The New Home Economics


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The time for natural animal fats is NOW

I saw this a couple weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head.

A mother orangutan hugs her daughter as bounty hunters move in - the pair was saved at the last minute by an animal rescue group

[original source article]

Palm oil, dudes. It’s in EVERYTHING. And the increasing demand for it is causing unprecedented rainforest destruction and killing of anything that stands in the way, including orangutans.

I see two ways of addressing this.  Number one: reduce the number of highly-processed foods we consume, since so many of them contain palm oil. It’s tricky to puzzle out which products have it, because it’s usually simply labeled “vegetable oil.”

But secondly, can we also get over ourselves and start using animal fats in cooking, as people did for millennia? I’m talking about lard. Beef tallow. Duck and goose fat. Buttah. Not only are these traditional fats rich in fat-soluble vitamins, they are also cheap and easy to produce locally since they are byproducts of the meat industry. They can also easily be obtained without resorting to pesticides, GMOs, or deforestation. A win for all of us, including small family farmers AND orangutans.

And don’t think you’re innocent if you shop at natural foods stores — many natural foods products contain palm oil because, let’s be honest here, it does have some health benefits and is seen as an alternative to highly processed, GMO-based oils such as corn, canola and soybean.

Don’t be afraid of lard, OK?

For many more resources on traditional fats, visit the Weston A Price Foundation.


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BPA in canned foods, continued

I wrote a post just a little over a year ago about our efforts to avoid BPA in canned foods. Since then, a handful of organizations have done actual scientific studies on BPA in can liners.  The most damning of these came from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Urine samples taken during each week of the experiment found that BPA levels increased by 1,221 percent during the week that the participants had canned soup for lunch.

“The magnitude of the rise in urinary BPA we observed after just one serving of soup was unexpected and may be of concern among individuals who regularly consume foods from cans or drink several canned beverages daily,” said Karin Michels, senior author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, in a prepared statement. “It may be advisable for manufacturers to consider eliminating BPA from can linings.”

(Read the whole article on MinnPost.com)

Now, I posted this article on Facebook and a friend pointed out that an increase of 1221 percent is meaningless if you don’t know the base number.  He’s not wrong, but what concerns me is this: BPA is one of *many* toxic chemicals that are now in our food and water supplies.  Measured individually, each one might come in at a safe/acceptable level, but what about when taken altogether?  No one is studying this, because it would be absolutely impossible to study scientifically. Your research subjects would have to live in a bubble.

Control is such a hard thing. We want to control every aspect of our existence, but we simply can’t. Accepting that can be so hard. I want to follow steps A, B, and C and then get result D. But life has never, ever worked out that way. I can’t do much to control the toxins I take in through the air and even to a large extent, the water.  Food, then, is one of the few areas where I do have a choice.

The study specifically mentioned canned soups; I can’t think of a easier thing to phase out.  I am not much of a cook, but soup is pretty much the easiest thing in the world to make.  Take a crockpot.  Add some water and some veggies, legumes, meat, and/or herbs.  Turn it on and leave it for 8 hours.  Done.  Every time I make soup, I double the recipe and freeze the leftovers in glass pint jars. Fast, BPA-free food.

What do you think, gentle readers?  Are you taking steps to avoid canned food?


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Using the whole animal

I was a vegetarian for several years.  I vowed, when I became a meat-eater again, that I would at least make an effort to use the whole animal.  So now I’m taking it to the next level: I bought some chicken feet at the co-op last week.  Why?  Mainly because they add a rich natural source of gelatin to my homemade soups and stocks, and we’ve been going crazy with soup around here lately.  Gelatin helps your body absorb the minerals in the stock.

Considering most commercial stocks and flavorings have MSG in them, now’s a great time to consider making your own.  It’s really quite easy.  And if you decide you want to add chicken feet, you can get them for VERY cheap.  Just sayin’.


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BPA and canned tomatoes

Sorry for the light posting schedule lately; as it turns out, having two full-time working adults in a family really cuts into blogging time.  ANYWAY.

I posted in August about our crazy weekend of canning tomatoes.  Because we buy organic tomatoes, and because our CSA delivers them right to our door, we save very little money canning our own tomatoes vs. buying canned tomatoes at the store. So why go through the effort?  One reason: BPA.

Bisphenol-A, which many different plastic products contain, has been shown to have some worrisome side effects, especially on fetuses and children, because it mimics the hormone estrogen.  Canada was recently the first country to declare it toxic.  (Has Canada ever considering annexing Minnesota?  I’d be all for it.)

The United States’ own FDA is also concerned, but I am skeptical that they will ever do anything beyond encouraging industries to try and find a replacement.  (They prefer to merely ask them, really, really nicely.)

The big brouhaha a couple years back with BPA was its use in infant bottles and linings of infant formula cans — many of those brands now offer BPA-free alternatives.  But what many people didn’t realize was just how prevalent this stuff is — nearly any can of food that you buy in the grocery store is lined with BPA.  Even store receipts are printed on BPA-coated paper!

Some applications of BPA are probably worse than others.  Canned tomatoes are very acidic.  Canned garbanzo beans, not so much.  Yet, right now none of the organic canned tomatoes for sale at my co-op are in BPA-free cans.  The only glass-jarred tomato products are the strained tomatoes and tomato paste from Bionaturae.  (And those travel all the way from Italy, good grief.)

Here’s another thing to consider: even home-canning is not perfect, because the lids of canning jars are also coated with BPA.  But I’m taking a “less harm” approach here — the tomatoes, as they sit on my shelf for the next few months, are not in contact with the lid at all.  So it’s not perfect, but still better.  Right?  I hope so, because that was a lot of work.

Update, Nov. 8, 2010: Here’s yet another article that I came across this morning.  Basically, a consumer group found unacceptable BPA levels in a bunch of different foods.  Two things to note: this article is one year old.  The U.S. is still only requiring “voluntary” efforts from the food industry.

Update II, Nov. 30, 2010: Now a new study looks at BPA’s effect on adult immune systems. The study also looked at triclosan’s correlation with allergies in children.  Triclosan is another common chemical found in all sorts of things (such as anti-microbial soaps).

Update III, April 4, 2011: Yet another study. This one measured BPA in people’s urine; after only three days of switching to a diet of freshly-prepared organic food, they dropped 66% on average!

The cooks were instructed to avoid contact with plastic utensils, and nonstick cookware and foods had to be stored in glass containers with BPA-free plastic lids. Researchers even told food preparers not to overfill the containers so the food wouldn’t touch the plastic lid.

Microwaving in plastic was out; so was using coffee makers with plastic parts. Coffee drinkers got their morning coffee from French presses or ceramic drip models.

I switched to French Press quite some time ago, but didn’t even think about the plastic implications. I did it for the taste, naturally.  Anyway, check out this study, the most convincing one yet, in my opinion.


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Promising signs

Marion Nestle of Food Politics and Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times both report on a presidential panel’s advice on avoiding endocrine disrupters.  As Nestle reports, there is some controversy about it, but I say the more controversy the better, as long as it gets people talking about all this.  Here’s a sample piece of advice from the presidential panel:

Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

So, we should avoid most shampoos, soaps, deodorants, factory-based  meat, non-organic produce, um… let’s see, what else…  The very fact that our government has actually noticed this now indicates just how serious the matter has become.


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Cooking with lard

Yes, you read that right.  We’ve been experimenting with lard, on and off, for a few months now.  We’ve cut really, really far back on most processed foods in our lives, but there was one thing we still needed ye olde tub of shortening for: pie crust.  Adam is semi-famous for his pie crusts, and was reluctant to trade in something that he knew worked well for the unknown.

Now the results are in: he finally made a pumpkin pie crust with lard instead of vegetable shortening, and I am telling you: it was the most delicious crust I’ve ever eaten.  Light, flakey, and the kids went crazy for it.

We also made some ginger cookies with a half lard/half butter combination last week:

They too were delicious.

I was really nervous about using lard in baked goods because when you open up the container it smells like, well, it smells like what your kitchen smells like about 4 hours after frying bacon.  Not so appetizing.  Furthermore, we tried frying with it a few times —  once for popcorn and once for fish — and it really  made the kitchen smell icky.  I have to say, though, that both the popcorn and the fish tasted really good, with no hint of bacon flavor.  Strange, yes?

Adam was reading his Ratio cookbook and Ruhlman recommends using lard only in highly-spiced baked goods — apparently that bacony flavor can come through if you make, say, simple short-bread cookies with lard.  That makes sense to me.

But what about the health implications of all this?  Well, it never would have occurred to me to seek out lard until I read about it in Nourishing Traditions last year.  You will not be surprised to learn that Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation recommend using lard in cooking, as well as duck fat, chicken fat, and beef tallow.  But what about the saturated fat?  Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.

First, let’s look at this simple breakdown of Crisco shortening, Spectrum Organic Shortening (which we have been using in pie crusts), and lard.  Behold, the first-ever New Home Economics TABLE:

Name Total Fat Saturated Mono-
unsaturated
Poly-
unsaturated
“Trans”
Crisco 12g 3g 3g 6g 0g
Spectrum Organic 13g 6g 5g 2g 0g
lard 12g 4.8g 5.76g 1.4g 0g

Now, keep in mind: the amounts for the lard can vary depending on the pig’s diet. I got these amounts from Nourishing Traditions, which most likely assumes that you’re getting lard from pastured/grass-fed/free-range (whatever) pigs. I bought mine from the co-op, and it comes from Grass Run Farm in Iowa.

Why the difference in saturated fat between the Crisco and the Spectrum?  Spectrum bases their shortening on palm oil, which is a highly-saturated tropical oil.  Crisco is more of the “we’re afraid to raise our saturated fat profile” line of thinking, so they rely instead on polyunsaturates.

Which leads me to my next question: what are they replacing trans-fats with, anyway? It’s not like food processors can just remove trans fat and have all their food still taste just as good.  It’s got to be replaced with something.  Searching around trying to find the answer to this led me to, among other places: a super creepy article from the “Homepage of the Food and Beverage Industry” that describes “The Four Paths to Sans Trans” — among them are replacing trans fats with interesterified fats and genetically modifying soy beans to get a soy-based oil that is friendlier to food processing.  NICE.  If the name alone doesn’t scare you, check out more info on interesterified fats.

Even if you are not a pie-making, cookie-baking fool, all of this should still concern you if you eat ANY PROCESSED FOOD AT ALL.

So yeah, you might say that I am now a lard convert.  Never thought I’d hear myself say that.  And it’s not like I’m going to start slathering it on everything I eat.  But in certain situations, it works really well, and it is MUCH less scary than the alternatives (although the Spectrum shortening is a bit less scary than the Crisco — that high polyunsaturate number in Crisco is a red flag to me).

To the people living in fear of saturated fat, think about this: our bodies need a little bit of saturated fat.  Many vitamins, such as E and D, are much easier for our bodies to assimilate if they accompany a bit of the good stuff.  On the other hand, our bodies most definitely do NOT need ANY amount of interesterified, trans, and whatever other highly-processed thing food processors want to tempt us with.  Did I mention that lard is high in vitamin D?  (So is butter, FYI.)

Finally, there are several sustainability aspects to this.  Palm oil, like that found in my Spectrum shortening, is a major contributor to deforestation in tropical areas.  Not to mention it has to be shipped all the way to the U.S., processed, and then shipped to me.  Lard is a byproduct, yo.  The lard I bought came from Iowa.  I could conceivably make lard myself, if I had the inclination.

So what do you think?  Are you willing to take the plunge and try it?  It took me a long time of staring at that container before I took a deep breath and used it, but now a little research both online and in the kitchen have turned me into a believer.

Update, November 6, 2010: I just found this article explaining more of the science behind interesterification, and also some other interesting information about saturated/trans/interesterified fats.  Check it out!

Update, February 24, 2011: Here’s a takedown of the new USDA nutritional guidelines, and some of the best questioning of the lipid hypothesis that I’ve seen in a long time.  A must-read!

Update, March 4, 2011: Wow, the mainstream media is really catching on. This was all over my Twitter feed todayCivil Eats says “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”  Awesome.

Update, February 23, 2012: Save the orangutans. Eat lard.


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GMO corn linked to organ failure

Join the fight against Monsanto:  three varieties of their genetically modified corn are now linked with organ failure in rats, when consumed longer than 90 days.

“our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity…”

More information here.

Update: A friend of mine pointed out that the toxicity in the rats could have been due to the pesticides, not the GMOs, a good point.  There are still many, many other things about GMOs to get nervous about.