A balanced and easy approach to healthy living.

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Cancer-Causing Nitrates in Smoked Salmon?!

Culinary bagel eating.

As you’ve probably heard, the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” back in October. The agency found that eating 50 grams of processed meat–i.e salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or otherwise processed–each day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The theory behind this finding has to do with the nitrates/nitrites found in processed meats. One proposed mechanism is that the iron in meat works as a catalyst to turn nitrates/nitrites added as preservatives into a carcinogen. (You can read about a study examining this process here).

But, here’s something you should also know: Processed meats–like bacon, ham, sausages and hot dogs–are not the only animal products containing nitrates. Some brands of smoked salmon are also made with them. To be clear, the WHO only tested the health impact of nitrates/nitrites in processed meat, not in fish. But, given the strong evidence linking nitrates in processed meat to cancer, I’d prefer to avoid the additive altogether.

Just look at the ingredients of your favorite brand of smoked salmon or lox and you may see an item such as “sodium nitrite” on the list. For example, I’ve checked some packages of Acme smoked Nova salmon and found them to contain sodium nitrites. (You can read the ingredients of Acme smoked salmon products here). Vita brand salmon also contains nitrites; sodium nitrite is the 3rd ingredient on the list (see photos below), in addition to food coloring, by the way. I’ve also seen nitrites in some store brands of smoked salmon.

The good news is that many brands have stopped using them, so there are a lot of good options to choose from. From my own research, brands that do not use nitrates/nitrites in their smoked salmon include Kirkland (Costco), Wellsley Farms (BJ’s), Trader Joe’s, and Echo Falls. Some varieties of Acme smoked salmon also do not have nitrites. However, whichever brand you buy, be sure to  check the ingredients list as I did not look at every variety offered by these companies.

Happy and healthy fishing!


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The Healthy Oil You Should Be Using

Coconut oil is all the rage, and rightly so–it contains healthy fats and has multiple uses, thanks to its antibacterial and nurturing properties. But it has a distinct, sweet flavor, which I don’t enjoy in savory dishes, and its smoke point of 360o is not high enough for all of my cooking and baking needs. (The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil breaks down and its components become rancid, producing free radicals. It’s when you start seeing the oil smoke–and it’s bad for you.) I usually reserve coconut oil for baking desserts and sweeter foods–like butternut squash and sweet potatoes, where the flavor works well with the dish–and for medium-temperature cooking.

So, for most of my cooking and baking, I use….avocado oil!

Here’s why:

  • Neutral Flavor: You really can’t taste it.
  • High Smoke Point: Avocado oil has a smoke point of 500o. It says it right on the label of the bottle I have at home. From what I have read, it’s the oil with the highest or one of the highest smoke points. By comparison, canola oil’s smoke point is 400o. (You can read about smoke points of other oils here…scroll down for the chart).
  • Health Benefits: Avocados contain healthy monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid, which is anti-inflammatory, anti-cancerous, and heart-healthy. (Oleic acid is also found in olive oil, which is why so many experts tout its health benefits). Avocado oil is also a good source of Vitamin E, enzymes, other anti-oxidants, and minerals, like potassium.

Bottom line: Avocado oil is good for you the same way that coconut oil and olive oil are (healthy fats, anti-oxidants, and other goodies)…but it’s far more versatile due to it’s neutral taste and high smoke point. If you’re cooking and baking at high heats, switching to avocado oil is a good idea. Be sure to buy it cold pressed, as this extraction method retains the most health benefits. And, you can always use it raw in salads and dressings.

Where to buy: Avocado oil can be more expensive than olive, canola, or corn oil, so I like to buy it at big box stores to save money. BJ’s and Costco both sell it in a big bottle (~34 oz) in the cooking oil section. I’ve been very happy using the Chosen Foods brand (pictured below), which is also non-GMO. You can a two-pack on Amazon. A single bottle costs me about $12 in BJ’s

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Is Your Child’s Nap Mat Toxic?

Cute boy sleeping with toy in kindergarten

Last year, I was looking to buy my daughter a nap mat for pre-school and was rudely awakened to the fact that many nap mats contain toxic flame retardant chemicals, which studies have repeatedly linked to various health hazards in animals. I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter’s face laying on this nap mat, breathing in these chemicals on a daily basis. I can’t say I was surprised by this finding–unfortunately, many baby products, clothes, and furniture contain harmful chemicals that can be leached into the air and absorbed into the skin by direct contact. But, many parents probably don’t think of nap mats as a potential hazard for their children. I wanted to share with my readers the science behind the concerns about nap mats (specifically those made of soft foam and plastic materials)…and offer relatively easy solutions to the problem.

First of all, how do we know for sure that nap mats contain flame retardants? In 2013, The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) commissioned a study of 24 nap mats containing polyurethane foam purchased from major retailers like Target and Amazon. These nap mats were sent off to a Duke University lab for analysis. All but two of the nap mats were found to contain flame retardants. These mats contained 10 different flame retardant chemicals (or chemical mixtures) and 19 of the nap mats contain more than one chemical. Only 11 of the nap mats were specifically advertised as flame resistant. The most common flame retardant was triphenyl phosphate (TPP), in 18 nap mats, followed by chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) in nine mats. Eight mats contained a mixture equivalent to Firemaster 550 (which contains TPP), and eight contained the “Tert-butyl mixture.” The Washington Toxics Coalition did its own study of 14 nap mats bought in retailers in that state and found that 12 of the 14 mats contained TDCPP and Firemaster 550.

In sum, most foam nap mats on the market contain flame retardants.

So what’s so bad about these chemicals? Here’s what we know about flame retardant chemicals commonly found in nap maps:

  • TPP (triphenyl phosphate): Animal studies have linked TPP exposure to endocrine, metabolic, and reproductive system disruptions, including obesity, early puberty, and thyroid dysfunction (you can find two such studies here and here). The former of these two studies suggests that if TPP and similar chemicals are indeed endocrine disruptive, “this could have broad human health ramifications because they have been used for decades as plasticizers and in many other commercial and industrial applications.”  A 2010 study suggests that the exposure to TDCPP or TPP might be associated with reduced sperm concentrations among human adult males. A government document published by the CDC states that TPP “is a neurotoxin in animals. When injected in cats it caused delayed paralysis” (Page 1). By the way, I’ve only mentioned a few studies here; many more have been done on TPP and Firemaster 550, which contacts TPP, and found potential harmful effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists other such studies here.
  • Firemaster 550 has also been associated with harmful endocrine and reproductive effects.  Some critics may argue that these studies expose animals to unusually high doses of toxins, much higher than what humans might experience in daily life. Average people are exposed to flame retardants not only from direct contact with products that contain these toxins, but also via household dust–flame retardants are leached into the air or shed by products and furniture, and they then settle as dust, which we breather in and touch. Well, a 2012 study exposed rats to Firemaster 550 “at human-relevant exposure levels,” i.e. an amount that can realistically be found in household dust. Guess what? After administering Firemaster 550 to dams (pregnant raps), the researchers found thyroid disruption in the dams and pups. It also identified “FM 550 as a potential obesogen and contributor to metabolic syndrome, a collective term for a set of comorbid risk factors (including obesity, elevated fasting glucose, and impaired glucose tolerance) that together increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”
  • TDCPP (chlorinated Tris): Recent animal studies have suggested that TDCPP causes neurotoxicity, is an endocrine disruptor and a reproductive toxicant (e.g. see here and here), and is potentially carcinogenic (see here). The WHO and National Research Council have reported TDCPP to be linked to cancer in rats (NRC report here; I could not find the 1998 WHO report on the web). TDCPP is also on California’s Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer, and this report issued by the California Protective Agency lists a bunch of studies that show TDCPP to be carcinogenic and toxic in other ways. Chlorinated Tris was banned from children’s pajamas in the mid-1970s, yet it still widely used in children’s products today.

So, what is a parent to do?

First of all, the dangers I have listed above are connected with nap mats made of foam. If your child’s pre-school has cots for the children to sleep on, you are in luck, as there are no known issues with these. However, other schools provide or require parents to buy foam nap mats, as my daughter’s former and current pre-schools do. The kind of nap mat (usually the thickness) is regulated by state law (e.g. my state requires mats to be at least 1 inch thick). In this situation, here is what parents can do:

Option 1: There is at least one nap mat company that has discontinued the use of flame retardants, and parents can buy from this company or otherwise do their own research to identify a safe option. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) worked out a deal with a leading manufacturer of nap mats, Peerless Plastics, to discontinue using flame retardants. I called and verified this with the CEO back in August, 2014–he said that any nap mat manufactured as of Jan 1, 2014 will not contain any flame retardants. There is so much turnover of their product that any major retailer carrying their mats will have the flame-retardant-free stock by now. **By the way, I am not in any way affiliated with this company, and they didn’t even know I was writing this article. I am sharing this information because I think it is very useful and I believe that companies that respond to consumers’ concerns should be rewarded with business. I bought my daughter’s mat over a year ago on Amazon.

Peerless Plastic Kindermat (Click here to buy on Amazon)        

You can find the Peerless Plastics Kindermat for under $18 (as of this writing) on Amazon  (as well as in other major retailers). If you can convince your school to order these mats in bulk from a wholesaler and then sell them to parents at this discounted price, you can save money. This is what I did with my daughter’s old pre-school, which now carries only Peerless Plastics Kindermats and sells them to parents. Her current school has their own stock of nap mats and doesn’t require parents to buy their own–but I checked the label and saw that it was not Peerless Plastics. I asked if I could provide my own nap mat and they have no problem with this. I encourage parents to be their own advocates and work out a mutually beneficial solution with their pre-school.

Option 2: Avoid foam altogether, and if the school permits it, you can opt for other materials that are not usually treated with flame retardants include polyester fiberfill, cotton, and wool.

I love that there is somewhat of a happy ending to this story. The CEH and other organizations are working to get Congress to outlaw the use of flame retardents and other toxins in children’s and other consumer products. In the meantime, parents have the few options I’ve reviewed above.

*If you happen to know of other manufacturers of foam nap mats that have pledged to discontinue the use of flame retardants, please let me know in your comments and I will happily update my post with this information once I’ve verified it. Thank you 🙂

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How to Make your Own (Natural) Swiffer WetJet Solution

I bought my Swiffer many years ago when I got married, used it a bunch, and then stopped. Why? Although it’s a really convenient and easy way to clean floors, I became bothered by Swiffer’s chemical-laden solution, which, by the way, also has a very strong scent that lingers for a long time after cleaning.

Then, it finally dawned on me: why not make my own solution and pour it into an empty Swiffer bottle?! Finally, the answer to my problem–if only all of life could be this easy! 🙂 And, there’s a double bonus to doing it yourself: not only is it healthier to make your own cleaning solution, but you save a lot of money!

Here’s how you can do it, in just a few minutes of your time:

1. Remove the cap: I had a years-old empty Swiffer solution bottle still in my WetJet. I removed the empty bottle and tried to pry the cap off, which was a bit difficult. I used plyers to do it, and it worked! Another alternative I’ve read about is submerging the cap under hot water for 30-60 seconds and twisting it off with a towel. Either way, you will be able to remove it! Clearly, the executives at Proctor & Gamble do NOT want you making your own solution!

Swiffer Wetjet Spray Mop Floor Cleaner Open Window Fresh Scent Multi-Purpose Solution, 42.2 OZ, 2 Bottles

2. Make your own solution: There are so many ways to make homemade cleaning solution! I do it very simply for my floors: I used only distilled white vinegar and water. Easy-Peasy! Proportion-wise: I pour about 25% vinegar and then fill up the rest of the bottle with water. The proportions are not an exact science,and I’ve seen floor cleaner recipes vary from just about 1/4 cup vinegar to a bucket of water to about a 50/50 split. Experiment and see what works for you, but I like to go a little heavier on the vinegar for a more powerful solution.

Done, that’s it! Some people like to add a few drops of essential oil (like lavender or orange) to create a nice scent. When you mop with this solution, it will smell like vinegar for a few minutes. But rest assured–the smell quickly dissipates, and the solution dries quickly, making your floors ready-to-use within minutes of cleaning!!

Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, by the way, and I use it to clean almost all surfaces and floors. Warning: avoid using on marble (apparently, it can eat at the stone, though I haven’t witnessed this personally after using it on my marble counter tops) and hardwood floors (it can strip them). For these surfaces, you may consider just using water and a few drops of dish soap.

Happy cleaning!

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How to Take Your Smoothie On-the-Go

Cute little boy drinking a green smoothe

Readers of my blog may recall how enthusiastic I was when I finally found the RIGHT water bottle to fit all my daily needs (I schlep one with my everywhere!). Well, the search has been on for finding the right on-the-go smoothie container, and I’ve just found it, so I thought I’d share!

I like to keep my water bottles for just water, so I don’t have to worry about washing out sticky fruity stuff. For smoothies, I need something that will not spill, will fit in my cup holder in the car, keep my drink cool, and hold a nice-sized portion of smoothie along with a straw (the best way to sip!).

So, when I walked into an organic juice bar recently and they served me my smoothie in a mason jar with a straw coming through the lid, I had my smoothie AHA moment! This was it: since mason jars are made of glass, there’s no leaching from plastic. Also, no more spilling my smoothie when drinking it from a cup! And it’s super on-the-go, as it fits into my car’s cup holder and even the one in my stroller (though you will have to check yours). Plus, glass is super super easy to clean in the dishwasher, and you can throw out the straw (though I often use a re-usable straw to reduce waste). If you want to keep it nice and cool, throw in some ice cubes!

Here’s a photo of my smoothie in a mason jar (in front of my car because I am, as usual, on-the-go!):

2015-06-02 09.21.40

Want one??? They are cheap and easy to make. You can buy a pack of mason jars from Amazon, Target, or other stores. (Share a pack with a friend and/or make enough containers for the whole family!) Mine is a 24 oz. Ball Wide Mouth Mason Jar–it’s the perfect size and fits into my car’s cup holder. Then, all you have to do is use a single-hole puncher or drill to make a hole in the lid and voila–instant smoothie vessel!! These cute jars are also great for other iced drinks and for entertaining!

Or, if you want to just buy on that is ready-made, here are two options you can buy on Amazon for less than $15:

If you prefer, you can also buy mason jars with a handle, like the boy is holding the photo, above, but these may not fit in your car’s cup holder. And, mini-disclaimer: these smoothie jars are for adults and bigger kids, since they are made of glass. Use your judgement when giving them to younger kids. My littles are sipping smoothies out of their plastic or stainless steel cups for the time being.


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How to Avoid Arsenic in Gluten-Free Foods


In my previous post, I discussed Consumer Reports’ studies that have found “worrisome levels” of arsenic in rice products, including many baby foods and almost all gluten-free foods. Given these findings, it may be best to limit rice intake as much as reasonably possible. It’s hard to find rice-free baby and GF foods, so I’ve compiled this helpful list with a bunch of rice-free alternatives for every meal!

1. Breakfast Foods: Almost every GF cereal contains rice. Luckily, there are some non-rice alternatives, like plain corn flakes (I buy Whole Foods’ 365 brand) and some other corn-based cereals (make sure to read the ingredients list). I also like Udi’s Gluten-free Granola. For a hot breakfast, try oatmeal, like Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Steal Cut Oats. You can also use corn grits (polenta) to make a hot cereal (add nuts and fruit for a super delicious treat, like in this recipe), or cut it into squares and serve with butter and honey, yum. I haven’t found any GF waffles without rice. But, you can make homemade waffles and pancakes using buckwheat, coconut, and other flours, including Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Baking Flour, which doesn’t have any rice in it! I recently made these amazing oven pancakes using the Bob’s mix.

2. Bread: Sadly, I have yet to find a packaged GF bread that doesn’t contain rice, but you can make your own, and there are lots of recipes out there like this one or this one. If you do no have celiac and you can tolerate spelt, then whole spelt bread is an option for you–I buy it at Whole Foods and the health food aisle of my local supermarket.

Spelt3. Pasta: The good new is that there are many new pasta varieties sprouting up with no rice, but you have to read the ingredients carefully. Even when the packages advertises corn, buckwheat, or quinoa as a main ingredient, rice is usually the first or second item on the ingredients list. But I’ve read a bunch of labels and here are some great options:

2015-01-27 13.27.19

In photo: Eden Organics 100% Buckwheat Soba Noodle; Tolerant Organic Red Lentil Penne; Ancient Harvest Quinoa pasta (contains corn); Explore Asian Black Bean Spaghetti and Edamame Fettucini; Miracle Noodle Spinach Shirtataki Pasta. Each of these brands has different styles and flavors of pasta, so there is a lot to explore! SUPER SAVINGS: the Explore Asian Black Bean Spaghetti can be found in Costco in a money-saving 2lbs box!

4. Mains and Side dishes: 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 logs in supermarkets or in corn-grit form, is another alternative. I like to buy the logs, and slice them to make mini polenta pizzas (cover with sauce and cheese) or I dice them and saute them with sun dried tomatoes and garlic–yum! You can also make buckwheat as a side dish–saute with some garlic and spices, and I love all sorts of squashes as a starchy side dish that doesn’t include rice or pasta–think spaghetti pasta (just saute in some olive and garlic or add marinara) or butternut squash.


5. Infant cereals and snacks: Babies don’t need to start their solids-eating career with cereals. Of course, you can buy the non-rice varieties, but even better: skip the cereals and go straight to avocados, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Dr. Sears and many pediatricians support these soft, nutritious foods as great first solids for kids, and skip the cereal altogether! When it comes to snacks, like puffs, biscuits, crackers and other baby treats, so many are made with rice that it’s best to limit these altogether. One crunchy non-rice option is these coconut-based treats (they have yogurt-based ones, too).

6. Rice cakes: The best substitute are these awesome Real Foods Corn Thins–they’re crispy and satisfying, you may even like these better than the rice version!

Product Details

I hope this gets you off to an arsenic-free start! I’d love to hear about your favorite rice-free GF foods in the comments section.