead-free LED strand.

Happy decorating!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Do You Do Black Friday?

  • November 21, 2012 11:11 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

I am a sucker for a good deal, which is why I tend to shop on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I was wondering if you take part in these festivities this time of the year?

Best,

Laura

Answer:

Hi Laura,

But you already know the answer to this question, don’t you? I’m teasing you. A little. So the season for consuming has arrived! I, too, like a good deal. I’m all about supporting the local economy, but am not a fan of overconsumption or wild days of shopping where people trample each other and buy goods that largely aren’t good for them or the environment. There’s something about these hyped up shopping days that drive people out of control. And we all end up buying way more than we actually want or need. Most of these products will ultimately wind up in landfills.

That said, I’m no grinch. I love giving and getting gifts. One way to support the economy and celebrate your friends and family is with experiential gifts–gift certificates for massages or restaurants, babysitting IOUs, theater tickets, and those sort of things. I’m also a big fan of food and drink gifts (oils, vinegars, homemade anything, organic wine) as well as seed packets for the gardeners in your life. There is very little waste or packaging involved with any of these gifts, and those organic wine bottles can be recycled.

So give yourself a break this Friday. Sleep in. Hang out with your family (if this is enjoyable). Take a walk. Go ice skating (my personal favorite Friday-after-Thanksgiving activity). You’ll have plenty of time to gather great gifts for friends and family before the holidays, I promise.

Hope that helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: How to have a sustainable Thanksgiving

  • November 14, 2012 9:31 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

How do you make your Thanksgiving as sustainable as possible? Are there certain ways that you make your holiday eco-friendly?

Thanks,

Mike

Answer:

Mike,

Thanks for your question. There are ways to make any celebration or holiday, including Thanksgiving, eco-friendlier. Here is a post I wrote last year on the Top 10 Ways to Have a Conscious Thanksgiving. That should give you some good ideas. Hint: it’s not only about the food.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: GMO’s?

  • October 31, 2012 9:01 am

Question:

Hello Alexandra,

I’ve been reading a lot on genetically modified food lately, and I was wondering if you could break it down for me? Like what exactly it means, why it is bad for me, and what should I choose?

Thanks.

Heidi

Answer:

Hi Heidi,

Yes, GMO’s have been getting a lot of attention lately, which is a good thing, and especially in California (more on this in just a bit). In order to understand GMOs, it’s helpful to know what they are. Here is how I defined them in The Conscious Kitchen:

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and Genetically Modified (GM) Food

These terms refer to plants and their resulting crops that contain artificially altered genes as well as conventional insecticides actually incorporated into the organisms.  These biotech modifications make the plants disease-, insect-, and/or virus-resistant in an effort to increase crop yield.  Though safety research has been conducted, there’s still significant concern about the health and environmental effects of GM food, which is not permitted under USDA organic standards.  These foods are also referred to as GE (genetically engineered).

The concern with GM foods is the unknown. No one truly knows what the long term chronic health affects are. And here’s the rub: I can’t tell you what to choose. Because we don’t currently know if and when we’re eating genetically modified food. GM foods aren’t required to be labeled in the United States. This is not true for all countries. In Europe, Japan, India, and  China, labeling is required. Stateside, the only way to know if you’re not eating GM food is if you choose organic. And even organic crops are now being cross-contaminated with GM seeds.

That said, if you’re eating anything containing corn or corn derivatives (corn syrup, corn oil) or soy or soy deriviatives or even beet sugar–which is about 100 percent of all processed or packaged foods–you are absolutely eating genetically modified food.

The reason why you have been hearing so much about GMOs leading up to the election is that for the first time, the public is going to vote on labeling. On election day Californian voters will have a chance to say yes or no to Prop 37, which would require GMO labeling. This isn’t to say GM foods are safe or unsafe, this is just giving consumers the right to know if their food contains GM ingredients or has been genetically modified. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the public is in favor of GMO labeling. There has been ample money spent by huge businesses in an effort to defeat the labels, so we’ll see what happens on election day. What gets passed in California often spreads to the rest of the country.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Moms Clean Air Force: Seafood and pregnancy

  • October 23, 2012 8:41 am

My latest post for Moms Clean Air Force is about the dangers of seafood for people–pregnant or not. Has your OB or doctor ever warned you to be careful about which fish you eat?

Q&A: Halloween Candy

  • October 17, 2012 9:27 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

With Halloween around the corner I just wanted to know your thoughts on Halloween candy. My kid is finally old enough to get into trick-or-treating, but I am not too keen on letting them have all that sugar, but I do not want to exclude them from the holiday festivities. Do you let your kid eat all their Halloween candy or throw it out? Do you only let them eat some of eat, and then give the rest away? I am really not sure and wanted your input.

Thanks,

Lindsey

Answer:

Hi Lindsey,

Thanks for your topical question. It’s true as Halloween is approaching, this is definitely something to think about. Not surprisingly I have been asked about this before–and yearly! Each year my approach changes, based on the age of my daughter. She is currently six. I haven’t decided yet what will happen this year, but I suspect it will be like last year. She goes to lots of Halloween parties, yanking various outfits from her dress up bin, and generally has a blast. If there is trick-or-treating or other candy giveaways involved, I swap candy with her. It’s all stuff she loves and it, unlike conventional versions, doesn’t contain lead, mercury, genetically modified high fructose corn syrup, or any number of dyes I’d rather she not eat. I’m very careful to make sure this swapping is not a hardship. I don’t want her to feel left out or weird. So I offer organic equivalents of jelly beans, kettle corn, chocolate, and more. When we went to one party last year I knew would be a candy fest, I stuffed our pockets with organic lollipops so she was able to eat something sweet as her friends did, too.

All of this said I have plenty of highly organic friends in my life who lift the rules for Halloween. It’s a very individual decision. I chose not to do this not only because I know too much, but also because Halloween has morphed into a week or sometimes a weeks-long extravaganza. I don’t want her eating conventional candy daily for several weeks. And I don’t let her eat her swapped organic candy for several weeks either. Everything in moderation.

One thing on my list for this year is making our own chocolate. We sometimes do this. It only involves coconut oil, cocoa powder, and honey. She loves the process, I’m in charge of the ingredients, and the results are delicious. I’m happy for her to eat as much of this as she wants. One of these years, I will throw a party so she can eat every single thing on offer. I just haven’t gotten around to it!

Happy Halloween.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: “Green” Kitchenware?

  • October 10, 2012 8:55 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

Looking to buy some new pans for my kitchen, and was wondering if you had any green recommendations for me?

Best,

Deb

Answer:

Hi Deb,

You’re not alone. This is a question I get often! Yes, there are ways to make sure that your new cookware is safe. As I explain in The Conscious Kitchen, you should opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Cast Iron is great because it’s safe, cheap, endlessly durable, and retains heat very well. If you are looking to add more iron to your diet, you’re in luck; small amounts of the iron will leach out of the pan and into your food. Cast iron does require oil or butter so your food won’t stick to it, but it does become more non-stick over time, especially if you care for the pans well.

Enamel-coated cast iron is a bit pricier than the other two, but well worth the splurge. It’s cast iron with an enamel coating is composed of fine glass particles. Glass is nonreactive and very safe. It also retains the heat well and is extremely durable. I use my enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven so often it just lives on the top of my stove. There is no point in putting it away.

Stainless steel is another solid safe material for pots and pans. It’s lightweight and sturdy. Just don’t store acidic foods in it (tomato sauce, rhubarb) as this can start to break it down.

I prefer these three materials to any of the new “green” pans on the market. Many of these contain proprietary materials and “green” chemicals that make them similar to the non-stick pans I hope you’re replacing. I don’t want to cook in anything proprietary! And these just aren’t as durable as the tried and true materials mentioned above. I have heard from a lot of readers that they’ve bought various new “green” pans and they wound up falling apart quickly. Cast iron won’t fall apart!

Hope this helps you with your decision. If you’re looking for other kitchenware, check out The Conscious Kitchen for additional tips.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Glucose Tolerance and Screening Test Alternatives?

  • October 3, 2012 8:13 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I’m entering my third trimester and know I am going to have to take my glucose test [for gestational diabetes screening] at my next OB visit. Is there any (organic?) alternative to that standard gross dyed orange drink loaded with high fructose corn syrup? I have been avoiding foods containing dyes and HFSC when pregnant and would prefer not to have to drink this stuff.

Best,

Holly

Answer:

Hi Holly,

First of all: congrats! And jinx. I’m outing myself here as I haven’t really been talking about this publicly, but I also just began my third trimester and dealt with this recently, so good timing.

If you’ve been avoiding dyes and HFCS for your whole pregnancy, one drink certainly won’t harm you and your baby, but I totally get where you’re coming from. That’s how I wound up in my doctor’s office eating 47 organic jelly beans at once. Oh the heart palpitations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The answer is yes, there are alternatives. The wild card is if your OB or midwife is willing to let you try them. Basically you need 50-grams of glucose for the test and there are any number of ways to get that into your body, wait the required hour, then take the blood test. I’ve read anecdotal stories about pancakes with syrup and orange juice doing the trick. Same goes for cinnamon rolls or other sugary treats.

I also found this study about jelly beans as an alternative to the beverage and shared it with my OB who was happy to let me eat them instead of drinking. Keep in mind that while the study says it takes 28 jelly beans, you need to look on the “nutrition” label on the back of the jelly bean brand you choose; the glucose level is different in different products. We did the math together and I wound up having to eat a whopping 47 of  the beans I bought for the purpose. Kind of gross and I would have preferred something else but I suspect it would be harder to measure out the exact grams of glucose in a pancake breakfast. I was so jazzed I left the office during my hour wait and did 5 errands before I came back for the blood draw.

While my OB was open and willing to let me swap where I was getting the glucose from, the nurse who took my blood did look at me like I had three heads when I mentioned I had eaten jelly beans instead of had the drink. Her bias didn’t phase me. I drank the glucose drink when I was pregnant with my daughter, now 6, and vowed never to do it again. I’m glad I didn’t have to.

I know people who are allergic to various food dyes and I think this is a great alternative for them, too.

Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Eco-Benefits of Being a Vegetarian?

  • September 26, 2012 9:20 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I just had a question regarding meat. Everyone always stresses how sustainable becoming a vegetarian is. I obviously understand the animal rights aspect to becoming a vegetarian, I was just wondering if you could explain more of the environmental benefits of not eating meat to me? Thanks.

-Terry

Answer:

Terry,

Thanks for your question. Yes, there are many environmental benefits to giving up or at least limiting meat consumption. It decreases water use, methane production, the impact of growing animal feed, and much more. It’s not an easy thing to answer quickly, but I’ll try to outline the basics below. I urge you to do some reading on your own, too. The production of animals into meat is an amazing system to learn about, with many shocking twists, turns, and revelations.

If you’re into stats and numbers, this site compares water usage for various items. It says that it takes approximately 15415 litre/kg of water to produce beef and only 257 litre/kg of water for potatoes. I don’t know anyone who only eats potatoes, but there is also quite a difference between chicken and beef.

Then there’s methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Cattle emit 80 million tons of methane annually, according to the EPA. And I haven’t even gotten to feed. Most animals are fed a grim mix of genetically modified soy and corn (neither are great for the environment as they require tremendous amounts of chemical sprays to grow), antibiotics (which create drug-resistant superbugs), and hormones.

All of this said, I am not personally a vegetarian for many, many reasons. Though I eat very little meat compared to most meat eaters I know. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research and thought to this decision and I only ever eat local, pastured, well-raised meat. I go into great detail on how and why to source this kind of meat in two of my books. I wrote  The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat with my butcher. I had interviewed him and his wife previously for  The Conscious Kitchen, which has a chapter concisely detailing meat labels, how shop, and other educational resources.

Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t immediately mean your environmental impact is nil. Many vegetarians continue to eat conventionally raised dairy and eggs–the eco-impact of these is far greater than their local, pastured counterparts. And if all of the soy you switch to eating is conventionally raised and coming from, say, China, that has its own not insignificant footprint. There have also been interesting studies done on the safety of soy-based diets. So all of this is worth considering as you weigh the pros and cons of giving up or eating less meat.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra