Dear Diary: Our Experiments


Trust Issues

Written by Jazz Glastra.

Question: Is raw milk safe?

Answer: Under the right circumstances, yes.

farmI was feeling a bit uninspired about this post, so I did what any reasonable person with writer’s block would do: I asked my best friend to tell me what to write. “What worries you most about food safety?” I asked. “I wish packaging said more about how things are made. Meat and veggies, particularly.” In return, I quipped, “here's a hint: if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.”

I decided to research the food safety controversy surrounding raw milk, instead. Raw milk has not gone through pasteurization, a process which kills bacteria by applying heat. Critics of pasteurization argue that pasteurization kills all bacteria, not just pathogenic ones, which results in “dead,” less healthful milk. Enzymes and proteins in raw milk are also damaged during the pasteurization process.

A quick Google search turns up a host of pages that are either staunchly pro- or anti-raw milk. My first stop was the Centers for Disease Control website. This seemed like a reputable enough source. The CDC pleads, “Make the best decision for the health of your family. If you want to keep milk in your family’s diet, protect them by not giving them raw milk.”  I also found three scare-your-pants-off videos about people who became dangerously ill from infections traced back to raw milk. The testimonials—complete with dramatic photography and concerned male narration—reminded me of something I’d seen in sensational programs like Dateline NBC. This, combined with the complete lack of balance on the issue, made me wonder just how fact-based the CDCs information was.

My next stop was Real Raw Milk Facts, a website that purports to tell straight facts about raw milk. However, there were several sketchy claims—like the side by side nutrition facts comparison between raw milk and pasteurized showing them to be equally nutritious. Last I checked, things like enzymes and bacteria are not reported on nutrition labels. This, too, set off my crap-o-meter and I easily discovered that the site is funded by a Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases. Not exactly the "straight facts" source I was looking for.

The potential danger of raw milk stems from two possible problem areas: the health of the animal and the handling of the product. No one is advocating drinking raw milk from grain-fed, overly confined, sick cows. That part makes sense. The tricky part comes in the handling of milk. No fecal matter or bacteria should ever come in contact with the milk. That means absolutely no dirty hands, udders, equipment, or flies. If you purchase your milk in a grocery store, you have no way of knowing how it was handled or the condition of the animals that contributed to the product. Of course there are rules, inspections, and testing, but these are no guarantee of a particular product’s safety. See: almost every outbreak of e. coli.

What this boils down to is an issue of trust. Whenever you buy a packaged product, whether that product is a box of cereal, a carton of milk, or a bag of baby spinach, that package represents a series of steps that remove you from your food source. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’ve lost trust in labeled and packaged food that is supposed to make your food look safe and clean. Are you going to rely on regulations and labels that tell you your food is safe, or are you going to wash the daylights out of your spinach and cook your steaks within an inch of their….er, lives? I’ll take the latter.

If you know your farmer and you’ve shaken your cow’s hoof, you might not have the same trust issues I do. I’m no germaphobe, but I’m also not ready to throw caution to the wind. That goes for raw milk as well as just about everything we eat. All I’m saying is, if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.



GMOs, European-Style

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

My family has a soft spot for Europe. It’s partly a ‘grass is always greener’ issue since we’re regularly fed up with American-style politics, and partly a ‘returning to our roots’ issue since we’re Celtic mutts with some Angle and Saxon blood thrown in for good measure. Both my husband and I studied abroad in Europe in college, and one of our bucket list items is to live in Europe (somewhere – anywhere – we don’t really care!).

We last visited the region when we traveled to Ireland and England in 2010. This was the first trip we’d taken there together, and the first trip we had taken since my husband had started tweaking his diet to avoid grains (he has issues with systemic 4705473281_cbb0271322_binflammation that improve when he goes gluten-free, and improve even further when he stays away from grains altogether). But he was going to the land of Guinness, the beer that is basically bread in a glass, and my husband’s Irish heritage would not let him not drink beer. It just wasn’t an option. So he resigned himself to feeling like crap while he imbibed.

Except that it didn’t really happen. No one was as surprised as he was when he didn’t feel like garbage after eating bread or drinking a beer. While he still felt better when he didn’t eat large volumes of grains, the difference was very apparent to him.

While we don’t really know what made the difference, we suspect it may have something to do with the restrictions on GMOs in Europe. Currently banned in six European countries, a proposed EU rule (2010) would enable member countries to ban cultivation of all GMO crops if it were passed. The regulations on GMO foods in the EU are much more stringent than those in the United States, requiring an extensive food safety review before being allowed to be cultivated. GMOs are also required to be labeled in the EU – either on the label or next to the food if sold ‘loose.’

Researching the differences in how the US and EU manage GMOs has given us another reason to love Europe. To me, labeling GMO foods is a no-brainer. I’d like to know if someone has been tinkering with my food at the DNA level, so I can decide for myself if I want to ingest it – or have my children ingest it. In Europe, I can make that choice. Here at home, I’m left wondering.

Dig Deeper:

These companies don’t want GMOs labeled in California

Links In This Post:

European Commission food division

European Commission future rules

Regulation of GMOs in the EU

UK Food Standards Agency: Food Labelling

Is Europe’s ban on Monsanto’s GMO crops illegal?



Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: What goes through your mind when you see a sign like this?
Answer: I don't want to think about it.

I was in rural Central Pennsylvania on a work trip this summer, and grabbed a ride back to my hotel from a friend who knew the back roads. It was a beautiful July day - the sky was blue, the sun was shining, the puffy little clouds were drifting on by, and the fields of corn were rustling in the breeze. You couldn't have a more idyllic day if you tried. Except for the signs like this:


You've probably seen something similar. Occasional reminders along the road delineating what crop was  growing where, what company the seed came from, and probably what batch of seed from what source (I haven't yet found a good description of what the specific info on this sign means). Probably helpful from the farmer's perspective, or maybe the seed salesman (if there is such a person).

But also a big fat reminder that there is an awful lot of genetically modified corn out there. "Maximum Insect Protection," "Round Up Ready Technology," and even the word BRAND show the increasing proprietization of food products by huge players in the agricultural industry. Genetically modified food isn't something that I had to think of as a kid, or that my parents had to think of when they fed me, because they've only been around in large quantities for the last twenty years. The current generation of children are one giant set of guinea pigs in a nationwide (if not global) experiment with food. And since GMOs are not required to be labeled in this country, most of us don't even realize that we're eating genetically modified food.

Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Dig Deeper:


Raising foodies

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: How do you help your kids make smart food choices when you’re not around?

Answer: Start ‘em young.

duncan_emmy_toronto_marketI was caught completely off guard the first time my son asked my to buy him a Lunchable. BLECH. Where had I failed as a parent? We avoid kid’s menus with everything-fried-on-a-platter, favoring ethnic food places where everyone can eat something healthy. As a result, my roly-poly Michelin baby ate channa masala, pad  thai, and shawarma with gusto. Once he got to school, we packed lunches and explained why – both reading labels and talking about the shortcomings of the school lunch program. I thought he got it, until he wanted that dreaded box of bologna circles and cheese-like product squares.

Turns out he wanted to be like everyone else, for a little while. So we compromised – we bought one, only one! – and made sure he looked at the label and understood how many ingredients he couldn’t pronounce were in there. Well, they taste pretty blah when you’re used to nitrate free pepperoni and smoked turkey, so he went back to our standard packed lunch foods. But man, was I scared for a while.  We also agreed that if he ever saw anything at school that he wanted to eat, that we would make the equivalent at home. So he now knows that French fries come from a potato, and that chicken nuggets don’t have to be made from pink slurry.

It takes CONSTANT VIGILANCE to make sure your kids make good food choices. Last week at our summer block party, my now nine-year-old snuck a glass of fruit punch after at least one (maybe two) glasses of soda. He knows our ‘one and done’ rule, but I wasn’t paying attention, and he got away with it. Since we rarely drink sugary drinks, he got a stomachache and learned his lesson the hard way. Thankfully, that teachable moment didn’t involve seeing the soda and punch again.

Talking to your kids and showing them good food choices are key in this onslaught of media-focused crap alternatives. That’s why I love having a roadmap for school lunches in which your kids can participate. Sure, they may ask for, or sneak, food that you don’t like, but if they have the lessons and example from you, they’ll come back to that again and again.

Dig Deeper:

School Lunches from Around the World

Sources for this Post:

EatWhole BeVital lunchbox roadmap

Jamie Oliver chicken nugget demo


It's school lunch season again

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: What's the best and worst time of the year?

Answer: If you're a parent, back to school season.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for parents of school-age children, at least. The scent of back-to-school flyers, sharpened pencils, and the whining of my children that summer is almost over always brings a smile to my face, big meanie that I am.

However, the specter of school lunches – Why do I have to pack my lunch? Why can’t I eat the swill that everyone else eats? – can wipe the smile right off my face. The morning fights if PB&J is the only sandwich option in the house, discussing why chocolate milk doesn’t need to be a daily drink.... ugh. I’m dreading this portion of the school year because my minions are very good at wearing down my resolve. The fact that I was completely ignored when I tried to reach out to our school district food service department to learn more about the school lunch program doesn’t help matters, either. Of course, our district is facing the specter of much larger things than kids whining about food – with the state slashing school budgets, I guess I should be lucky that my kids are in school at all.

school_garden_1I contemplated this dichotomy quite a bit while on vacation in Toronto earlier this month. While Torontonians seem to gripe about the quality of school lunches as much as Americans do, the digging I’ve done seems to indicate that, like most things in Canada, the school lunches are better there than they are here. If the school we stayed a block away from was any indication, their school gardens are certainly more involved.

I also had the good fortune while there to hear Sheila Penny from the Toronto District School Board speak at the Urban Agriculture Summit about incorporating urban agriculture and other green programming into the schools (with almost 600 schools in the Greater Toronto Area, this is the largest school district in Canada). Hearing an urban school district recognize their ability as a major landowner to impact the environment, nutrition, agriculture, and sustainability was something that, frankly, I never thought I’d hear.

school_garden_2Now that I’m back home, I’m both enthused by what I heard, and dreading running up against the brick wall of my children’s school district. But seeing best practices in the flesh, and knowing what is possible, is strengthening my resolve to make all children’s school experience a positive, sustainable one. Even if it’s just at the school lunch level, or helping in the school garden, I know it will be making a difference. And that’s worth it to me.

I’d love to hear about ways you’ve worked from the inside to make a school district (or any institution) a healthier place – feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments below.


Chicken As Biohazard

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Can the chicken on your plate cause a UTI?

Answer: Depends on the antibiotics it was fed.

As if we needed another reason to choose organic meat, there is increasing evidence to suggest that women are contracting life-threatening urinary tract infections (UTIs) from eating contaminated chicken. UTI’s, you say? That’s not a food-borne disease.

chix_groupThink again. The evidence is compelling and the logic isn’t too hard to follow. I “attended” a webinar last week entitled “Chicken, Life-threatening UTIs and Women’s Health,” put on byHealthy Food Action.* From the comfort of my favorite coffee shop, I was effectively scared off conventionally produced chicken for good. Microbiologist Dr. Lance Price of the Translational Genomics Research Institute outlined the basics of this frightening trend:

One in nine women will contract a UTI (also known as a bladder infection) each year. Extraintestinal Pathogenic E.coli (ExPEC) is the “dominant culprit” of these infections—causing 75-95% of the 6-8 million cases each year.

UTIs, though quite uncomfortable, can be easily treated by a simple course of antibiotics. However, doctors are seeing elevated instances of antibiotic resistance in e.coli-caused infections. When the infections can’t be treated with antibiotics, they can become life threatening. If a bladder infection moves from the urinary tract to the kidneys, then to the blood, it can very easily become fatal. And when that infection is impervious to treatment from antibiotics, there’s really nothing you can do to stop it.

There is increasing evidence to suggest that these strands of antibiotic-resistant e.coli are originating in industrial chicken production. Pathologists have observed UTI outbreaks much like they have observed other food-borne illness outbreaks. Clusters of women are being contaminated with the same drug-resistant strains of e.coli—the very same strains of e.colifound in contaminated poultry.

Almost 9 million broiler chickens are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) every year in the United States. Confined in overcrowded chicken houses, microbes spread quickly between the birds. In order to mitigate potential disease and promote growth, antibiotics are added to the chickens’ feed. Animal producers use far more antibiotics than humans do—29 million pounds per year! This is inviting the evolution of drug resistance.

Drug-resistant e.coli is transferred from chickens to humans primarily through contaminated food products (as well as occupational exposure). A study by the National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring System showed that 88% of chicken breasts are contaminated withe.coli. Once ingested, ExPEC moves from the GI tract to the urinary tract, causing a UTI.

Bladder and kidney infections are rarely considered a food-safety issue because they don’t involve digestive problems. However, the potential impact of this drug resistance is far more serious than the average bout of food poisoning.

As a consumer, it is important to take precautions to avoid contaminating yourself or others with drug resistant e.coli. Cleaning cutting surfaces and utensils, cooking meat thoroughly, and maintaining proper hygiene is essential. Better yet, look for chicken labeled with “organic” or “raised without antibiotics” to prevent the continuous development of antibiotic resistance.

But, says Dr. David Wallinga (senior advisor in Science, Food, and Health at the Institute for Agriculture, and Trade Policy), we can’t shop or cook our way out of exposures. We must change the way we raise chickens in this country through regulatory action. Currently, the FDA is focusing on “voluntary” reform, asking farmers to limit the amount of antibiotics they use and pharmaceutical companies to sell less of their product to vets and farmers. Is it any wonder the problem persists?

*A project of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Healthy Food Action is “making health the future of food and farming” by providing vital information and opportunities for action to health professionals.

Sources for this post:

Healthy Food Action webinar: “Chicken, Life-Threatening UTIs and Women’s Health”

Dig Deeper:

“Investigation: Drug Resistance, Chicken And 8 Million UTIs,” Wired, July 11, 2012.

National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring System

“Antibiotic Resistance and Animal Production,” Keep Antibiotics Working Coalition

Healthy Food Action


Who stole the jalapeno?

Written by Sara Padilla.

Question: What the most effective non-toxic ways to control garden pests?

Answer:  Not sure yet, but experiments are in progress!

jalapenoI have enjoyed a medium-sized backyard garden for the past five summers. This year, I planted a few new starts and seeds in addition to the usual tomatoes, greens and cucumbers. They include a banana pepper plant and a jalapeño pepper.

A few weeks ago I was pleased to see a perfectly-shaped, dark green jalapeño growing on my tiny plant. I looked forward to enjoying it in a salsa with the cherries emerging from a huge tomato plant growing nearby. Unfortunately, the jalapeño disappeared one morning. Something or someone picked the small spicy pepper and left nothing behind.

Who stole my jalapeño?

I think it was a squirrel and I suspect he was pretty surprised when he crunched into the heat of the chili pepper.

Other pests in my garden include snails. I do not use chemical pesticides, so I needed to find out how to prevent pests from stealing the most delicious results of my hard work! So I did a little research to identify the most effective ways to keep the pests out and the plants safe. I’m trying them out this week, and will report back soon on what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Prevention. Regularly inspect leaves for damage or discoloration. Keep weeds under control to eliminate safe spaces for pests.
  2. Spread crushed eggshells beneath targeted plants to keep snails and slugs away.
  3. Include more herbs in the garden. Certain aromatic herbs are supposed to keep aphids and other bugs away.
  4. Poison. Several substances are perfectly safe for humans, but toxic to insects. These include flour, salt and beer. To start, I have placed a shallow dish of beer near the leaves being eaten.

Sources for this post:


Don't try to convince me

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: Why was I so naive about food safety propaganda?

Answer: I hadn't been in the Washington DC Metro in a while.

Living in my happy little local food bubble, bouncing back and forth between my farmer's market, my local food co-op, my local farmers, and my local restaurants that locally source their food, I haven't had to think hard about food issues at the national level. Sure, I wondered what the heck Congress was thinking about the Farm Bill, but then, I wonder that about most things Congress does these days.

leah_metroThen, work travel took me to Washington DC last week, coinciding with a friend's feature on an ad in the Union Station Metro station. I planned to supportively visit her family's smiling faces, snap a few pictures, and be on my merry way. I knew that she was surprised by the aggressiveness of the message, but the point about lack of choices for non-mainstream diets in public school lunches was a fair one.

Before I made it there, I exited the L'Enfant Plaza station and came across a series of advertisements from the Corn Farmer's Coalition. Happy farming families standing in front of bucolic corn fields, giving me sound bytes like "family farmers grow 90% of America's corn." Wait - what? That's in direct contrast with most of what I know, or think I know, about the majority of corn grown in this country.

That's exactly the point. While I recognize that I am probably more well-educated than most Americans on food issues, even I struggle to find good objective data on what exactly works best. Vegan? Vegetarian? Paleo? Ketogenic? Non-Monsanto? Grocery store? Co-op? And the food lobbyists are very, very good at spending money to tweak people's perceptions on whether or not food is safe. The 'pink slime' controversy is the only example I can think of where the industry's message went off the rails. Not only are we regularly bombarded with ads for sugar cereal during Saturday morning cartoons, we're smacked over the head by messages designed to convince us that food is safe, no matter what you may have heard. I'm not sure that USDA even has easily accessible data on farm size and ownership by commodity grown.  The corn ads reminded me of how every milk carton has a sweet red barn and happy cows grazing in the fields - even if the cows that made that milk never stepped hoof into a pasture. I hope (a bit too optimistically, perhaps) that people wouldn't be swayed by a nice, friendly, homogenous family standing in front of their perfect corn fields.

My husband and I respond to our kids' requests for stuff stuff and more stuff by reminding them that you need to wonder why someone would spend so much money to try to convince you to buy their product. The same goes for food. I've never heard of a fennel lobby, or a red pepper office on K Street. Yet the corn lobby is putting a lot of effort and money into trying to convince people their product is safe, happy, the American farming dream. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Dig Deeper:


How does your garden grow?

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: what do you do when you disappoint your garden?

Answer: Look for inspiration elsewhere.

While my tomato patch exploded last year, my life exploded this summer, and my tomatoes have suffered as a result. I have a few in pots - two Sungolds that look pretty good, and a couple of Hahms Gelbe Topftomate plants that are so good at being dwarf plants that they haven't grown more than about two inches tall - but the rest of my seedling-growing experiment had a one-two punch of extra work travel and global warming from which they couldn't quite recover. Thankfully, the onions and garlic that I planted last fall came through in a big way and kept me from thinking that my green thumb had turned completely black.

gardenSo I decided to look nearby for inspiration, and wandered our neighborhood's community garden for a while this weekend. While a beautiful day added much to the atmosphere, the plots themselves reminded me why I do this, and told me (through photosynthesis osmosis) to stop beating myself up for not having another bumper crop of tomatoes this year. While some plots had neat planted rows, most did not, having the slightly ramshackle, random look that my backyard does. And each was unique, catering to their owner's preferences - one full of tomatoes, another heavy on the squash, a third with a lot of wildflowers - and obviously designed to give the person or family who cares for it pleasure.

Which is why I do this, of course. As much as I am thoroughly enjoying the knowledge that my backyard is reasonably free of salmonella on my spinach and listeria on my onions, there's no way I can feed my family solely from what I grow in my raised beds. I'm a putter-er. I putter. I like pulling weeds and planting seeds. It creates order out of chaos, at least for a little while. And that will continue regardless of how many tomatoes I produce in any given year.


Agave: A Not-So-Natural Sweetener?

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Is agave nectar a good natural sweetener?

Answer: Depends on who you ask

agave_nectarA few days ago I was shocked to discover that I’d been green-washed. According an article I read on the Real Food Forager, all that “raw,” “natural,” “organic” agave I’ve been guiltlessly ingesting is little better than high fructose corn syrup…or at least that’s what some people say.

Ok, I actually don’t consume all that much agave (I tend towards honey for a locally sourced natural sweetener, and organic raw cane sugar for my baking needs), but nonetheless, I was a bit concerned to learn that the alternative sweetener has been fraudulently parading itself as a good natural substitute for white sugar.  As a Digging Deep contributor, it was my natural duty to get to the bottom of this.

My dive into agave research had me swinging on a pendulum between pro-agave propaganda to anti-agave outcry. After hours on the internet, I learned that, like most things, the truth stands somewhere in the middle.

Agave nectar, unlike its advertisers would have you believe, is not a traditional Mexican sweetener used by the Aztecs. It was invented in the 1990s as an alternative use for the blue agave plant, typically used for making tequila. A traditional product made from the sap of the agave leaves was indeed used as far back as Aztec times, but the product sold as agave nectar today shares little resemblance in its taste or production method.

Most of the agave criticism seems to be a reiteration of a paper written by Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel and published by the Weston A. Price Foundation in 2009 entitled “Agave: Worse Than We Thought.” They assert that agave nectar is a falsely advertised product and no better than High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) for our health.

Here’s how it works: The agave root bulb is made up of starch and inulin, a complex carbohydrate. Without intense processing, inulin does not naturally taste sweet. It requires a multiple step manufacturing process to turn these fibrous compounds into a fructose-rich syrup (most agave is around 70% fructose)—just as indigestible starchy corn must be highly processed to be turned into HFCS.

Studies have shown that refined fructose sweeteners like HFCS are turned directly into triglycerides and adipose tissue (aka “body fat”). Chronically high triglyceride levels can cause insulin resistance, obesity, inflammation, and heart disease. Following this logic, agave nectar, which is very high in fructose, could even be worse than HFCS.

Because of the way fructose is metabolized, agave has a low Glycemic index, which proponents tout as a good choice for diabetics. However, studies showing the correlation between fructose consumption and insulin resistance should make diabetics and those at risk of diabetes weary.

The “Worse Than We Thought” article (and many of its reiterations) fails to explain how agave differs from HFCS in many ways. It claims that the manufacturing process of agave and corn syrup are essentially the same—dependent on chemical refining and filtering. However, for many agave products, this is not necessarily true. Unlike HFCS, organic agave nectar is produced without the use of chemicals—that applies to the growing process (no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides) as well as the manufacturing process (using heat versus chemical enzymes to extract sugar). Additionally, it does not contain GMOs, whereas HFCS is comprised solely of genetically modified corn.

It is important to remember that not all agave is created equal. Chemically refined, non-organic  versions do exist. For those of you who regularly use agave, make sure that it is organically produced. And because it is a high fructose product, it should be used sparingly—which is possible, since, unlike HFCS, it is not ubiquitous in nearly all processed foods. As the Wholesome Sweeteners (one of several commercial agave nectar producers) website advises, “Agave is a sugar and, as recommended by nearly all agave suppliers, it is a discretionary sweetener. You, the individual consumer, get to decide how much you use. We recommend it in moderation.”

So what’s the final verdict? It’s easy to fall into natural foods hype. Be careful what assumptions you make when you see the words “natural” and “raw” on a package—it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you or the planet. You probably don’t need to swear off agave forever, but for sweetening needs, it is better to lean towards more local and unrefined products like honey and maple syrup.


The International Organic Agave Alliance—About Agave

Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought

Real Food Forager-“Why I Never Use Agave”

Wholesome Sweeteners-“Agave: Facts Vs Fiction”

Dig Deeper:

“Fructose is No Answer for Sweetener”

Photo Source: youngthousands

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