A balanced and easy approach to healthy living.

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Waste Not, Want Not

A year ago, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported that as a nation, we waste  40% of our food. The average family plays a role in this. Often, we over-buy food or forgot what we have in the fridge and it goes bad.

But, we also willingly discard perfectly edible food, and we do it all the time! Think about the last time you made broccoli or cauliflower: chances are, you used the florets, but threw out the stems. Or the last time your family didn’t get around to finishing the salad greens you bought before they started to wilt. Perhaps you got rid of those, too? Do you ever throw out fruits, like apples or bananas, that get soft and brown after a while?

When you do this, you’re throwing away nutrition and money (hey, you paid for that broccoli stem!). The goods new is: there are lots of ways that you can actually use veggie stems, wilted greens, over-ripe fruit, and other produce you are used to throwing away.

Read on for a variety of ideas to save food and save money:

  • Stir-fry or steam veggie stems: Instead of discarding stems, slice them and include them in a stir-fry, either alone or with other veggies you enjoy. If, for example, you’re using broccoli, then why not use both the stems and the florets?  Along with those from cruciferous veggies, stems from leafy greens, like kale, collards, and spinach, are great in stir-fries, too! You can also steam stems like you would other parts of the vegetable. TIP: add stems to stir-fries first; once tender, add in your other vegetables. Also: for thicker stems, like broccoli or cauliflower, make sure to cut the stems into thin pieces, so that they cook quicker.

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    Sauteed kale stems. I added these to quinoa for a yummy meal.

  • Make veggie broth: Keep a Ziploc bag in your fridge or freezer and use it to store parts of vegetables you usually discard: onion ends, carrot tips, herb stems, mushroom stems, parts of any root vegetable, etc. After you’ve collected a bit, use the veggie cuttings to make a tasty broth for your favorite soup! Just throw veggie cuttings into a pot, bring to a boil, and then simmer for an hour or more.
  • Sauté wilted greens: Bought too many salad greens  that are starting to wilt? No problem, put them in a pan with some olive oil, add seasoning of your choice (even just salt and pepper is great), sauté for a few minutes, drizzle with lemon juice (optional) and your going-bad-greens are now a tasty wilted-greens side dish! This works with any leafy green: romaine, arugula, spinach, kale, you name it.
  • Make chips: Another tasty treat you can make with your wilted greens is to drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle seasoning and bake…voila, the healthiest chips you can make! Kale, spinach, swiss chard—any green can be baked into a chip and eaten as a snack, pizza topping, burrito filling, or added into a salad!
  • Freeze for smoothies: If you have fruit that’s getting a little too ripe or soft for your taste (bananas, berries, plums, peaches, nectarines, mangos, etc.), store them in a closed Ziploc or other container in the freezer and use them to make smoothies.
  • Flavor water or seltzer: Something else to do with fruit that’s getting old and going soft, is to chop it into pieces, add to a pitcher of water or seltzer, and then put in the fridge. After a day or so, you’ll have fruit-flavored water (and by drinking the make-at-home kind, you save yourself about $2 for every 16oz, which is approximately how much Hint and other such fruit-flavored water drinks cost).

With these tips you will save money, and enjoy the satisfaction of using what you already have, rather than throwing it away.

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Coconut Oil: The Best All-Purpose Skin Care Product

First, I want to plug the home.health.love Facebook page. If you find this blog useful, then others you know may enjoy it, too. Please help spread the word by clicking on the Facebook “Like” button on the right-hand side of this page. Thank you!

Now onto coconut oil…

People love to cook with coconut oil. Experts say it’s the healthiest of all oils: it’s good for your heart, thyroid, immune system, and can actually support weight loss. It’s also great for cooking and baking because it can withstand high heat and doesn’t break down into potentially toxic components when cooked.  For a good discussion of all of these health benefits, check out Dr. Mercola’s article.

But it’s also a GREAT all-natural skin care product. You’ll love it! Here’s why:

Coconut oil is a great all-purpose skin AND hair moisturizer! It doesn’t clog your pores, or leave your skin feeling dry, as do some products containing water or alcohol. You can use it on your face, body, hands, and even instead of lip balm. You can also use it to deep condition your hair and tame frizz. And, it’s great for moisturizing soft baby skin!

It comes highly recommended as an all-natural personal lubricant (though not for use with latex).

It’s a great alternative to Vaseline for lubricating a thermometer when taking a baby’s rectal temperature. Vaseline is made from mineral oils, which are possibly carcinogenic.

Finally, it’s also a great healer. When I have a rash, skin irritation, itchiness, or burn (from sun, or from a skin product that’s a bit too harsh for my skin) anywhere on my body, I use coconut oil. It cures my skin ailments, and does it quickly. Try it and see if it works for you. At the very least, it should provide soothing comfort.

Coconut oil is a solid at room temperature (up to 76 degrees F.). I keep a little plastic spoon or knife right in the jar to help me scoop some out when I  need it. Once it touches your skin, it melts into a liquid and is easily spreadable. It’s a little greasy, but does absorb quickly. Give it some time to soak into your skin before putting on any fancy clothing (yes, I did that once, necessitating a last-minute wardrobe change, and I was very late to a fancy event!)

Other benefits:

  1. Only ONE ingredient: never worry about what artificial substances have been added. It’s like a breath of fresh air. I hate worrying about unknown substances in my skin-care and make-up regimen. Coconut oil is worry-free.
  2. Same product for the whole family: I keep a jar in my bathroom and by my daughter’s changing table. Sometimes I scoop out some of the coconut oil and put it in mini containers that I can keep in my bag, in my nightstand, or anywhere else I might use it.
  3. Has a barely-noticeable, but pleasant scent, which is good for those of us, like me, with sensitive noses.
  4. Easy to find: you can buy it at health food stores, online and supermarkets.
  5. Affordable: one jar goes a long way. You only need to use a little bit at a time. It lasts me months!

I buy the extra virgin, unrefined, organic kind, so I know it’s not made with GMO and is in its purest form. I’ve used Barlean’s and Spectrum Organics. I don’t have a particular brand preference, but I do like the fact that Spectrum comes in a glass jar. I’m always skeptical of plastic containers, so if I can easily avoid them, I do.

Please share your coconut success stories in the comments section!

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The Scoop on Arsenic in Rice

Though I’ve heard and read a bit about the discovery of worryingly high levels of  arsenic in rice, I’ve realized that many people are not aware of this news. So, let’s talk…I’ll discuss the health issues involved and make suggestions of what to do about them.

Let’s start with the background:

In 2012, the FDA and Consumer Reports conducted independent studies on rice and rice products sold in the U.S. and found that the levels of inorganic arsenic contained therein are quite high.

The concern about inorganic arsenic is that “long-term exposure can lead to the development of different types of cancer as well as serious cardiovascular, neurological, and other health problems.” (source, Science Daily). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified arsenic as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. “It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.”  (source, Consumer Reports)

A while back, the EPA  set the arsenic standard for drinking water at 10 parts per billion; there is no such limit yet for food and drinks. According to Consumer Reports, the EPA had initially recommended half that amount, of 5 parts per billion, which is the standard enacted in NJ.

So using the 5ppb benchmark, Consumer Reports, testing samples from over 200 types of rice and rice products found that “a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.” (source, Consumer Reports)

And, why rice of all things? Because it absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants, and most of the rice grown in the US is from the south-central region, which has a long history of producing cotton, a crop heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades. Arsenic also remains in animal feed, so there is danger of cross contamination.

The FDA is refusing to issue any warnings at this time. Here is a statement issued by a FDA Commissioner on the topic: “The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know. Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.” (source, FDA)

As usual, the FDA is slow to act on potential health hazards in our food. Unless there’s a clear bacterial outbreak caused by a food source, they typically drag their feet. For instance, when the National Resources Defense Council asked the FDA to issue a ban on BPA in products, it took the agency almost 4 years to respond (with a “no”). The point is that the fact that the FDA, despite its highly conservative nature, is even investigating the arsenic issue and continues to make it a “priority” to do so, says a lot already. Thus far, the FDA has tested over 200 samples, and claims to be testing 1,000 more.

You can see the results, in table format, of the Consumer Reports investigation (here) and the ongoing FDA investigation (here). If the number in the last column of either graph is above 5, then a single serving exceeds the New Jersey limit mentioned above.

What to do?

If you’re eating only a few servings of rice products a week, then you’re within the standard range for safe drinking water. You’re probably ok, though you should be aware that many food products may contain some rice in them.

But, three populations in particular, should be taking heed: pregnant women, moms of small children, and those eating a gluten-free diet. These individuals, myself including, may be ingesting several servings (or more) of rice per day, putting us way above the safe drinking limit concerning arsenic.

Here are practical steps to take, based on the research, my explorations, and recommendations by the food safety director at the Center For Science In the Public Interest (which I found in this helpful article):

  • Avoid baby rice cereals or limit to one serving per day, which is what Consumer Reports recommends. Consider another type of cereal. Better yet, why make cereal a base for your babies diet to begin with? Other easy-to-eat first foods are far more nutritious and are no highly processed: avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, squash, etc. Even Dr. Sears recommends avocados as the ideal 1st food. My daughter is doing fine without every having eaten cereal, and last we checked, her iron levels were normal, too. Also, be wary of cereals that use rice syrup, since that has arsenic, too. Nature’s One, maker of organic baby cereals, has recently re-worked their organic dairy-based formula to exclude brown rice syrup and they’re doing the same with the soy version (source, scroll down to bottom)
  • Though brown rice is healthier, be aware that white rice tends to have less arsenic than brown or wild (which makes sense, because white rice has the outer layers removed). I’m not quite advocating switching over to white, though…
  • Wash and cook rice in lots of water! Wash rice in water, pre-soak it in water, use extra water when cooking (Consumer Reports recommends 6 cups water per one cup rice), and spill water out at the end. Unfortunately, this process also washes out some of the nutrients from the rice. Apparently this reduces about 30% of the arsenic.
  • Origin matters; Organic does not. Rice grown in CA has less arsenic. Even better, buy imported jasmine and basmati rice as these tend to have the lowest levels. Consumer reports lists the origins of the rice samples it tested, you can use this as a guide when purchasing rice. Otherwise, read labels carefully.
  • Eat less rice and rice products. Check out this nifty table from Consumer Reports which gives you recommendations of how many servings of rice products it’s ok to eat in one week  (based on the 5ppb limit). If you want to use the FDA’s 10ppb limit, then simply double the recommended number of servings. I easily exceed the weekly limits suggested here in a single day! Read the fine print above, as the table assumes you are only eating one of the products for an entire week, which is highly unlikely. (source)
  • If you’re gluten-free: think outside the box! If, like me, you enjoy and rely on rice-baked products to round out your diet, then eating less rice will be quite a challenge. It is for me. I enjoy pasta, waffles, wraps, breads, cereals, cookies, crackers, rice cakes…all made from rice. I use rice vinegar when I cook and make salad dressing. If I bake, my go-to flour mix includes rice flour. It’s hard to find gluten-free products such as these not made out of rice. Products that use buckwheat, quinoa or corn, say, in pasta, waffles and bread, often contain rice flour as one of the main ingredients.

Here are some non-rice GF alternatives I’ve discovered (all are certified kosher):

  1. Breakfast: For cold cereal, there are many none-rice alternatives, including corn flakes and other corn-based cereals. I love Udi’s Gluten-free GranolaHot cereal: Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Steal Cut Oats. You can also use corn grits (polenta) to make a hot cereal, or cut them into squares and serve with butter and honey, yum. I haven’t found any GF waffles without rice. But, you can make your own waffles and pancakes using buckwheat flour, found in most healthfood stores.
  2. Lunch: I have yet to find a packaged GF bread that doesn’t contain rice, but you can make your own, there are lot’s of recipes out there like this one or this one. If you’re into wraps, La Tortilla Factory’s GF wraps are teff-and millet-based. I order them from Fresh direct.
  3. Dinner: Quinoa is an obvious choice, and switch up the colors–white, red, black–to get a variety of flavors. Polenta, which you can buy ready-made in supermarkets or in corn-grit form, is another alternative. You can dress it up with all sorts of flavors and I like to make polenta pizzas as a treat. And don’t forget, you can make buckwheat. In terms of pasta, very few GF varieties have no rice (even when they say they’re made with corn, buckwheat or quinoa), but Eden Organics has a 100% buckwheat soba noodle.

These are just a few suggestions of how to alter your diet to ingest less arsenic. I’d love to hear your ideas about how to minimize rice intake and any non-rice GF products that you enjoy!

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The Dish on Decaf

Because I spend a lot of time in coffee shops working on my dissertation, I get to watch a lot of moms and soon-to-be-moms drop in for their morning dose of Joe, sometimes with kids in toe. I notice that many of them tend to order decaf, and for good reason: caffeine has a questionable impact on fetal health, and caffeine in breast milk can make for an irritable baby. (UPDATE: I received my PhD in May 2014!)

But there is one thing to keep in mind when choosing where you buy your decaf coffee: the caffeine extraction method used.

There are several methods of caffeine extraction. Some use chemicals known as decaffeination solvents, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. Methylene chloride used to be found in hairsprays and cosmetics until it was was banned by the FDA after it was found to be carcinogenic, but it’s still used to make decaf coffee. Ethyl acetate is another carcinogenic substance, used in nail polish remover and to kill insects. Because it’s found in small amounts in fruit, some coffee companies using ethyl acetate claim that they are using a “natural” extraction method, however it is far from that. (More scientific analysis on the possible health effects of exposure to MC can be found here and here; on EA, look here and here).

Safer methods of extraction include one that is completely water-based (sometimes called the “Swiss water method”), another that uses water along with a carbon filter, and one that uses water along with carbon dioxide. More info on all of these methods can be found here.

Naturally, it’s probably best to avoid decaf coffees that have been processed with chemical solvents and to opt for coffee using the Swiss water (preferable), carbon filtration or carbon-dioxide methods. But, you may have to do your research to find out which extraction method is used to make your favorite coffee.

If you like to buy already-brewed coffee from a shop or stand, ask a barista how the caffeine was removed. Chances are, they won’t know and you’ll have to ask to speak to a supervisor, who may or may not be equally unhelpful. If you like to get your coffee at one of the big chain coffee shops, then it’s best to call their customer service number and ask. Here’s the result of the research I’ve done on some of the national brands. (NOTE: THE INFO BELOW IS CURRENT AS OF MARCH, 2015):

SAFE BREWED COFFEE: Starbucks uses the carbon dioxide extraction method (source: web site). Wholefoods’ Allegro brand coffee uses the carbon filter method (source: web site).

BRANDS TO AVOID: Dunkin’ Donuts and Coffee Bean use methylene chloride (source: DD customer service line; CB web site, here).

If you like to brew your coffee at home, then you will have to dig around to learn how the caffeine was extracted from the coffee beans. Most manufacturers will not advertise the extraction method on the package–of course, this probably means that they use chemical solvents. You will have to call their customer service line to find out for sure. A good rule of thumb for packaged decaf coffee is this: the brands that use one of the safer methods are usually organic and often advertise their extraction method right on the package. Examples of such brands, for whole beans, include Allegro (found at Wholefoods), Jeremiah’s Pick and Seattle’s Best Organic (both use the water-based method). The only organic brand of instant cofee on the market, Mount Hagen, also uses the carbon dioxide process.

So, to sum up: if you are pregnant, nursing, or otherwise concerned with ingesting potentially harmful chemicals along with your decaf coffee, do your research to find out how the caffeine was extracted. You should assume that potentially-toxic chemical solvents were used, unless proven otherwise. Starbucks and organic decaf coffees are typically safe options.