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Sh*t. There’s more arsenic in rice products than we thought.

Consumer Reports rice arsenicI hate it when healthy things turn out to be tainted with not so healthy things. Take arsenic in rice. We first heard about rice being contaminated with arsenic a few years ago, but there’s new data out this month and it ain’t exactly consoling. First, a UK investigative TV show teamed up with a university there and tested over 80 products for arsenic. They found 58% would fail the European Union’s proposed standards for arsenic in rice for kids. Popular products like Rice Krispies and infant rice cereal (both organic and regular brands) failed to meet those standards. This is a good time to mention that Canada and the US don’t have standards regulating arsenic in rice. (Yeah, I know, best to harass your federal politician about this). I discovered that particular UK report when I was researching my column on pasta (To Wheat or Not to Wheat?). Then Consumer Reports released a new updated report on arsenic in rice this week and it was even less comforting for anyone that enjoys gluten-free products heavy in rice (ahem). Based on the bad news in there I had to update my pasta guide. I also folded some of this info into my holiday cracker guide. So what did Consumer Reports find exactly?

The bad news

  • Brown rice averaged 80% higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice (rats!). Why? Because arsenic accumulates in rice’s outer layers, which are removed from white rice.
  • Parboiled rice is the worst of all the white rice.
  • Rice pasta and infant rice cereal has way more arsenic than they previously thought. CR says kids shouldn’t have rice pasta more than once every two weeks.
  • Kids under 5 shouldn’t drink rice milk. 
  • Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen. Consumer Reports says: “regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system.”
  • There was no difference between certified organic and non-organic rice on the arsenic front (insert sad face).
Lundberg brown basmati

California brown basmati had the lowest arsenic levels of all brown rice.

The good news

  • Basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan is the lowest in arsenic, as is California sushi rice. CR says that you can eat 4.5 weekly servings of these – twice as much as they recommend for other rice – and not boost your lifetime cancer risk.
  • Medium grain California rice had lower levels than most.
  • Brown basmati rice from California had the lowest of all the brown rice and was lower than some white rice.
  • This all bodes well for the Lunberg rice company which grows offers lots of California grown options in both organic and non.
  • Other grains don’t have the same arsenic problem (phew), so you can happily eat quinoa, barley, farrow, millet, buckwheat, polenta and amaranth without breaking a sweat. Well,unless they’re really hot. Then all you have to worry about is your dinner burning your tongue.

Why is there even arsenic in rice? 

Well, arsenic can be naturally present in soils, but inorganic arsenic in rice is there because of pollution in the soil from things like pesticides and poultry feed. That arsenic could have been there from decades past (like old cotton fields converted to rice fields in the southern US).  Rice is really good at soaking it all up, unfortunately.

So how much rice is okay to eat? 

Consumer Reports analyzed all the data out there and developed a point system. Turns out we should only eat 7 points worth of rice products a week, max. Take a look and do your own math, especially if you have kids.

CRM_Arsenic_Chart_Page-42_01-15

Keepin’ it cool: ice cream, aloe and coconut water guides

coconut water, ice creamThere are times in life when I say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with burying your head in the sand. Like mid way through August when everyone’s talking about the imminent arrival of fall and you’re all, ‘Hold up, people, I’m trying to enjoy every last minute of this blissful season!’ In honour of all those sucking the marrow out of the present moment, I’m catching you up on some of this summer’s Ecoholic product guides from NOW Magazine (I’ve been in summer mode myself so a little MIA on the blogging front). First up, you’ll find the Cold, Hard Truth about Ice Cream. In this guide, you’ll get the scoop (argh, sorry about that one) on which brands are serving up dairy from cows given genetically modified growth hormones, as well as the inside line on which brands are serving up sustainability in an especially delicious format. (Let me tell you, product testing on this one was particularly rigorous, involving bowl after bowl of ice cream.)

If a summer’s worth of UV has left your skin worse for wear, check out my Apres-Sun Guide to Aloe Gel. (Hint: real aloe gel is never green and should technically contain aloe somewhere in the upper half of the ingredient list.) And finally, if you’re crawling through an urban savanna and dying for some coconut water, which brand should you choose? My Cracking the Nut…A Guide to Coconut Waters will tell you which brands are heavy in BPA and controversial pesticides and which win feel good coconut water of the year. Now put down that device and soak in the summer vibes while you still can. And don’t worry, Ecoholic.ca will be back full gear in the fall (which, people keep saying is soon)…plus there should be a fresh, new website coming soon, too.

Cookware unscrambled: the latest dish on fying pans

Fried eggs

This column first appeared in the Mother’s Day issue of Ecoholic in NOW Magazine. Let’s get straight to it…

NON-STICK

First the good news: Teflon, the most famous of the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) non-stick coatings, is now being manufactured without the notoriously persistent, suspected human carcinogen PFOA, as the result of U.S. government pressure. However, critics argue that replacement chems are under-researched. France-based T-Fal’s website says it’s still manufacturing with PFOA, though like all non-stick makers, it says the final pan surfaces are PFOA-free. Regardless, Health Canada says PTFE pans can give off poisonous fumes at very high temps. FYI, some titanium pans use ptfe non-stick coatings, so be sure to probe.

SCORE: 1/5

ANODIZED ALUMINUM

Aluminum’s great at conducting heat (hence, all sorts of pans have aluminum cores), but plain aluminum skillets do quite a bit of leaching. Anodizing the metal in an acid bath with electric current hardens it, creating a non-stick surface that leaches a lot less aluminum. But it still seeps out over time if you’re cooking high-acid foods like tomato sauces. Health Canada says levels are low enough that you shouldn’t worry. But why invest in one of these when there are so many other options on the market?

SCORE: 2/5

 CERAMIC

Often branded as “eco” pans because their non-stick glazed ceramic surface doesn’t use PTFEs or Teflon. I’ve tried a good half-dozen ceramic brands over the years. Some scratched within six months (like Eco-Chef, which came with a one year warranty) or just failed to deliver consistent non-stick performance (Orgreenic). Earthchef and Green Pan, both of which test for lead and cadmium in the glazes, were more durable, but I’ve found ceramic will lose its non-stick skills if you’re searing or cooking at high heat often. Nice part is Earthchef comes with a five-year guarantee. My advice: reserve these for eggs, and cook with another pan the rest of the time.

SCORE: 3/5

STAINLESS STEEL

Few pans are more durable and resilient than those made of stainless steel. They won’t rust like cast iron or wear out like ceramic, aluminum or conventional non-stick pans. You can scrub them with steel wool if need be and on they live. They can leach a little nickel and chromium into your food, though “not enough to cause concern,” according to Health Canada. Rundown aluminum and copper pans may leach to a more worrisome extent. A lot of pro chefs use carbon steel, which is mostly iron without the nickel or chromium in stainless steel. It’s more like lightweight cast iron and still needs seasoning. (De Buyer B Element from France is carbon steel with a beeswax coating.)

SCORE: 4/5

CAST IRON

I love old-fashioned cast iron pans. Okay, yes, they’re a bit of a pain in the arse since they’re heavy as hell and you have to wash and dry them with care. But if you buy good seasoned pans (Lodge crafts quality, American-made ones), these are wonderful chef-friendly surfaces. Plus, iron cookware can actually boost your daily iron intake by some 20 per cent – a bonus for vegetarians! Too heavy for you? Try carbon steel.

SCORE: 4/5

The olive oil guide…with a drizzle of Vasil family history

olive oil guideMy grandfather Nick was what you’d call a Black Sea Greek. In fact, he was a Greek born and raised in Crimea, from another messy time in history – the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. My family fled after my great-grandfather was shot for being on the losing side. By the 1930s, three of the sons had opened up a Greek grocery store in Montreal, somewhere on St Laurent Blvd. They sold black olives, feta, and of course, lots of olive oil, direct from the original motherland (Greece). My grandfather studied engineering (that’s his graduation shot below) but he also knew good olive oil when he tasted it. And now 80 years later, well, I’m offering you a guide of my own to olive oil. The scene has definitely changed a lot since then. Companies are pawning off all kinds of junk as EVOO. And let me tell you, the original stuff never had pesticide traces in the mix. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the guide, along with news on milkweed, palm oil and more. This one is dedicated to my papou, Nick Vasilikiotis.

Papou original

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The Sustainable Wine Guide + Carbon 14’s Electric Idea

wine guide imageWith the festive season in full swing, most of us are, let’s just say, enjoying holiday spirits a little more enthusiastically. Whether you’re sharing a hostess gift or stocking your wine rack for your own celebrations, be sure to check out the Ecoholic wine guide, with a ranking of five of the most popular along with the most sustainable vinos, from super affordable Fuzion Organic to Ontario’s own Southbrook (try the Connect Organic Red and Triomphe ). You’ll also learn about the pesticide residues found in every sample of conventional wine tested, making shopping for organic wine even more of a priority.

O wineAnd after a weekend of wine tasting (at my own kitchen party), I have a new organic wine to add to the list. It’s by French winemaker Gilles Louvet.  I’m a huge chardonnay head and guiltily love big California chards, so was happy to find Gilles Louvet ‘O’ has those creamy, toasty vanilla notes I love, for a few dollars less than uber popular Cali-based Bonterra organic. The bottle is the lightest weight bottle on the market today, helping to lower its carbon footprint (which, by the way, should be lower than Bonterra, if you live in eastern Canada or the north eastern US, since Bonterra has to be trucked in from California rather than shipped in from France). And the cork itself comes Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests in the south of France (much greener than plastic corks, since cork-harvesting actually helps keep the world’s few remaining cork oak forests alive and thriving, according to the WWF).

Also in this issue of NOW, you’ll find my experiential take on interventions-775the Carbon 14 exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. The piece is called Carbon 14’s Electric Idea for a reason, the whole Carbon 14 festival is fantastically inspirational and just a really exciting fusion of art, politics and science. Which is why I had to interview Carbon 14’s curator Claire Sykes, so look for an excerpt of our Q&A in this issue too  (you can find the full length interview with Claire on Cape Farewell’s site here). Art, wine, culture, now that’s an organic fusion!

The Yolk of the Matter: How Ethical Are Your Eggs?

eggswithchicks

All it took was one beak trimming scene at a hatchery in the movie Baraka to turn me off eating chickens two decades ago. Now 20 years later, I realize the egg business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Vegetarians still eat eggs, since technically they’re not eating meat, but in doing my guide to eggs in the last issue of NOW Magazine, I was pretty shocked to learn that 50% of chicks get offed in the name of eggs. Why? Well, they were born males, so they’re not egg layers and they’re not meat chickens, so they turn into feed for places like mink farms. The big W5 egg factory expose at a Burnbrae supplier in Alberta got everyone talking about some of the inhumane ways caged chickens are treated. The industry, as I explain in my article, tried to make it sound like the egg farms exposed by hidden camera footage were an anomaly, but the truth is even an egg farm run according to the industry’s voluntary code of practice would okay live grinding of male chicks, and it’s perfectly okay to let a caged hen live out her entire life with no more space than the size of a sheet of paper.

At least organic eggs have to meet stricter, more humane standards and the birds are all free-run, technically with access to the outdoors.  Now, does a giant flock actually get to go outside when the pathways outdoors only fit a few birds at a time? Probably not. Not all organic eggs are created equal. Which is why it’s extra important to look for PASTURE-RAISED, ORGANIC eggs. They’re raised the old fashioned the way chickens should be raised. And small flock pastured eggs tend to keep some males roosters around to balance out the social order plus the tiny farms like Nutri Spring don’t worry about having to debeak their hens to keep them from bullying each other.

I used to grumble about the price of organic eggs, but the truth is, if I can’t afford it, I don’t buy eggs. Period. And now I prioritize pasture-raised eggs first and foremost. If you can find some from your local farmers market, even better. Plus, as my vegan readers will point out, there are lots of vegan alternatives to help you avoid eggs altogether. I often sub an egg with 1 tablespoon of ground flax to 3 tablespoon of water or I just throw extra banana in a pancake.

By the way, Mercy for Animals Canada, which shot the hidden camera footage, is trying to get McDonald’s to stop using Burnbrae’s caged eggs. It’s a no-brainer, really. McDonald’s actually championed the cage-free cause in Europe, so why can’t they follow suit here in North America? Tell McDonald’s you won’t buy any Egg McMuffins until they vow to go cage-free on this side of the ocean too. Learn more and sign the petition at EggMcMisery.ca!

Adventures in food preserving + my guide to veggie washes

Fruit wash guideI’m a farmers’ market ho. I feel like I hit up different veggie stands nearly every day of the week thanks to the explosion of local farmers markets in this town. Of course, all my trolipping around (or should I say turniping) will soon be coming to an abrupt end by month’s end. Every year I plan to make the most of the harvest by pickling and canning my heart out, but, well, I never get around to it. Sorry, it’s just the truth. That’s why I was so pumped to take a food preserving class over at Evergreen Brickworks Chef Series. Figured it would be give me a shot of inspiration – and holy bok choy, did it ever. You can read all about my new found crush on lacto-fermentation in the latest Ecoholic column.

Gotta say my kitchen has definitely come alive with some funky, gaseous aromas in the process, but it’s so worth it. Though my partner and I have been trying to figure out whether our fermented cauliflower now falls into the category of good stink versus bad stink. Still not sure. The Sharkey chefs from Ursa (my Brickworks teachers) told me if it smells bad then start again, but I’m having trouble trusting my “animal instincts” on this one. Okay fine, my animal instincts tell me I screwed that one up, but I’m feeling too guilty to toss it! My ‘pickled’ eggs and Indian carrots, on the other hand, are pretty tasty, though I might do a little tweaking next around. If you’ve got some recipe suggestions, please share!

Also in this issue, my guide to veggie washes – do you need them? Are they worth it? When should you use them? That and Girl Guide’s GMO cookies. Find out all the dirty deets here.

Ethical coffee guide: Is your cup green ’til the last drop?

Coffee guide columnI’ve got to confess, I actually gave up coffee cold turkey about a decade ago because it wasn’t waking me up, just messing with my stomach. But I know an ethical cup o’ joe when I see one, and I also live with a coffee snob, who insists that the java that gets brewed in my house is as fresh ‘n potent as it gets. So what do we buy? We get Merchants of Green Coffee, roasted in east end Toronto. They’re awesomely ethical and crazy fresh. But if you live in BC or Calgary or anywhere else, I really ethical beanrecommend supporting the local, organic, fair trade beans roasted closest to your home. As I say in the column though, if you’re in a major grocer and in urgent need of beans, Kicking Horse and Ethical Bean are two excellent organic, fair trade Canadian  companies with nationwide distribution.

As for the trashy score I gave coffee pods, a few of you emailed me to say that pods don’t always have to be landfill bound. Keurig does offer a reusable filter so you can fill your machine with whatever certified fair trade, organic beans your heart desires. Also, you can start a Tassimo Brigade and mail in your old pods to TerraCycle for upcycling into new products like cutting boards and plastic garbage cans. I still say there is less of an enviro footprint to going the reusable filter route but at least it’s an option for those that already own Tassimos.

Also in this Ecoholic, you’ll find nature notes on the illegal carcinogen found in 100 shampoos (is your ‘natural’ brand guilty?), as well as enviro orgs legal push back against censorship, a petition for bike lanes on Bloor and our Greenwash of the Week…SmartKlean!

Zero waste lunch guide & the Better Back To School Brigade

NMFSC_027_0815If there’s one totally random thing I miss about being a kid, it’s having someone pack you a lunch. Thankfully, my mom knew how to pack a pretty bad *ss one. I still remember the ‘yeah, my lunch rocks!’ joy that would rush over me when I’d crack into her Montreal bagel melts with each half tucked into its own round container. Okay, maybe the tuna in those melts was not pole caught (see my tuna guide), but having a lunchroom sandwich in “tupperware” was pretty novel in the 80s/90s, when nearly everything was disposable. Now there are so many amazing reusable supplies on the market, which is why it’s so great that the David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green is brigade badgeasking bloggers nationwide to join her in chatting up all the fab green litterless lunch options on hand. It’s part I of Tovah’s Better Back to School Brigade, which is a brilliant way of getting this country fired up over green solutions, coast to coast.

In this week’s Ecoholic column in NOW Magazine (above), I rank 5 lunch supply staples, old and new, from the not-so-green (plastic baggies) to the uber eco (beeswax hemp wraps). There are so many more goodies out there we just didn’t have room for in print, so here are a couple bonus recommendations. Looking for something thermal? Kids Konserve/U-Konserve is a great indy alternative to mainstream Thermos. Though don’t worry, there’s nothing leaching out of your Thermos either, both brands are made of stainless steel. Looking for totally plastic-free lunch tins? Eco LunchBox offers top notch all Organic lunch bagstainless steel lunchboxes/ovals that are ideal for kids as well as adults. And for bigger kids (including the big kid in all of us) Onyx offers really well made two and three-layered stacked stainless steel tiffans as well as double walled airtight options to help keep the heat in. Want a basic organic cotton lunch bag that doesn’t have a waterproof liner? Here’s one that’s made in Canada for under $10 (right). If you prefer not to shop online, your local green store should be fully loaded with all kinds of waste-free lunch supplies right about now so definitely pay ‘em a visit.

Oh but wait, there’s more. Also in the latest Ecoholic column, you’ll find our Greenwash of the Week (hint: it’s Canada’s own Organika supplements) and some startling Nature Notes on palm oil, new research on wind power complaints and the west-to-east pipeline. Chew on it over lunch. And if you’ve got a favourite waste-free product you think we should all hear about it, let us know. Gotta run. Belly’s rumbling and it’s time to dig out last night’s kale/quinoa pasta number. Fingers crossed I don’t bite into as much dirt in my kale as I did last night.

 

Worry-free water canisters, latest on BPA-free plastic suit & more

NMFSC_024_0808In honour of the end of summer (did I just say that?), I’m reviewing the vessels that carry the very key to life on earth. Yep, I’m talking water canisters. Ever since purportedly leach-free polycarbonate plastics found in old Nalgene bottles were caught seeping estrogen-mimicking BPA, then Sigg finally came clean about the BPA in its linings back in 2009, the whole topic of a safe place to put H20 on the go has gotten, well, complicated. We get into some of the newest options on the block in the latest issue of NOW Magazine. You’ll also find the dirt on a lawsuit and countersuit between one of the world’s biggest BPA-free plastics makers and a lab that accused them of “estrogenic activity.” All this, greenwash of the week and more in the latest issue of Ecoholic! Just click on the pic above to read on…