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: “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: 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

Eco-Friendly Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

  • September 10, 2012 8:41 am

School starts today at loooong last! I don’t even bother shopping for anything until at least a few weeks into school to see what we actually “need” (usually nothing). Well that’s not entirely true. My mom had a tradition of always helping us choose a back-to-school outfit a few weeks before school started so we could get excited and picture what we’d be wearing as we went about the first day. It wasn’t always a new dress. Quite often it was a hand-me-down. So my daughter does have a first grader new dress–thanks to her grandmother–that has been waiting to be worn for about two weeks. I have loving memories of my own first grader first day dress. It was a brown and white gingham number with a red apple on my chest. Ah, the 70s.

On the topic, here’s my most recent post for Elizabeth Street and it’s all about eco-friendly back-to-school shopping. Maybe I’ll take my own advice come October….

Q&A: BPA and Plastics

  • August 8, 2012 8:18 am

Question:

Alexandra,
A friend just sent me a video of you talking about safety concerns about plastics and children. My wife and I are brand new parents. Our twins were born 6 weeks ago. We are using the Dr. Browns BPA-free bottles. My concern is we’ve been washing them in the dishwasher. I’m wondering about the possibility of substances (other than BPA) in the plastic leaching into the milk due to the heat in the dishwasher. Do you have any info on this? Where do you find your information? We’ve been reading a lot but haven’t seen any studies on possible dangers of BPA free plastics that are exposed to high temperatures. Do you think I should switch to glass or just start hand washing the plastic bottles I’ve got. Thanks for your help.

Best,
David

Answer:

Hi David,

Congrats on your new additions.

Watching that video of me talking about plastic, it should come as no surprise that I’m deeply wary of plastic for both environmental and health reasons and therefore fond of both shatterproof glass and/or stainless steel–especially for the early years and developmental moments. All plastics degrade when exposed to high temperatures. While the safety research has mainly been on BPA (plastic #7) and PVC/Vinyl (plastic #3), there are studies that have been done on what comes out of even the plastics that are considered safe by the scientific community, especially #1. Since you’re contending with twins, you might not be aware that the FDA recently finally banned BPA from baby bottles, though not from any other infant products (which is frustrating). There is no word on what manufacturers are supposed to be replacing BPA with, and if these chemicals are any safer than their banned predecessors. More reasons to avoid plastic….

Though there are great resources (like The Environmental Working Group) to turn to for information on plastic, staying on top of  the latest plastic safety details can be a full time job. This is another reason I prefer glass and stainless steel. You don’t have to keep on top of their safety.

Another bonus: If you are too tired to wash everything by hand, glass and stainless are your friends; both are fine in dishwasher. Keep in mind that any/all plastic you use should only ever go on the top rack of the dishwasher if you can’t hand wash.

Bottle issue solved, now get some sleep!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Beach Pollution

  • August 1, 2012 9:36 am

My latest post for Elizabeth Street was actually inspired by a reader question and offers some of my safety thoughts for beach goers. I find it frustrating we’re in an environmental moment where I even have to answer this sort of question, but we are.

Click through to read my thoughts about the environmental hazards–with regard to water and sand quality–to watch out for as you splash and build sand castles on the beach this August.

Teaching for The Maternity Institute

  • July 6, 2012 12:34 pm

I’m thrilled that this fall I will start teaching at the Maternity Institute. Here’s a little bit from their press release announcement:

“Alexandra will begin teaching IMI’s Greenproofer Certification™ course in the Fall of 2012. Through the IMI Greenproofer 10 week certification program with Alexandra, participants will gain comprehensive knowledge and practical experience to prepare pre-conceiving, expecting, and new parents for toxic free living while expanding their careers as maternity eco-consultants and greenbirth educators.”

Fun! I hope maybe you’ll join me?

A Case of Wine from Glenny

  • October 23, 2011 9:51 am

Last week Alexandra asked me to put together a case of some of my favorite wines for her to enjoy throughout the fall.  (I work at a little wine shop called Smith & Vine in Brooklyn).  I happily agreed – what fun!  She also suggested that I write a little bit about what I chose and why, hoping to encourage all of you to check out some of these delicious (and affordable!) wines.

The case was mixed: six red, five white and one rose.  All organic.  I’m going to pick just a few of my top choices to tell you about:

-Finca Luzon  Jumilla Verde 2010: Made from the grape Monastrell (also called Mourvedre in France), this Spanish wine is dark and earthy with lots of plumminess and spice.  My favorite thing to eat with it?  A falafel sandwich.

-Reunion 2009: An Argentinian gem made with the grape Malbec, this red wine is full-bodied and full-flavored – exactly what you want from a new world Malbec.  It tastes of blackberries and cherries, dark chocolate and a hint of spicy pepper.  Handcrafted by the winemaker and his family, it is made with sustainable farming practices and organic grapes.  Easy going and approachable, this wine is perfect with anything from big barbecue flavors to more subtle and rich autumn fare.

-Domaine de la Fruitiere Jardin de la Fruitiere 2009: From the Loire Valley in Western France, this lovely white wine is a blend of Melon de Bourgogne and Chardonnay.  Melon de Bourgogne is also known as Muscadet, and is a grape that has flavors of clean minerality and limestone.  Paired with the fruitier Chardonnay, the result is a delightfully dry and crisp wine.  It tastes like green apples!

-Shinn Estates Coalescence 2010: We love the Shinns!  And you should too.  Their gorgeous organic vineyard on Long Island is well worth the day trip – you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all of the tasty pours this husband and wife team have to offer.  One of my favorites is their zippy little white wine made from a field blend of grapes from their vineyards.  Talk about not wasting anything!  The Coalescence is young and bright with lots of citrus.  Pair it with anything from the sea and you’ll be very very pleased.

Enjoy the recommendations!  If you can’t find any of these wines in shops near you, check out www.winesearcher.com and plug in your zip code.  It is a great tool for finding specific bottles that you’re dying to taste.

Cin cin!

-Glenny

Q&A: Coffee

  • September 29, 2011 9:57 am

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

I have a quick, but perhaps complicated question about coffee for you.  Every morning I have at least a cup.  It hadn’t really occurred to me until recently that my coffee habit could have environmental repercussions.  So, what coffee should I be drinking?

Thanks,

Cynthia

THE ANSWER:

What a great question and oh so appropriate considering September 29th (today!) is National Coffee Day (as if every day isn’t national coffee day in my apartment). The answer is a little complicated and a bit controversial.  Chances are you live in the United States, very very far away from any coffee plantations. This presents a problem for the most hardcore locavores (cough) whose diet consists of only local foods.  For the rest of us who are reluctant to give up our morning mug, there are options, which I explain in The Conscious Kitchen.

I’d like to state for the record that while I am a hardcore locavore, I literally do not put a toe on the floor in the morning without my coffee. I know this sounds bad. If you’re tempted to judge me, I suggest you try writing three books in as many years with no nanny and a small person in the house! I did give coffee up for years–when I was pregnant and breastfeeding–so I know I can do it. I just prefer not to.

But enough about me! The excerpts:

“The key thing with coffee is to source it carefully, especially since by some estimates it is the second most widely traded global commodity after oil.  Think of the eco-repercussions of drinking the worst-farmed beans, 365 days a year.  When it comes to coffee, the best brew goes beyond just choosing organic or sustainable beans for personal and environmental health.”

“To ensure that the workers growing your coffee are being treated right, look for fair-trade certification (TransFairUSA.org) on your bag of beans.  This, they say, takes into account fair prices, labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, as well as environmental sustainability – the last of which is especially crucial for the rainforests, where a great deal of coffee is grown.  Fair Trade Certified products tend to come from small producers on small farms that belong to larger cooperatives.”

“Coffee traditionally grows in shade, under a natural canopy that’s home to many birds.  According to Sierra magazine, low-quality coffee can be grown more easily and cheaply in full sun, ‘but only with extensive use of pesticides.’  The Rainforest Alliance certification label covers both worker treatment and birds (Rainforest-Alliance.org).”

“Coffee and fair-trade fanatics can compare and contrast these certifications at length, but keep in mind that choosing either over conventional coffee is key.”

Most importantly, if you buy consciously, you’ll have a better tasting brew.  Canned conventional coffee is probably a nasty mix of downed twigs, dust, and floor sweepings according to Treehugger.com.

And remember to always bring your own mug, use reusable or unbleached filters, compost your grounds, and doctor it with organic/local milk and fair trade sugar.

Happy National Coffee Day everyone!  I think I’ll have two cups to celebrate. Cheers!