Wednesday, May 29, 2013

make it yourself: indoor smores and chocolate chipper champs

My grandma was the cookie queen. While everything she made was delicious, her cookies were a specialty. She’d make up care packages for me in college and even when she included date cookies, I scarfed them up. (And I don’t even really like dates!)

So when my best friend asked for one of my grandma’s desserts for her birthday, I knew I had to choose cookies. I picked two kinds: indoor smores and chocolate chipper champs. Mark made homemade vanilla ice cream and we had cookies and milkshakes to celebrate!

First up, indoor smores. This is a great no-bake recipe that you can make in about 10 minutes. I think all of us have at one point scrambled to find something easy to make and bring to a picnic in the summer or a potluck at church. This recipe is great for those situations!

I bake with organic chocolate chips if I can’t get fair trade. (For an explanation of why, see this post on chocolate.) I also used Three Sisters graham cereal, since it’s made with no artificial ingredients (and my friend is allergic to yellow #5). Whole Foods has their own brand of marshmallows in the bakery section, which are also artificial ingredient free. Add some corn syrup, vanilla and butter, and we’re off.

Melt the butter, corn syrup and chocolate in a saucepan and bring to a boil, constantly stirring. 

Add the vanilla off heat and then dump the mixture over the cereal in a large bowl. Mix and add marshmallows. (I reserved some on the side for a final topping.)

Press into a greased 13 x 9 and add the rest of the reserved marshmallows. Let it sit. 

Later, get out your propane crème brulee torch and go to town, toasting the top marshmallows. (Mark was the torch master in this photo.)

Indoor smores - all the deliciousness of smores without the campfire!

Next up, chocolate chipper champs. (What a great name for a cookie!)

The ingredients for these are the basic brown sugar cookie recipe, but with extra chocolate! I used the same chocolate chips as in the indoor smores, but added Sunspire chocolate candies. Sunspire makes fair trade chocolate and they don’t use artificial ingredients in their candies. Since my friend loves M&M’s, but can’t eat them because of the artificial colors in the shells, these are the next best thing!

Most cookie recipes have you cream the sugar and butter together first before adding eggs and vanilla, but grandma’s recipe says to just dump it all in the bowl, so that’s what I did. 

Forgive the gratuitous batter shots. I just love batter.
Add in the dry ingredients until you have a thick cookie batter, and add hearty amounts of chocolate chips and chocolate candies. (So much that your paddle on your mixer starts to groan.)

Scoop into drops on a cookie sheet. We use Silpat mats on all of our cookie sheets – a fantastic investment that I highly recommend if you do a lot of baking. Easy clean-up and the cookies come off the mat seamlessly.

Grandma’s recipe notes that after dropping the dough on the sheet, you take two candies and push them into the top. No idea why, but if it was good for her, it’s good for me.

About 11 minutes later, you have chocolate filled ooey gooey candy cookies. Or chocolate chipper champs, as grandma called them.

(If you’re interested in the recipes for these, let me know. I’m happy to share – grandma always did!)

Friday, May 24, 2013

raw milk: beyond the hype

A lot of topics in the world of food politics and safety can get people's feathers ruffled, but one of the subjects that seems to bring out the most vitriol and judgment is raw milk. Let me state unequivocally that raw milk is not for everyone and no one should ever be pressured into eating something that makes them uncomfortable or denied the right to eat what they want. This is just one person's perspective on why raw milk is what we drink in our house. 

Raw milk is exactly what it sounds like - milk straight out of the cow. Unpasteurized and unhomogenized. Before you can understand why raw milk is different, you have to understand the difference between pasteurization and homogenization.  

Pasteurization refers to the process of heating milk to a particular temperature to destroy pathogens. All milk that you will buy in the store is pasteurized, at least in Pennsylvania. (Other states have different laws.) Pasteurization does kill harmful bacteria in milk, but it also removes the good bacteria that are present, and it removes vitamins that are also naturally present. Thus, when you see milk labeled “enriched with vitamin this and that” it means that vitamins were added back in after processing.

Homogenization is a process that uses immense pressure to emulsify the fat and water in milk. In whole milk, the cream will rise to the top, leaving what we know as 2% milk underneath. To get whole milk, you shake the container to redistribute the cream back in. Alternatively, you pull the cream from the top and use it separately, and drink the 2% milk. Americans don’t like to have to deal with the separating parts of milk, and they prefer to have options of varying levels of fat, so homogenization was born. Pressure is applied to the milk, which homogenizes it (after whatever amount of fat/cream is removed from the milk.) 

You can drink pasteurized milk that isn't homogenized, and you won't be taking any of the risks associated with drinking raw milk, which is the potential for harmful bacteria. This is why the CDC recommends that you only drink pasteurized milk. But at Next Gen House, we don't. And here's why.

While it is true that every time you drink raw milk you are taking the chance that some bad bacteria could be in there and could make you sick, this chance is incredibly small when you source your raw milk like we do – you don’t have to worry about sanitary conditions as much as you do when you have hundreds of cows smashed together and sharing the same milking equipment. Plus, we know that our farmer milks that same cow to provide milk for his own family. He has more reasons besides profit to make sure the milk is safe.

Other reasons I drink raw milk include:

(1) I try to eat my foods as minimally processed as possible, which means I only drink whole milk and I prefer it not to be homogenized. I am perfectly capable of shaking a bottle. 

(2) I want the benefit of the vitamins and “good bacteria” that are naturally present in milk, particularly because of my digestive issues and the fact that I cannot eat fiber supplements or many high-fiber foods due to my thyroid medication. 

(3) I like the taste of raw milk and how it varies slightly through the seasons, as the cow is eating different foods and plants. 

(4) Whether or not I will continue to drink raw milk for my entire life, I believe in the right of people to eat what they want, and will support people’s rights to drink raw milk. I know the risks and choose to take them, just as other people take risks every day by consuming alcohol, driving a car or smoking cigarettes. I don't really think the risk of raw milk is akin to smoking a cigarette, but the point remains that the government does not control all risks a person can take to his/her bodily health, thus it should stay out of my milk choices.

(5) Quite simply, it lasts longer when it comes straight out of the cow.  

Cubicle activism

My ultimate point is that not every person who drinks raw milk is a back to the earth hippie who thinks that raw milk is a cure-all for every last disease on the planet. It's milk, people. I've seen the videos of people who practically worship at the altar of raw milk and I think they're nuts. BUT, frankly, I'm more scared of what's in industrial meat than I am of what's in my raw milk. But beyond all the hype and the fear mongering, there are solid reasons why a person would make the choice to drink raw milk and there are solid reasons why a person would choose to only drink pasteurized milk.

Raw milk isn't for everyone. When I bake for people or for parties, I use pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from Manchester Farms, because I don’t feel like I have the right to make the choice of raw vs. pasteurized milk for other people. It’s all about what risks you are willing to take, and that is not something that one person can decide for another. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

reduce your food waste (and your budget!)

When I talk to family and friends about changing their food lifestyles and trying to go unprocessed, healthy and chemical-free, most people are in agreement that it's a good idea. But when that good idea needs to be worked into an already tight budget, what do you do? There are many answers to that question, but one that Next Gen House has really been committed to lately is not wasting food

A study from less than a year ago by the National Resources Defense Council found that Americans threw out 25% of food and beverages purchased, amounting to $1300-$2200 worth of food per year for a family of four. In a country (and a world) where children go hungry every night, it is appalling that we are wasting this much food, as well as the natural resources that are used to produce that food such as water, oil, gas, land, etc. But even if you don't try to reduce your food waste for altruistic reasons, it's good for your budget.

How many times have you opened your pantry or freezer and seen a ton of food on the shelf and thought, there's nothing to eat in here! How many times have you thrown out leftovers because you didn't feel like eating them or because they got shoved to the back of the fridge and became a science experiment? What do you do to reduce the amount of food waste you create? Here are a few of the things we do at Next Gen House to reduce food waste.

1. Plan Your Meals
We sit down once a week to plan out each meal for the next week. This enables us to make only one trip to the store per week, which also saves us gas and time (and our sanity - have you tried to go to the grocery store during rush hour around here?). More importantly, we know exactly what we need for the week and can enter the store with a list and avoid wasting money on impulse items. 

2. Keep a Running Pantry/Freezer List
In an effort to really get a grip on our food budget, we spent an afternoon doing an inventory of our chest freezer, our regular freezer, our canning cabinets/shelves and our pantry and entered that information into a shared Google spreadsheet. That way we always know what staples we have on hand, and also what we need to use up. This is especially important for us because we buy our meat in bulk and use the chest freezer for storage. When we make our meal plan for the week, we check to see what we have on hand and try to plan meals mostly around items on hand.

3. Make Things You Want to Eat
This sounds so simple as to be stupid, but you will be much more likely to eat your leftovers if they are actually edible and appetizing. We've made an effort to have a large rotating list of recipes that we know re-heat well. Having good food makes it easier to resist the temptation to eat out at lunch and waste the leftovers.

4. Be Aware of Food's Shelf Life
Though sell by and use by dates can be helpful guides for items purchased at the grocery store, they are not hard and fast rules. Especially if you are eating whole, unprocessed foods, your food will "tell you" when it isn't good. Fuzzy, colored mold will show up, or it will smell bad. Sniff your milk and take a sip before you throw it out just because it's the use by date. If it smells and tastes fine, it IS fine. We try to alert each other when we notice something is coming down the final stretch of its life span so we can use it first. Rotate things that are closer to their expiration to the front of your fridge. Store items like potatoes and onions in cool, dark areas or in brown paper bags to prevent spoilage and lengthen their life spans.

5. Compost

We have two compost areas in our back yard, plus a few bins leftover from our first foray into composting. We also have four waste reclamation machines called chickens, who eat vegetable and fruit scraps and then produce waste/compost for our piles. It's easy to start composting in your back yard, even if you don't have a lot of room. (I'll be showing you how we do it soon!) When you have some wilty lettuce or limp carrots that aren't appetizing anymore, you can at least reclaim the nutrients from them by composting them.

Taking these steps has helped us reduce our grocery budget, and it really does feel good to not be chucking food into the trash constantly.

What do you do to reduce food waste in your house?

Monday, May 20, 2013

make it yourself: a simple bundt cake

It's not all food politics and railing against big agriculture at the Next Gen House. We spend a lot of our time cooking and baking (at the moment we have cookies cooling in the dining room, venison stew on the stove and refried beans in the crock pot). My family celebrated my sister and dad's birthdays this weekend, and I made an often requested family favorite - lemon bundt cake with cream cheese glaze. 

I find baking to be very calming and actually quite beautiful. How you can take some simple ingredients and with a little measurement and effort make a dessert that makes people roll their eyes back in their head with joy? Magic.

I am a huge fan of Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen for recipes that stand the test of time. The bundt cake I made was from the ATK family baking cookbook. 

I love that cakes in particular have a very specific order of operations. Dry ingredients mixed up first.

Wet ingredients separately, in this case buttermilk, lemon juice and vanilla.

Creamed butter and sugar.

Four eggs given from the ladies in the backyard, stolen from under the rump of a broody hen.

Zest of lemons for a citrus flavor.

ATK recommends brushing a flour and butter mixture into your bundt pan to get it to release properly. It worked really well!

 Beautiful, thick cake batter with a buttermilk and lemon scent.

 An hour later, perfection.

Whip up a glaze with cream cheese, confectioners sugar, vanilla and milk. Drizzle liberally. Just glop it.

Take gratuitous shots of the cake and glaze. That way you can remember what it looked like before hungry people devoured it.

The next time you reach for a box of cake mix with a list of chemical ingredients a mile long, think about making your own cake. There's a great joy to be found in making delicious foods for your family - birthday cakes included!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Real Life CSA: why a CSA anyway?

For almost three years now, Next Gen House has been committed to community supported agriculture (CSA) by purchasing a CSA produce share from a local, organic farm. We live in an urban area and couldn't possibly grow enough produce for ourselves for the entire year, having neither the time nor the space to do so. 

We feel very strongly that CSAs are important contributors to the growth and vitality of our community. As CSAs help farmers to sustain their livelihood through lean times, for instance when crops fail or weather decimates a harvest (which happens frequently in a climate like ours), by participating in a produce CSA, you are making a statement that a farmer's work and livelihood is important.

You are also making a statement of support for the type of agriculture practiced by that farm - GMO-free, organic, etc. When you do some exploring, you will often find that local farms are willing to share their agricultural methods with you, to let you know how your food was grown. Sometimes farms use organic methodology but can't afford the cost of the regulatory requirements to call their crops certified organic. CSAs encourage you to get to know your farmers and your farm and your food on a different level than you could ever achieve at a grocery store. 

This year we are also subscribers to a local meat CSA. This is a new step for Next Gen House and we're pretty excited to support another local farm group. We will continue with our produce share and also the sourcing we do through another local farm on a week-to-week basis. Throughout the summer and fall, I'll be sharing with you what we receive from our produce share and what we do with those items in a series called Real Life CSA. 

To start off, here are what I see as the benefits and draw backs of being a CSA subscriber. 


Fresh, high-quality produce
You will never find picked-that-morning produce in your grocery store, but when it shows up in your share box, you can bet it was freshly harvested. That means you don't lose any days of peak flavor and nutrients to the goods riding in a truck across the country. Items are given in the share at their peak - no waiting around for fruit to get ripe or for veggies to reach a desirable size. Everything comes to you ready to go. 

Delivered (almost) to your door
Both our produce and meat CSAs have plenty of pick-up locations throughout the city (and some all up and down the western portion of the state!), which means you don't have to go more than a few miles to pick up your share. We also serve as a pick-up location for a farm, which means we don't pay a delivery fee when we order, and our items literally land on our front porch. 

Exposure to new foods and ways of preparation
There is more to produce than just apples, carrots and tomatoes. CSAs expose you to many new foods and also give you great resources to learn how to prepare them. We get recipes each week with our produce share, giving us ideas on how to use what was provided that week. When we signed up for our share, we could also tell them which foods we definitely did not want. (BEETS. I will eat any vegetable on this earth but beets.) This way, you aren't getting foods you won't be able to use and it reduces waste.

This education also extends to understanding the growing season in your area. You aren't getting strawberries in your October share in Pennsylvania, and you also won't get a good tomato until July or August, but you will know it when you do. Anticipating the first tomato of the season has become a big deal for me, since I don't eat tomatoes out of season. (Why not? Read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook)

Community support - both ways
Many CSAs offer the opportunity to donate your share to a local food bank when you are unable to pick it up that week due to vacations, etc. At least one CSA in our area that I know of offers what they call ASC (agriculture supported community) where they will pack shares for low-income families in need of fresh produce who pay a reduced fee or nothing at all, depending on circumstances. Our farmers don't let food rot on the vine that could benefit local families. 

Access to special deals
Think that it's wonderful when you find fat, tasteless California strawberries in a Pennsylvania grocery store for $1.99 a pint in the summer? When you sign up for a CSA, you know when the berry boom happens and can get access to bulk deals and extra special add-ons. We've purchased extra produce for preserving - flats of PA strawberries (California's got nothing on us for berries in June), bushels of tomatoes and peppers for salsa and sauce and whole canning, etc. 

Many CSAs offer access to other locally produced foods, like grains, cheese, mushrooms, breads, etc. through partnerships. 

Saves you money
While CSAs are an up-front expenditure, if you are committed to cooking and eating what you get in your share each week, you will save money compared to buying that same produce at the grocery store. Especially when you consider the quality and longevity of the produce that you receive. Ever buy some produce at the store and then within two days it's moldy or liquified in your vegetable crisper? That doesn't happen with a CSA.


Keeping up
It can sometimes be overwhelming, knowing that you are getting a new share box the next day and haven't finished what's in your house from last week. This drawback can be overcome by learning how to preserve foods - we freeze small quantities and can large quantities of items if we think we won't be able to eat them. If they get to a place where they are past being really edible, we compost. That way at least the future plants of our own garden will get to benefit from the nutrients!

What do I do with this?
It can be frustrating to see some weird looking vegetable in your share and have absolutely no idea what to do with it. Use the wealth of information the Internet has to offer to research what you can do with different vegetables. Also, ask your farmer. Chances are, if they are raising it, they know what to do with it!

So how do I find one?
In general, do some Internet research. Use sites like Local Harvest to find providers in your area. Check our your area's Edible publication too.

In the Pittsburgh metro area, use Edible Allegheny's CSA Guide

Our produce CSA is Kretschmann's Family Organic Farm

Our new meat CSA is Clarion River Organics. (My parents subscribed to their produce share last year and it was amazing too. They also have stands at farmers' markets all through western Pennsylvania. Follow them on Twitter at @ClarRvrOrganics.)

We also use Green Circle Farms each week, for chicken feed and all sorts of other goodies. Their eggs are amazing and we bought them faithfully until we started raising our own.

Our shares start around Memorial Day, so look for more Real Life CSA in the coming weeks!



Thursday, May 16, 2013

reading this week

Best PR that Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups (Center for Food Safety)
A new report from Michele Simon, JD, MPH exposing front groups that appear to be acting in the public interest but are funded by the food industry to advance its agenda. The author is a great person to follow on Twitter as well (@MicheleRSimon).

7 Dodgy Food Practices Banned in Europe But Fine Here (Mother Jones)
From Tom Philpott, another food journalist to follow, comes a list of substances or practices banned in Europe for public health and safety reasons that are legal in the U.S., like arsenic in animal feed and endocrine disruptors sprayed on corn. This is a bad thing. 

Replanting the Rust Belt (NY Times)
Great feature article on the food movement in the Rust Belt, including Pittsburgh and Cleveland

Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics Less Likely to Carry Superbugs (Civil Eats)
The headline elicits a resounding "DUH" from me, but it's worth reading, especially for anyone who has doubts about eating antibiotic-free meat.

Top Tips for Safer Products (Environmental Working Group)
Skin Deep, which I wrote about this week, has compiled a quick guide to making better choices about products to use in your home. Wrote this down to keep in my purse so I always have it to reference when shopping.

Some of My Best Friends are Germs (NY Times)
Michael Pollan's Sunday Magazine article on microbes. I'm a big fan of raw and live foods, so I'm happy to see bacteria discussed in this way.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

endocrine disruptors in your bathroom cabinet

I am not the type of woman you'd classify as a girly-girl. I don't wear makeup more than a few times a year, and I don't wear it to my every day office job. I only recently had my first manicure at age 30, and I'm not one to preen in front of the mirror for hours a day. In addition to a general personal hygiene regimen, I also have unruly, thick hair, which I try to tame down on a regular basis so as not to wander the earth looking like Mufasa from the Lion King.

That being said, you're probably wondering why on a blog about food and sustainable living I'm talking about my grooming habits. The Environmental Working Group is a watch-dog organization dedicated to environmental health and research. They compile straight facts using a lot of publicly available data about many areas that impact the environment, including water, food and chemicals. They also have a database called Skin Deep which creates safety profiles for personal care and beauty products using data from nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases. As they say on their website, they "fill in where industry and government leave off." 

One of the things that first started me to research clean foods was my diagnosis of a thyroid disease. I had read that exposure to chemicals in food over time and other chemicals in food containers (like BPA) could have a cumulative effect on my endocrine system. My diagnosis only made me more committed to removing toxic chemicals and hormones from my diet. So why wouldn't I think of the chemicals that surround me in my house, from hand soap to toilet bowl cleaner and laundry detergent?

The simple answer is, I like my shampoo and my perfume. I am brand loyal when it comes to personal care products - once I find something that works, I stick with it. I saw "natural" personal care products as a marketing gimic designed to get someone who cared about clean eating to also buy $8 hippie deodorant. I was afraid that natural personal care products would make me smell terrible after a work out or leave my hair a frizzy nightmare. So I chose to block out what I was hearing about chemicals in those products and just plug my ears and shake my head.

Well, I'm ready. I took the leap and decided to get educated. I looked up my primary personal care products in the Skin Deep database, and I was not pleased with what I found. Carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, allergens, organ system toxins, nervous system toxins and more. Here's a sample of just two of my most frequently used products: shampoo and deodorant.

Dove Damage Therapy Intense Repair Shampoo

Ingredients: Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocomidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Chloride, Fragrance, Glycol Distearate, Dimethiconol, Glycerin, Carbomer, Gluconolactone, PPG-9, Guar Hydroxy-propltrimonium Chloride, Citric Acid, TEA-Dodecyl-benzenesulfonate, Adipic Acid, Sodium Sulfate, Trehalose, Tetrasodium EDTA, TEA-sulfate, DMDM Hydantoin, PEG-45M, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5, Red 33 

Listed concerns: allergies, skin damage, cancer, nervous system toxicity

That's a cocktail of chemicals to do a simple thing like wash my hair. Nervous system toxicity, cancer risk and allergies? From shampoo? My deodorant - the deodorant I have used for more than 10 years - was even worse.

Secret Invisible Solid Shower Fresh

Ingredients: Aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex, Cyclopentasiloxane, Stearyl Alcohol, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, PPG-14 Butyl Ether, Hydrogenated castor oil, Petrolatum, Phenyl Trimethicone, Talc, Cyclodextrin, Fragrance, Mineral Oil, Behenyl Alcohol 

Listed concerns: organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, cancer, allergies, nervous system toxicity, neurotoxicity

For me, the item of the largest concern is endocrine disruption. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.   

The other products I checked, which I use on a regular basis, were not much better and some were worse.

I think it's time I acknowledge that exposure to these chemicals on a daily basis is not a good idea, long-term. While science may not yet know everything there is to know about chemical exposure and the body, my common sense tells me that we are exposed to too many chemicals, as the changing disease profile of this country indicates. 

Phasing these products out will be a long process of trial and error, but I'm ready to commit. I'm going to start with hand soaps in my home, as well as shampoo and deodorant for me, when my current products run out. 

Check out Skin Deep and see how your products stack up. You can also take advantage of a feature that lets you create your own report from lists of ingredients. If you have experience with using more natural personal care products, I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

this race brought to you by sugary chemical water?

Since taking up running in early 2012, I've participated in my share of races and adventure/obstacle races. Every race I've done, from the small community 5Ks to large races that draw thousands of participants, has had some sort of electrolyte-enhanced sports drink available post-race. I've never been tempted by sports drinks because of the taste. My mind associates them with sickness, since I would drink them during bouts of stomach flu when I was a child.

This weekend, Mark and I participated in Mud on the Mountain, a 7.7 mile, 26 obstacle race at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in the Laurel Highlands.  Gatorade was one of the sponsors, with its logo on the start and finish line banners. 

These photos aren't the greatest quality. It was foggy, raining, and I was about to run up a mountain.

But who owns Gatorade? Pepsi.

What's a race without giant bottles of soda? Should have made one of the obstacles carrying these up the mountain.

Along the course there were hydration stations with Gatorade (in Gatorade cups) as well as water. The Gatorade logo was everywhere. 

I also participated in the Pittsburgh Marathon the previous week, running on a relay team. Gatorade was also a sponsor of that race, and the hydration stations gave a choice of lemon-lime Gatorade or water. 

So what's in Gatorade? The first thing I notice when I look at the nutrition label is that the traditional bottle is actually 2.5 servings. Most people drink the 20 ounces in the bottle, as opposed to pouring 8 ounce servings. For the lemon-lime flavor, which was the flavor available at the marathon as well as Mud on the Mountain, if you drink a serving, you get 14 grams of sugar. If you drink a bottle, you get 34 grams of sugar. 

Turns out you also get a lot more. Here is the list of ingredients, according to the company website: WATER, SUCROSE, DEXTROSE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL FLAVOR, SALT, SODIUM CITRATE, MONOPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, GUM ARABIC, GLYCEROL ESTER OF ROSIN, YELLOW 5.

Water, that's good. Sucrose and dextrose are sugars. Sucrose is table sugar. Dextrose is similar to sucrose, but has a higher glycemic load, which means it can give you a boost of energy, but the crash afterwards is higher, so it is usually tempered with sucrose. Citric acid is a preservative and also gives some flavor (along with the listed unknown "natural" flavors). Salt provides flavor and also sodium (an electrolyte). Sodium citrate is a salt of citric acid and provides some flavoring. Monopotassium Phosphate provides another electrolyte (potassium) and also acts as an emulsifier and pH buffer. Gum arabic is a stabilizer, an additive that has replaced brominated vegetable oil in drinks recently, since Gatorade changed its formula in response to a petition. And finally, Yellow #5 (tartrazine) which is a synthetic food dye derived from petroleum. Yes, petroleum. Tartrazine/yellow #5 is required to be listed on labels even when used in small amounts due to health concerns about allergies or intolerance. 

And that's what's in lemon-lime Gatorade. I don't know about you, but I'm not super interested in a petro-chemical, synthetic sugar water in the name of health and fitness. It's basically glorified soda. 

But what about athletes? Don't we need electrolytes? Electrolytes are minerals (like calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium), and they affect the amount of water in your body, your muscle function, and other important processes. You lose electrolytes when you sweat. You must replace them by drinking fluids. 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends sports drinks to replenish these electrolytes. That's no big surprise, considering they have financial ties to Gatorade (British Journal of Sports Medicine). We've recently seen a lot of hoopla about nutritionists and health professionals teaming up with and having their meetings sponsored by large food companies, and the sports drink industry is no exception.

The fact remains that for most people, water is all you need to stay hydrated and balanced because you need to work out for 3 hours or so before you need to replenish electrolytes. Research is sketchy that sports drinks improve performance and much of what exists is industry-funded. People were running marathons and excelling in athletic competitions long before Gatorade existed. 

If you are doing high-intensity exercise and you really sweat or feel like you need to replenish, go for electrolyte-enhanced water. It's water with the appropriate minerals added back in after distillation, but none of the other garbage. I drink this type of water sometimes during intense workouts and seem to feel less light-headed afterwards, though I acknowledge that it could be the placebo effect. (I don't like the taste of our tap water, which usually has a small amount of electrolytes naturally.) Get your carbs from a healthy diet and you won't need the sugar water boost of Gatorade.

I am appreciative that races and events like this encourage people to be fit and active. I love participating in them and love the motivation they give me to keep at my fitness goals. And I do understand the need for these events to have sponsors, since they cannot generate enough revenue to produce them on registration fees alone. But in a dream world, the events wouldn't have to promote sugary, chemical-laden junk, either. 

On Saturday, I ran (okay, hiked) up this mountain:

And three hours later slid down this (yes, that is snow and ice in May):

And crossed the finish line without being dehydrated. Muddy, wet and disgusting with my bib number hanging on by a thread? Yes. But I was Gatorade free and pretty proud of it, too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

why you need to watch "A Place at the Table"

I actually saw A Place at the Table about a month ago, thanks to Amazon Prime allowing me to rent it while it was in theaters. I've been stewing on it since, wondering whether or not to write about the issue of hunger. After all, I live in a two-income household where we are most decidedly NOT food insecure, and I also grew up in a family where I never went one day hungry. I've always been grateful for that, at least on a surface level. But I've never felt that gratitude so profoundly as I did when I saw this film.

Here's the synopsis, from the film's website:

Fifty million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

You read that correctly. 25% of American children are food insecure, meaning that they don't know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 6 Americans don't have enough to eat. Among countries with advanced economies, America ranks worst for food insecurity among its citizens. 1 in 2 American children will receive supplemental food assistance during their lifetimes. Half. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, where the availability of fresh, healthy food is severely limited if it exists at all and a grocery store with the amenities most of us take for granted is a car ride away.

This documentary was powerful, not just because of the facts and statistics it presented about how bad the problem actually is, but because it made you look into the faces of hungry people. It forced you to confront the grim realities that families across America confront every day - how do you put your son to bed at night when he asks for more food and you have no money and nothing in your cupboards and you've already exhausted your allotted food pantry distribution? What do you do when you know your daughter isn't doing well in school because she's so hungry she can't concentrate? How do you get a nation of simultaneously obese and hungry people? How is this happening in America, of all places?

For the first time in history, we have a hunger problem in our country that is not due to a shortage of food. America produces more food than we could ever possibly consume, and as we know, much of it is wasted. But we have spent trillions of dollars on food subsidies for corporations and not individuals; we spend more money bailing out banks than we do our own working poor. We give government subsidies for unhealthy calories - as the price of fresh, healthy food rises, the cost of packaged, corn based junk goes lower and lower. If you need calories to survive, you can get the most caloric bang for your buck on the fast food dollar menu. Why are we surprised when this type of diet takes its toll?

This film highlights some great work food banks are doing. In my area, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank does amazing work. Mark and I are even planning on growing an extra raised bed of food this summer for its produce donations. But food banks can't provide for every need, and they have to function with what they are given. Donations that come from grocery stores are often processed, shelf-stable foods. We can't feed America on charity alone. We need real, bipartisan legislative protections for food assistance and school lunches. Hunger doesn't have any regard for party politics and it doesn't discriminate. Many of us who are food secure now could just as easily not be, given the right combination of circumstances.

Which brings me to the biggest lesson I learned from this film. A reminder, more than a lesson. I think that one of the legacies American society inherited from its forefathers was the attitude that if you just work hard enough, you'll be fine. Self-sufficiency has been our motto for centuries, to the point where people hear the words welfare and food stamps and equate that with laziness and fraud. Any system that we try to run as humans will have its share of fraud and people that manage to take advantage of the system. But there are people who work more hours a week than I do, in harder circumstances, that still need welfare to feed their kids. And they aren't sitting at home watching cable drinking booze and collecting the government's money. I worked at a grocery store in graduate school, and the people that came through with EBT cards weren't flaunting their good fortune for everyone to see, that's for damn sure.

This film reminds you that people just like you are going to go to bed tonight with an ache in their stomachs because they didn't eat today so their kids could. Or they ate today, but have no idea whether they will tomorrow. If it was your child asking you for food because he was so hungry he couldn't sleep, wouldn't you hope that someone had stood up for you in the halls of Congress and in the White House to give you a stronger safety net? Food is fundamental and we need to treat it as such. 

We cannot hope as a country to accomplish real social change until we feed our people. Food and water and shelter are among the most basic of needs, and in a country with overflowing wealth, it's a travesty that we allow the basic needs of our citizens to go unanswered. How can we expect to develop the leaders of tomorrow when malnutrition stunts children's ability to learn and grow? Which future scientist or world leader is going to bed without a full belly tonight?

Challenge yourself and watch A Place at the Table. Find out what you can do to take a stand against hunger here. Consider also donating to your local food bank to help meet immediate needs, especially if that food bank takes fresh food donations. When you are drowning in zucchini and tomatoes in a few months, stop and be grateful for the bounty with which you are blessed and share. 

Starting with a food bank garden bed and letters to my legislators, I'm making a commitment to myself to revisit this issue again until I'm satisfied that I'm doing my part to give everyone a place at the table. Will you?