Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Health Food? Really, You Could Have Fooled Me!

OK, time for just a wee bit of venting here. Schools here in Nova Scotia are supposed to be providing our kids with a "healthy diet" while they're in schools. Well, it sure doesn't look that way to me. I just want to address one simple issue today in that regard, and that's the sale of chocolate milk in our high school vending machines.

You cannot sell Pepsi in the school (which is cool with me) but you CAN sell this crap masquerading as a health food (which is NOT cool with me.)

A cup of this "healthy beverage" contains FIFTY-SEVEN percent of its calories from sugar and TWENTY-FIVE percent of its calories from fat, the majority of which is saturated and trans fats.

An average bottle out of the vending machine (which is 500 mls, and come on, who shares these things?) will give a growing teenager 360 calories, 182 of which are pure sugar, compared to only 220 calories for a similar amount of Pepsi and only slightly less sugar. This is a few nutrients mixed in with a whole lot of unhealthy slop.

The label tells me that this product will give me, per 100 calories, the following nutrients. I'll compare them with the nutrition you would receive from a few other foods:

Notice how this supposed "health food" has only a fraction of the nutrition that true "health food" contains, but more than enough of the sugar and saturated fat we do NOT need. Even when it comes to calcium, dairy is a nutritional weakling next to little 'ol kale. Not only that, but the calcium in kale is much more bioavailable. (It is absorbed more easily.) Not only that, but excess animal protein in the diet makes our blood more acidic, leading to the leaching of calcium from our bones.
We only have so many calories that we can healthfully consume in a day; we cannot, with the obesity epidemic we are facing, afford to waste those precious calories on high fat, high sugar, low nutrition foods.
I think if school want to actually promote healthy living, they need to start actually paying some attention to what actually constitutes a healthy food, and stop promoting nutritional disasters in sheeps clothing.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why I Think We Should Keep our Junk Food "Junky"

Recently, while I was out trolling my local supermarket, I happened to spy this new product from Kraft:

Now, the box of Three Cheese Shellls is old news, but I neglected to get a picture of just the box on the left, Kraft Dinner "Smart" Three Cheese Pasta Dinner, which claims to give you a half serving of vegetables along with your daily dose of fat and sodium. (The vegetables apparently come in the form of pureed cauliflower in the pasta.)

It turns out that spotting this product was a bit like spotting a Yeti; no one seems to have ever heard about it before, and even Kraft's own website seems to imply that it doesn't actually exist. I feel special.

I wanted to get the low-down on this rare creature, so I bought it along with the Three Cheese shells in order to make a comparison. Then, I enlisted three experts (KD Eatin' teenagers) to taste test them for me and give me their unbiased opinion.

First, the basics. On first glance, they cost the same amount, $1.39 per box. But on closer inspection, the Kraft Smart only has three servings inside instead of four, making the Kraft Smart actually eleven cents more per serving. (For eleven cents, why even bother trying to get a mre half-serving of vegetables into you? Eleven cents will buy you a half-serving of, let's say, peas or carrots.)

Considering the dry mix only, Kraft Smart actually is slightly worse for you than the regular. The calories (180) fat (2 grams) cholesterol (5 mg) and even FIBRE (2 grams) are exactly the same in both, but the Kraft Smart has 20 milligrams more sodium and a gram more sugar.

What the heck?

Sure, there are tiny amounts of some vitamins, but not nearly enough to make eating this product worthwhile, because it. Was. GROSS!

We could smell it when the pasta hit the hot water. A horrible stink, reminiscent of sweaty feet, filled my kitchen. The pasta cooked up OK, and looked pretty much like regular KD, but it was really hard to get past the smell. Harder still was the lingering, cauliflower-esque aftertaste that grew stronger with each bite. (I have to confess I stopped at three bites. That was all of it I could stand.)

Not only that, three hungry teenagers refused to eat more than a few bites of this stuff, and instead hung around starving for fifteen more minutes while I made the box of shells and cheese instead. That by itself has to tell you something.

To me, I have to say that I like my health foods healthy and my junk foods junky. That makes it easy for the average joe to tell the difference. There's nothing wrong with the occasional treat, as long as 90% of your diet is otherwise nutritionally dense. Go ahead and have Kraft Dinner once in a while, but if you do, don't try and think you're doing yourself any favours by buying products like this one that try to deceive you into believing they are "smart choices." I happen to think that companies who try and convince us that crap is actually good for us should get a good spanking.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Omega 3- Facts, Fallacies, and Unethical Practices

You may have noticed lately that “Omega 3” is the new buzzword in the world of health research, and with good reason. Omega 3 is what is called an “Essential Fatty Acid”, or EFA. It is considered essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, although we need it. EFA’s are important for the health of our nerves and blood vessels, as well as to keep our skin and other tissues lubricated and supple.

(There is one other Essential Fatty Acid, and that is called Omega 6. In the typical North American diet, it is generally quite easy to get enough Omega 6, as it is found in most plant oils, such as canola, corn, soy, sunflower, etc. However, Omega 3 fatty acids are much rarer in the Standard American Diet. (SAD) You can get them from pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hemp, flax, and some deep sea fatty fish.)

An ideal ratio of these two fats in our diet is 2:1 to 4:1; in other words, we should not consume more than 4 times the amount of Omega 6’s as Omega 3’s in our diet. A proper ratio of these two fats helps determine the flexibility of our cell membranes and makes chemical communication between body systems possible.

Hence the reason why food producers and manufacturers are falling all over themselves to help you get your daily dose of Omega 3’s. In a highly competitive marketplace, food producers will grab any advantage to get you to purchase their product instead of a competitor’s, and if that means leading you to believe that eating their product will make you healthier, of course they’re going to do it.

I happen to believe that it’s unethical to convince you to purchase what is essentially an unhealthy or marginally healthy product based on health claims that the average consumer really cannot put in proper context. When looking at whether or not to buy an item based on their claims of Omega 3 content (or any other nutrient) you need to consider the package it’s being delivered in.

I was out shopping yesterday, and I noticed two products now being marketed to you based on the fact that their food contains Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Let’s start with eggs:

Maritime Pride Omega 3 eggs cost about a dollar more per dozen than regular eggs, based solely on the supposed Omega 3 content. Suppose you purchase these eggs in the hopes of making your morning omelette healthier. Consider what you are getting with each egg:

-70 calories
-5 grams of fat, (1.5 grams of which are saturated) meaning the calories in this egg are 64% fat calories.
-A whopping 190 mg of cholesterol

And you have to consume all this fat just to take in 400 milligrams of Omega 3’s.

Another industry trying to use Omega 3’s to try and convince you their product is healthy is the pork producers. Consider a Nova Scotian pork farm, Meadowbrook Pork. They are now advertising their Omega 3 pork as “Naturally Nutritious” and a “Powerful source of nutrients”. Although their website never states how much Omega 3’s you’re supposed to get in a serving of their product, Health Canada’s website advises that it is approximately 400 mg per 100 grams of pork.

What else will you get in 100 grams of pork? Well, according to, 100 grams of roast pork will give you the following:

-248 calories
-15 grams of fat, 5 of which are saturated, meaning 54% of the calories in the meat are from fat.
-82 mg of cholesterol

To put that in perspective, consider the humble flax seed. Dirt cheap, easy to obtain, good-for-your-digestive system flax seeds. A mere TEASPOON of ground flax seed, which weighs in at paltry 13 calories, provides 570 milligrams of Omega 3’s. ONE TEASPOON! That’s not much food, but even so, you also get a gram of heart-healthy protein and almost a gram of fibre.

To recap the stats on Omega 3:
1 egg=400 mgs
100 grams of pork=400 mgs
1 tsp ground flax=570 mgs

This is proof once again that man is a silly creature, once again willing to feed a healthy food (flax) to an animal, and then eat the animal, only to get a fraction of the health benefits of the original food. Trying to “greenwash” an unhealthy food will not make it any healthier.

If you want to get a good daily dose of heart-healthy Omega 3’s, go pick up some flax seeds and an inexpensive coffee grinder. (I paid $8 for mine three years ago at the Atlantic Superstore and it is still going strong!) Flax, because it does have fats in it, will go rancid if you do not keep it in the fridge. Throw a teaspoon in the grinder every morning, grind ‘er up, and throw it in your oatmeal, your smoothie, your muffins, bread, etc. You’ll stay healthy (and regular!) for pennies a day and avoid all the fat and cholesterol.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


These days, there is so much attention paid to germs (namely, the eradication of them) that it’s a wonder that anybody growing up back in the old days ever survived. Back in the 70’s, germs weren’t such a big deal. The old saying went, “you’ve got to eat a bucket of dirt before you die”, and we got a good start on it as kids, let me tell you.

As kids, we didn’t worry about germs. We ate food that fell on the ground; we kissed our pets on the mouth, and passed chewing gum back and forth from one kid to another. And we were healthy. My Mother, although a very clean person, did not run around with a tool belt full of assorted disinfectants and Handi-Wipes, obsessively sanitizing every surface we touched. However, that seems exactly what is happening today, in many cases, and researchers are linking this anti-germ obsession with an ever-increasing epidemic of asthma, allergies and other diseases.

Sit and watch an hour or two of daytime television sometime, and count the number of advertisements that in various ways exhort, implore, and demand that you are a negligent parent if you do not use their product to sanitize the hell out of your environment. You may just find yourself astounded. There’s an army of germs on the march, and they’re coming for you! Grab your Lysol, your Purel, your arsenal of anti-bacterial soaps and disinfecting sprays! Only you can protect your family, and you’d better start spending big bucks if you want to do it.

I say forget it. I never liked the idea of my family living in a germ free bubble. I’ve never used a toilet seat cover, and I’ve never caught a disease of the behind. My kids have eaten burgers with dirty hands, and they’re still in the land of the living. Heck, just last week my cat licked me on the lips, and I didn’t run screaming into the night.

Look, the world is full of germs, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them. The only thing you CAN do is try to build up your immune system. That’s what we have one for; it’s our own personal internal army against evil invaders, so what we need to do is train ‘em right! Put them in the ring against the little germs before you try and tackle the heavy hitters.

That’s the problem with society’s obsession with cleanliness and disinfection. If you attempt to make your environment sterile, you probably mean well, but that’s the equivalent of putting your toddler in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard before he’s had a chance to fight Barney the Dinosaur.

And the experts agree with me. In 2009, the Canadian Medical Association asked the federal government to ban all antibacterial household products because of fears that the only thing these products do is make the bacteria more resistant.

One the bad guy in these antibacterial products is Triclosan, which was originally designed for use by surgeons when they’re scrubbing up for surgery. Heck, if I ever need surgery, I’ll just say now that I’d like my surgeon to bathe in that stuff. BUT, that doesn’t mean I need that level of protection in my home.
The problem is, Triclosan tends to build up in our fatty tissues, and has even been found in umbilical cord blood and breast milk. It is a chemical that can interfere with our thyroid function, and it’s particularly harmful to the environment. It’s believed to be adding to the development of antibiotic resistant “Superbugs”, and I for one would rather not ever come across one of those suckers.

So, what can you do? Well, let me see. Let’s start by realizing that our children need to be clean, but not disinfected. Let them get a little dirty now and then, it won’t kill them. Get rid of almost all the disinfectant products in your home, (maybe save one or two for truck stop bathroom breaks ) particularly those containing Triclosan. (There are over 1200 items in Canada alone containing this stuff.) Go back to using good old fashioned elbow grease and soap and water. Studies are showing that this does as good a job at keeping you safe anyway.

And while you’re at it, give your immune system a little TLC. Eat lots of onions and garlic, along with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts; get plenty of fresh air, reduce the number of chemicals you come in contact with regularly, exercise regularly and smile often. That’s the best prescription for health that I can give.

The Hidden Danger in Our Waterways

Here in Nova Scotia, fishing season is well underway. Just yesterday I saw a number of folks out enjoying the sunshine with their hooks in the water, and chances are, at least some of them got lucky and took their prize home for supper that night.

But if they knew what was in that fish, they make have thought twice about making a meal out of it. Chances are extremely high that their meal was heavily contaminated with methylmercury. In fact, 80% of all “Fish Advisories” are due to mercury contamination.

What is Methylmercury, you might ask? Methylmercury is a substance that is produced when mercury, produced mainly by coal burning power plants, waste incinerators and other industries, falls from the sky and ends up in our lakes and rivers. It is also produced naturally by volcanoes and forest fires, and some leaches naturally from rock.

The mercury is converted to the more dangerous form, methylmercury, very easily and very naturally by anaerobic organisms in the water. This new form of mercury is easily absorbed in our digestive tract, and it accumulates in the body over time. (It can linger in our bodies for fifteen to twenty years.) It also readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can also cross the placental barrier, making the developing fetus particularly vulnerable.

Long term exposure to tiny amounts in our food can cause neurodevelopmental problems, especially in children due to their smaller body mass. It can lead to permanent brain damage, heart disease, kidney failure, liver damage, loss of vision, and tremors. It is also an “endocrine disruptor” meaning that is can damage the reproductive and hormonal development of unborn children and infants.

As methylmercury accumulates in the flesh of fish, the larger and older the fish, the more methylmercury there will be in the flesh. Shark, tuna, and other large predatory fish contain the most, small fish like herring contain the least.

Mercury levels in Canadian lakes and rivers increase as you move from West to East, following the paths of prevailing winds. This is of great concern for us here in the Maritimes, as we are often referred to as “Canada’s Tailpipe”, referring to the pollution that seems to funnel through this area.

Scientists have concluded that there is no level of Mercury that is “safe” for us to consume. Unfortunately, governmental agencies, while issuing increasingly stern warnings every few years about the possible dangers of fish consumption, stop short at advising us to not eat any fish at all. Doing so would put a lot of hard-working fishermen out of business, not to mention anger an awful lot of recreational fishers.

However, based on the evidence we have today about the contamination of our waterways, I would suggest that you eat very little fish, if any, and avoid it altogether if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or are nursing. If you do eat fish, eat smaller, deep ocean fish and avoid those caught in inland waters.

Nova Scotia’s own 2010 Angling Guide advises the following:
“Traces of mercury have been detected in certain species of freshwater sportfish. The Nova Scotia departments of Health, Environment and Fisheries and Aquaculture advise people to limit consumption of these freshwater sportfish.

Rainbow trout have levels of contaminants below the Health Canada Guidelines and are safe to eat. Brook trout and white perch under 25 cm (11 in.) in length are also safe to eat. Consumption of brook trout and white perch larger than 25 cm should be limited to one meal once every week. Consumption of other freshwater sports fish should be limited to one meal every two weeks. Children under eight, pregnant women, and nursing mothers should consume only rainbow trout, white perch, and brook trout less than 25 cm (11 in.) in length.”

If there is no safe level of mercury, and our sportfish clearly are contaminated with mercury, as the government seems to acknowledge, then they should be advising us to avoid these contaminated fish altogether. To do otherwise, in the interest of politics, is doing us all a disservice.

Source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Monday, April 26, 2010

What’s the Big Deal about Phthalates?

Phthalates (pronounced ˈtha-ˌlāt) is a term that refers to more than a dozen common chemicals, mainly used in plastics to keep them soft and pliable. Worldwide, we produce more than 8.1 billion kilograms of these chemicals every year. DEP (diethylhexyl phthalate) is most commonly found in personal care products. DEP is found in air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, shampoos, cosmetics, etc.

These substances break down quickly in the environment and in the body, so our risk really depends on the amount we come into contact with on a daily basis. Their use is linked to sexual organ malformations in males and increased risk or testicular cancer. (The higher the levels of phthalates in the mother, the higher the incidence of problems with the baby.) In women, studies link phthalates to early menstruation, premature breast development, and ultimately, breast cancer.

We get exposed to phthalates in food, vinyl and plastic products, personal care products, household dust, etc. These chemicals leach out of products and into our bodies and into our environment. Levels can be higher in children due to the fact that they are in closer contact with their environment than adults are, mouthing objects and also putting their fingers in their mouths. Their immature bodies lack adequate detoxification methods, and make them more prone to these chemicals damaging effects.

Food is likely a major source of this contaminant. It comes from the soil, sediments, and sludge sprayed on crops. Phthalates are fat soluble, meaning they get into meat, dairy products and fatty processed foods.

What can we do to avoid phthalates in food? Buy lower on the food chain, eat fewer packaged foods, but organic when you can afford to, and avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to personal care products, phthalates are almost never listed as ingredient on the products that contain them. "Fragrance" or "Parfum" are often the words you need to look for that indicate that an item contains phthalates. Studies have shown that the higher the level of personal care products a person uses, the higher their urinary level of these chemicals.

A good website to visit is This site can tell you about the chemical makeup of your personal care products and help steer you towards healthier and more environmentally aware choices.

From the Book "Slow Death by Rubber Duck", by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Building a Better Burger!

In our family, we loves us some burgers! (However, as vegetarians they would all be of the meatless variety!)
The average fast food burger is a heart attack waiting to happen, loaded with cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Eating red meat also brings up the spectre of possible E.Coli contamination, and the issue of Mad Cow Disease. The rates of obesity in North America has also risen in proportion to the fast food that we are now consuming as a society.
Not so with this burger! I've had people tell me that they didn't want to eat veggie burgers because they "don't taste like beef." Well, so what? A chicken burger doesn't taste like a beef burger either, but you still eat that. So there goes that argument.
Another argument is that veggie burgers all cost more than your typical beef burger. That argument does have a little more merit, but only because beef production is so heavily subsidized by government handouts, and beef cattle are now for the most part raised in very efficient, very cheap, very polluted and very cruel feedlots, where they stand day after day knee deep in manure, eating cheap grain that their bodies were not built to digest. These feedlots cause suffering for the cows, pollute our water, and as the cows are more likely to become ill, they are regularly dosed with antibiotics, (which will eventually be coming to YOU when they hit your plate.)
No such issues with this burger, though! Not only are these burgers super-healthy for you, they are also super kind to your wallet, using lentils and bulgur (a whole grain easily obtained at most grocery stores) which not only provide excellent nutrition, but also happen to be blazingly inexpensive.
Each patty contains only 150 calories, while still providing 7 grams of fibre and 7 grams of protein, along with zero fat and cholesterol.
Although you may look at this recipe and say, that's just not my style, take a chance and give it a try! I think you'll be amazed at home delicious something so simple can taste. My family and I all loved them the very first time we tried them. They also freeze well if the recipe makes more than you need.

Lentil- Bulgur Burgers

Makes 8 burgers

(This recipe is open to many different flavor combinations, so attempt this recipe if you are feeling creative and want to customize something to your own personal taste.)
1/2 cup brown lentils and 1/2 cup of bulgur
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp ground flax, mixed with 2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp wheat germ and a bit of chopped onion (optional)

1 Tbsp or so vegan bouillon, spices to taste, a squirt of soya sauce or ketchup (all optional)
Start by simmering the lentils and the bulgur in water on the stove. You will need at least two cups of water to start, and will undoubtedly need to add more as you simmer. You can add bouillon, spices, soya sauce, whatever you like for flavour to the water. Watch the pot carefully, as this stuff has a tendency to stick. Simmer until lentils are soft and water is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool. Place in a bowl and mix in flax and water mixture, breadcrumbs, and wheat germ. Add a little ketchup or non-dairy milk IF the mixture is too dry.
Add more breadcrumbs if it seems too wet to hold together. Make into 8 burgers. Fry or bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes. (BTW, the absolute best way to make perfect burgers is to place a round ball of the mixture between two pieces of wax paper, and press down on it with the back of a dessert plate.)