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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review of new food film: "What's on YOUR Plate?"

This post now on Google News and on the syndicated

Two young girls lead the way

I was asked to review the new DVD, "What's on YOUR Plate? The Film about Kids and Food Politics". The stars of the movie are two 11-year-old multiracial girls in NYC, Sadie Hope-Gund and Safiyah Riddle. The film documents the girls' quest to learn why American diets are often so unhealthy, and why our food travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to fork. Sadie and Safiyah were fantastic in their roles as curious young consumers. They were bright, confident, and completely natural in front of the camera. Great role models for other young girls, who will feel empowered by watching the two in action.
Sadie and Safiyah interviewed a variety of relevant experts: NYC school food executives, an MD specializing in cholesterol management, food author and activist Anna Lappé, a food-conscious diabetic, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. That was just for starters.

After investigating school lunches laden with with fat and empty calories, and the corporate origins of processed foods that fill our supermarkets, Sadie and Safiyah turned their focus to healthy alternatives.

I loved the diversity of local food providers in the film

For me, the exploration of solutions was the most interesting aspect of the movie. I admired the filmmakers' selection of people to represent the local-foods movement in NYC. Three who stood out for me were Maritza Owens of Harvest Home Farmers Markets in Harlem, a Spanish-speaking family of farmers (the Angels) in Goshen, NY, and the founders of Stanton Street CSA (Kevin Walter and Sasha Schulman). A CSA is an agreement that allows consumers to prepay a local farmer for an annual share of his or her produce. All of these people were involved in getting locally-grown produce directly to consumers in NYC. At least some of the produce was organic; it wasn't clear to me whether all of it was.
Organic okra in October. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Ninety percent of farmers need second jobs to support their families

So the movie in a very visceral way illustrated how to seek out and support local farmers and local vendors who provide healthy fresh vegetables. Most such people are barely making ends meet and desperately need community support, so the movie is valuable if it accomplishes nothing more than encouraging support of local farmers. I also appreciated the variety of cultures represented in the film, and the discussions about neighborhoods and demographic groups with little access to fresh produce. The girls' interview with the Manhattan Borough President addressed that problem specifically.

An excellent resource for families and educators

I was impressed with the movie and I applaud the efforts of everyone involved. I highly recommend it for families with children and as a tool for educators, especially educators of young people. In fact, the website of the film's distributor offers a 64-page curriculum and 3 study modules that go along with the DVD, entitled School Food, Health and Access, and Local Food.

Although I liked it, I wouldn't necessarily advise an adult foodie who's already knowledgeable about farmers markets and CSAs to seek out the film. And it's not a movie I would have chosen to watch purely for my own enjoyment or for information about food. However, as a food writer with fantasies about making a documentary, I might watch it again as an example of an extremely well-executed film about food. Sadie's mother, Catherine Gund, produced the movie and her expertise as a professional filmmaker was evident. There was not a dull moment, and I can easily imagine a class of 8th graders or 11th graders riveted to the screen during the entire film.

Wish it had mentioned the ominous impacts of livestock

As long as we're examining "what's on our plates", I was a tad disappointed that the documentary didn't address the merits of organic food more forcefully, and didn't mention the fact that Americans eat much more meat per capita than any other country. Our over-consumption of animal products has implications far beyond our health. The livestock sector has a huge impact on global warming - a fact well-documented by scientists worldwide. A recent paper published by Worldwatch Institute attributes more than 50% of greenhouse gases to the livestock sector. Although the film didn't get into environmental issues much, it could easily have incorporated both these issues in relation to health - especially given that both girls are vegetarians.

Hogs for a popular sausage brand, raised on a N.C. factory farm. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Despite omissions, the film is a powerful tool

There are advantages though to covering a few topics well rather than touching on everything. No question that Sadie and Safiyah covered a few topics with pizzazz and aplomb. "What's on YOUR Plate?" invites young viewers to boldly seek answers about their own school food and demand access to healthy produce. We all deserve fresh, local, and wholesome food.

Our books about how our food choices affect our health and the environment:

Sally and Sadie Kneidel. 2005. Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Sally and Sadie Kneidel. 2008. Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Some of my previous posts about the effect of diet on health and the environment:

"Livestock account for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions"

"New study: meat impacts climate more than buying local"

"Less meat....smaller footprint"

"Is local food the greenest choice? New study says no"

"Earth Day: 3 things you can do"

"An apple? Bran muffin? or cold cereal? Top ten sources of easy fiber"

"10 hot tips for a green and energy-efficient holiday."

"Obama to fight consolidation of farms: good news for small farms and consumers"

"Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican press"

"The virus is a swine flu and has its roots in North Carolina, the land of Smithfield"

"Tyson and Smithfield drooling over untapped profits abroad"

"Working in a turkey insemination factory"

"A tasty vegan meat substitute: Tofurkey kielbasa"

Key words: DVD documentary movie film review What's on your Plate Sadie Safiyah CSA farmers markets local food NYC Maritza Owens Stanton Street CSA Catherine Gund organic livestock sector Worldwatch

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why use toilet paper? No need to flush our forests

This post now on the syndicated BasilandSpice and on Google News.
Toilet in Malaysia with personal sprayer instead of toilet paper. Photo by Sally Kneidel

We're facing mass wildlife extinctions this century. One big reason: the human population explosion and resulting habitat loss.

You might be surprised to learn how our personal hygiene choices affect wildlife-habitat loss. I was.

Americans flush 54 million trees per year. We're #1!
According to the WWF, almost 270,000 trees are either dumped in landfills or flushed every single day.  About 10% of that total is toilet paper.  Since Americans lead the pack in resource consumption, it's no surprise that we also use more toilet paper than anyone else.  In 2005, North American consumption of toilet paper was 23 kg per capita - 6 times more than the world average of 3.8 kg per capita. Africa had the lowest use in 2005, at 0.4 kg per capita.
Trees on their way to pulp mills or sawmills. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Trees of the Amazon, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Northwest and the southeastern US have been targeted by the pulp and timber industry for decades, but now the boreal forests of Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia face the growing threat of chainsaws. According to an online magazine World Science, these boreal forests are 1/3 of the world's remaining forested area and 1/3 of the world's stored carbon. Yet the NGO Forest Ethics reports that Canada's old-growth and intact forests are being logged at a rate of 5 acres/minute, 24/7.

China plans to drape itself in tree plantations for paper
North America's rate of toilet paper consumption is stable, but the rate is increasing almost everywhere else, as developing countries aspire to Western ways. Between 1990 and 2003, China's consumption of toilet paper grew by 11%.  China is projected to become the fastest-growing consumer of all paper products, including toilet paper, and will soon lead the world in paper production as well.  Unfortunately most of China's future paper will come from tree plantations. I say unfortunately because tree plantations are generally non-native monocultures, managed with pesticides and consequently devoid of other plants and wildlife. They are biodiversity deserts. China's "Great Green Wall" initiative aims to blanket the country with tree plantations, covering 42% of China's landmass by the year 2050 with tree species that will produce usable fibers.  Many of those trees will be planted in semi-desert areas where they will deplete already-dwindling water supplies.
Great choice for toilet paper, 90% post-consumer-recycled. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Solution #1: Post-consumer recycled paper
Toilet paper can easily be made from at least 90% post-consumer recycled paper. Most companies just don't bother to do it, apparently. Kimberley-Clark is the largest tissue manufacturer in the world. Their products are sold in 150 countries and their tissue is used by almost 20% of the world's population every day.  With so large a market, KC could save a great many forest habitats by making their products with recycled paper. Yet, according to Noelle Robbins' excellent research for Worldwatch, Kimberley-Clark claims there is no advantage to using recycled paper. And so their tissue is made from virgin wood fibers. KC is not alone. There's little effort among toilet paper companies to change consumer preferences to more forest-friendly products.

Still, consumers can buy toilet paper made from recycled paper.Marcal makes tissue from recycled office paper, magazines and paper from residential recycle bins.  Tim Spring, CEO of Marcal, says "Sixty percent of all paper ends up in landfills....We throw away enough paper to make toilet paper for a lifetime."  According to Marcal's website, the company has saved 22 million trees since 2000 by using recycled paper.

My local supermarket does not carry Marcal.  They do however carry toilet tissue called "Green Forest" manufactured by Planet Inc., in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  The package says that it is "Minimum 90% post-consumer recycled content."   If you're looking for recycled, the words "post-consumer" are important.  Because manufacturers can and do claim "recycled" when all they've done is trim the uneven ends off their newly manufactured paper and throw the ends back into the vat of wood pulp to be stirred up and rolled flat again. Whereas "post-consumer recycled" (PCR) means that the paper was previously used by a consumer, as office paper or newspaper or whatever.(Toilet paper is the only paper that cannot be recycled, after use, into new paper.)

Great online guide to forest-friendly toilet paper
The Natural Resources Defense Council has a great Shopper's Guide to Home Tissue Products that lists the percent post-consumer-recycled content of 10 to 19 brands in each category of home tissues (toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, facial tissues) and recommends which brands to avoid altogether (Charmin, Cottonelle, Kleenex, Puffs, Bounty, Viva).  Very useful. I was interested to see that Green Forest is actually the best.  The next-best brands of toilet paper listed are 80% PCR.

Solution #2: We learned in Asia that water works better than paper!
During the time I spent recently in two predominately Muslim countries, I was intrigued by the use of water instead of toilet paper throughout these countries. My husband and I were perplexed at first when we found that almost every bathroom we encountered in Malaysia and Indonesia had a bucket of water with a scoop floating on the water. I'm still not sure exactly what that was for, except that it had to do with the hygiene requirements of Islam. We didn't use the buckets, as we're not Muslim.
Bucket and scoop under faucet, bathroom on Indonesian island of Sumatra.  Photo by Sally Kneidel

But most bathrooms also had a hose coming out of the wall next to the toilet, even if the toilet was the kind where you have to squat over a porcelain hole in the floor.
 Toilet with personal sprayer, no paper, at a Singapore restaurant. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Sometimes the hose had a simple nozzle or a nozzle with a squeeze handle, similar to those many Americans have at the kitchen sink. (Photo at top of post shows nozzle with squeeze handle.)
Toilet with hose and simple nozzle in Malaysia. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Bathrooms with hoses generally did not have toilet paper.  It's customary to use the hose and sprayer instead. After a few weeks, we came to prefer the sprayer to paper.  Later, in Tokyo, we saw the ultimate technology in the use of water for personal cleaning - the "Washlet." The toilet itself squirts a stream of aerated clean water on the user (from the underside of the toilet seat at the back) and has a blow-drying system as well!
Sign indicating a Washlet, on a Tokyo bathroom door. Photo by Sally Kneidel

If only the whole world would use water...
Ecologically, using water is a great solution. According to a quotation in the Worldwatch document cited below, the production of each roll of toilet paper uses 37 gallons (140 liters) of water. The average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day, which requires 3.7 gallons of water just for the manufacturing process. Compare this to 0.03 gallons (0.01 liter) per use of the Japanese Washlet. Various hand-held squirt devices are estimated to use from 0.2 to 0.5 liters per toilet visit.

But even if, hypothetically, the squirting-water methods used the same amount of water as the manufacturing of toilet paper, they don't require the harvesting of trees. And the harvesting of trees at a non-renewable rate is the big problem with our reliance on toilet paper. The overharvesting of trees, or deforestation, is destroying wildlife habitats at an unprecedented rate. We've got to stop it within just the next couple of decades, before it's too late for tigers and orangutans and all the other wild and wonderful critters on this planet.

Squirting devices are hygienic too
Personal washing devices are not only more forest-friendly, they're also promoted as hygienic improvements over the rags, leaves, corn cobs, newspapers, and other items used in many developing countries - methods that often contribute to diarrhea and other health problems associated with poor sanitation. The Worldwatch article cited below describes several water-squirters for bathroom hygiene that can be used in areas without plumbing, such as the Tjebbi - a portable plastic bottle.  It's produced by Tjebok Health Care.

Nozzles please
We're having some plumbing work done on a very old house we bought last spring. We plan to install in both bathrooms a hose and nozzle like the ones so prevalent in Southeast Asia. Maybe we'll stop consumption of home tissues (toilet paper, paper towels, paper napkins, facial tissues) altogether. I like that idea.

To learn how you can encourage sustainable forestry practices and protect forest wildlife, check out these NGOs:
Worldwatch Institute

Earth Pulp and Paper


Natural Resources Defense Council

Greenpeace International

Rainforest Action Network

Dogwood Alliance

TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network

A major source for this post:
Noelle Robbins. "Flushing forests." Worldwatch Institute. June 2010.

Some of my previous posts about deforestation:
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations
Wild tigers are in trouble
Plush toilet paper flushes old forests.

Key words: toilet paper Worldwatch Institute World Watch Institute deforestation Southeast Asia forest products Noelle Robbins Flushing Forests

Monday, October 04, 2010

Experts avoid nonorganic potatoes

Photos and text by Sally Kneidel

On my weekly shopping jaunt yesterday, I was irked to find the grocery store was out of organic baking potatoes. Frustrating. I was planning to have them for supper last night, and I already had the vegan chili beans for a topping.

I thought about it for a minute - how could a vegetable that's underground be sprayed directly with pesticides? The nonorganic potatoes must not be that bad, I thought. So I bought them instead.

After I got home, I remembered an article my daughter had e-mailed me entitled, "The 7 foods experts won't eat." I pulled the article out of my file and....dang, sure enough, #4 was "Nonorganic potatoes."

I was dead wrong
I was definitely mistaken about underground veggies being relatively safe from pesticides.  As it turns out, root vegetables absorb herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides that have washed into the soil. So these chemicals are not just on the vegetable's surface, they're absorbed into its flesh. Washing and peeling can't get rid of them.

Because potatoes are the nation's most popular vegetable and demand is so high, potato plants are sprayed at every opportunity to keep the spuds blemish-free. During the growing season, the potato plants are sprayed with fungicides... which wash and seep into the soil.  At harvesting time, the vines are obliterated with herbicides to get them out of the way. More seepage down to the taters.  After the potatoes are harvested, they're sprayed directly with a chemical to keep them from sprouting. And they usually won't sprout, even if you try to get them to. (Although I have sprouted a few conventional potatoes.)

Potato farmers won't eat them!
Said Jeffrey Moyer as chair of the National Organic Standards Board, "I've talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals."

The only solution is buying organic potatoes, or growing your own. If you're desperate, peeling may help least with the sprout-inhibiting chemical.

Buying organic protects wildlife too
Remember - when you buy organic, you're protecting not only your own health, but the health of the wildlife and ecosystems adjacent to and downhill from those farm fields. When crops are sprayed, so are the soil insects and worms, which are eaten by frogs and birds and lizards....the toxic sprays move right along the food chain, poisoning the whole system. And that includes the streams and lakes and rivers downhill from the cropfields. Rains flow across the sprayed fields and into these surface well as ground and well water.

So looks like I'll be taking those icky taters back to the store.  Now, we did have some organic sweet potatoes on hand last night. I wondered briefly how those would taste with chili beans.  Quickly nixed that idea.

Instead we decided to saute some portabellos in a little olive oil with some fresh rosemary, a sprinkle of toasted sesame oil, and a  splash of tamari.  We put each portabello on a big slice of rosemary-olive oil bread with melted soy mozzarella on top. Had a salad on the side. Now that was tasty.

Portabellos with rosemary for dinner

For further reading:

For more information:
For more vegetarian/vegan recipes and information about organic, local, and sustainably-grown foods, check out our books on Amazon: Veggie Revolution and Going Green

Keywords: organic nonorganic potatoes 7 foods to avoid pesticides herbicides fungicides Jeffrey Moyer portabellos 7 foods experts won't eat