Q&A: Safe Cookware

  • May 12, 2011 10:08 am

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra–I absolutely love The Complete Organic Pregnancy! My hubby and I are actively trying to get pregnant, and I’m using your book as our bible to help get my body and our home baby-ready.

I have a quick question about cookware–I own a set of Farberware that has etched on the bottom “aluminum clad stainless steel.” Does this mean the stainless steel is layered within the aluminum? Or vice versa? If it’s the former, I’m thinking I should replace it with a cast iron or stainless steel set.
Many thanks in advance for your help!

Wishing you joy,
Marcela

THE ANSWER

Hi Marcela,

Actively trying to get pregnant can be a, um, fun time! Thinking about cookware? Less fun. So, thanks for the great question. Safe cookware is so incredibly important and can be so complicated. Aluminum Clad Stainless Steel is a tricky thing. Do a little research and different sources (including manufacturers) say different things. It seems like Aluminum Clad should mean a layer of stainless steel between two layers of aluminum; a metal clad with something means covered by it. However, some sites describe Aluminum Clad Stainless Steel as the exact opposite: a layer of aluminum between two layers of stainless steel. Oof. I’m not hugely fond of aluminum as a cooking surface. And if it is coated with a nonstick layer, which happens not infrequently, I would toss it right in the trash. Like, pronto. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is a perfectly fine surface for your food to come into contact with.

The best advice I can offer you is to do what I would do: read the product information very carefully and call your manufacturer (Faberware, in this case) with any questions about what the surface material is. If you have any lingering doubt after speaking with them, just go for the good stuff.  Lodge Cookware is an affordable, tried and true, and reliable option. I have a friend who “recycled” her old cookware and now uses her aluminum/nonstick pasta pot as a training potty for her son. True story.

Here is an excerpt from an recent post about safety and cookware that explains why we have to choose cooking surfaces so carefully when outfitting our kitchen:

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 cook everything in tried and true durable materials: cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel.

What’s in your kitchen?

What You Don’t Know: Fish Is The Most Confusing Topic Ever

  • May 10, 2011 10:03 am

Recently there has been a lot of chatter in the news about the safety of our seafood.  Some of the growing concern is due to the nuclear disaster in Japan – how is radiation effecting what we’re eating?  As reported in The New York Times, the esteemed Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert has outfitted his kitchen with a radiation detector (!).  That said, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that spokespeople from the FDA say there is no realistic threat to Northern Pacific fish.

It’s hard to know what to do with such wildly disparate information, except not eat wild fish until we know more.

I realize this flies in the face of what I suggested in The Conscious Kitchen: that the best fish to eat is well-caught and wild, despite the fact that our waterways are the runoff for every single thing we have done wrong, environmentally speaking.

Unfortunately farmed isn’t a choice to turn to in tough times. The New York Times just reported on the factory farming of tilapia, nicknamed “aquatic chicken” because it “breeds easily and tastes bland.” Not very enticing. These fish are factory farmed–just like their feathered bretheren–and gain weight easily from their largely corn and soy based diets. That corn and soy is usually heavily sprayed and often genetically modified. If fish aren’t eating the aquatic plants they should, their nutritional value to us human predators diminishes rapidly.  “A portion of tilapia has 135 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, a portion of salmon has over 2,000 milligrams.”  Hmmm. What’s the point?

These issues are deeply confusing, even upsetting. As environmental issues–and oil gushing into places like the Gulf–come up, as species are overfished, then (somewhat) replenished, as changes happen, my approach changes. I start by eating what I said I eat in The Conscious Kitchen: well caught wild that I’ve double checked with a group that tracks contaminants in seafood is still my first choice if and when I want to eat fish (which, admittedly, isn’t often). I always stay informed and talk to my fishmonger, and suggest you do, too.

A few thoughts on purchasing fish from The Conscious Kitchen:

WILD

The main environmental issues for wild seafood, ocean or fresh-water, are sustainability and harvesting methods (how the fish was caught).  A number of species are currently drastically overfished – cod has long been the poster child of a depleted fish, so much so that there have been cod fishing bans from the Northwest Atlantic to the Baltic Sea.  Sharks, bluefin tuna, and many kinds of West Coast rockfish also are overfished, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.  What’s been depleted can sometimes be renewed, so check online for the latest information.  With regard to how fish are being caught, some methods are environmentally friendlier than others.  To learn more about these, go to FishOnline.org/information/methods.

FARMED

The main environmental issues for farmed fish and seafood – pollution and sustainability – are tightly linked to personal health concerns.  Many fish farms, domestic and abroad, use feed that’s similar to the gunk that factory-farmed animals are fed, including antibiotics and hormones, plus dyes (this is what makes farmed salmon as pink as its wild counterpart), and other undesirable additives.  In 2009, a neurologist from the University of Louisville issued a warning in a paper published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease saying that farmed fish that were fed cow by-products could even be at risk for mad cow disease.

Some farmed seafood is actually fed wild, sometimes overfished fish.  Ironic.  This further depletes the waterways and makes the finished product high in environmental toxins like PCBs.  There are even well-meaning farmers attempting to raise so called “organic” shrimp who also raise purer farmed fish to feed their purer farmed shrimp.  That sounds like an unanswerable riddle for the carbon footprint crunchers!

Another Tip:

When you’re in front of a fish counter or looking at a restaurant menu, if you don’t have a safe seafood card in your wallet, whip out your phone!  Text the Blue Ocean Institute‘s handy Fish-Phone – 30644 – with the word “fish” and the species you’re looking to get information on, and they text you right back with environmental and health information, giving your choices a Red, Yellow, or Green light.

What You Don’t Know: Additives in Your Wine

  • May 3, 2011 8:10 am

My lovely new intern, Glenny Cameron, works some at a local wine store and is keenly interested in sustainability. I asked her to write up something about what we drink–beyond grapes–when we open a bottle of wine. Conventional grapes are an intensely sprayed crop. But somehow even people who eat organic food neglect to drink organic wine. It may be an oversight, or maybe it’s because organic wine has long had a stigma of not being too tasty. Luckily this reputation is now undeserved.

When buying wine, do you think about how the producer has treated the vines?  The soil?  What about what has been added to the wine to make it taste more like conventional wine?  There are so many mainstream producers that are fussing with their grapes by using toxic pesticides, aromatic yeasts, and too many sulfites.  Did you know that historically some winemakers have used egg whites, milk, or blood as finings to improve their wine’s clarity?  Or that some vintners add an elixir called Mega Purple (discussed in depth by Wines & Vines) to enhance their wine’s taste and color?

Wine is a very confusing subject, made more perplexing because U.S. wine labels are not required to list any additives but sulfites, which are necessary to preserve the wine.  Unfortunately, the labels do not specifiy the amount of sulfites, which can be extremely high in some conventional wines.  To choose the best wines for the health of your body and the environment, I suggest looking to organic, sustainable, natural, and biodynamic wines.

In this excerpt from The Conscious Kitchen I write more in depth about natural wines.

Natural winemakers try to avoid additives as much as possible, and certainly never use anything synthetic.  Sulfites are the additives that most wine drinkers are aware of (they’re the only one listed on bottles), but there are actually two hundred additives that can be used in wine.  Many conventional winemakers use lab-produced yeasts to aid fermentation because their overuse of sulfites kills off not only bacteria but also natural yeast.  They also rely on additives like sugars and acids to adjust the flavor of grapes that don’t taste like they’re supposed to anymore, thanks to years of pesticide use.  Natural winemakers grow their vines in healthier, spray-free soil and therefore have healthier grapes that require fewer additives, and less of any one.  “Natural is about making quality choices, lowering yields, and hand picking in small containers instead of machine harvest,” says Jenny Lefcourt, cofounder of Jenny & Francois Selections.  She and her partner import to many states, from Oregon to North Dakota to Kentucky.  I have tasted most of what they bring to New York – and even visited one of the winemakers in France – and the wines are quite a bit different from what I’m used to.  They are for the most part very much alive – over the course of drinking a bottle they open up and taste surprisingly different.  Our (current) house red is a Jenny & Francois selection, Chateau Haut Lavigne Cotes de Duras 2006.  I was amused to realize that our winemaker, like our CSA farmer, is a woman: Nadia Lusseau.  Bonus: It’s about twelve dollars a bottle.  Natural (or organic or biodynamic or sustainable) wine doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.

More from Glenny: For a comprehensive take on these issues straight from a vintner, check out Robert Sinskey’s open letter on his website.  This Napa winemaker is committed to treating his land with devotion and care.  He believes in biodynamic farming techniques–the land should be improved with farming, and that every aspect of the vineyard is integrated in a healthy circle of life.  This attention to nature has yielded thoughtful, delicious, and sublime wines.  His ’07 Merlot tastes of plums and smooth chocolate, perfect for a winter’s meal.  For lighter fare, Sinskey’s ‘ 09 Pinot Gris is fabulously floral and vibrant.  Its soft pear and apple flavors pair beautifully with minted snap peas from the Greenmarket.

At La Clarine Farm in Somerset, California, they aspire to the “do-nothing farming” technique. No tilling, no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding.  The goal is to let the natural balances of the land do the work.  Less is more.  Without much intervention the farm should produce healthy, vital, and robust fruit, which in turn will create lively wines.  Their ’09 Syrah is hauntingly wonderful – complex and interesting, it tastes of sage and thyme, tobacco and cloves.

To find natural wines in your neighborhood, ask for them at your local wine shop.  More often than not, if they do sell any organic, biodynamic, or natural wines, they will be thrilled to guide you through them.  The more you know, the better purchases you’ll make.  And what could be a better evening tipple than a glass of wine you can feel good about?  Who says you can’t have two?  Cheers!

And cheers to you, Glenny, for writing this up–I love it. And kudos for working in the word tipple–fantastic!

What You Don’t Know: Methyl Iodide And Your Strawberries

  • April 26, 2011 8:25 am

I’ve decided to morph my Tuesday posts into a compendium of facts I find totally outrageous. These are things most of us know nothing about and yet they’re hiding in plain sight.

It’s about to be strawberry season so I’ll start my What You Don’t Know posts with methyl iodide, a soil fumigant pesticide used in the farming of these juicy red treats that just so happen to be my favorite fruit. This known carcinogen and neurotoxin, which causes late-term miscarriages (according to the Pesticide Action Network of North America), is approved for use in California, which is where most of the strawberries in the U.S. are grown. I’m no strawberry farmer, but I know this stuff is bad news for farmers, the groundwater, and eaters. So much so that I got several emails last week from environmental groups and other organizations (including FoodDemocracyNow.org, Center For Environmental Health, and Change.org) pushing to have it banned.

To put this all into perspective: last week Environmental Health Perspectives announced a study showing that children exposed to pesticides in the womb are more likely to have lower IQs.  From their press release: “…it makes sense that pregnant women should limit their pesticide exposure. They should use the smallest amount possible, have others place it, and just do what they can to minimize contact.” Uh huh. I prefer none.

Guess who doesn’t permit these sort of chemical pesticides on strawberries? USDA certified organic. And, to answer a question I get all of the time: No, washing and/or peeling conventionally grown fruit doesn’t get all of the pesticide residue off. Sorry; some of it is internal.

Fortunately methyl iodide isn’t what’s being used on my local strawberries (but that doesn’t mean I’m not signing petitions left and right and hoping you will, too). Unfortunately, I’m left trying to decide if I prefer local lightly sprayed to USDA organic but not-local-to-me strawberries, when all I want to be deciding is how many cartons to buy and how best to eat them–by the handful or in jams and pies.

In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss the difficulties of this local vs. organic push-pull, using strawberries as my  example. Here’s an excerpt:

Unless you’re 100 percent organic or 100 percent local (most interested eaters fall somewhere in between), it’s hard to figure out how, when, and why to choose local over organic, and vice versa.  Amy Topel, an educator and former food columnist for the now defunct Green Guide – the publication that existed before National Geographic bought the property – refers to this experience as “flummoxing.”  That’s about right.  “In Whole Foods they have local strawberries and organic ones,” Topel says.  The locals aren’t organic, and the organic ones are grown halfway across the country.  “I’m feeding my baby and I want him to eat organic; he should not be taking in those pesticides.  For ten minutes I walked back and forth – Do I care more about my baby?  Or everybody else?  I ended up deciding I didn’t want him to have the pesticides.”  This is just one instance of choosing organic over nonorganic local.  This mental tug-of-war is a familiar process for those of us trying to decide what the ratio of organic to local should be in our diets, especially where kids are concerned.  Pound for pound, developing little ones take in more of the harmful chemical spray residues than adults do, which is why organic is so crucial for them and for pregnant moms.

The trick to coming to peace with this local versus organic dance is to educate yourself on the concerns.  If health is your main concern, then you might decide that you always want to avoid ingesting sprays that have been linked to cancer, no matter how small the amount.  You’ll mainly choose organic.  If you decide local strawberries are the most delicious things on earth and you prefer to risk pesticide residue for a short season once a year and support small farms nearby, you’re going local, especially when you can locate low-sprayed local.  Soon you will arrive at your working ratio of organic to local.  One suggestion: If you’re feeding kids, choose organic over local but lightly sprayed when buying what the Environmental Working Group refers to as “The Dirty Dozen” – the twelve most contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables.

Buy these organic:

Peach, Apple, Bell Pepper, Celery, Nectarine, Strawberry, Cherry, Kale, Lettuce, Grapes, Carrot, Pear.”


Once you’ve decided about if you’re going local or organic (or both), indulge and enjoy. Ultimately the point of all of this fretting is flavor. And nothing tastes better than strawberries in season.

Now you know.

Do You Compost? My Farmers’ Market Does!

  • March 9, 2011 10:19 am

compost drop off!

Look what greeted me when I arrived at my small local winter farmers’ market this past Saturday. What a fabulous and welcome surprise! I already compost at home — in a NatureMill automatic composter that does the trick in my small urban apartment. We bring the results to friends and/or tuck it into the beds of the trees that live on our New York City street. But sometimes there is overflow (we cook at least three times a day and eat a lot of fruits and veggies, plus there are egg shells, coffee grounds, and more). This sign introduces what is a trial run to see if compost drop-off is widely needed/desired beyond the main Manhattan farmers’ market (Union Square). I want the organizers to know it’s very much in demand, so I intend to march my overflow there every Saturday. If you live in NY, there are more trial drop off sites being organized by GrowNYC. Join me in dropping off your scraps.

Here are some thoughts about composting from The Conscious Kitchen:

For biodegradable items to actually biodegrade in landfills, they need access to a basic combination of air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes. Landfill methane emissions are a result of the fact that landfills don’t offer this access. Most are too tightly packed for biodegradable scraps to be exposed to such things, and so they sit, unbiodegraded , next to truly unbiodegradable items for years. In 1989, a garbage project out of the University of Arizona went into a landfill and discovered a legible newspaper from 1952, intact hot dogs, and an ear of corn (husks, too) mixed with material dated from 1971. Tragic but true. These findings are like poster children for why it’s a good idea to keep even biodegradable items out of the landfill and aid the process yourself. Composting is truly win-win. It will drastically reduce your garbage output and give you something valuable–nutrient-dense soil for your garden and house plants–in return from “trash.” Seeing your atrophied garbage once you start composting is nothing short of miraculous–there’s almost nothing in it! It’s mind-boggling how much we collectively throw out that can simply, cheaply, and effectively be turned into good dirt. Once you’ve composted, you’ll never go back.

For more on composting, including resources, see pages 209 to 214 of The Conscious Kitchen.

The Conscious Kitchen At The Books For A Better Life Awards Ceremony

  • March 7, 2011 9:48 am

You’re supposed to love all of your children the same. Right? Well I feel the same way about my books. They’re all so personal, such labors of love. I adore them all. That said, The Conscious Kitchen is the only one I have written (so far) that I didn’t co-author. It’s mine all mine. And it’s truly a description of how I approach food and everything in my kitchen (cleaning products, safe cookware and food storage, composting, not really following recipes, and so much more). It comes right from me to you in an effort to help people figure out how to navigate having and maintaining a green(er) kitchen, all while loving food. I think it’s a really helpful guide.

So I was understandably overwhelmed/touched/thrilled when my labor of kitchen love was named a finalist for a Books For A Better Life award. I found out many months ago about the nomination. And the ceremony is at long last happening this Monday, March 7th. My competition is truly fierce. I’m only expecting to show up at the Millenium Broadway Hotel in midtown and have a lovely glass of wine with my editor in a room filled with authors. But just in case for some reason I do win, I have the two minute speech they asked me to prepare. My hopes aren’t up but, um, it was really fun coming up with it.

Storing Safely

  • January 18, 2011 6:19 pm

Plastics are everywhere in the kitchen. And it seems that there are news reports daily on the hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which get into our food, beverages, and even baby formula.

Although there are plastics on the market that are generally considered safe to use with food, there is a growing body of evidence showing that plastics need to be treated gently, washed by hand, and never, ever placed in a microwave, where their chemicals leach into what's being heated, especially things with a high fat content, like meat and cheese.

Plastics are also derived from a nonrenewable resource (petroleum), and not all kinds are recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable often wind up overcrowding landfills or floating around in our waterways.

It might be difficult (but not impossible) to avoid plastic packaging at the supermarket. When it comes to storing your leftovers at home, why not bypass plastics altogether–baggies, wrap, or containers–and use reliable, renewable, and reusable containers made of glass, stainless, steel, and lead-free ceramic instead.

Glass storage containers are widely available, or you can use what you already have in your kitchen: old jelly, peanut butter, or pickle jars. Glass can also go in the freezer–just make sure to leave enough room for liquid to expand.

If you'd like a replacement for plastic wrap, try a reusable wrap, or opt for was paper coated in non-genetically-modified (GM) soy wax instead of petroleum-derived wax.

This way you won't have to worry about what's migrating into your food or hope the plastic currently considered safe doesn't become tomorrow's must-avoid.

Find more info on keeping your home plastic-free in "Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning & Greening the World You Care About Most."

The Real Expense of Food

  • January 18, 2011 5:48 pm

Many people complain about the price of organic food. An organic apple costs considerably more than its conventional counterpart at a supermarket. But here's what is expensive about conventional apples: the ecological toll of the chemical sprays used to grow them plus the health toll of those sprays both on the orchard workers and the people who ingest their residue.

And if you knew that the farmer down the road—who maybe has known your family for generations—was struggling and needed to charge a bit more to stay afloat and to compete with the larger corporations that are able to charge less per pound, wouldn't you be willing to pay a little more? That relatively little price difference will provide us, our families, the farmers, and the earth with a huge bonus along with a sweet, healthful snack.

Larger farms will sell produce more cheaply by externalizing their costs onto society and the environment. They don't pay the cost of polluting the water with pesticides, or for the soil erosion they cause, or the impact of petroleum-based fertilizers—we do! The price difference can be made up by limiting packaged foods—they add up—shopping wisely, and buying a farm share.

If you're going to buy conventional produce, keep in mind that some fruits and vegetables are more contaminated than others. The Environmental Working Group has ranked pesticide contamination for almost 50 of the most popular fruits and vegetables, and have come up with the "Dirty Dozen," a list of 12 fruits and vegetables you should buy organic whenever possible:

celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries (domestic), nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale, potatoes, grapes (imported)

Find more tips like these in "Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning & Greening the World You Care About Most."

New York Family Magazine / My Favorite Local Charity

  • November 29, 2010 2:30 pm

New York Family Magazine asked various New Yorkers what their favorite charities were, and I was honored to be included in their roundup.  Thank you!  My answer? Slow Food NYC. To find out why, click here.

Conscious Kitchen Named Books For A Better Life Finalist

  • November 9, 2010 6:55 pm

I'm thrilled that The Conscious Kitchen has been named a finalist in the green category of the 15th annual Books for a Better Life Awards.