ECOHOLIC

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

Battle of the Cleaning Cloths + Is Borax Really Toxic?

Ecloth column

Back in the day (as in up until, oh, a year ago), Ecoholic used to be a straight up green advice column. Every week readers wrote in with questions and I’d answer them in Q&A format. We’ve changed things up since then (mixing in product guides, nature notes, greenwash of the week, green finds of the week), but sometimes there’s no better way to get at a topic then with an old fashioned reader Q. Like this one on borax. Actually, I was at the Green Living Show in Toronto in late April when two women ended up asking me about borax. It hit me that I’ve never addressed the whole borax controversy with you guys so I figured there’s no better time then the present. It’s an important read for anyone that does DIY cleaning or uses all natural products. So is borax actually toxic? It’s a complicated issue. I get into it all in the column but thought I’d provide you with some direct links to reports for those of you looking for background details.

A few years ago, the European Union said boric acid/borax were reproductive toxins at high levels but not endocrine/hormone disruptors (which can trigger problems at quite low levels). At that point, they issued another report assessing the actual risk to consumers and they said levels used in detergents/soaps/cleaning products were safe. Then things shifted. They ended up putting boric acid on the list of potential hormone disruptors. I think it’s important to clarify that the list basically prioritizes substances for further research for endocrine disrupting effects. The list contains some seriously troublesome chems, like known toxin PCB,  as well as BPA, on which hundreds of studies have found hormone disrupting effects. Boric acid doesn’t have the same lengthy rap sheet in terms of hormone disruption. So a lot of people are confused. Should we should keep using it with abandon? Should we shelve it for good? Well, I think we should certainly pause and wait for more research. It’s also unclear why the EU only put boric acid on the list and not borax, when they’ve lumped the two together before. In the meantime, you can double click on the image above to read the column laid out as it appears in print or click here for the online version. You’ll get the full dirt, I promise.

While I was talking borax, figured I’d do a product guide to cleaning tools that promise you can get your home spic ‘n span without any cleaning products (natural or mainstream) altogether. Plus I’ve gotten a ton of questions over the years from Norwex fans asking, ‘Why didn’t you review Norwex in Ecoholic Home?’ ‘Why did you say Norwex contains nano silver in an old column?” “Why don’t you do an updated guide to cleaning cloths?” Yes, there’s a small army of green cleaning women and men wanting an update on this situation so voila, I’ve updated my cleaning cloth guide. Again, you can peruse it above or read the whole shebang here.

So what do you guys think? Which cleaning cloths do you like/hate? Will you be packing up your borax or will you keep using it anyway? A lot to mull over on cleaning day, that’s for sure.

Hello, sunshine: the solar tech guide for every budget (& more)

woman in the fieldSome people dream in technicolour, I dream in solar panels. Well, not every night or anything, I’m not a lunatic. I’m still saving for a house clad with shiny blue panels (oh wouldn’t it be awesome to go off-grid and never pay a utility bill again?). In the meantime, I’ve got a little guide here to solar technology for all budgets (just ignore the part that talks about the Green Living Show, which has now passed…yes, I’m behind on blogging again). It covers everything from pretty solar patio lights to solar chargers all the way to solar shingles. Plus, you’ll find my super cool Green Find of the Week (moss graffiti kit!), news on H&M and Zara‘s commitment to green up their rayon, the latest push to get us all planting milkweed (the only plant monarch butterflies can breed on) & more. Now that’s a variety pack! Who else gives you solar tech, fashion news and gardening tips in one blog? Click here to read on…

The New Hemp Economy: Q&A with author of Hemp Bound

Doug FineIf you’ve ever met a hemp enthusiast, you’re probably already schooled in the plant’s superpower uses in clothing, snack bars and hacky sacks. But in his newly released book – Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Agricultural Revolution –  comedic investigative journalist and solar-powered goat herder Doug Fine shows just how deep the wonder-crop’s applications run. New Mexico-based Fine set out to meet the people pioneering hempcrete-insulated houses, hemp-fuelled limos, even hemp-fired power plants. He chats with Ecoholic about the plant’s budding potential.

You say Canada’s hemp industry is booming and can’t plant it fast enough. Where’s it all going?

Here’s the reality on the ground today: Canadian farmers are making $300 per acre profit on hemp – as much as 10 times what they make on GMO corn. They’re growing for the nutritive superfood that is hemp seed oil. Demand is growing so fast… I wish I had 1,000 acres on which to plant hemp today – $300 times 1,000 is more than I’ve yet made as a writer.

If so much hemp is being grown, why isn’t anyone making Canadian-grown hemp clothing?

Canada isn’t yet growing much for fibre applications; the seed oil has been the money crop. In China and parts of Europe, fibre is profitable for textiles, construction and industry. At the Composites Innovation Centre in Winnipeg (a joint government/private sector venture), I saw a prototype tractor body made entirely from hemp fibre.

How can hemp come to the rescue in the face of climate change?

The idea in Hemp Bound that I hope spreads widest and most quickly is a farm waste biomass energy plan that I believe can help wean humanity from fossil fuels. It’s already in play in Europe: entire communities in Austria and Germany are becoming energy-independent by combusting biomass anaerobically. Now I’m traipsing around North America trying to get farmers and processors to implement this alternative to fossil fuels. The outhouse-sized units aren’t very expensive. A single farm can provide its own energy or feed it back to the grid. The U.S. Army is even investing in this technology.

You talk about how its drought-resistant, soil-rehabilitating properties will come in handy as farms dry up.

Hemp is an annual plant whose foot-long taproot helps stabilize soil and provides a vital ecosystem for microflora and fauna. Colorado’s first commercial hemp farmer, Ryan Loflin, comes from an experienced farm family. He told me hemp uses half the water his wheat crop did. That means his neighbours on the threatened Ogallala Aquifer can dry-land crop hemp. Imagine the implications for drought-ravaged parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa.

If hemp growing doesn’t require pesticides, why is it important to support organic hemp?

That is a fantastic question, and the answer is important: while hemp itself doesn’t require pesticides (and you blessed Canadians have prophylactically banned GMO hemp as well), to be organic the soil must be organic year round. If not, hemp, being a rotational crop, could be and often is cultivated on non-organic soil that’s growing, say, GMO soy at other times. While the hemp crop will help heal that soil, I don’t want my family putting that non-organic seed oil in our morning shake.

Is the U.S. any closer to legalizing hemp farming, the way Canada did in the late 90s?

I expect U.S. federal law to get there in the next year or two, now that this year’s Farm Bill allows university research. Canada’s industry, now approaching $1 billion a year, started out with cultivar research as well.

If you were a venture capitalist, what hemp products would you invest in?

The hemp brand is best expressed in the kind of beyond “Don’t be evil” business model that Dr. Bronner’s hemp and olive oil soaps espouses: fair trade, organic, and the CEO makes no more than five times the wage of the lowest-paid worker. You can be righteous and profitable at the same time. Along those lines, what I’d like to see is rural communities investing in regional processors, sharing the profits, healing the soil and the air, and profiting right from season one from “tri-cropping” – that is, from growing at once for seed oil, fibre applications and clean distributed energy.

What’s the most surprising place you found hemp in a product?

My Republican accountant’s office: she proudly showed me her skin cream with hemp in the ingredients list. Also, a Canadian product called Holy Crap Cereal is at the International Space Station. Oh, also on my own body: I testified in favour of cannabis regulation at the United Nations recently while completely clad in hemp clothing.

Did you know…?

• Hemp-insulated houses take less energy to heat.

• Hemp fibres are used in Dodge, BMW and Mercedes door panels.

Earth Day Manifesto: I Think a Change Will Do Us Good

gettinggroveback_large

Most of us get antsy when we think about change. We brace for it like a bad smell coming downwind, cringing and turning our heads, hoping it won’t hit us if our faces are cranked the other way. But it always does. Maybe not the bad smell but change always finds us. The question is, can you welcome it?  I don’t know about you but no matter what shit storm I’ve been through in my life, it’s always made me change for the better. It’s made me stronger, gentler, wiser, more adaptable, more resilient. It’s cracked wide open my mind and expanded and unfurled my heart.

And that my friends, is the gift hidden, waiting, in the shit storm called climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel report released in stages over the last couple weeks has been clear as day. Change is coming, actually change is here and already knocking on our door, at our flooded city gates (hello, Calgary, New York, Toronto) and on our bone-dry barn doors (sorry, Prairies). Sooner or later, we’re going to get stronger, gentler, wiser, more adaptable, resilient and creative, we’re going to open our hearts and minds to it and we, as a people, as a civilization, will change for the better. The question is how much suffering do we want to cut off at the pass? After all the lessons I’ve learned from my brother Nick’s suicide and my father’s disabling stroke, I sometimes haggle with the universe, telling it, “you know what, I think I’m good with the hard lessons for now.” That’s when I negotiate, vowing to learn not just from all the things that go wrong in life -  the way humans usually do – but to keep trying to be a more conscious, caring, mindful, grateful human being day by day, to really awaken to the amazing gifts of living on this earth, in this lifetime, not just on my deathbed at the end of it.

So let me ask you again, how much suffering do we want to cut off at the pass? The wise IPCC scientists from all around this incredible planet say we still have time, but we have to H-U-S-T-L-E. What can I really do, you ask? I’m just one person. Well, for one, we have to care. And we have to vote for and support the politicians and policies that can help us thrive in the face of change that’s coming whether we like it or not. What you can do is tell all three levels of politicians elected to represent you – right or left – to bravely lead on renewable energy, on shifting away from fossil fuels and on getting the places we live in ready for a changing climate. Tell them you don’t want us to just turn our collective heads the other way hoping the stench of climate change doesn’t hit us. We need to walk towards change with our eyes, hearts and minds open.

For my Earth Day feature in NOW Magazine, I wrote about how cities like Toronto can lead the planetary rescue (to read it in full, click here).  Truth is no matter where you live – country, city, Toronto, Texas, Timmins – we all need to get involved, show we care and work on changing the world from our little corners, as my mom would say. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the IPCC reports but if you read between the lines there’s also a hell of a lot of exciting potential for change, to build thriving, resilient, dynamic communities that our families can call home for generations to come. Places that remind us that, yes, a change can do us good.

 

If you like it then you better put an ethical ring on it: the band guide

wedding bandsOnce spring hits full swing so does wedding season. If you’re already engaged, well, congratulations! When’s the big date? You planning on sealing the deal with a wedding band? Have I got the column for you. In the latest Ecoholic, we dig deep, real deep, like belly-of-the-earth-mining-conditions-deep to, er, extract the truth about which rings are truly fair and and full of heart from the ground up. Lots of companies claim to use ethical diamonds and responsible gold, but what steps have they taken to ensure they’re not selling you dirty bling, tainted with blood, sweat and tears? Check out Earthworks retailer score card called Tarnished Gold. Interestingly, Birks and Tiffany were two of the only major retailers that scored fairly well, though the top scorers are all indy brands that use certified fair trade and/or recycled gold.  For the complete Ecoholic wedding bang guide, though, read on here. And keep your eye on this page…Earthworks has an updated retailer scorecard coming out in the near future. I’ll be sure to post it.

ethical rings

Is that asbestos in your reno dust?

asbestos home

It’s National Asbestos Awareness Week. Do you know where your asbestos is? Canada’s asbestos mines may finally be shuttered, but people are still finding the cancerous fibres tucked into all sorts of hidden corners of their homes. If your house was built before the 1980s/90s, it could contain asbestos in a dizzying number of spots. All fine and dandy if not disturbed. But if you’re planning any renos, you should really head to WorkSafeBC’s very useful hiddenkiller.ca. According to WorkSafeBC, one of the most common places is under vinyl flooring tile. The tape around old ducts and piping could have been made with asbes- tos fibres, too; just peeling it off will release it into the air. Ditto for drywall with sprayed-on texture (like stucco), drywall mud, acoustic ceiling tiles, roofing shin- gles and more.

Breathing in asbestos is astoundingly damaging. Just watch the video below for Heather’s startling story. Her husband Cameron contacted me about sharing her story with readers to help raise awareness about the ongoing dangers of asbestos. You might assume the story couldn’t happen today because asbestos isn’t allowed in this country, but any people working with brake pads (ie mechanics), cement pipes and reno materials are just a few of those potentially exposed to hazardous levels on the job. If you’re worried about disrupting asbestos in your home, get suspect materials tested by an accredited lab. And call a trained professional to remove it.

Ride, Sally, Ride: Bike-friendly bags…just in time for spring!

Noujica 3

As a good Canadian girl, I do love the sight of big, fluffy snow flakes but please, god, let me not see another flake again for at least 7-8 months! Now that spring is officially here it’s time to dust off your bikes, if you haven’t already. It’s the perfect Goldy Locks time to ride, really. Not too hot, not cold, just right. For NOW’s Bike Issue I did a guide to messenger-style bags (see below) but you don’t have to stick to that cut alone. Super stylin’ backpacks and cross-body purses are also perfectly suited to zippin’ around town on two wheels. I’m including a few of my favourites that didn’t make it into the column here.

Right now, I’m crushing on two Montreal-born bag makers. One, Noujica: her latest collection of bags made of hemp canvas, vegetable-tanned leather and reclaimed suede are  super bike-friendly. Even if you don’t go for the backpack (above), she’s got lots of long cross straps to fling on and ride. Too bad they’re not available on Noujica’s Etsy store so you’ll have to track down their retailer list or just call and ask for a special order. Another fab Montrealer, Rachel F is a lot easier to order online and offers a killer collection of bags this season. They’re made with a combo of recycled or veggie-dyed leather and canvas. Now the canvas isn’t organic but it is woven at a 200-on year old sweatshop-free American factory, which is pretty cool. It’s not waxed or treated with petrochemicals – its weave make it naturally water repellent. Perfect for your ride to work, the grocery store or just out meeting friends.

Rachel F trio

Really, there are a ton of amazing bag designers these days working with all sorts of planetarily conscious materials. Yes, they cost more than run of the mill bags made in sweatshops overseas but they’re super well-constructed and guilt-free. Plus they’ll get you where you need to go without making you look like a pro bike courier – not that there’s anything wrong with that.  And without further ado, ladies and gents….the official Ecoholic bike bag guide….Double click on the image below to get the version that appeared in print or click here for the easy to read web-version.

NMFSC_032_0320

 

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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An Ocean of Trouble: the slippery world of sustainable fish oil

NMFSC_036_0306 fish oilMy family pops a lot of supplements. We could probably each start a mini health store with the vitamins cramming our cupboards and counters. And like a lot of North Americans, most of us are taking fish oil. Fish oil has grown to be a billion dollar business on this continent. The question is, which ones are safe, sustainable and healthy? Slippery subject. I’ve written about fish oils in past columns and in Ecoholic Body and I have to say good, green fish oils are a moving target. I’ve always told people to choose supplements from small fish, though in 2010 warned you guys against buying supplements from overfished American menhaden or European anchovies. Small fish tend to be low in contaminants and reproduce quickly. At the time, Peru’s small fish sector seemed to be doing swimmingly well. I started popping Ascenta fish oils (made of Peruvian anchovy, sardines, herring) and recommended the Canadian brand in Ecoholic Body. But the ocean doesn’t stay still for long.

Peru happens to have the world’s largest anchovy fishery, most of that going to fishmeal (feeding industrial cattle, chicken and fish fish farms the world over) and fish oil. After collapsing a couple times in previous decades, Peru’s anchovy fishery was, by all accounts, thriving, on course to get Marine Stewardship Council certified. Then last year, Peru’s president said “The Peruvian anchovy is in danger of disappearing…We recognize the irresponsibility and corruption of large companies NOR-03790-4that have pillaged the anchovy.” Then came a federal crackdown, slashes to quotas, introduction of million dollar fines and voila, as of October, the announcement that anchovies had rebounded. Brands using Peruvian anchovy, like Nordic Naturals, maker of the most popular fish oil supplements in America, assured me the dip came from warming El Nino waters, not industry pillaging and shared stats on how stocks were now healthy. Could all be rosy? Greenpeace’s ocean campaign coordinator Sarah King told me not to hold my breath. That these large fishmeal fisheries are too volatile to score favourably.

Turns out Marine Stewardship Council (a certifier that enviros often criticize for being too lax) says Peru still has some work to do beefing up patrols and laying out longer term “harvesting strategies” before MSC will give them the thumbs up. And now weather experts say there’s another El Nino coming in 2014, destined to wreak havoc on Peru’s fishery. Add to that recent news that climate change is going to double extreme El Nino weather events and Peru’s anchovy seem destined for a rollercoaster ride. I hope supplement makers like Ascenta and Nordic Naturals, which pride themselves on sustainability policies, are taking note.

All this to say, there was a lot of back story behind this week’s column that just couldn’t be squeezed into my little product guide (above). No fish oils, in the end, got really high scores. Wild Alaskan salmon oil is still doing well, mostly because it’s not all that wild – the feds actually spawn rivers with salmon eggs to boost stocks.  And Nordic Naturals’ Norwegian cod seems to be relatively in the clear sustainability wise, though fish oils from larger fish are generally higher in trace contaminants, they’re just tested to fall below federal standards, which have their critics. Honestly, I could write a dozen columns on fish oils alone and barely cover the tip of the iceberg but I tried to distill as much as I could into the column you see above. Swim on over to NOW Magazine’s site to read the column there.

As for me, I’m going to finish the Ascenta NutaSea fish oil in my fridge but you can bet I’ll be trying a vegetarian algae oil next.