Friday, December 31, 2010

New study: Females choose cocaine; males prefer food

Cocaine.  Photo: DEA

Are recreational drugs more enjoyable for women than for men? A recent study on that topic caught caught my eye this morning.

Women are more sensitive to cocaine

"Human studies of cocaine dependence indicate that women enter drug treatment faster than men and report shorter cocaine-free periods," said scientist Kerry Kerstetter of the University of California, Santa Barbara. These and other observations indicate that human females are more sensitive to cocaine, have a greater cocaine craving and are more likely to relapse than men.

White lab rat. Photo: DEA

Female rats choose cocaine over food

To explore this question in more depth, Kerstetter turned to lab rats. She trained rats to press a lever to get food and a different lever to get cocaine, then gave hungry rats a choice between the two levers.  The hungry female rats chose the cocaine lever about half the time.  But hungry male rats showed a definite preference for the food lever. The gender difference was statistically significant.  "It appears that females are more likely than males to sacrifice food for low doses of cocaine," Kerstetter said.

Kerstettler then more than doubled the volume of cocaine delivered by pressing the cocaine lever. In this situation, both sexes chose cocaine more often. But female rats still preferred the drug more than the males did.  Females chose cocaine over food 75 to 80% of the time, compared with less than 50% of the time for the males.

Female hormones may be responsible

No one knows the reason for these gender differences yet.  But Kerstettler believes that female hormones play a role. Female rats that had their ovaries removed after puberty behaved more like males, choosing food more frequently. Kerstettler and her colleagues believe female hormones may set up or regulate the response to cocaine in the brain.

Gender differences can guide treatment plans

On a practical note, Kerstettler and other neuroscientists believe that understanding gender differences can help individualize the treatment of cocaine addiction.


Laura Sanders. "Cocaine trumps food for female rats." Science News.  Dec 3, 2010.

"Sweets or cocaine? Male rats prefer sweets; female rats favor cocaine."  Science Daily.

Key words: cocaine females choose cocaine drug addiction Kerry Kerstettler gender differences sex differences drug treatment

Monday, December 20, 2010

10 Tips for Coping with Holiday Stress and Depression

Depressed.  Photo: public domain

Confrontive dad arrives for the holidays
A friend told me yesterday about his parents arriving at his home for the holidays. His wife was taking a shower when the parents arrived. His father said, "Where's your wife? She should be downstairs to greet us. I think that shows a lack of respect."  My friend, stressed by the arrival of his parents with their usual expectations, as well as the presence of his sister's family and a passel of kids, responded defensively. "Well, Pop," he said, "this is my house.  If you don't like the way we do things here, you can just leave."

So the family holiday was off to a roaring start. My friend felt bad about his response to his dad, but really, dad started it by arriving with expectations, and by stating them in such a critical manner.

Christmas is marketed as a time of cheer, presents, and family togetherness, but whether you're with your family or not, Christmas is actually a time of stress for most of us, and a depressing time for some.

What causes the stress and depression? According to the Mayo Clinic, these three holiday triggers can lead to a meltdown.  Being aware of these triggers in advance can help you take care of yourself.

Recognize Holiday Triggers
  • Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you're thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.
  • Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.
  • Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.
What to do?
So what can you do if find yourself  stressed out, behaving badly, exhausted, depressed?  The Mayo Clinic offers the following 10 guidelines for healthy self-caring.

10 Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress and Depression
  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
  4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That'll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  8. Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Where did my friend and his quarrelsome dad go wrong?
As I read the lists above, I was wondering which "Trigger" and which "Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress..." relate to the interaction between my friend and his dad.

The relevant trigger was the first one, "Relationships." That was easy.

The relevant "Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress..." was #4, "Set Aside Differences".  It says "Try to accept family members... even if they don't live up to all your expectations."  Dad started the harsh exchange by saying the wife should greet them upon arrival, regardless of her need to take a shower. I imagine this particular Dad may often state expectations, and may often state disappointment or even resentment when they're not met.  Perhaps he could give it a rest on holidays.

It's understandable that Son would be annoyed by such a statement, that his wife's absence is disrespectful. She'd probably been working all day getting ready for the guests. But, Son could react in other ways. He could say nothing and leave the room; go call a friend to vent. Or he could say "Dad, that hurts my feelings. Laurie's been working really hard to get ready for you." Or "I'm sorry you feel that way." Silence and a short walk around the yard might be the best choice. That leaves Dad no opportunity to give another punch.

Knowing that family conflict is likely over the holidays might help Son choose an option other than suggesting that his dad leave.

Keep expectations low, acceptance high
Keeping all the above triggers and tips in mind might help each of us to "keep expectations low, acceptance high" this holiday season.  I also need to set limits on the outflow of money, and take extra steps to make sure I don't get emotionally and physically depleted. Just another week or two and it'll all be over!

Key words: holiday stress Christmas stress Christmas depression tips for coping with holiday stress and depression mayo clinic

Thursday, December 16, 2010

308 rhinos killed in South Africa this year for their horns

 Photo: Sally Kneidel

The website "Bush warriors: stop poaching and bushmeat" reported today that four more rhinos have been killed illegally in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, the area that includes Kruger National Park. Rhino horns are used for traditional Chinese medicines, despite the fact that rhino horns have been analyzed thoroughly and have no true medicinal properties. Their monetary value is based entirely on Chinese myth and folklore. A single horn is worth tens of thousands of dollars on the black market. Most of the horns poached in South Africa are smuggled into China and Vietnam.

The increase in poaching of rhinos and elephants in South Africa has been linked to a flood of Chinese weapons into the area. According to the Bush warriors website, the South African government has stepped up patrols to apprehend poachers, but the courts are a weak link. Although 147 people were arrested for rhino-related crimes in 2010, the courts repeatedly fail to impose serious penalties as a deterrent, instead granting affordable bail amounts as punishment.

 A mother rhino's stumps after dehorning. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Today's post on Bush warriors describes and has links to articles about collusion by "insiders" that is fueling South Africa's growing rhino crisis. To read the informative post on the Bush warriors site, click here.

See also one of my previous posts about rhino poaching in South Africa, following my investigations there in 2009 and 2007.

And check out TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network, a great source of information about poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, worldwide.

Key words: rhino poaching South Africa China Chinese weapons Vietnam Bush warriors Chinese traditional medicine blackmarket wildlife poaching  poachers TRAFFIC

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas tree debate: Is fake or real more sustainable?

Readers, a woman who works for the Nature Conservancy asked me to post this article debating fake vs. real Christmas trees, by the Conservancy's Frank Lowenstein. It's also posted on the Nature Conservancy website. The debate is worth thinking about this time of year, although the solution is murky, for me.  Following is Frank's article (in black) followed by my own assessment (in purple).

Frank Lowenstein of the Nature Conservancy

"My home sits in the Berkshire Hills, with a distant view of the second highest peak in Massachusetts– Mt. Everett. Surrounding my house is a swath of farmland, which includes a Christmas tree farm owned by the Chapin family, who arrived in my town in about 1830.

Photo credit: liljulier/flickr via a Creative Commons license

In its heyday in the 1990s, the Chapin Christmas Tree Farm was packed with people from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas eve. Families would arrive on our small dirt road from a 2-hour radius (south to Manhattan, west to Albany, east to Hartford). Children and parents would pile out of cars to prowl the several acres of trees in search of The One that was just right. Eventually each family would find the tree that best fit their image of Christmas (and their living room), and my neighbor or his grandson would pull out a saw and the transaction was completed.

This scene—one of family togetherness, people asserting their own unique taste, and support of local agriculture– is today rarer than it should be. More than twice as many families in the United States use fake trees as real ones. Beyond the losses to family interactions and local economies, this situation is bad for our climate.

Fake trees are usually made from a kind of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is derived from petroleum. Electricity is used to melt the plastic, and approximately 85% of the fake trees sold in the US are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity. Once the fake trees are made, they still have to be shipped across the ocean—usually in a diesel-fuel powered ship. More emissions still. (Fake trees also sometimes release lead when they get old, which isn’t a climate impact, but still is not a great thing to have happening in your living room.)

Real trees of course do sometimes require shipping. Today on US Route 7, I saw a truck with Quebec license plates headed south—loaded with about 250 bound-up real trees.

But real trees also grow in the ground for several years before they are cut, absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year. The vast majority of real trees today come from Christmas tree farms—about 12,000 of which exist in the United States. On these farms each tree cut is typically replaced by a new tree or two or three, which continue removing carbon from the air.

And once Christmas is over you can use your real tree in many ways—the boughs can be cut and used as a protective covering over delicate shrubs, the tree can be chipped and composted, and there’s the ever popular New Year’s Eve bonfire (if you live in an appropriate place for bonfires). Real trees can also be used to help trap sand on beaches, preventing erosion, or sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For best climate impact, find a local tree farm to buy from. The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search by zip code. Or this site offers a listing by state and county. And perhaps an organic Christmas tree is best of all. Twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms."
Frank Lowenstein


Are any Christmas trees a good idea??

I agree that fake trees aren't "green"

I'm glad to see Frank point out the downside of fake trees - that 85% are made in China and that most of those factories are fueled by coal, a major source of greenhouse gases. In addition, the trees are shipped with diesel fuel. They're not recyclable - but they are reusable, and can be given away when you're tired of them.  We had a fake tree for several years (the same one). When we no longer wanted it, we gave it away easily by posting it on We had several callers who wanted it and got rid of it the first day, to a grateful family.

But real ones aren't sustainable either

I'm not sure I agree with Frank's recommendation for live trees over fake. It's true that immature trees remove more carbon from the air (for photosynthesis) than they emit (via respiration). And yes, they can be shredded and used as mulch. If you buy locally, you're avoiding the fossil fuels used in transport.

But any tree plantation is a biodiversity desert, whether it's loblolly pines for the pulp and timber industry of the southeastern U.S., or palm trees for the palm-oil industry in Southeast Asia. Pulitzer Prize winning ecologist E.O. Wilson compared the biodiversity of a tree plantation to a that of a Walmart parking lot.

Palm-oil plantations from the air, Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Tree plantations displace wildlife habitat

Most tree plantations are chemically managed with herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides - so there is no semblance of a natural food chain in a tree plantation. As such, they're no more useful to wildlife than pavement is. And at a time when almost all wildlife populations are shrinking due to habitat loss, AND we're facing mass extinctions.....eliminating wildlife habitat for a tree plantation is not a beneficial venture.  The Appalachian mountains near my home are dotted with Christmas tree farms, and it makes me sick to look at them. Not to mention the ruined habitat I saw on Borneo and Sumatra this past summer. Flying over Indonesia or floating down its rivers, I saw palm plantation after palm plantation - where tropical rain forest used to be. One of the most frustrating sights I've ever seen.

I don't have any easy answers about Christmas trees. The best choice is to acquire a potted plant you can use year after year.  Or just skip the Christmas tree.  I wish, as a culture, we could do that en masse. Then children wouldn't feel deprived.  Given the massive habitat loss affecting our planet today, Christmas trees are not a habit we can afford to continue.
Sally Kneidel, PhD

Some of my previous posts about tree plantations:
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations. Aug 3, 2010

My search for a wild orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra. Aug 16, 2010

Why use toilet paper?  No need to flush our forests. Oct 11, 2010

Plush toilet paper flushes old forests. Sept 26, 2009

A trampled state fights back. May 18, 2007.

One African family struggles to survive. March 17, 2007.

The wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism. May 27. 2006

Key words: fake Christmas trees real Christmas trees fake vs real Nature Conservancy biodiversity desert carbon sink fossil fuel climate change

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss

Wild adult male orangutan on Sumatra. Photo: Sally Kneidel

[See bottom of this page for list of my previous posts about orangutans.]
Most people are surprised to learn that unlawful traffic in wildlife and wildlife parts is the third biggest criminal activity in the world, after drugs and arms. The illegal hunting of great apes is so pervasive that it may threaten their survival even more than habitat loss does. Habitat loss is rampant these days, due to human population I wouldn't have believed that hunting could be an even bigger threat until reading a recent paper by Vincent Nijman (and 5 other scientists). Nijman is a scientist at Oxford Brookes University, a consultant to TRAFFIC, and has published numerous research papers on orangutan conservation.  He and the other authors of this particular paper collected convincing data that suggest orangutan populations have been reduced more by hunting than anything else.
 Wild male orangutan resting, Sumatra. Photo: Sally Kneidel

I crisscrossed Indonesia and Malaysia looking for orangutans

I was on the islands Borneo and Sumatra a few months ago, searching high and low for wild orangutans. That was my main reason for going to Southeast Asia.  I had researched sites carefully in advance and I chose my destinations accordingly; consequently, I was lucky enough to see a number of wild orangutans in undisturbed forests. But as Dr. Nijman writes, "Bornean orangutans currently occur at low densities and seeing a wild one is a rare event." In contrast, historic collectors like Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800s saw many orangutans daily and "were able to shoot continuously over weeks or even months."  Clearly, orangutans are much rarer today than they were in the past. That's true not only of orangutans, but also for the other great apes.

Chimpanzees and gorillas are hunted for meat

I saw on the "Planet Green" network on November 24 a one-hour documentary about an investigation into the hunting of chimpanzees and gorillas for bushmeat in Cameroon. The investigator, Steve Galster, said these two apes are popular meat because they're so big and fleshy relative to other remaining wildlife. The primary reasons they're shot or trapped is to eat them, to sell their meat to neighbors, or to transport the meat by train or car to city markets. But when baby animals are captured after shooting the mother, the babies can be shipped abroad to be sold as pets. So killing a mother ape is doubly profitable.

Gorilla carried out of the forest. Photo courtesy of United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization

A pet chimp brings social status

I was impressed with the diligence of the filmmakers for this Planet Green show, which featured an undercover sleuth (a local woman) equipped with a tiny concealed camera visiting a local man who was trying to sell a baby chimp. The chimp was eventually confiscated and sent to a sanctuary. Even at the sanctuary, though, young chimps are vulnerable to theft in order to sell them. The demand for them is huge.

 Baby chimp, Wikimedia Commons 

Having a baby chimp is a social asset, the narrator said - something to show off no matter where you live. I can imagine that. There aren't many things in life more interesting than a living baby ape. In this Planet Green documentary, the poachers and smugglers who were caught on film all wound up going free, through "negotiations" (bribery) or police who failed to show up in court, or officials who took pity on impoverished poachers and their children.

Strong evidence that hunting has hurt orangutans more than habitat loss

The research of Vincent Nijman (and 5 colleagues) into the hunting of orangutans on Borneo was published in the online journal PLoS ONE in August, 2010. The researchers used "encounter rates" to measure the density of orangutans over the last 150 years in a variety of different habitats on Borneo. Their data came from hunting accounts, museum collections, and field studies. By the researchers' calculations, the number of Bornean orangutans has declined about 6-fold since the mid-1800s. The convincing aspect of their data is this: If large-scale deforestation and forest degradation caused the decline, then we would expect to see a sudden decline after the 1960s and 1970s, "coincident with major intensification of [deforestation] during this period." However, encounter rates declined steadily for at least 120 years before major deforestation began. Furthermore, say Nijman et al., although orangutan numbers do generally decrease following habitat disturbance, they manage to survive in high densities in some areas that have been heavily disturbed or even clear-cut and planted with monoculture plantations. Nijman et al. also noted that local orangutan extinctions or historical declines have occurred in the same areas where we know orangutans have been heavily hunted.

 Mother and infant orangutan in forest on Borneo.  Photo: Sally Kneidel

Orangutans now extinct in upland Borneo, where hunting was heavy historically

Mother and infant orangutan on Borneo.  Photo: Sally KneidelFor example, orangutans have long been extinct in upland areas of Borneo where poor soil prevents farming - areas that were historically populated by nomadic humans forced to rely on hunting. In contrast, freshwater and peat swamp environments were mostly not inhabited by people until the 19th century, but were densely populated by orangutans. The PLoS ONE paper sites many other examples of hunting-related distribution patterns of orangutans. In eastern Sabah (a state in Borneo), roving bands of head-hunters provided a refuge for orangutans and other wildlife, because other humans were afraid to enter the area. That refuge ended when head-hunting was banned.

Nijman et al. conclude that hunting has been underestimated as a key causal factor of orantugan density and distribution, and that orangutan population declines have been more severe than previously estimated based on habitat loss only.

Why do people still hunt orangutans?

The red apes, among our closest relatives, are still hunted for food or traditional medicines, as agricultural pests, for trophies, and more recently, for the pet trade. When I was in Southeast Asia in June and July, I visited the wildlife markets of Jakarta, where vendors openly flaunt wildlife-protection laws that are seldom enforced. There I was offered pet orangutans, along with many other supposedly protected primates, protected birds, and even a baby jaguar. Many told me they were carrying on a family business that had been handed down by their fathers. For more about my time in the Jakarta markets, see this post.

Trapping, shooting, eating, and selling wildlife are long-held traditions in forest cultures. Solutions must involve enforcement of local laws protecting forests and wildlife, and enforcement of penalties. That's something that's not happening right now in developing countries. But it must if orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, and thousands of other species are to survive this century. Many organizations are busy, on site, trying to make it happen. In Southeast Asia, TRAFFIC and Greenpeace are working hard to turn things around.

What can you do?

Support some of the NGOs who are making the most progress in protecting orangutans from illegal hunting and trade and who are fighting to protect Southeast Asia's remaining forests from destruction.

These are some of the best:

Greenpeace International
TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network
ProFauna (an Indonesian NGO that helped me in Jakarta by providing a local guide to go with me to the markets)
World Wildlife
Rainforest Action Network
Earth Pulp and Paper

My previous posts on conservation in Southeast Asia:

Some of my previous posts on wildlife smuggling around the world:

Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle. September, 2008
The U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year. February, 2010
The great apes are losing ground. March, 2010

Some of my previous posts about deforestation:

Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations August 3, 2010
Wild tigers are in trouble October 4, 2010
Plush toilet paper flushes old forests. September 26, 2009

Keywords: orangutans hunting habitat loss bushmeat Planet Green gorillas chimpanzees Southeast Asia Africa TRAFFIC Greenpeace ProFauna wildlife trade wildlife smuggling

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"The Yoga of Eating" by Charles Eisenstein: A Book Review

 Readers, the following is a guest post submitted to me by freelance writer Robin Merrill

Greetings fellow revolutionaries! It is my pleasure to tell you about a book I’ve just discovered – The Yoga of Eating. At first I found, as you might find, this to be a bizarre title. I thought of yoga as a meditation for the body, a way of stretching and exercising for holistic health. I didn’t understand how one was supposed to stretch while eating.

How is yoga related to eating?

So, I did what all good readers do: I looked it up. If we define yoga as training our consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility, then it starts to make sense. And that’s what this book has done for me, more than most any book I’ve ever read: it makes sense. Perfect, conscionable, rational, peaceful sense. And you’re hearing from a woman who has read approximately a trillion diet books.

I’ve listened to every expert there is and tried every variety of diet, including raw vegan. I’ve watched the television programs, listened to the podcasts, visited the websites, and scoured the books for the words that would lead me back to the vitality I enjoyed when I was younger.

The best expert is your own body

But I never listened to me. I never asked the best expert there is on my body: my body. She is the expert, according to Charles Eisenstein. If I will just listen to her, I will know when I am thirsty. She will tell me when I am hungry. And if I give her a chance, she will tell me when I am not hungry. She will tell me when to sleep, and when I need to go for a walk. She will tell me to trust her.

According to Eisenstein, current western culture pushes us toward a powerful and dangerous mistrust of the body. We are told that our bodies are our enemies, that they are breaking down, that our bodies need to be controlled and managed by medicines and treadmills. But this isn’t true. Now that I’ve started listening to my body, I’ve found that she’s pretty smart.

The weight your body wants to be

This is not a diet book, but if an overweight person employs the principles from this book, I don’t see how it’s possible that they would not begin a journey toward a healthy and balanced weight. Not necessarily high school cheerleader weight – not necessarily doctor’s office chart weight – not necessarily supermodel weight, but a healthy and balanced weight, which is the weight your body really wants to be.

Food has karma

Eisenstein’s book looks at topics such as the karma of food, how every bite we take affects the universe. He discusses sugar vs. artificial sweeteners, vitamin supplements, and the karma of processing our foods. (Processed people consume processed foods. This is a balance we’ve either created or fallen into by accident. If we want to consume fewer processed foods, we need be less processed ourselves ... I write this as my cell phone vibrates for my attention.)

The book also features a beautiful, poetic, and inspiring chapter on the yoga of cooking. Cooking can be a form of worship, instead of a chore?

We should listen to our cravings

He talks about distinguishing appetites from cravings, and how both have their value. If we listen to our cravings, we might be able to discern what it is we really need. We are doing ourselves a disservice by squashing our cravings, by insisting that they are evil, when they are only trying to speak the truth.

It took me weeks to read this book, as I had to keep searching for a highlighter or pencil. It will be one of the books that spends the rest of my life on my headboard. I plan to read it over and over. I believe it is a necessary book. I am not a person who finds it easy to love herself. I am a person who finds it easy to judge herself harshly and punish herself. Eisenstein writes, “self-rejection increases the need for external nurturance all the more.” By punishing myself all these years, I’ve only increased my need for comfort food.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who eats, and I especially recommend it to anyone who has struggled with eating, struggled against nourishment in pursuit of some cultural ideal. This book has changed my life and has allowed me to, at the age of thirty-three, get to know myself. Turns out I’m not so bad after all. Neither is food. Food is just food.

Robin Merrill is a freelance writer who can usually be found writing about jobs in criminal justice.

Key words: Robin Merrill Yoga of Eating Charles Eisenstein healthy eating diet weight loss

Friday, November 26, 2010

1% of deaths worldwide due to secondhand smoke - including my dad

My kind and beloved mom. I miss her every day. Photo: Sally Kneidel

My mother was a chain smoker; she died of pancreatic cancer, which is linked to smoking.

My dad didn't smoke at all, but he died of lung cancer.

Secondhand smokes kills 603,000 per year

So I wasn't too surprised to see in today's paper that secondhand smoke kills 603,000 people per year. That's in addition to the 5.1 million killed annually from smoking itself.

165,000 children die yearly of smoke-related illnesses

The study I saw in the newspaper was conducted by the World Health Organization. Armando Peruga of WHO said the organization was particularly concerned about the 165,000 children who die of smoke-related respiratory infections, mostly in Southeast Asia and Africa. I found that interesting, having recently returned from a stay in Southeast Asia.

In Southeast Asia it's customary for men to smoke, part of the masculine subculture

I noticed in Malaysia and Indonesia that most men smoke, while no women do. When I asked about it in Indonesia, a local told me that it's taboo for women to smoke, but it's a "custom" for men and especially all nature guides to smoke, particularly while leading treks. I found that odd. I also found it annoying to be engulfed in cigarette smoke while trying to stand absolutely still to photograph skittish wildlife. I noticed that Southeast Asian men seem to have no awareness that their smoke may be bothersome to others nearby. Smoking takes place anywhere and everywhere, and I never saw anyone react negatively to it except myself.

Most of these cigarette brands originated in the United States.  Here, they're for sale behind the counter in Gentingmas, a small food shop in Sandakan, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

North Carolina is the home of corporate tobacco

Of course, almost all of the cigarettes the Asian men smoked were brands that originated in America, which was embarrassing. Local stores sold Marlboros, Pall Malls, Kents, Winstons, Salems. I live less than 100 miles from the town of Winston-Salem, NC, home of R.J. Reynolds, one of the world's largest cigarette corporations.

Children of smoking parents have not only an increased risk of death, but many related illnesses

Peruga of WHO went on to say that children whose parents smoke have a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma. Their lungs may also grow more slowly than kids whose parents don't smoke.

Women impacted most by secondhand smoke

The WHO study, published last Friday in the medical journal Lancet, reported that secondhand smoke has its biggest impact on women, killing about 281,000 yearly. In many parts of the world, women are at least 50 percent more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than men. That makes sense given what I observed in Indonesia and Malaysia. The men are doing the smoking, while the women and children are breathing it. And the social custom seems to be to pretend that the smoke is not a problem.

She told me cigarettes were her best friend

I remember going out to eat with my parents one Sunday when I was a kid; my brothers weren't there. I complained in the car about the cigarette smoke and I complained again at the table. My dad told me to nip it, he said my biting my fingernails was more annoying than the smoke so I had no room to talk. I know he was just trying to protect my mom, to let her enjoy her cigarettes in peace. She always did say that cigarettes were her best friend. After an aneurysm ruptured in her head and left her severely brain damaged (2 years before the pancreatic cancer killed her), she still kept trying to smoke. She'd sit upright in her bed and go through all the motions of smoking, putting her empty fingers to her lips, drawing in deeply and blowing out the imaginary smoke. She didn't realize the cigarette was missing. Poor mama, she did that right up to the end. A true North Carolinian - born, bred, and dead in the land of tobacco.  She may have loved her cigs, but I can't say they loved her back.

Me and two dear Malaysian friends, Ria and Nola. They work in the Gentingmas shop on Borneo, where I did a lot of food shopping. The shop sells Marlboros and Winstons like most Asian shops. But Ria and Nola don't smoke and neither do I.  Photo: Ken Kneidel

"Secondhand smoke kills more than 600,000 a year. New study shows global impact of secondhand smoke; children account for more than one-quarter of deaths each year." CBS News. London, November 25, 2010.

Maria Cheng. "600,000 deaths a year blamed on secondhand smoke" Associated Press. Reprinted in Charlotte Observer, November 26, 2010.

One of my recent posts about the tobacco industry's marketing to minors:
New studies show fast foods "kids meals" loaded with calories and fat

Key words: 600,000 deaths secondhand smoke cigarettes WHO cancer lung cancer respiratory disease

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

9 Foods that are good for the brain - including chocolate!

Foods good for the brain include the pictured items: tomatoes, green tea, walnuts, broccoli, and coffee. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Readers, this is a guest post from writer Cindy Cullen. Find more info about Cindy plus her email address at the end of this post. From Cindy:

Mental health is just as important as physical wellbeing; and while aging takes a toll on our bodies; and minds, we can make choices to keep ourselves in prime condition.  Using our minds on challenging tasks can help keep them alert and active.  To augment and enhance this process, we can choose foods that are known to boost brain health at any age.  Below are some of the tastiest and most effective "brain foods"!


It’s uncanny that the walnut nut is shaped so much like the human brain, because it actually does pack a pretty punch in terms of brain power. With its high level of essential fats, protein, B6 and E vitamins, walnuts help in keeping your brain sharp and alert. Other nuts like almonds, hazel nuts and cashews are also good sources of complex carbohydrate energy, if they’re not salted or fried.


If you’re looking for a protein-rich brain snack, get your hands on some flaxseed – it’s high in DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid that is essential for the good health of your brain and nervous system. You could also choose to munch on sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds because they’re rich in Vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, antioxidants, protein, and the good kind of fat.


If you love berries, then your brain is in good hands – go for the brightly colored ones because they’re rich in antioxidants, especially blueberries, blackberries and acai berries. Blueberry extract has been proven to improve short term memory loss and blackberries are rich sources of Vitamin C. Acai berries, while hard to procure, are one of the best sources of antioxidants and are also rich in the essential fatty acids that boost brain health.


Your mornings just got that extra boost – a cup of coffee is a great energizer, not just of the body, but also of the mind. It’s rich in antioxidants, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), vitamins and minerals and has been proven to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other mental illnesses. Just go easy on the sugar and restrict yourself to a few cups a day to avoid weight gain and mood swings.


Now before you go rushing out to buy that sugar-filled bar of chocolate, let me tell you that it’s the cacao in chocolate that’s beneficial to brain health. It has high levels of antioxidants which help protect your brain from free-radical damage. So if you must indulge your sweet tooth, go in for dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar and the most amount of cacao, or better yet, choose a cacao-based drink that’s free of sugar.


Not all fats are bad, as the avocado demonstrates – it’s rich in protein and loaded with healthy fat. An avocado every week is enough to keep your brain healthy for the rest of your life.


These brightly colored, squishy fruits (or vegetable?) are not just delicious, they’re also chock-full of lycopene, a substance that is rich in antioxidants and negates the effects of free radicals on your brain. To get the most out of tomatoes, cook them or eat them as sauces, in addition to including them raw in salads. Or drink them as juices.

Green Tea:

If you’re looking for a hot or warm drink that’s soothing and which protects your brain, look no further than green tea. It’s rich in antioxidants and it’s a great way to refresh your body and mind.


Now there’s a dreaded vegetable; however, before you banish the broccoli from your plate, think of the benefits it has to offer you – vitamins B5, B6, B2, and C, betacarotene, iron, calcium and folate. It’s literally a whole meal by itself, so include it in your salad or eat it half-cooked as a vegetable dish.

So go ahead, give your brain a boost with these foods; when your brain is healthy, your overall wellbeing improves by miles.

This guest post is contributed by Cindy Cullen; she writes on the topic of culinary art colleges. She welcomes your comments by email at You can also, of course, post comments on this website.

Key words: brain health brain food antioxidants omega 3 fatty acids lycopene tomatoes coffee green tea walnuts broccoli berries avocado chocolate

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review of "The Cove," an A+ documentary of Japan's dolphin slaughter

 Ric O'Barry, star of "The Cove"
I heard Bruce Springsteen say once that the people we remember are the people who care enough to be crazy.  I thought about that when I saw the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove."  It's the story of one man's passionate commitment to protecting dolphins, his willingness to sacrifice even his life for his cause.  The film is also about Japan's indifferent and systematic slaughter of dolphins, but what sets it apart is the tale of Ric O'Barry.

The 2009 movie rivals any espionage thriller for suspense and intrigue. The setting is the Japanese coastal town of Taiji, where local fishermen carry out a secretive and brutal daily dolphin round-up that O'Barry finally manages to catch on film.

Former "Flipper" trainer
As we learn during the movie, O'Barry is a former dolphin trainer. In the 1960s he helped catch and train the wild dolphins that shared the starring role in the popular television series "Flipper." The show spawned a worldwide fascination with dolphins, leading to a proliferation of marine parks that feature dolphin performances and opportunities to "swim with the dolphins."

Trained dolphins performing at a marine park

In the documentary, O'Barry relates a personal experience that completely changed his perspective on keeping dolphins in captivity - he believes that a dolphin he was training committed suicide in his arms by refusing to open her blowhole to breathe. The experience affected him so profoundly that his life's mission is now to protect the animals he once captured.

"Dolphin drive hunting"
On the coast of Taiji, Japan, where the action takes place, dolphins are driven by nets and small boats into a cove each morning before dawn, a process known as "dolphin drive hunting." In the cove, the "best" dolphins are selected and captured for sale to marine parks, a major source of income for the village. The rejected dolphins, including the very young, are killed by knives and spears from the small boats, then are hauled aboard the boats and taken ashore to be butchered for meat.

a dolphin drive hunt

When O'Barry and his co-workers (including members of the Oceanic Preservation Society) try to film the carnage in the cove, they are chased by hostile villagers and by local police. Not to be deterred, O'Barry and cohorts make fake rocks to conceal their cameras, which are then strategically placed on the shore. With the hidden cameras, they obtain plenty of footage of the daily drive and subsequent massacre. At the end of the documentary, O'Barry strolls around a meeting of the International Whaling Commission carrying a small flat-screen TV showing footage of the Taiji dolphin slaughter. Before long, he's ousted from the room.

Toxic to school children
At the time of the filming, the dolphins' flesh was served to children in the local schools of Taiji or was sold in Taiji supermarkets, but it was labeled as something else. As revealed in the film, dolphin flesh is dangerously high in mercury because dolphins eat fairly high on the food chain. Which means they ingest the mercury already eaten by the fish that they eat - thus concentrating the mercury in the dolphins' flesh. (Mercury gets into water from the airborne emissions of fossil-fuel-burning power stations.)

dolphin meat in supermarkets

As a result of O'Barry's and the other activists' efforts, dolphin meat is removed from local school lunches. And in the 2009 dolphin season in Taiji, at least some of the rejected dolphins were released rather than slaughtered. But I learned from this documentary that whaling (including dolphins) is a long-held cultural tradition in Japan, and the Japanese have a deep-seated reluctance to let it go. They won't readily concede their right to harvest cetaceans, regardless of who's exerting the pressure and regardless of conservation statistics. If they are indeed so wedded to their traditions, then their resistance to international whale-protection measures is a little easier to comprehend. Not easier to accept, but easier to understand. Still.....where does that leave conservationists? Or cetaceans? Who will care about cultural traditions when species disappear?

Bravo, O'Barry
I recommend "The Cove" to anyone who cares about the future of the planet's wildlife, especially marine-biology aficionados.  Or to anyone who likes a good story of dogged determination, and ingenuity in resolving obstacles.  Hats off to Ric O'Barry.

Btw, the film is available from Netflix, and got a 96% rating on

Get involved....
If you'd like to help Ric's cause, go to this website about the movie and the plight of the dolphins.

For more info... go to Whalewatch, the Oceanic Preservation Society, the High North Alliance
or the International Whaling Commission.

Key words: dolphins Japan Taiji The Cove Ric O'Barry Flipper dolphin slaughter marine biology endangered species cetaceans whales

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Conflicting USDA advice : Yes or no to cheese?

Dairy cow. Photo: Sally Kneidel

A couple of years ago, one of my co-workers brought a Pizza Hut pizza into our workplace for lunch. I remember it because I was surprised at how much cheese was on the pizza. Way too much! Biting it was like sinking my teeth into a greasy gob of congealed milk fat. I couldn't eat it.

I understand now why the pizza had so much cheese on it. The New York Times published an article on November 6 that explains it.

Photo: Sally Kneidel

I knew already that the Agriculture Department buys surplus foods, mostly animal products, that farmers can't sell for a profit; Sadie and I wrote about that in our 2005 book Veggie Revolution. Some of that food is donated to schools. In 1991, 90% of the food donated to schools by the USDA were butter, cheese, whole milk, beef, pork, and eggs. That's one reason school lunches have been and still are notoriously high in saturated fat.

What happens to the rest of the surplus? This is where the story gets confusing and just weird. The government is contradicting itself. Don't eat milk fat; do eat milk fat.

Photo: Sally Kneidel

The USDA wants to pretend that health is a priority

Under pressure from medical and health organizations, the USDA in 2005 published a revised and more healthful "Food Pyramid" that recommends "low-fat or fat-free" dairy products. A USDA brochure called "Steps to a Healthier You!" advises us to "Ask for whole-wheat crust and half the cheese" on pizzas. These are part of the USDA's drive to reduce obesity and heart disease in the U.S. Through the federal government's efforts as well as medical warnings, Americans have been choosing more low-fat dairy products, leaving a bigger surplus of whole milk and milk fat products.

What to do with all that surplus milk fat?

The federal government could let the law of supply and demand take its course, and let some of our dairies go out of business. That would make sense, if we're eating too much cheese, and we are. According to the NY Times article, Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat for Americans; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.

 Photo: Sally Kneidel

But letting dairies go out of business is apparently not an option, I suppose because the federal government receives government-mandated fees from the dairy industry.

At any rate, the federal government has created a marketing organization called "Dairy Management" to promote the consumption of dairy products. Dairy Management's annual budget is $140 million.  The money comes from dairy fees and from the USDA, which oversees the ad campaigns and contracts of Dairy Management.

"Dairy Management" pushes cheese to consumers

Now back to that fatty pizza my co-worker served up for lunch. Dairy Management has made cheese its cause, says Saturday's NY Times article by Michael Moss. The federal government, primarily through Dairy Management, is on a mission to get dairy back into the American diet primarily through cheese, almost all of which is high fat.

Domino's new high-fat pizzas

Domino's Pizza had slumping sales last year. Dairy Management to the rescue. The organization teamed up with Domino's to create a new line of pizzas with 40% more cheese. Who designed and paid for Domino's $12 million ad campaign to promote these new pizzas? Dairy Management - funded in part by our tax dollars (via the USDA). The ad campaign worked, and Domino's sales picked up. One of Domino's pizzas, called the "Wisconsin," has 6 cheeses on top and 2 more in the crust. One-quarter of a medium thin-crust Wisconsin has 12 grams of saturated fat, more than 3/4 of the recommended daily maximum.

Pizza Hut too

Dairy Management has been helping retailers and manufacturers since at least the 1990s, maybe earlier. Dairy Management developed "The Summer of Cheese" promotion with Pizza Hut in 2002. That campaign generated the use of 102 million additional pounds of cheese, says the NY Times article. So I can thank Dairy Management for my co-worker's aforementioned fatty pizza.

 Dairy cow waiting to be milked. Photo: Sally Kneidel

USDA: what is their real agenda?

It's disturbing to have a government organization promoting food that's known to be unhealthy, although that's been going on for decades. It's equally disturbing to know that we're now paying for two government campaigns within the same agency whose goals are completely contradictory.

NY Times article cited:
Michael Moss. November 6, 2010. "While warning about fat, the U.S. pushes cheese sales." The New York Times

My latest post about the dairy industry:
New studies: cancer linked to milk consumption 

Key words: dairy cheese milk USDA pizza Dairy Management

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Vitamin D: recommendations increased to 1500-2000 IU per day.....for bone health and more

Our Science News arrived in the mail today with an interesting article about vitamin D. It says adults should take 1500 to 2000 IU of vitamin D every day - a big increase over the earlier standard recommendation of 400 IU per day.  Below is the Science News page with the news. Or click here to see it online.

This new advice comes from Michael Holick, a biochemist and endocrinologist at Boston University.  He's spent his career researching the effects of vitamin D (which is actually not a vitamin but a hormone precursor).

Dr. Michael Holick, vitamin D researcher at BU 

My own doctor told me....

A year ago, my personal physician told me to start taking 1000 IU daily of vitamin D, after my blood levels tested too low (19.4).  She told me vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, which is of course important for maintaining bone density.  But after taking 1000 IU every day for a year, I had my blood tested this month, and my vitamin D was just barely within the desired range of 32-100, just  36.4.  I was disappointed. My doc said I needed to shoot for the middle of the 32-100 range.

So I asked my pharmacist...

I asked my pharmacist about it and he said the recommended dose is now 1500 to 2000 IU.  He already knew that - in advance of the new Science News. So I bought a "pill splitter" for $2.17 and now Ken and I are both taking 1500 IU of vitamin D per day.

On the left, our $2.17 pill splitter so we can cut 1000 IU tablets in half and take 1500 IU per day. The bottle of vitamin D on the right is $2.54 for 100 tablets.

More benefits? "Absolutely"

Are there other benefits of vitamin D in addition to increasing calcium absorption?  Absolutely, says Dr. Holick of Boston University (the Science News article).  He says that in a trial of postmenopausal women, taking vitamin D over 4 years reduced their risk of cancer by 60%.

The Science News article also says that vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increased risks of infectious diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, cognitive decline, Parkinson's disease, asthma, mood disorders and diabetes. Dr. Holick says a Japanese study found that children receiving 1,200 IU of vitamin D per day reduced their risk of getting the flu by almost 50%.

That's all great. I mainly just want to keep my bones healthy. I can't bask in the sun to generate enough vitamin D; I'm too fair-skinned - I get burned and have had a couple of skin cancers already. Anyway, Ken read today that if you live north of Georgia in the U.S., there is no way you can get enough vitamin D in winter just from exposure to sunlight.  And we do live north of Georgia.

Look around for a cheap brand - the price varies tremendously

So we're taking the 1500 IU per day of vitamin D, and hoping for the best.

Btw, I learned that my local pharmacist keeps an off-brand behind the counter that's much cheaper than the vitamin D brands on his display shelves.  But I have to specifically ask for it, since it's out of sight.  The bottle in the photo is the one behind the counter - it's $2.54 for 100 tablets.  That's a very good price. (The brand is "Major", manufactured by "Major Pharmaceuticals".)

To read the entire interview in Science News with Dr. Holick, click here.

Key words: vitamin D recommended dose bone density bone health vitamin D benefits Michael Hollick

Friday, October 29, 2010

"The Story of Cosmetics" informs about hazardous personal-care products

Did you know that lipsticks often contain lead? Photo: SpooSpa

Remember "The Story of Stuff" If you didn't see that short but powerful film online, I recommend it. The same coalition has now made "The Story of Cosmetics," another online short that carries a punch.

The Story of Cosmetics

Somehow, before watching "The Story of Cosmetics," I had assumed that the FDA reviews the safety of personal-care products such as body lotions, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, nail polish, lipstick, hair dye, sunscreen, and the hundreds of other products Americans slather on their skin. But I was wrong, the FDA does not. That's unfortunate because many of the chemicals in these products are toxic, and are in fact restricted or banned by the European Union.

 Many of us use lotions with hazardous ingredients every day. The repetition makes such products especially dangerous to our health. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Vaseline lotion and nail polish

Immediately after watching "The Story of Cosmetics," I had to go examine some of the products my own family uses. On many of the bottles, the ingredients were barely visible without a magnifying glass. On others, such as Oil of Olay, the ingredients weren't even listed. The first two products I looked at, hand lotion and nail polish, both had chemicals that are possible or probable carcinogens: petrolatum and formaldehyde.

This "Vaseline Intensive Rescue" lotion contains petrolatum as the 3rd ingredient, one of Green Guide's "Dirty Dozen" to be avoided in all personal-care products. The European Union has banned all petroleum distillates. Photo: Sally Kneidel

This nail polish contains formaldehyde, a "probable human carcinogen," according to the Green Guide's "Dirty Dozen." Photo: Sally Kneidel

As consumers, women have the power to force change

Environmental researchers have clamored for more oversight in the U.S., pointing out that many ingredients can have cumulative effects when applied day after day, year after year. The average woman uses 12 to15 personal-care products; the average man 6. Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse published this year, says 85 cents of every dollar spent in the marketplace is spent by women. Since women are the target audience of cosmetic companies, she believes women can influence cosmetics offerings with choices they make while shopping.

"The way we spend our money is our first line of defense. American women have more economic clout than the GDP of China. It's huge," says MacEachern.

The cosmetics database is a fantastic safety tool

So how do you decide which products feel safe enough for you? For one thing, you can check online guides such as "The Shopper's Guide to Safe Cosmetics" by Environmental Working Group, or National Geographic's Green Guide (The Dirty Dozen). Especially useful is the "Skin Deep" cosmetics database by Environmental Working Group. You can enter any personal-care product into the database search window, and the website will show you all the ingredients, the toxic effects that have turned up in experiments, and will rate both the product and each ingredient in terms of toxicity! Amazing!

Products in our home, all of which have some toxic ingredients according to the Skin Deep database. Photo: Sally Kneidel

The "Skin Deep" database helped me evaluate the stuff in our closet

On the "Skin Deep" database, I entered "Oil of Olay " - a product I've been using for years. I found that it's loaded with chemicals that have toxicity concerns, such as parabens and PEG. I then looked up about 10 other products we own.  According to the "Skin Deep" cosmetics database, these all turned out to have chemicals with toxicity concerns: Colgate MaxFresh toothpaste, Suave Body Lotion, Dial Hand Soap, Suave for Kids 2 in 1 Shampoo, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock, Aveeno Continuous Protection Sunblock Lotion, Ivory Bar Soap.  One trend I noticed in looking up all these products is that the "fragrance" is usually the most hazardous ingredient. Parabens are also very common.

The precautionary principle

Both Annie Leonard (of "The Story of Cosmetics") and author Diane MacEachern recommend using "the precautionary principal." That is, beware of products with possible or probable toxicity - don't wait until cause and effect has been proven. If consumers boycott suspected toxins, the industry will be forced to offer safe alternatives. Print a copy of the "Dirty Dozen" and take it shopping with you.

Toxic to factory workers and environment too

If formaldehyde is dangerous in nail polish, then it's hazardous to the workers who make the polish, and to nail salon workers who breathe it all day.  And it's also an ingredient in the waste material leaving the factory.  That waste material is going to wind up in the environment in some form, whether as effluent from the factory or leaching into the groundwater under the landfill.

What to do?

  • Sort through your personal-care-products and find a couple you don't really need.
  • Once a week, do the bare minimum - wash your face and brush your teeth, but stop there.
  • Take the Dirty Dozen list when you shop and read the labels.
  • Products with the fewest ingredients are often the safest.
  • Look for products that are free of fragrances and parabens. Some possibilities include Aubrey Organics, Burt's Bees, Ecco Bella, Jason, Honeybee Gardens, Miessence, Pangea Organics, Terressentials and Tom's of Maines, to name a few.
  • For safe baby products, look at this Parents' Guide.
  • Look at  this list of companies that have signed the "compact for safe cosmetics and have pledged not to use ingredients that are known or strongly suspected to cause cancer.

Source in addition to the links above:

Edward M. Eveld. "Face it: Harmful chemicals can lurk in beauty products." McClatchy Newspapers.

Key words: The Story of Cosmetics personal care products consumer health FDA consumer safety Diane MacEachern The Story of Stuff Annie Leonard factory worker safety worker rights human rights factory safety nail polish toxins hazardous chemicals carcinogens parabens

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Guest post from Berkeley duo growing mushrooms on coffee grounds

Readers, this is a guest post from Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez, co-founders of Back to the Roots, an interesting new business. The two are growing gourmet pearl-oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, and are selling kits to allow consumers to do the same. I love the idea of growing food on what would otherwise be waste, so invited them to tell us how they got started.
Alex and Nikhil, co-founders of a sustainable mushroom venture

From the Grounds Up: Our Sustainable Story of Coffee to Mushrooms

It was Spring ’09 and we were fourth years at UC Berkeley. Both of us had offers in corporate America. Investment banking and consulting seemed to be the futures waiting for us after graduation. All that changed one day after listening to a lecture in one of our business ethics courses when we first heard about the idea that gourmet mushrooms can be grown on recycled coffee grounds. 

Seven million tons of coffee per year - most winds up as waste

We could really do something with this idea: we discussed the possibilities. America is absolutely addicted to coffee. The world production of coffee is nearly 7 million tons a year. Only 1% ends up in the cup, while 99% ends up in landfills. The possibility of diverting this waste stream into something of value, gourmet mushrooms, was something we just couldn't let go. As the weeks went by, we really dove into first seeing if we could actually grow mushrooms from coffee grounds, and then seeing if this idea could work as the basis of a full scale social venture.

We won our initial funding in a UC Berkeley competition

The first plan of action was definitely an interesting experience. We went around to local coffee shops collecting used coffee grounds. Out of the 10 buckets of the mushrooms we planted, only one grew. In that one bucket though, we saw potential. We took that batch to the local Berkeley Whole Foods, and the team members we showed it to took a real interest. We created a plan and submitted our business proposal to "Bears Breaking Boundaries," an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley Chancellor to provide $5,000 in initial funding for a ground breaking project. And that's really the story of how we got started, giving up the corporate titles to carry a new one: "The Mushroom Guys."
Pearl-oyster mushrooms growing from the do-it-yourself kit

We donate our used soil to urban farms and nurseries

After graduating, we then started Back to the Roots, a name symbolizing sustainability, innovation and social responsibility. What is so unique about Back to the Roots is its completely closed loop system. We first utilized a large waste stream to produce something of value: gourmet oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms were harvested and sold across NorCal Whole Foods Markets. The leftover coffee grounds, enriched by the mushroom growth, turned into premium soil amendment that was then donated to local nurseries and urban farms, giving back to the community from which we gather the coffee grounds from.

Since we launched in 2009, we have diverted and transformed over 50,000 pounds of coffee grounds into a rich soil for local, healthy food and have grown 7,500 pounds of delicious gourmet mushrooms. Starting off as purely an urban mushroom farm, Back to the Roots has recently transformed into an organization dedicated to letting everyone grow their own fresh food right at home…as local as it gets! Our vision is to serve as a standard bearer for innovation and responsibility in our community and inspire others to work towards a more sustainable future. We’re doing this first through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden.

Eco-friendly packaging

These mushroom-growing kits that we sell on our website are packaged in post-consumer cardboard and printed with soy ink, an environmentally better alternative. The kits arrive in the mail ready to grow: we wanted to create a sustainable product that is easy and simple, so everyone can enjoy growing and eating fresh mushrooms (including kids…who love watching them grow so fast!). The Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Gardens yield multiple crops, and you get up to one pound of delicious pearl-oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days from your first crop. The soil inside is safe and sustainable too – 100% recycled coffee grounds! And while you may be worrying that the mushrooms taste like coffee, plenty of chefs, like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, can attest to their authentic nutty flavor.
The mushrooms grow right out of the box that comes in the mail

We donate 5% of sales to breast cancer research

We’re also currently donating 5% of all sales to support local breast cancer awareness organizations - supporting a cause that is close to our hearts (our co-founder, Alex, fought through cancer in high school) and educating the community on the great health benefits that oyster mushrooms have.

Through our mushroom gardens, we hope to encourage people to go "Back to the Roots" of sustainability. If you want to try growing your own delicious mushrooms, use the special discount we’re giving just to Veggie Revolution readers for a limited time: just type in veggierev20 on the checkout page of our website and get 20% off! You can grow up to 1 pound of gourmet mushrooms in as little as 10 days and support breast cancer awareness!

Happy Harvesting!

Nikhil and Alex
Back to the Roots, Co-founders

key words: sustainable business sustainable farming gardens gardening pearl oyster mushrooms Easy to Grow Mushroom Garden Back to the Roots Nikhil Arora

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New studies: cancer linked to milk consumption

My mom was a meat, eggs, and milk gal. To her way of thinking, animal protein was the key to good health. Breakfast was bacon, eggs, and milk, period. If my brothers and I were running late for school, she made us gulp down a blend of raw eggs and milk. I loathed that "yellow milk."

Things have changed since then. My parents both died of cancer and my own children are in their twenties. When my two kids were teenagers, we gave up meat as a family and later gave up eggs and cartons of dairy milk - for environmental, humane, and health considerations.

Cheese was harder

For a while I continued to rationalize eating cheese and ice cream. I told myself it was okay because the cows weren't killed, they were just milked. But while researching and writing our book Veggie Revolution, my daughter Sadie and I learned the truth about dairy cows. It's not a pretty picture - in terms of the planet, the cows, or our health.
A dairy cow at a milking machine. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Humane considerations: "A cow is just a milk factory" he said with a smirk

A dairy scientist we interviewed at N.C. State University told us, "A dairy cow is just a milk factory.  There's not much quality of life." He's right. Modern dairy cows are among the most exploited of all factory-farmed livestock. In order to offer milk at competitive prices in supermarkets, dairymen today push the cows to their physiological limits to produce as much milk as their bovine bodies possibly can. Whereas cows 100 years ago could produce milk for a farmer's family for 10 to 12 years, the typical dairy cow nowadays burns out after only 3 years of milking. She wears out for four reasons: 1) she's pregnant for nine months every year, 2) she's milked for 10 months every year, in spite of being pregnant, 3) most dairy cows are given injections of the hormone BST (also called BGH) to maximize milk production, and 4) her leg joints give out from standing on concrete while she's heavy with pregnancy and a full udder.

So when she loses her ability to walk, or fails to become pregnant, or her milk production drops too low, she's "culled from the herd" and slaughtered. Her meat is sold for low-quality packaged beef products such as potted meat or beef hot-dogs.About 30% of the herd at a conventional dairy is "culled" every year.

Veal is the male calves of dairy cows

Eating dairy products is not more humane than eating beef. Beef cattle spend 5 or 6 comfortable months with their mothers at pasture before heading to the factory-like feedlot to be fattened for slaughter.  Whereas, male calves of dairy cows are often kept tethered and immobile beginning 24 hours from birth, to be sold in a few months as veal. (Veal is muscles that have had no exercise whatsoever; the meat is pale and tender as a result.) The female calves of dairy cows become impregnated at about 1.5 years of age and go "on the milk string" by their 2nd birthday. Calves of both genders are separated from their mothers after 24 hours so the mother's milk can be sold to humans.
Dairy cows waiting to be milked. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Environmental issues: Dairy cows win the poop contest

Dairy cows make a lot of waste. One beef steer makes 50-60 lbs of waste per day, but each dairy cow makes about 120 lbs per day, because they're older and bigger. (Beef cattle are slaughtered before or near their first birthday.) Some dairies these days have as many as 1000 dairy cows.Their waste is flushed into open-air lagoons, which can be 25 feet deep and as large as several football fields.These lagoons can spill over during storms, can crack and leak into groundwater. Nitrate contamination of ground and surface waters (and wells) near  livestock-waste lagoons is commonplace and is even legally allowed up to certain limits, although nitrates are toxic for human consumption.  Nitrates and phosphates also cause eutrophication of streams and lakes downhill from the lagoons, which means the nutrients fuel algal blooms that subsequently suck all the oxygen out of the water, suffocating fish and aquatic invertebrates.

51% of greenhouse gases are from livestock

In addition to the waste issue is the fact that the livestock sector worldwide generates 51% of all greenhouse gases - that includes methane from manure, CO2 from the burning of forests to raise livestock feed or to graze the animals, CO2 from the transport of feed or refrigerated animal products, etc. (That figure is from a recent analysis by World Bank scientists, "Livestock and Climate Change," published by Worldwatch institute.)

Milk consumption linked to cancer

The link between cancer and dietary hormones, especially estrogen, is a major source of concern among scientists. According to Harvard scientist Ganmaa Davaasambuu, a number of studies have correlated the consumption of milk and cheese with higher rates of hormone-dependent cancers (breast, testicular, prostate). Milk from a pregnant cow contains up to 33 times more estrogen and 10 times more progesterone than milk from a non-pregnant cow.  In nomadic societies like Mongolia, where cows are milked only 5-6 months per year, the hormone content of milk is relatively low. The Western practice of keeping cows confined in large numbers and milking them 10 months per year is relatively recent.
Science News article on milk, hormones, and cancer.
Photo: Sally Kneidel

Male hormones (androgens) in cows' milk are cause for concern too. In a recent report in Science News, physician F. W. Danby from Dartmouth Medical School said that certain androgens in cows' milk have the capacity for increasing the number of estrogen receptors in the human body. Extra receptors allow more estrogen - including any from milk - to affect cellular machinery that can turn tumor growth on.  Hormones in cows' milk "are being poured into a system that didn't anticipate them," said Danby, and can't eliminate them effectively.

The same Science News report goes on to say, "One of the most provocative aspects of the milk story is its impact on insulinlike growth factor 1. Many studies have linked elevated concentrations of IGF-1 with cancer risk. Not only is milk a rich source of the substance, but people who drink milk also end up with more IGF-1 in their blood."  Incidentally, I read in another article today that cows injected with BST have more IGF-1 in their milk. Since the year 2000, BST has been banned in Canada, the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand. But it's still legal and widely used here in the US.  National Dairy Council lobbyists can be thanked for that.

Do we need cows' milk for good health?

The Science News article concludes with a comment on milk from oncologist Michael Pollak of McGill University:  "Because the body of knowledge about this beverage’s human bioactivity is still in its infancy, people may just have to employ the precautionary principle. In the absence of definitive [safety] data—or the presence of an adverse effect which may be small—you have to decide: Is there anything good about milk? And other than developing children and malnourished adults, people probably don’t need milk."

No indeed. Calcium and protein are both easily available from plenty of plant-based sources.
Great-tasting nutritious alternatives to dairy products at our house. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Alternatives to dairy products

And, yes, we've given up dairy cheese. We found some good plant-based cheese we like at Trader Joe's. There's really no excuse anymore for me. Six years ago, a woman who works for PETA said to me, on the subject of going vegan: "It's not that hard."  What she said was so simple, but it stuck with me. No, it really isn't that hard. And as a person who loves animals, who frets endlessly about our planet, and who wants to stay alive as long as's one of those small things that I can do, that anyone can do, and if everyone did it, the impact would be huge.

Key words: dairy cancer factory farms livestock and climate change dairy cows dairy waste veal calves vegan


Janet Raloff. "Scientists find a soup of suspects while probing milk's link to cancer".  Science News. 2009.

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. " Livestock and Climate Change."  Worldwatch Magazine. Nov-Dec 2009.

Corydon Ireland. "Hormones in milk can be dangerous." Harvard University Gazette.