So you know the very person who planted, watered, and picked your tomato. And maybe you even visited the farm where your steer roamed before it became your steak. You’ve figured out the ratio of certified organic to local in your weekly shopping ritual. You’ve got this whole sustainable thing down pat and you can now stop thinking about it already. Right?
Not so fast.
Sourcing food well is both crucial and tasty. But what are you prepping on, cooking in, storing in? There are hidden things lurking in most kitchens beyond roaches that aren’t safe for you or your dinner guests—some are even the very chemicals you avoid by buying organic. And most can—and should—be easily avoided.
Let’s say you drop extra cash for an organic chicken, or maybe a local pastured one. That chicken is all kinds of things, including not decontaminated with chlorine bleach. But if you prep it on a surface you happen to clean with chlorine bleach, you’re re-contaminating your carefully sourced bird with the very residue you hoped to avoid by buying it in the first place. Changing all of your cleaning products to natural versions today is a great way to avoid these residues, plus reduce air pollution in your home and outside. Win win win. It’s empowering to know that the small choices we make at home can have such far-reaching impact.
In Planet Home, the new book I co-authored with Jeffrey Hollender, we discuss a study that shows that in cities including Los Angeles, Denver, and Baltimore, household products such as cleaners, personal care products, paints and stains are the largest source of pollutants after cars.
If you’re at the grocery store and want a natural cleaning product, check to make sure the product you’re considering has an ingredient label. Most conventional cleaning products won’t have a label; cleaning product formulas are government protected trade secrets for now. If you see one, the company making it has gone above and beyond and offered customers this information. Still, there are warning labels even on products that don’t list ingredients. Look for these and really consider what they mean. If you see a skull and cross bones, avoid!
So now you’ve prepped that chicken on a board washed in plant-based dish soap, or maybe a cleaner containing hydrogen peroxide. Browning the poultry in a non-stick pan will undermine these good choices. As I discuss in The Conscious Kitchen, until recently most non-stick cookware was made with a chemical that has been linked to cancer, infertility, and complications during pregnancy. This chemical—perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA—is so persistent it has been found in low levels in the blood of 98 percent of the general U.S. population. In 2005, DuPont settled with the EPA for $16.5 million for allegedly withholding PFOA health risk information. The EPA called on them and six other chemical companies to voluntarily eliminate PFOA and similar substances from plant emissions and products by 2015. In the kitchen, we’re exposed to it mainly through scratched pans, and these things scratch easily. They can also break down at high temperatures and the fumes can cause flu like symptoms in humans, and death in birds. Hello, canary in the coalmine.
There are new chemicals now being used to produce non-stick cookware as this phases out. The replacements are largely unknown, so their safety is also unknown. The safest thing to do is brown that bird – and cook everything else – in tried and true durable materials: cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel.
If you make too much pastured chicken stew in your cast iron dutch oven, make sure to store the leftovers in similarly safe materials: glass, stainless steel (unless you stewed it with tomatoes—the acid can cause the metals to leach), or lead-free ceramic. The environmental health community has done a good job of letting people know about the dangers of certain plastics and the various you-don’t-want-it-for-dinner chemicals they might contain (bisphenol-A and phthalates come quickly to mind). Plastic is actually fairly easily avoided in the kitchen, especially when it comes to food storage containers. Tuck food into glass containers you buy specifically for the task, or just put it in jelly jars. Just leave room for liquids to expand if you’re freezing leftovers. If you’d like to use plastic, the numbers currently considered safe by the scientific community are #2, #4, and #5. Look for these in the recycling arrow on the product. If you don’t see a number, call up the manufacturer and ask what it is. Treat plastic gently; the more you bang it up, the more likely it is to leach its chemical components into our food. And never put plastic in the microwave, even #2, #4, or #5, or even if it says “microwave safe.” That just means how much heat it can withstand, not that it won’t release its chemicals into your meal.
There are many other things to be considered for your health and the health of the planet in any conscious kitchen, but these are some of the biggies. It can be overwhelming to take into account this much when you just want to eat dinner. But it’s worthwhile, and before too long it becomes second nature. You don’t have to do it all at once, either. Making one change – switch your cleaners or toss your non-stick pans – is a step in the right direction.